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.
The new Japanese government under Shinzo Abe, which took office on 26 December 2012, has been pursuing a policy of weakening the yen. Using a combination of low interest rates, quantitative easing, expansionary fiscal policy and a declared aim of depreciation, the government has succeeded in driving down the value of the yen.
Since mid-November last year, the yen has depreciated by 28% against the dollar, 30% against the euro and 21% against sterling. The effective exchange rate index has fallen by 22% (see first diagram below: click here for a PowerPoint of the diagram).
But will this depreciation succeed in stimulating the Japanese economy and will it improve the balance of trade? The hope is that the falling yen will boost export sales by making them cheaper abroad, and will reduce the demand for imports by making them more expensive in Japan. The balance of trade will thereby improve and higher exports (an injection) and lower imports (a withdrawal) will stimulate aggregate demand and economic growth.
Traditionally Japan has run balance of trade surpluses, but since July 2012, it has been running monthly deficits – the longest run of deficits since 1980. But depreciation cannot be expected to turn this position around immediately. Indeed, theory suggests that the balance of trade is likely to deteriorate before it improves. This is known as the J-curve effect and is illustrated in the second diagram below. As page 768 of Economics, 8th edition states:
At first a devaluation or depreciation might make a current account deficit worse: the J-curve effect. The price elasticities of demand for imports and exports may be low in the short run (see Case Study 25.1 in MyEconLab). Directly after devaluation or depreciation, few extra exports may be sold, and more will have to be paid for imports that do not have immediate substitutes. There is thus an initial deterioration in the balance of trade before it eventually improves. In Figure 25.12 [the second diagram], devaluation takes place at time t1. As you can see, the diagram has a J shape.
Evidence suggests that the first part of the ‘J’ has been experienced in Japan: Japan’s balance of trade has deteriorated. But there is debate over whether the balance of trade will now start to improve. As the article by James Saft states:
But a look at the actual data shows Japanese companies, like British ones during a similar bout of currency weakness in 2008, appear to be more eager to use a newly competitive currency to pad profits through higher margins rather than higher export volumes. Thus far, Japanese exporters appear to be doing just that. Despite yen falls the price of Japanese exports in local currency has barely budged.
“Japanese companies have not actually cut the foreign currency prices of their exports. Just as with the UK exporters, the Japanese have chosen to hold foreign prices constant, maintain market share, and increase the yen value and thus the yen profit associated with yen depreciation,” UBS economist Paul Donovan writes in a note to clients.
The extra profits earned by Japanese companies from export sales may be stockpiled or paid out in dividends rather than reinvested. And what investment does take place may be abroad rather than in Japan. The net effect may be very little stimulus to the Japanese economy.
As stated by Saft above, the UK had a similar experience in the period 2007–9, when sterling depreciated some 27% (see the second diagram). The balance of trade improved very little and UK companies generally priced goods to markets abroad rather than cutting overseas prices.
But times were different then. The world was plunging into recession. Now global markets are mildly growing or static. Nevertheless, there is a danger that the upward slope of the J-curve in Japan may be pretty flat.
Weak yen a boon for investors, not Japan Reuters, James Saft (14/5/13)
Japan’s Trade Data Suggest Even Lower Yen Needed Wall Street Journal, Nick Hastings (22/5/13)
2 Misunderstandings About Japanese Trade Seeking Alpha, Marc Chandler (22/5/13)
Japanese trade deficit widens Financial Times, Ben McLannahan (22/5/13)
BIS effective exchange rate indices Bank for International Settlements
Japan’s balance of trade Trading Economics
UK Trade, March 2013 ONS
- Explain the J-curve effect.
- Why is there some doubt about whether the Japanese balance of trade will improve significantly?
- What will be the consequences for Japanese growth?
- If foreign currency prices of Japanese exports do not change, what will determine the amount that Japan exports?
- What other measures is the Japanese government taking to stimulate the economy? What will determine the size of the multiplier effects of these measures?
- Using data from the ONS plot the UK’s quarterly balance of trade figures from 2007 to the present day. Explain the pattern that emerges.