Column: Those depressing Germans

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SummaryThey are beggaring their neighbours, and the world, by running big trade surpluses

German officials are furious at America, and not just because of the business about Angela Merkel’s cellphone. What has them enraged now is one (long) paragraph in a US Treasury report on foreign economic and currency policies. In that paragraph Treasury argues that Germany’s huge surplus on current account—a broad measure of the trade balance—is harmful, creating “a deflationary bias for the euro area, as well as for the world economy.”

The Germans angrily pronounced this argument “incomprehensible.” “There are no imbalances in Germany which require a correction of our growth-friendly economic and fiscal policy,” declared a spokesman for the nation’s finance ministry.

But Treasury was right, and the German reaction was disturbing. For one thing, it was an indicator of the continuing refusal of policymakers in Germany, in Europe more broadly and for that matter around the world to face up to the nature of our economic problems. For another, it demonstrated Germany’s unfortunate tendency to respond to any criticism of its economic policies with cries of victimisation.

First, the facts. Remember the China syndrome, in which Asia’s largest economy kept running enormous trade surpluses thanks to an undervalued currency? Well, China is still running surpluses, but they have declined. Meanwhile, Germany has taken China’s place: Last year Germany, not China, ran the world’s biggest current account surplus. And measured as a share of GDP, Germany’s surplus was more than twice as large as China’s.

Now, it’s true that Germany has been running big surpluses for almost a decade. At first, however, these surpluses were matched by large deficits in southern Europe, financed by large inflows of German capital. Europe as a whole continued to have roughly balanced trade.

Then came the crisis, and flows of capital to Europe’s periphery collapsed. The debtor nations were forced—in part at Germany’s insistence—into harsh austerity, which eliminated their trade deficits. But something went wrong. The narrowing of trade imbalances should have been symmetric, with Germany’s surpluses shrinking along with the debtors’ deficits. Instead, however, Germany failed to make any adjustment at all; deficits in Spain, Greece and elsewhere shrank, but Germany’s surplus didn’t.

This was a very bad thing for Europe, because Germany’s failure to adjust magnified the cost of austerity. Take Spain, the biggest deficit country before the crisis. It was inevitable that Spain would face lean years as it learned to live within its means. It was not, however, inevitable that Spanish unemployment would be almost

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