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.
German Current Account Causes
- Germany’s labour costs have been approximately 20-30% lower that its Eurozone competitors and the German real exchange rate is strongly undervalued relative to the rest of the eurozone. This makes its goods artificially cheap, crowding out those of other eurozone countries from both eurozone and world markets. If Germany still had the D-Mark, it is almost certain that the increased competitiveness of German exports would have caused an appreciation in the German currency. This appreciation would have rebalanced demand – increasing the price of exports and reducing the price of imports. A flexible exchange rate would have moderated the rise in the German current account surplus.
- German manufacturing has been very competitive in recent years with improvements in productivity, and high-tech German exports have weathered the global downturn, better than many other countries. Germany had less exposure to financial services and has a very competitive manufacturing sector.
- Germany’s jobless rate is at a very low 4.7%. This should be stimulating demand but the German regulatory and tax structure is geared in favor of output and exports, and against consumption and investment. Furthermore, the German government are running budget surpluses which takes money out of the circular flow. This is when its infrastructure is looking very tired – canals, the rail network and autobahns need upgrading. Investment has fallen from 23% to 17% of GDP since the early 1990’s. Net public investment has been negative for 12 years.
German Current Account Consequences
- The large current account surplus and undervaluation of currency was good for Germany, but it was holding back exports in other countries. Greater German domestic consumption and targeting higher inflation would provide a boost to global demand and help to stimulate growth in terms of export demand especially in southern Europe. Surpluses steal demand from elsewhere and they export unemployment to other countries. This matters in an era of “secular stagnation” and excess global savings.
- Given the imbalances in the Eurozone, southern European economies face a long period of deflation as they slowly seek to restore competitiveness against their northern competitors. However, given European wide austerity, this period of deflation is proving very costly in terms of lost GDP and high unemployment.
The Economist wrote a piece about a group of behavioural economists, including Dan Ariely, that recently ran an experiment to test Germans’ willingness to lie for personal gain. 250 Berliners were randomly selected to take part in a game where they could win up to US$8. The game rules were as follows:
Each person to throw a die 40 times and record each roll – a higher total = bigger payoff
Before each roll the person had to write down the number on either the top or the bottom side of the die.
However, they did not have to tell anyone which side they had chosen, which made it easy to cheat by rolling the die first and then pretending that they had selected the side with the highest number. If they picked the top and then rolled a two, for example, they would have an incentive to claim—falsely—that they had chosen the bottom, which would be a five.
Honest participants would be expected to roll ones, twos and threes as often as fours, fives and sixes. But that did not happen: the sheets handed in had a suspiciously large share of high numbers, suggesting many players had cheated.
After finishing the game, the players had to fill in a form that asked their age and the part of Germany where they had lived in different decades. The authors found that, on average, those who had East German roots cheated twice as much as those who had grown up in West Germany under capitalism. They also looked at how much time people had spent in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The longer the participants had been exposed to socialism, the greater the likelihood that they would claim improbable numbers of high rolls.
Here is a useful video on economic systems from the BBC – CIE AS course Unit 1. France’s economy has struggled in recent years and President Hollande has plans to reduce the levels of bureaucracy and the size of the state sector – moving to less government intervention.
Critics say France has too centralised and big a state sector. By contrast, in Germany much of the decision making is at local level.
So how do the two systems compare?
This year saw an all German final in the European Champions League with Bayern Munich defeating Borussia Dortmund 2-1 at Wembly Stadium in London. In order to get to the final both teams beat Spanish counterparts – Real Madrid and Barcelona. What is fitting is that in economic terms German is the powerhouse of the European economy whilst in contrast Spain has suffered greatly from the euro crisis and austerity measures that have been imposed on it. If you look at post-war Germany you can see some correlation between the success of the national side and state of the economy.
The Economist looked at this and made the point that German has opened up its borders to not just traditional labour but also football players. Of the two squads on show at the Champions League Final at Wembley last month, 17 were from outside Germany.
