One of President Trump’s main policy slogans has been ‘America first’. As Trump sees it, a manifestation of a country’s economic strength is its current account balance. He would love the USA to have a current account surplus. As it is, it has the largest current account deficit in the world (in absolute terms) of $481 billion in 2016 or 2.6% of GDP. This compares with the UK’s $115bn or 4.4% of GDP. Germany, by contrast, had a surplus in 2016 of $294bn or 8.5% of GDP.
However, he looks at other countries’ current account surpluses suspiciously – they may be a sign, he suspects, of ‘unfair play’. Germany’s surplus of over $50bn with the USA is particularly in his sights. Back in January, as President-elect, he threatened to put a 35% tariff on imports of German cars.
In practice, Germany is governed by eurozone rules, which prevent it from subsidising exports. And it does not have its own currency to manipulate. What is more, it is relatively open to imports from the USA. The EU imposes an average tariff of just 3% on US imports and importers also have to add VAT (19% in the case of Germany) to make them comparably priced with goods produced within the EU.
So why does Germany have such a large current account surplus? The article below explores the question and dismisses the claim that it’s the result of currency manipulation or discrimination against imports. The article states that the reason for the German surplus is that:
… it saves more than it invests. The correspondence of savings minus investment with exports minus imports is not an economic theory; it’s an accounting identity. Germans collectively spend less than they produce, and the difference necessarily shows up as net exports.
But why do the Germans save so much? The answer given is that, with an aging population, Germans are sensibly saving now to support themselves in old age. If Germany were to reduce its current account surplus, this would entail either the government reducing its budget surplus, or people reducing the amount they save, or some combination of the two. This is because a current account surplus, which consists of exports and other incomes from abroad (X) minus imports and any other income flowing abroad (M), must equal the surplus of saving (S) plus taxation (T) over investment (I) plus government expenditure (G). In terms of withdrawals and injections, given that:
I + G + X = S + T + M
then, rearranging the terms,
X – M = (S + T) – (I + G).
If German people are reluctant to reduce the amount they save, then an alternative is for the German government to reduce taxation or increase government expenditure. In the run-up to the forthcoming election on 24 September, Chancellor Merkel’s centre-right CDU party advocates cutting taxes, while the main opposition party, the SPD, advocates increasing government expenditure, especially on infrastructure. The article considers the arguments for these two approaches.
The German economy is unbalanced – but Trump has the wrong answer The Guardian, Barry Eichengreen (12/5/17)
German economic data (in English) Statistisches Bundesamt (Federal Statistical Office)
World Economic Outlook Databases IMF
- Why does Germany have such a large current account surplus?
- What are the costs and benefits to Germany of having a large current account surplus?
- What is meant by ‘mercantilism’? Why is its justification fallacious?
- If Germany had its own currency, would it be a good idea for it to let that currency appreciate?
- What are meant by ‘resource crowding out’ and ‘financial crowding out’? Why might the policies of tax cuts advocated by the CDU result in crowding out? What form would it take and why?
- Compare the relative benefits of the policies advocated by the CDU and SPD to reduce Germany’s budget surplus.
- Would other countries, such as the USA, benefit from a reduction in Germany’s current account surplus?
- Is what ways would the USA gain and lose from restricting imports from Germany? Would it be a net gain or loss? Explain.
Project Syndicate is an organisation which produces articles on a range of economic, political and social topics written by eminent scholars, political and business leaders, policymakers and civic activists. It then makes these available to news media in more than 150 countries. Here we look at four such articles which assess the outlook for the European and global economies and even that of capitalism itself.
The general tone is one of pessimism. Despite unconventional monetary policies, such as quantitative easing (QE) and negative nominal interest rates, the global recovery is anaemic. As the Nouriel Roubini articles states:
Unconventional monetary policies – entrenched now for almost a decade – have themselves become conventional. And, in view of persistent lacklustre growth and deflation risk in most advanced economies, monetary policymakers will have to continue their lonely fight with a new set of ‘unconventional unconventional’ monetary policies.
