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.
In his annual Mansion House speech to business leaders on 10 June 2015, George Osborne announced a new fiscal framework. This would require governments in ‘normal times’ to run a budget surplus. Details of the new framework would be spelt out in the extraordinary Budget, due on 8 July.
If by ‘normal times’ is meant years when the economy is growing, then this new fiscal rule would mean that in most years governments would be require to run a surplus. This would reduce general government debt.
And it would eventually reduce the debt from the forecast ratio of 89% of GDP for 2015 to the target of no more than 60% set for member states under the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact. Currently, many countries are in breach of this target, although the Pact permits countries to have a ratio above 60% provided it is falling towards 60% at an acceptable rate. The chart shows in pink those countries that were in breach in 2014. They include the UK.
Sweden and Canada have similar rules to that proposed by George Osborne, and he sees them as having been more able to use expansionary fiscal policy in emergency times, such as in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007/8, without running excessive deficits.
Critics have argued, however, that running a surplus whenever there is economic growth would dampen recovery if growth is sluggish. This makes the rule very different from merely requiring that, over the course of the business cycle, there is a budget balance. Under that rule, years of deficit are counterbalanced by years of surplus, making fiscal policy neutral over the cycle. With a requirement for a surplus in most years, however, fiscal policy would have a net dampening effect over the cycle. The chancellor hopes that this would be countered by increased demand in the private sector and from exports.
The rule is even more different from the Coalition government’s previous ‘fiscal mandate‘, which was for a ‘a forward-looking target to achieve cyclically-adjusted current balance by the end of the rolling, five-year forecast period’. The current budget excludes investment expenditure on items such as transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools. The fiscal mandate was very similar to the former Labour government’s ‘Golden rule’, which was to achieve a current budget balance over the course of the cycle.
By excluding public-sector investment from the target, as was previously done, it can allow borrowing to continue for such investment, even when there is a substantial deficit. This, in turn, can help to increase aggregate supply by improving infrastructure and has less of a dampening effect on aggregate demand. A worry about the new rule is that it could lead to further erosion of public-sector investment, which can be seen as vital to long-term growth and development of the economy. Indeed, Sweden decided in March this year to abandon its surplus rule to allow government borrowing to fund investment.
The podcasts and articles below consider the implications of the new rule for both aggregate demand and aggregate supply and whether adherence to the rule will help to increase or decrease economic growth over the longer term.
Video and audio podcasts
George Osborne confirms budget surplus law Channel 4 News, Gary Gibbon (10/6/15)
Osborne To Push Through Budget Surplus Rules Sky News (10/6/15)
OECD On Osborne’s Fiscal Plans Sky News, Catherine Mann (10/6/15)
‘Outright fiscal madness’ Osborne’s Mansion House Speech RT UK on YouTube, Harry Fear (11/6/15)
A “straightjacket” [sic] on future government spending? BBC Today Programme, Robert Peston; Nigel Lawson (11/6/15)
Thursday’s business with Simon Jack BBC Today Programme, Gerard Lyons (12/6/15)
Osborne seeks to bind successors to budget surplus goal Reuters, David Milliken (10/6/15)
George Osborne to push ahead with budget surplus law The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (10/6/15)
Osborne Wants U.K. to Build Treasure Chest During Good Times Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (10/6/15)
Questions over Osborne’s Victorian-era budget plans BBC News (10/6/15)
Years more spending cuts to come, says OBR BBC News (11/6/15)
Is Chancellor right to want surplus in normal times? BBC News, Robert Peston (10/6/15)
George Osborne Unveils New Budget Surplus Law, But Critics Warn It Means Needless Cuts Huffington Post, Paul Waugh (10/6/15)
George Osborne’s fiscal handcuffs are political, but he does have a point Independent, Hamish McRae (11/6/15)
Osborne’s budget surplus law follows UK tradition of moving goalposts Financial Times, Chris Giles (10/6/15)
George Osborne’s budget surplus rule is nonsense and it could haunt Britain for decades Business Insider, Malaysia, Mike Bird (10/6/15)
To cut a way out of recession we need growth, not austerity economics Herald Scotland, Iain Macwhirter (11/6/15)
George Osborne moves to peg public finances to Victorian values The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Frances Perraudin (10/6/15)
The Guardian view on George Osborne’s fiscal surplus law: the Micawber delusion The Guardian, Editorial (10/6/15)
Academics attack George Osborne budget surplus proposal The Guardian, Phillip Inman (12/6/15)
Osborne plan has no basis in economics Guardian letters, multiple signatories (12/6/15)
Is there an optimal debt-to-GDP ratio? Vox EU, Anis Chowdhury and Iyanatul Islam
No basis in economics Mainly Macro, Simon Wren-Lewis (16/6/15)
- Explain what is meant by a ‘cyclically adjusted current budget balance’.