Most visibly, Germany opened up. Just as immigrants flock to German jobs (more than 1m net arrivals in 2012), so players join German clubs. Between them Bayern and Dortmund have four Brazilians, three Poles, a Peruvian-Italian, a Serb, a Croat, a Swiss of Kosovar extraction, an Austrian of Filipino/Nigerian stock, a Ukrainian and two Australians—and so on. Of the German players, several have dual citizenship or a “migration background”. If the choice is between a German Europe or a European Germany, as the novelist Thomas Mann once put it, football points to the second.
Here is a very good video graphic from The Economist. It looks at youth unemployment rates in the main economies of Europe and discusses the reasons why some countries have had much higher rates. Notice German’s low rate which was falling during the GFC which was mainly due to labour reforms which allowed small businesses to fire employees more easily and liberalised work for part-time and temporary work.
Ben Cahill of Senior College put a cartoon on the Tutor2u blog about the role Angela Merkel has in determining the destiny of Greece. The cartoon below has Merkel showing the Greeks to their only option ie. the labyrinth to be consumed by the minotaur. What she basically saying to the Greeks is that you have no choice but to stick to the reform measures and strict austerity measures. Furthermore one could say that after the soccer quarter-final on Friday “One gone, one to go”.
This cartoon also reminded me of book that I recently read called the Global Minotaur by Yanis Varoufakis. The Minotaur is a tragic mythological figure. Its story is packed with greed, divine retribution, revenge and much suffering. It is also a symbol of a particular form of political and economic equilibrium straddling vastly different, faraway lands: a precarious geopolitical balance that collapsed with the beast’s slaughter, thus giving rise to a new era.
According to the myth’s main variant, King Minos of Crete, the most powerful ruler of his time, asked Poseidon for a fine bull as a sign of divine endorsement, pledging to sacrifice it in god’s honour. After Poseidon obliged him , Minos recklessly decided to spare the animal, captivated as he was by its beauty and poise. The gods, never allowing a good excuse for horrible retribution to go begging, chose an interesting punishment for Minos: using Aphrodite’s special skills, they had Minos’s wife, Queen Pasiphae, fall in lust with the bull. Using various props constructed by Daedalus, the lengendary engineer, she managed to impregnate herself, the result of that brief encounter being the Minotaur: a creature half-human, half-bull (Minotaur translates as ‘Minos’s Bull’, from the greek taurus, ‘bull’).
When the Minotaur grew larger and increasingly unruly, King Minos instructed Daedalus to build a labyrinth, an immense underground maze where the Minotaur was kept. Unable to nourish itself with normal food, the beast had to feast on human flesh. This proved an excellent opportunity for Minos to take revenge on the Athenians whose King Aegus, a lousy loser, had had Minos’s son killed after the young man won all races and contests in the Pan-Athenian Games. After a brief war with Athens, Aegus was forced to send seven young boys and seven unwed girls to be devoured by the minotaur every year (or every nine years according to another version). Thus, so the myth has it, a Pax Cretana was established across the know lands and seas on the basis of regular foreign tribute that kept the Minotaur alive.
Beyond myth, historians suggest that Minoan Crete was the economic and political hegemon of the Aegan region. Weaker-city states, like Athens, had to pay tribute to Crete regularly as a sign of subjugation. This may well have included the shipment of teenagers to be sacrificed by priests wearing bull masks.
Returning to the realm of the myth, the eventual slaughter of the Minotaur by Thesus, son of King of Aegeus of Athens, marked the emancipation of Athens from Cretan Hegemony and the dawn of a new era.
Aegeus only grudgingly allowed his son to set off to Crete on that dangerous mission. He asked Theseus to make sure that, before sailing back to Piraeus, he replaced the original mournful black sails with white ones, as a signal to his waiting father that the mission had been successful and that Theseus was returning from Crete victorious. Alas, consumed by the joy at having slaughtered the Minotaur, Theseus forgot to raise the white sails. On spotting the ship’s black sails from afar, and thinking that his son had died in the clutches of the Minotaur, Aegus plunged to his death in the sea below, thus giving his name to the Aegean sea.
This suggests a tale of a hegemonic power projecting its authority across the seas, and acting as custodian of far-reaching peace and international trade, in return for regular tributes that keep nourishing the beast from within. The role of the beast was America’s twin deficits, and the tribute took the form of incoming goods and capital. Its end came from the collapse of the banking system. The book is well worth the read and not too long either.