The economics behind trade and budget imbalances applied to the Eurozone crisis.
In my last post I argued that fiscal profligacy is too highly stressed as an underlying cause to the Eurozone crisis. Rather, deep rooted differences in productivity and competitiveness have resulted in divergent trade balances and public finance disaster zones. Why have trade imbalances contributed to a government debt crisis? What does a single currency have to do with it? Let’s see….
Setting the scene
Many Eurozone countries’ budget deficits are astronomical, incomprehensibly large. Despite all the hype, they aren’t necessarily shrinking. The Greek budget deficit continued to widen throughout 2011, growing to €20.52bn in the first 11 months of 2011 (a 5.5% year-on-year increase), as did Ireland’s, widening to €24.9bn in 2011 from €18.7bn in 2010. Further, it’s not just the problematic PIGS creating trouble: Belgium, Malta, Cyprus, Hungary and Poland are all waiting to hear if they face EU financial penalties to punish for the poor state of their public finances.
Trade figures highlight significant imbalances between Eurozone countries in the run up to the crisis. To talk of a common European trade experience is grossly misleading. The pattern of imbalances across the Eurozone in the period running up to the crisis was dominated by a few outlier countries: Ireland, Italy and Greece on the ‘negative’ front and Germany and the Netherlands on the ‘positive’ (see a relevant IMF paper here). Helping to convey the power of German export machine, the WTO estimated the value of German exports at $1.334tn in 2010, placing them second in the world behind China. This is more than double the value of UK exports and 60 times larger than those of Greeks. (See the following graph from this FT article and this IMF analysis for more data and graphs).
Trade imbalances correctly identify the countries at the heart of the Eurozone crisis. Estonia, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Ireland and Italy had the largest trade deficits over the period 1999-2007. High trade deficits going along with dreadful public finances. A coincidence? No. Exploring the economics behind trade and budget imbalances highlights that the two are intimately related.
Talkin’ the talk: trade terminology
In the global economy, countries interact via trade in goods and saving/borrowing. The “current account” records the net effect of a country’s international trade, constituted of goods and transfer payments. More often than not, commentators simply refer to ‘trade balances’, which don’t incorporate transfer payments. Exports feature as positives, and imports as negatives in these accounts. Thus, a trade deficit denotes a situation where the value of a country’s imports exceeds that of its exports.
The “capital account” records the net effect of international financial flows. Foreign investment, purchases of domestic assets and foreign loans to a country all feature as positives; they represent flows of money into the national economy. Conversely, domestic investment into foreign markets and loans made by domestic institutions abroad features as negatives, representing flows of money out of a country. Thus, a capital account surplus refers to a situation where there is a net flow of funds into a country.
By definition, the balances of the two accounts are inversely related. Given a particular level of total output, any trade deficit must be reflected in inflows of money from outside the country (borrowing basically) to fund that deficit. This is shown most easily by exploring the national accounting framework in a bit of detail. It involves a few equations but there’ll be no more after this, promise!
Total spending in the economy (Y) is made up of what we, consumers, spend (C), investment (I), government spending (G), foreign spending on our goods, i.e. exports (X) minus what is spent on foreign goods, i.e. imports (M).
Y = C + I + G + X – M
Y – C = I + G + X – M
The difference between total income and what households spend, can instead be thought of as what gets taken away in tax (T) and what we choose to save (S). Thus,
S + T = I + G + X – M
X – M = (S – I) + (T – G)
Current Account Balance = – (Capital Account Balance)
Thus, imagine we have a current account deficit, then the capital account balance must be positive, i.e. foreign funds must be flowing into the economy to fund that deficit.
How does the exchange rate fit into all this?
Take a step back from the Eurozone, to a country like the UK, which has its own currency. The current and capital account balances measure, respectively, the demand for, and supply of, domestic currency.
Take a current account surplus. Foreigners must acquire £s to pay for all the UK exports they are buying. The current account balance is therefore negatively related to the exchange rate. The exchange rate gives the relative ‘price’ of currencies. A depreciated currency (think cheap) boosts exports and limits imports, making for a more positive current account balance.
The negative of the capital account gives the supply of a currency. A capital account deficit represents a situation where money is leaving a country to be invested abroad. To be invested abroad, these funds need to be transferred into the relevant foreign currency. Thus, domestic currency must be supplied to the market in exchange for foreign currency.
