Archive for the ‘International Trade’ Category

No Sound Defense of German Mercantilism, Nowhere

Jörg Bibow | November 12, 2013

In “America’s misplaced lecture to Germany,” Gideon Rachman ends up offering a singularly misplaced defense of Germany. Quite similar to the typical stories one hears on this matter in Germany itself, Rachman appears to be unaware of how self-contradictory his arguments really are. To begin with, after describing the Federal Reserve’s QE policies as both a vital support to the world economy and an addictive drug, he goes on to identify the markets’ reaction to tapering by the Fed as the “biggest threat to the global economy in the coming year.” Does he suggest here that, once adopted, QE policies can never be reversed without causing market turbulences and that QE policies, therefore, should never have been adopted in the first place? That would beg the question as to what else would have provided that vital support to the world economy which Rachman himself attributes to these very policies.

The real issue here is why such overburdening responsibility for supporting the global economy has come to rest on the Federal Reserve’s shoulders. Apparently without seeing the connection, Rachman supplies one reason himself: the “particularly mindless game” of toying with defaulting on the national debt on the part of the US Congress that has accompanied harsh fiscal contraction in the US this year.

Another reason is to be seen in the fact that Europe’s economy, especially the eurozone under German austerity leadership, has been shrinking for years. Europe is still the US’s most important trading partner. It may be a matter of annoyance rather than envy that US firms find themselves exporting into a shrinking market while German firms enjoy participating in the recovery of their important US market. Globally, then, QE may also be seen as a defense against bloated German export surpluses, benefiting from a euro exchange rate that is way undervalued as far as Germany is concerned.

But Rachman also refers to the situation inside the currency union, attesting that Germany has generously provided large-scale bail-outs for its eurozone partners in crisis. Again, he is missing an important connection here. continue reading…


Can R&D Help Get Us Out of this Mess? A New Stock-Flow Analysis

Michael Stephens | October 23, 2013

Dimitri Papadimitriou, Greg Hannsgen, Michalis Nikiforos, and Gennaro Zezza have just published a new strategic analysis for the US economy, with a baseline projection and alternative policy simulations through the end of 2016. The report takes a closer look at the potential payoff of R&D investment in the context of a US export strategy.

As Papadimitriou et al. point out, fiscal policy at the federal level is simply stuck on a self-defeating course, with nothing but further growth-killing contraction on the horizon. Their baseline projection shows that if we stay on the current fiscal path, in which the deficit continues to shrink rapidly, growth won’t be high enough to appreciably bring down the unemployment rate — as far out as 2016 unemployment would be just below 7 percent.

The significant increases in federal spending that would be needed to accelerate the recovery and quickly bring down the unemployment rate don’t seem to be politically viable, to put it gently. So the authors turn to the external sector; more precisely, to an export-oriented strategy driven by innovation.

Research and development may be an area in which a proposed increase in government investment would attract less rabid congressional opposition. And from the authors’ perspective, recent revisions to the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) now allow us to get a better handle on what to expect from this sort of strategy: “we now enjoy an improved ability to conduct an inquiry in this area: R&D activity is the largest change to measured US GDP, with the recently revised NIPA concepts treating this sort of spending as a form of investment.”

They examine the effects of an increase in R&D spending of $160 billion per year (around 1 percent of GDP) through the end of 2016. This would be R&D expenditure focused on fields with applications in the tradable goods and service sector. In addition to the fiscal stimulus effects, part of the mechanism here is that innovation would increase average productivity in these export sectors, reduce unit costs and relative prices, and thereby boost export volume (“We assume that this spending is aimed exclusively at reducing domestic costs of production, although in reality the effects might also include bringing novel products to market overseas”).

The results of the R&D simulation show that unemployment would drop below 5 percent by the end of the projection period (2016Q4), with economic growth nearing 5.5 percent. Their simulations also suggest that R&D investment would be slightly more potent than the same amount invested in infrastructure, though the authors don’t present this as an either/or policy choice.

The result is particularly noteworthy, given that the meat-axe approach to federal budgeting over the last couple of years has meant that government investment in R&D has been stagnating — and is scheduled for big cuts (from ITIF, via Brad Plumer):

R&D Sequester Cuts

Papadimitriou et al. also introduce a note of caution in their new report. Many economic forecasts assume that the post-financial-crisis deleveraging process — the reduction of the private sector’s debt-to-GDP ratio — will end shortly. In other words, a lot of growth projections for the next few years assume renewed household and business borrowing.

