A global lesson from Europe

February 24, 2015

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

“The euro area is in crisis” is not the most thrilling way to open an article. The region is seemingly always in crisis, resembling an opera by Wagner – very, very long, with lots of wailing and melodrama, generally conducted in German. The perpetual round of emergency summits and last-minute deals is something investors have had to get used to.

The current manifestation of the euro crisis, with tensions between Greece and the creditor nations of the euro area, is a symptom of a deeper underlying problem. The mess starts with the structural flaws of the monetary union. However these flaws have been exaggerated by the severity of the German crisis, which dwarfs the wrangling over Greek debt terms.

The German crisis is simple: Germans have been forced to accept far too low a standard of living for far too long. Indeed, the German standard of living has fallen further and further behind its potential for a number of years now. The fact that the entire economy is living in relative poverty (relative to the standard of living that Germans could enjoy) has compounded the wider problems of the euro area.

This relative poverty is highly visible. In 2001, the German current account was in balance. In 2013 the surplus was 7.5 percent of GDP. This means in 2013, the German economy had a standard of living that was 7.5 percent below that which it could sustainably achieve (Germans are essentially failing to enjoy four weeks of income every year).

Popular opinion tends to be uncomfortable with current account surpluses as a cause of crisis. Popular economic perceptions support a sort of macho mercantilism – a desire to gather as much gold as possible into a big heap and sit on top of it. The problem with sitting atop a big heap of gold is that it is rather uncomfortable and it does nothing to enhance living standards.

A current account surplus means a country is spending less than it earns, and therefore has a lower standard of living than its income would permit. There can be reasons why a moderate current account surplus may be desirable. If a country has an ageing population, then the need to live off investment returns in the future may suggest a desire to save today. Alternatively, if debt has been acquired in the past (through current account deficits) it may be desirable to repay some of that debt through current account surpluses. But the basic fact remains – running a current surplus is a process of self-denial.

The desire to acquire a current account surplus is an anachronism of history – a legacy of the gold standard and the Bretton Woods currency systems. Both of these systems had correction mechanisms for current account imbalances. The problem was that although current account surplus nations were supposed to correct their imbalances, the urgency to correct lay with deficit nations.

Surplus nations could continue to acquire surpluses without too much trouble, other than depressing domestic living standards. Deficit nations would soon run out of the gold or U.S. dollars with which to acquire foreign goods. That meant deficits were associated with crises and a forced adjustment, meaning “bad”. And to run a current account surplus was seen as “good”.

The German crisis is lowering the country’s standard of living and lowering the European standard of living. The Germans are denying themselves the lifestyle that they can afford. At the same time the country is forcing others in the euro area to correct deficits.

Some deficit correction may be desirable, but the scale of the German current account position is forcing large-scale corrections elsewhere in the region. The corrections are larger than is desirable, and gives the euro area a negative growth bias that has generated political as well as economic consequences.

There is a lesson for the rest of the world in all of this, perhaps for Asia more than most. Low standards of living are not a good thing. An excessive current account deficit is a bad thing – it implies a dangerous dependence on credit. An excessive current account surplus is worse. It implies a deliberate lowering of domestic living standards while simultaneously creating deficit crises elsewhere in the world.

A current account surplus should be seen for the dangerous signal of imbalance that it is. It is necessary that politicians understand the true nature of the German crisis if Europe’s interminable Wagnerian drama is ever to come to an end.

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