Perhaps this will involve supplying additional money directly to consumers and/or business in a so-called ‘helicopter drop’ of money. Perhaps it will be supplying money directly to governments to finance infrastructure projects – a policy dubbed ‘people’s quantitative easing‘. Perhaps it will involve taxing the holding of cash by banks to encourage them to lend.
The Hans-Werner Sinn article looks at some of the consequences of the huge amount of money created through QE and continuing to be created in the eurozone. Although it has not boosted consumption and investment nearly as much as desired, it has caused bubbles in various asset markets. For example, the property market has soared in many countries:
Property markets in Austria, Germany, and Luxembourg have practically exploded throughout the crisis, as a result of banks chasing borrowers with offers of loans at near-zero interest rates, regardless of their creditworthiness.
The German property boom could be reined in with an appropriate jump in interest rates. But, given the ECB’s apparent determination to head in the opposite direction, the bubble will only grow. If it bursts, the effects could be dire for the euro.
The Jean Pisani-Ferry article widens the analysis of the eurozone’s problems. Like Roubini, he considers the possibility of a helicopter drop of money, which “would be functionally equivalent to a direct government transfer to households, financed by central banks’ permanent issuance of money”.
Without such drastic measures he sees consumer and business pessimism (see chart) undermining recovery and making the eurozone vulnerable to global shocks, such as further weakening in China. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Finally, Anatole Kaletsky takes a broad historical view. He starts by saying that “All over the world today, there is a sense of the end of an era, a deep foreboding about the disintegration of previously stable societies.” He argues that the era of ‘leaving things to the market’ is coming to an end. This was an era inspired by the monetarist and supply-side revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s that led to the privatisation and deregulation policies of Reagan, Thatcher and other world leaders.
But if the market cannot cope with the complexities of today’s world, neither can governments.
If the world is too complex and unpredictable for either markets or governments to achieve social objectives, then new systems of checks and balances must be designed so that political decision-making can constrain economic incentives and vice versa. If the world is characterized by ambiguity and unpredictability, then the economic theories of the pre-crisis period – rational expectations, efficient markets, and the neutrality of money – must be revised.
… It is obvious that new technology and the integration of billions of additional workers into global markets have created opportunities that should mean greater prosperity in the decades ahead than before the crisis. Yet ‘responsible’ politicians everywhere warn citizens about a ‘new normal’ of stagnant growth. No wonder voters are up in arms.
His solution has much in common with that of Roubini and Pisani-Ferry. “Money could be printed and distributed directly to citizens. Minimum wages could be raised to reduce inequality. Governments could invest much more in infrastructure and innovation at zero cost. Bank regulation could encourage lending, instead of restricting it.”
So will there be a new era of even more unconventional monetary policy and greater regulation that encourages rather than restricts investment? Read the articles and try answering the questions.
Unconventional Monetary Policy on Stilts Project Syndicate, Nouriel Roubini (1/4/16)
Europe’s Emerging Bubbles Project Syndicate, Hans-Werner Sinn (28/3/16)
Preparing for Europe’s Next Recession Project Syndicate, Jean Pisani-Ferry (31/3/16)
When Things Fall Apart Project Syndicate, Anatole Kaletsky (31/3/16)
- Explain how a ‘helicopter drop’ of money would work in practice.
- Why has growth in the eurozone been so anaemic since the recession of 2009/10?
- What is the relationship between tightening the regulations about capital and liquidity requirements of banks and bank lending?
- Explain the policies of the different eras identified by Anatole Kaletsky.
- Would it be fair to describe the proposals for more unconventional monetary policies as ‘Keynesian’?
- If quantitative easing was used to finance government infrastructure investment, what would be the effect on the public-sector deficit and debt?
- If the inflation of asset prices is a bubble, what could cause the bubble to burst and what would be the effect on the wider economy?