- How does the speed with which the government reduces the public-sector debt affect aggregate demand and aggregate supply?
- What are the arguments for and against running a budget surplus: (a) when there is currently a large budget deficit; (b) when there is already a budget surplus? How do the arguments depend on the stage of the business cycle?
- Do you agree with the statement that ‘the biggest issue with the UK economy right now is not the government deficit’. If so, what bigger issues are there?
- How could public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP decline without the government running a budget surplus?
- How might the term ‘normal times’ be defined? How does the definition used by the Chancellor affect the rate at which the public-sector debt is reduced?
- How sustainable is the current level of public-sector debt? How does its sustainability relate to the interest rate on long-term government bonds?
- If there is a budget surplus, such that G – T is negative, what can we say about the balance betwen (I + X) and (S + M)? What good and adverse consequences could follow?
- Why do George Osborne’s plans for budget surpluses ‘risk a liquidity crisis that could also trigger banking problems, a fall in GDP, a crash, or all three’?
In 2008, as the economy was on the verge of recession, the UK Prime Minister said that we would ‘spend our way out of it’ despite rising levels of public-sector debt. In recent weeks, however, the focus has been much more on tackling the debt, which has now increased to over £800 billion (58% of GDP) – it was £500 billion at the end of 2006 (37% of GDP).
Although the current level of general government debt in the UK as a proportion of GDP is still one of the lowest of the G8 countries, it is rising the fastest. In other words, the general government deficit as a proportion of GDP is the highest (see Table A8 in IMF World Economic Outlook, Statistical Appendix A). The IMF’s forecasts suggest that, by 2014, government debt could be as much as 92% of GDP – the highest since World War II – and lower only than Japan (144%) and Italy (126%) of the G8 countries (although the USA, Germany and France are forecast by then each to have government debt over 80% of GDP).
Gordon Brown has said that public spending will have to be cut back once the recession is over, mainly by cutting out waste in the public sector. Conservatives too are looking to make substantial cuts in public expenditure if they come to office next year and have talked of an era of austerity.
But will such cuts be too little too late? Has government spending on saving the banks and trying to boost the economy by cutting VAT actually damaged our recovery prospects and are the British people going to be the ones to suffer? Or should the fiscal stimulus be retained for some time yet to prevent a lurch back into recession? The following articles look at the public debt situation, which poses some interesting policy questions, especially with the Party Conferences!
£805,000,000,000: UK’s monstrous debt The Mirror (19/9/09)
Osborne gambles with cut plans BBC News (6/10/09)
Governments will have legal obligation to reduce UK’s debt Telegraph (28/9/09)
We’ll spend our way out of recession Independent (20/10/08)
Public sector borrowing soaring BBC News (18/9/09)
Govt spending cuts ‘could help pound’ Just the Flight (21/9/09)
Deficit danger worries Cameron BBC News (4/10/09)
Public debt hits £800 billion – the highest on record Times Online (19/9/09)
Pay freeze ‘to protect UK services’ The Mirror (6/10/09)
This recession demands that we employ logic and spend our way out of it Telegraph (11/1/09)
Cuts and pay freezes ‘just the beginning’, Tories admit Telegraph (7/10/09)
Robert Stheeman: So what’s worrying the banker in charge of our £1trn debt? Independent (8/10/09)
Has Darling or Osborne the best plan for cutting the deficit? Observer (11/10/09)
This public-spending squeeze will be much tighter than people expect Independent on Sunday (11/10/09)
Tax and spending squeeze will keep Bank rate low Sunday Times (11/10/09)
UK rates ‘to stay low for years’ BBC News (11/10/09)
- According to economic theory, how does increasing government spending or reducing taxation aim to boost the economy?
- What do we mean by a budget deficit or budget surplus? How does a budget deficit differ from national debt?
- What is the ‘golden rule’ for fiscal policy? Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of such a rule-based approach to fiscal policy.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of a policy of ‘spending our way out of a recession?’
- With spending cuts looming, many will be affected. How will cuts in government spending affect the UK’s ability to recover from the recession? Will you be affected and, if so, how?
- Last year £85.5 billion was spent by the government on bailing out banks. Do you think this was money well spent, or is it the main cause of the current spending cuts that could see the recession worsen?