The authors run a simulation in which deleveraging continues for households in particular. Why should we consider this possibility? “Following the work of Wynne Godley, we think it reasonable to argue that historical norms are relevant as benchmarks for household indebtedness ratios.” In this instance, taking that approach would mean treating the private sector’s negative net saving from the 1990s through the 2000s as an exception.

This is what household indebtedness would look like in this scenario (“scenario 3” in the figure, which includes the R&D investment of 1 percent of GDP per year. “Scenario 1” and “scenario 2” correspond to the infrastructure and R&D investment scenarios, respectively, but with the CBO’s more optimistic assumptions about the path of household debt):

Continued Household Deleveraging

If households continue to reduce their debt levels, the positive effects of the R&D investment would be somewhat blunted: growth would just fail to reach 5 percent by the end of 2016 and the unemployment rate would be about 5.5 percent (compared to sub-5 percent unemployment for the R&D scenario in which the household deleveraging process ends).

The upshot is that policymakers need to be prepared for the possibility that the deleveraging process is not finished. If households continue to reduce their debts, there will be even more drag on the economy — and an even more urgent need for ambitious thinking about policies to boost growth and employment.

You can read the report here (pdf).


The IMF’s Puzzling Current Account Projections

Gennaro Zezza | September 23, 2013

The following table has been computed using data from the latest (April 2013) IMF World Economic Outlook database, with IMF estimates starting in 2013 for most countries.

Current Account Balances_IMF April 2013

In my view, these projections are based on heroic assumptions and wishful thinking. The eurozone is supposed to improve its position, even though the current account balance of Germany is supposed to drop substantially (from 1.52 percent of US GDP in 2012 to 0.93 percent in 2018): Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain are all supposed to move from a current account deficit in 2012 to a surplus from 2013 onwards, and France is also supposed to reduce its current account deficit.

It therefore seems that the IMF is assuming some equilibrating process inside the eurozone, but overall this area will either be importing less from abroad (while keeping its exports constant) or exporting more. In the former case, the eurozone will impart a deflationary impulse to its trading partners. In the latter case, which area is supposed to absorb the additional eurozone exports? Looking at the table, the candidates are either the United States, which is projected to see its current account deteriorate even further, or developing countries.

If export-led growth from China – the only country in the BRICs for which the IMF projects an improvement in its current account – and the eurozone must rely on additional demand from developing countries, plausibly out of borrowing, global imbalances will trigger a new round of financial instability worldwide.

The other puzzling feature in IMF projections is the substantial fall in the current account of OPEC countries. Is the IMF hoping for a permanent shift of the world economy away from oil products, and therefore a fall in the price of oil? If this is the case, I would expect a fall in the US current account deficit, rather than an increase. But given the permanent turmoil in the Middle East, hoping for a consistent drop in the price of oil may be wishful thinking.


The Euro: Can’t Live With It … ?

Michael Stephens | September 19, 2013

As a member of the eurozone, Greece does not control its own currency and therefore cannot devalue said currency in an effort to promote an export-led recovery. Instead, Greece is stuck with the troika’s strategy of internal devaluation: seeking export growth through reducing unit labor costs (wages). As Dimitri Papadimitriou, Michalis Nikiforos, and Gennaro Zezza have pointed out, however, that strategy isn’t working (pdf).

Two interesting pieces by J. W. Mason suggest that the option of leaving the eurozone, which would allow Greece to revert to and subsequently devalue the drachma, may not look much more promising, at least in terms of the prospects of generating an export-led expansion. Mason examines the experience of a number of countries following the 1997 Asian crisis and sees little evidence for the currency devaluation/export-led growth story:

You can argue, I suppose, that without the devaluations export performance would have been even worse. But you cannot claim that faster export growth following the devaluations boosted demand, because no such faster growth occurred.

It’s really remarkable how much the devaluation-export growth link is taken for granted in discussions of foreign trade. But in the real world, for whatever reason, the link is often weak or nonexistent.

If that’s the case, Greece may truly be stuck — that is, without a major, and wildly unlikely, intellectual conversion within the ranks of troika and core country leadership; one that leads to an abandonment of austerity and more imaginative thinking about how to use funds from European institutions to stimulate growth and employment in the periphery.


Waiting for Export-led Growth in Greece

Michael Stephens | September 12, 2013

The policy strategy being imposed on Greece by its international lenders depends on the success of something called “internal devaluation”: in the absence of being able to devalue its own currency, Greek wages have been cut in the hopes that this generates an export-led economic recovery. So, how is this going? As Dimitri Papadimitriou, Michalis Nikiforos, and Gennaro Zezza explain in a new One-Pager, not very well.

