Germany’s current account surplus – a concern?
In the media a lot is spoken of a country’s trade deficit and the concern that it is borrowing from abroad to finance current purchases of goods and services. China’s surpluses have been a big talking point but it is Germany with a current account surplus since 2002 (introduction of the Euro) with a 2105 surplus of 8% of GDP which has taken the limelight – see graph from The Economist.
A lot of students taking the subject for the first time believe that a trade surplus is good and a trade deficit is bad. However, as in a lot of areas of economics, you can’t categorically say they are good or bad. For instance, a deficit might be caused by importing vast amounts of capital goods which will create value in the economy through jobs and goods which can be sold domestically or overseas. The capital goods can also increase the level of productivity and improve competitiveness of such goods. In some respects deficit countries can be better off than surplus countries, as they are consuming more goods that they are producing.
Is a trade surplus good or bad?
For a lot of countries the purpose of exports is to generate revenue so that they can buy imports of goods which they may not produce – or could produce but relatively less efficient. In China a surplus does keep the export sector industries employed but suggests there is a strong presence for saving or weak domestic demand. More balanced trade would increase the level of imported goods into a country and increase real incomes as the value of its currency rises. This will allow for more inflows of foreign capital from abroad stimulating growth in the domestic economy. It would help a sluggish world economy if surplus countries, like China and Germany, were to spend more on imports.
Reasons for Germany’s trade surplus.
There are three main reasons for Germany’s ongoing trade surplus:
- Since the advent of the Euro in 2002 its value has been very weak. This is because the Euro is valued in relation to the entire 19 country eurozone and given the economic condition of the other member states, Germany’s strength in trade is not significant enough to boost the currency. If Germany still had the Deutschemark today it would be no doubt stronger and therefore reduce export competitiveness. It has been calculated that the Euro gives Germany about a 20% price advantage compared to what it would have had if it was still using the Deutschmark and has the largest foreign exchange advantage of any country in the world, with the possible exception of China.
- Another reason is that the German government has been running a very tight fiscal policy and also keeping the wages levels down. In the wake of the worries over the eurozone, Germany slashed its public expenditure with reducing public infrastructure spending and been more focussed on running surpluses. This is all very well but they are taking money out of the system which leads to less demand in the global and European economy.
- The lower cost of imports of oil and gas increased the trade balance in 2015 by around 1.2%. Without the decline in oil and gas prices, the trade surplus would have fallen compared with the previous year.
Germany’s trade surplus is a worry for countries in the EU as well as overseas in that it is importing demand from other countries and reducing output and employment. This is especially prevalent when you consider that monetary policy in a lot countries has become ineffective. When this happens expansionary fiscal policy – dropping taxes and increasing government spending – is way of trying to boost demand but even though the fiscal position of the German economy is very healthy they are doing the opposite and being prudent. Germany is one of the few major economies in a position to easily and cheaply increase demand.