The Federal Reserve chair, Janet Yellen, has been giving strong signals recently that the US central bank will probably raise interest rates at its December 16 meeting or, if not then, early in 2016. ‘Ongoing gains in the labor market’ she said, ‘coupled with my judgement that longer-term inflation expectations remain reasonably well anchored, serve to bolster my confidence in a return of inflation to 2%.’ This, as for many other central banks, is the target rate of inflation.
In anticipation of a rise in US interest rates, the dollar has been appreciating. Its (nominal) exchange rate index has risen by 24% since April 2014 (see chart below).
In the light of the sluggish eurozone economy, the ECB president, Mario Draghi, has been taking a very different stance. He has indicated that he stands ready to cut interest rates further and increase quantitative easing. At the meeting on 3 December, the ECB did just that. It announced a further cut in the deposit rate, from –0.2 to –0.3 and an extension of the €60 billion per month QE programme from September 2016 to March 2017 (bringing the total by that time to €1.5 trillion – up from €1.1 trillion by September 2016).
Stock market investors had been expecting more, including an increase in the level of monthly asset purchases above €60 billion. Consequently stock markets fell. Both the German DAX and the French CAC 40 stock market indices fell by 3.6%. The euro also appreciated against the dollar by 2.7% on the day of the announcement. Nevertheless, since April 2014, the euro exchange rate index has fallen by 13%. Against the US dollar, the euro has depreciated by a massive 31%.
So what will be the consequences of the very different monetary policies being pursued by the Fed and the ECB? Are they simply the desirable responses to a lack of convergence of the economic performance of the US and eurozone economies? In other words, will they help to bring greater convergence between the two economies?
Or will the desirable effects of convergence be offset by other undesirable effects for the USA and the eurozone and also for the rest of the world?
||Will huge amounts of dollar-denominated debt held by many emerging economies make it harder to service these debts with an appreciating dollar?
||How much will US exporters suffer from the dollar’s rise and what will the US authorities do about it?
||Will currency volatility lead to currency wars and, if so, what will be their economic effects?
||Will the time lags involved in the effects of the continuing programme of QE in the eurozone eventually lead to overheating? Already euro money supply is rising, on both narrow and broad measures.
The following articles address these issues.
The Fed and the ECB: when monetary policy diverges The Guardian, Mohamed El-Erian (2/12/15)
European stocks slide after ECB dashes hopes of major QE expansion The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Graeme Wearden (3/12/15)
Mario Draghi riles Germany with QE overkill The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (3/12/15)
How the eurozone missed its shot at a recovery The Telegraph, Peter Spence (3/12/15)
Yellen Signals Economy Nearly Ready for First Interest-Rate Hike Bloomberg, Christopher Condon (3/12/15)
Exchange rate data
Effective exchange rate indices Bank for International Settlements
Exchange rates Bank of England
- What would be the beneficial effects to the US and eurozone economies of their respective monetary policies?
- Explain the exchange rate movements that have taken place between the euro and the dollar over the past 19 months. How do these relate to the various parts of the balance of payments accounts of the two economies?
- Is it possible for the USA to halt the rise in the dollar while at the same time raising interest rates? Explain.
- Why are some members of the ECB (e.g. the German and Dutch) against expanding QE? Assess their arguments.
- What will be the impact of US and eurozone monetary policies on emerging economies?
- What will be the impact of US and eurozone monetary policies on the UK?
- Why did the euro appreciate after the Mario Draghi’s press statement on 3 December? What has happened to the dollar/euro exchange rate since and why?
The negotiations between Greece and the ‘troika’ of creditors (the IMF, the European Commission and the ECB) have seen many twists and turns before breaking down on 26 June. Throughout, both sides have sought to give as little as possible while seeking a compromise. Both sides have claimed that their position is reasonable, even though a gulf has remained between them.
What has been playing out is a high-stakes game, where the optimum outcome for each side is quite different.
Greece seeks bailout terms that would allow it to achieve a smaller primary budget surplus (but still a surplus in the midst of a deep recession). The surplus would be achieved largely through tax rises on the wealthy rather than further cuts that would hit the poor hard. It is also seeking a substantial amount of debt forgiveness to make servicing the remaining debt possible.