The authors observe that Greece has succeeded in increasing the sort of “competitiveness” required by this strategy: it has lowered its relative labor costs more than any other country in the eurozone except for Germany. Furthermore, Greece’s net exports have expanded since 2009.

Mission accomplished? Not quite. One problem, the authors point out, is that 71 percent of Greek export growth since 2009 has come in the form of an increase in the value of trade related to its oil refineries — which is to say, in an area that has little to do with internal devaluation (and depends on volatile factors like changes in oil prices). Most of the increase in net exports came from a decline in imports (a result of the neverending recession).

But most important of all, the gains from net exports have not come close to offsetting the dramatic plunge in domestic demand, as you can see here (this figure comes from their July strategic analysis):

Fig8_Greece GDP Components_Strategic Analysis

Now, perhaps we just need to give the troika’s (EC/IMF/ECB) strategy more time. Perhaps exports will eventually pick up across the board (beyond refined petroleum products) and on such a scale as to generate a recovery. As this recent headline from Ekathimerini indicates, we shouldn’t be holding our breath: “Greek exports post worst performance in three years.” And the model developed by Papadimitriou, Zezza, and Nikiforos — based on the stock-flow approach of Wynne Godley recently featured in the New York Times, and tailored specifically to the Greek economy — suggests that it would take a very long time just to discover whether there’s anything to this theory of internal devaluation.

Meanwhile, the costs of sticking with the troika’s program look (socially and politically) unsustainable: the authors project that if Greece continues with current policies, it may be looking at an unemployment rate around 34 percent by 2016. (By comparison, the EC/IMF predict that if everything goes according to plan — and it is notable that, year after year, the Greek economy has consistently performed worse than their projections — unemployment will be “only” 20 percent in that year.)

Dimitri Papadimitriou, Michalis Nikiforos, and Gennaro Zezza’s new One-Pager: “Waiting for Export-led Growth: Why the Troika’s Greek Strategy Is Failing” (pdf).

See also “The Greek Economic Crisis and the Experience of Austerity,” a Strategic Analysis.

For more details on their model, see this technical paper: “A Levy Institute Model for Greece.”


Euro Crisis Sees Reloading Of Germany’s Current Account Surplus

Jörg Bibow | June 26, 2013

Who is running the largest current account surplus in the world? China? Saudi Arabia? Both wrong! These are only the number two and three countries. China had a record $420bn surplus in 2008, but that imbalance has more than halved since. As a share of GDP China’s external imbalance is down from ten to two-and-a-half percent since the global crisis — evidence of a remarkable rebalancing. The oil price would need to be significantly higher still to make Saudi Arabia the number one.

So for 2012 the number one prize actually goes to: Germany! The world champion of 2012 ran up a current account surplus of almost $240bn. At a rocking seven percent of GDP, that’s just slightly below Germany’s pre-crisis record of almost $250bn in U.S. dollar terms. In euro terms 2012 actually set a new record for Germany. And that is an interesting part of the whole story, as the euro has depreciated by some 20 percent from its peak against the U.S. dollar.

Bibow_Levy Blog_Current Account 1

Back in the 2000s, the euro appreciated very strongly against the U.S. dollar (as well as in real effective terms) between 2002 and the summer of 2008. Euro appreciation cut Germany off from benefiting even more from the record global boom of the 2000s. However, somehow Germany, then also known as the “sick man of the euro,” managed to run up gigantic regional current account surpluses, both vis-à-vis its euro partners and vis-à-vis the larger European Union (of 27 member states). At its pre-global crisis peak Europe was the primary source of Germany’s current account surpluses. Don’t miss then what a remarkable re-loading and re-sourcing of German external surpluses has occurred since then. continue reading…


Are Currency Warriors’ Gloves Coming Off?

Jörg Bibow | January 24, 2013

There is much hype about “currency wars” in the international media this week, reaching the heights of the Davos gathering. The excitement seems to have been started by Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann, who earlier this week aired his concerns about an apparent politicization of exchange rates owing to an erosion of central bank independence and rising political pressures for more aggressive monetary policies. Japan is the current focus of attention, as the deflation-worn nation is said to have kicked off a new round in the covert global battle for competitive advantage through currency manipulation by announcing a somewhat higher inflation target as well as new quantitative easing measures. In fact, the yen has depreciated markedly since last Fall against the U.S. dollar and even more so against the euro in anticipation of fresh policy moves by the Japanese authorities.