So, for a country with its own currency, the net balances of the current and capital accounts determine the net demand and supply of currency and therefore the exchange rate at which its currency trades.
Budget and trade deficits: Two sides of the same coin
How can the build up of large trade deficits cause government finances to go awry? Imagine some country, getting along pretty well by today’s standards, without a government or trade deficit: taxes are just sufficient to cover government spending, and the value of imports equals that of exports. Oh, imagine such a country!
Then, the world changes. Other countries fall into recession, reducing their demand for our country’s exports. Assuming our demand for imports is unchanged, this would cause a trade deficit to develop: exports are now lower than imports. (Alternatively, one could think of imports rising relative to exports if, for example, another country starts producing higher quality goods or invents a new products highly demanded by our own citizens). Unless something changes, this widening of the trade balance will hit total demand in the economy resulting in lower national output and higher unemployment. To prevent this, or at last cushion the blow, the government could prop the economy up by running a budget deficit, pumping money into the economy to make up for the loss of exports, borrowing from abroad to fund this build up of debt (capital account surplus). Thus, a trade deficit can prompt a budget deficit, financed by borrowing from abroad.
If a country has its own currency, exchange rate movements can also occur to stabilize the economy, reducing the extent to which a government has to get embroiled in the situation. A trade deficit implies a fall in demand for domestic currency and thus one would expect an exchange rate depreciation to follow. This depreciation makes exports cheaper, boosting their demand, helping to close the trade gap and support domestic demand and employment.
Applying to the crisis
As stated above, it’s those Eurozone countries that ran sizable trade deficits in the years running up to the crisis who have seen their government debt explode.
Building up imbalances….
There are significant asymmetries in productivity growth across the Eurozone. German real wage growth (wage growth adjusted for inflation) has been much lower than the Eurozone average. In fact, it fell by approximately 20% relative to the Eurozone average in the period 1994-2009. As a result, the labour cost of output rose by a much less in Germany, 5.8% for the period 2000-09, than in its trading partners (equivalent labour costs in Ireland, Spain, Greece and Italy rose by roughly 30% in the same period). Production costs in ultra-efficient Germany are, therefore, much lower than those of its peers.
The Euro accentuated Germany’s competitive advantage. All Eurozone countries trade in the same currency but German goods are cheaper to produce, hurting domestic industries in the other countries that cannot hope to compete with these cheap exports. The trade balances of Eurozone countries have thus been following divergent trajectories: the German trade balance shooting up to the stars, while those of the Club Med descended further into the murky depths of the underworld.
…and funding them
As explained above, trade deficits imply that foreign funds must be flowing into a country and this is what we have observed. The majority of Eurozone governments’ debt is held by nonresidents. In fact, banks and financial institutions in the advanced European economies financed a large part of the build up of debt in the periphery as noted by Blanchard and Giavazzi (2002). BusinessWeek notes that German banks are on the hook for at least $250bn in troubled Eurozone nations’ bonds.
If each country had its own currency, trade deficits and excessive foreign borrowing witnessed would have put pressure on the exchange rate, helping to restore the export-import and borrow-lend balances between European states. For example, we would have expected to see the Greek drachma fall in value relative to the German Deutsche Mark, effectively raising the cost of German goods and helping to rebalance the European economy. This has not happened, allowing imbalances to get out of control and the single currency has also eliminated stabilization mechanisms which would have provided additional routes, other than higher government spending, to prop up the economy.
Missing the heart
Thus, although financial mismanagement and recklessness have had parts to play in the Eurozone crisis, fundamental structural imbalances between Eurozone economies lie at the center of the mess. The singular prescription of harsh fiscal discipline thus does not hit at the heart of the matter. Not even the stomach. Adjustment on the part of creditor nations is also required. At present there is nothing to temper the onset of austerity across Europe. All adjustment is being forced through by depression and default. This is far from efficient. Germany has benefited enormously from Euro membership, taking advantage of an undervalued currency and low trade costs. Others have not been so fortunate, shackled with an over-valued currency and the withering of domestic industries.
Can such adjustment and rebalancing be achieved? Can the Euro be sustained in the long run given the imbalances and limited mobility within its domain? Oh I wonder, I wonder….