The troika is seeking a larger budget surplus than the Greeks are willing to contemplate. This, it maintains, should be achieved largely through additional cuts in government expenditure, including further reductions in pensions and in public-sector wages.
Both sides used threats and promises as the negotiations became more and more acrimonious.
The troika threatened to withhold the final €7.2bn of the bailout necessary to pay the €1.6bn due to the IMF on 30 June, unless the Greeks accepted the terms of the austerity package put to them. The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, in rejecting the proposals, called a referendum on the package. This threatens the stability of the eurozone as a No vote, if it led to a Greek exit from the eurozone, could undermine confidence in monetary union. After all, if Greece could be forced out, other countries facing severe difficulties might also be forced out at some point in the future. Once a country leaves the eurozone, the monetary union becomes more like a system of pegged exchange rates. And pegged exchange rates are open to destabilising speculation at times of economic divergence.
A Greek exit from the euro (dubbed ‘Grexit’) is seen as undesirable by most Greeks and by most politicians in the rest of Europe. The optimum for both sides collectively would be a compromise, which saw more modest cuts by Greece and the eurozone remaining intact. By both sides seeking to maximise their own position, the Nash equilibrium is certainly not the best outcome.
But as long as the troika believes that the Greeks are likely to vote Yes to the proposed bailout terms, it still hopes to get the outcome that is best from its point of view – an outcome that would probably involve regime change. And as long as the Greek government hopes that a No vote will force the troika to think again and come back with less austere proposals, it still hopes to get the outcome that is best from its point of view. But the outcome of this game of ‘chicken’ could well be Grexit and a Nash equilibrium that neither side wants.
But while the endgame is being played out by politicians, people in Greece are suffering. Policies of severely depressing aggregate demand to turn a large budget deficit into a primary budget surplus have led to the economy shrinking by 26%, overall unemployment of 27% and youth unemployment of over 60%. The Greeks truly believe themselves to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The following articles look at the nature of the ‘game’ being played and at the effects on the Greek economy, both of the proposed austerity package proposed by the troika and Grexit. They also look at the knock-on effects for the eurozone, the EU and the global economy.
Can game theory explain the Greek debt crisis? BBC News Magazine, Marcus Miller (26/6/15)
Against the Grain: What Yanis Varoufakis can learn from a real game theory master – Nicola Sturgeon City A.M., Paul Ormerod (24/6/15)
John Nash’s Game Theory and Greece Bloomberg, Mohamed A. El-Erian (29/5/15)
The Greek crisis: that 1931 moment The Economist, Buttonwood column (23/6/15)
How game theory explains Grexit and may also predict Greek poll outcome The Conversation, Partha Gangopadhyay (1/7/15)
Greece debt crisis: Tsipras may resign if Greeks vote yes BBC News (30/6/15)
Greek debt crisis: Is Grexit inevitable? BBC News. Paul Kirby (29/6/15)
Existential threat to euro from Greek exit BBC News, Robert Peston (29/6/15)
How I would vote in the Greek referendum The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (29/6/15)
Greece in chaos: will Syriza’s last desperate gamble pay off? The Guardian, Paul Mason (29/6/15)
What happens if Greece defaults on its International Monetary Fund loans? The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (30/6/15)
For Greece’s international creditors, regime change is the ultimate goal The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (29/6/15)
Europe has suffered a reputational catastrophe in Greece The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (2/7/15)
- What is meant by a primary budget surplus?
- What was the troika’s proposal on the table on the 26 June that was rejected by the Greek government?
- What was the Greek government’s proposal that was rejected by the troika?
- Explain the decision trees outlined in the first BBC article below.
- In terms of game theory, what form of game is being played?
- Are the negotiations between the Greek government and the troika a prisoners’ dilemma game? Explain why or why not.
- Does the game being played between the SNP and the Conservative government in the UK offer any useful lessons to both sides in the negotiations over Greece’s possible bailout and its terms?