There is of course nothing new about sharp movements in the yen’s exchange rate. With zero interest rate policies in place for more than a decade, the yen for long won the popularity contest as carry-trade funding currency; with corresponding gyrations seen in winding versus unwinding phases in the global carry trade game. So the yen has appreciated strongly since the global crisis as the spectrum of funding currencies increased. Nor would it be the first time that the Japanese authorities have sought out deliberate measures designed to weaken the currency despite officially hosting a “floating” exchange rate determined “by market forces.” Long before the global crisis hit, Japan championed a version of quantitative easing that focused on FX reserve accumulation. The key difference is that other nations used to view such moves more benignly when times were still better at home. Today, with all key advanced economies still struggling to recover, and each of them hoping for relief through exports, zero tolerance and envy meet the nation that is seen as getting ahead in the common campaign for a competitive currency.

The euro appears to be the “victim” in all this. Paradoxically, as it may seem at first, while other currencies tend to weaken as their monetary authorities take on a more aggressive easing stance the euro has actually appreciated since Mario Draghi’s famous pledge to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the euro, promising—conditional—support for public debt of euro crisis countries. The ECB’s peculiar ways, its reluctance to be more forthcoming with monetary support, except when the euro seems to be on the verge of breakup, is being identified as the factor that might explain why the euro is the odd man out at the current juncture.

Yet, viewing the euro as the victim seems to be saying that the euro is more deserving of continued weakness than others, supposedly so as to foster and support the currency bloc’s recovery from crisis. Arguably, this would be somewhat akin to the more tolerant attitude towards Japan in this matter in pre-global crisis times. Yet, has this approach really helped Japan to recovery lastingly on the back of export-driven growth? Also, has it helped the world economy to contain global current account imbalances that were later identified as contributing causes behind the global crisis? continue reading…


On Net-exports Life Support: Germany Is Back at It, and Now Euroland Is Too

Jörg Bibow | January 16, 2013

Germany’s Federal Statistical Office released its first estimate of German GDP in 2012 at a press conference held in Wiesbaden yesterday: “German economy withstands the European economic crisis in 2012.” Reporting that growth slowed markedly in Germany last year, down to only 0.7 percent from 3 percent in 2011 and 4.2 percent in 2010, the international media seemed to pin the slump (the Office’s estimate assumes a contraction in GDP of 0.5 percent in the final quarter) on the euro crisis (  “Germany hit by debt crisis turbulence”; “Euro crisis damps German growth”).

It is rather unsurprising that German exports have not been doing so well in the crisis-stricken countries of the euro area of late. Germany’s trade and current account surpluses with its euro partners have declined significantly. But so far the crisis has actually been a mixed blessing overall. For one thing, benefiting from its haven status, Germany’s interest rates and financing costs are extremely favorable. While lending support to property markets, finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble enjoyed a nice windfall too, as Germany’s general government budget ended the year with a small surplus, in part owing to savings on debt interest payments (much in contrast to his partners elsewhere in the area).

But that is far from all. continue reading…


Asking the Right Questions about Government Budgets

Michael Stephens | January 15, 2013

Below is the video from the latest session of the Modern Money and Public Purpose seminar at Columbia University, featuring Jan Kregel and Forbes‘ John Harvey.  The session touched on the sustainability of fiscal and trade deficits, why economists need to study accounting, the risks of paying down the government debt, the real meaning of “fiscal responsibility,” and the assumptions about the appropriate size of government that are sowing confusion in the budget debate.


The New European Economic Dogma

Michael Stephens | February 16, 2012

If it controlled its own currency, the usual thing for a country like Greece to do in these circumstances would be to devalue.  Since it doesn’t control its own currency, Greece is being “asked” to pull off an internal devaluation, or as C. J. Polychroniou puts it:

Essentially, what they agreed to are additional measures that are specifically designed to reduce the standard of living for the majority of the working population as a means of improving the nation’s competitiveness. Aside from firing civil servants, the new memoranda are all about major private sector wage cuts and an overhaul of labor rights.

This is from Polychroniou’s newest one-pager, “The New European Economic Dogma,” released yesterday.  Polychroniou takes on what he regards as the flawed ideology behind the policies that are being dumped on the Greek people; policies motivated by an ambiguous and, says Polychroniou, toxic conception of “competitiveness.”

Read the one-pager here.