- Does a No vote in the referendum on 5 July imply that Greece must leave the euro? Explain.
- What would be the effects of further austerity measures on aggregate demand? What benefits to the Greek economy could be achieved from such measures?
- Why may pegged exchange rates be regarded as the worst of both worlds – a single currency in a monetary union and floating exchange rates?
The eurozone has been suffering from deflation: that is, negative inflation. But, the latest data show an increase in the rate of inflation in April from 0% to 0.3%. This is still a very low rate, with a return to deflation remaining a possibility (though perhaps unlikely); but certainly an improvement.
The eurozone economy has been stagnant for some time but the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) finally appear to be working. Prices across the eurozone have risen, including services up by 1.3%, food and drink up by 1.2% and energy prices, albeit still falling, but at a slower rate. All of this has helped to push the annual inflation rate above 0%. For many, this increase was bigger than expected. Howard Archer, Chief European Economist at HIS Global Insight said:
“Renewed dips into deflation for the eurozone are looking increasingly unlikely with the risks diluted by a firming in oil prices from their January lows, the weakness of the euro and improved eurozone economic activity.”
Economic policy in the eurozone has focused on stimulating the economy, with interest rates remaining low and a €1.1 trillion bond-buying programme by the ECB. But, why is deflation such a concern? We know that one of the main macroeconomic objectives of a nation is low and stable inflation. If prices are low (or even falling) is it really as bad as economists and policy-makers suggest?
The problem of deflation occurs when people expect prices to continue falling and thus delay spending on durables, hoping to get the products cheaper later on. As such, consumption falls and this puts downward pressure on aggregate demand. This decision by consumers to put off spending will cause aggregate demand to shift to the left, thus pushing national income down, creating higher unemployment and adding to problems of economic stagnation. If this expectation continues, then so will the inward shifts in AD. In the eurozone, this has been a key problem, but it now appears that aggregate demand has stopped falling and is now slowly recovering, together with the economy.
It is important to note how interdependent all aspects of an economy are. The euro responded as news of better inflation data emerged, together with expectations of a Greek deal being reached. Enrique Diaz-Alvarez, chief risk officer at Ebury said:
“The move [rise in euro] got going with the big upside surprise in eurozone inflation data — especially core inflation, which bounced up from 0.6 per cent to 0.9 per cent. This is exactly what the ECB wants to see, as it is proof that QE is having the desired effect and removes the threat of deflation in the eurozone from the foreseeable future.”
One of the key factors that has kept inflation down in the eurozone (and also the UK) is falling oil prices. It is for this reason that many have been suggesting that this type of deflation is not bad deflation. With oil prices recovering, the general price level will also recover and so economies will follow suit. The following articles consider the fortunes of the eurozone.
Eurozone inflation shouldn’t shift ECB’s QE focus Wall Street Journal, Richard Barley (2/6/15)
Eurozone deflation threat recedes Financial Times, Claire Jones (2/6/15)
Eurozone inflation rate rises to 0.3% in May BBC News (2/6/15)
Eurozone back to inflation as May prices beat forecast Reuters, Jan Strupczewski (2/6/15)
Boost for ECB as Eurozone prices turn positive in May Guardian, Phillip Inman (2/6/15)
Eurozone inflation higher than expected due to quantitative easing International Business Times, Bauke Schram (2/6/15)
Euro lifted by Greek deal hopes and firmer inflation data Financial Times, Roger Blitz and Michael Hunter (2/6/15)
- What is the difference between the 0.3% and 0.9% figures quoted for inflation in the eurozone?
- What is deflation and why is it such a concern?
- Illustrate the impact of falling consumer demand in an AD/AS diagram.
- How has the ECB’s QE policy helped to tackle the problem of deflation? Do you think that this programme needs to continue or now the economy has begun to improve, should the programme end?
- To what extent is the economic stagnation in the eurozone a cause for concern to countries such as the UK and USA? Explain your answer.
- Why has the euro risen, following news of this positive inflation data?