So, at a meeting in Brussels yesterday, President Trump appears to have told leaders of the European Union that “the Germans are bad, very bad.” I’ll let those with foreign diplomatic chops figure out how to clean that up—and good luck: When I plug the Spiegel Online headline—“Die Deutschen sind böse, sehr böse”—into Google translator, it spits back: “The Germans are evil, very evil.”
I’ll handle the economics, which actually are interesting. When Trump talks about trade, he sometimes gets a piece of it right, and it’s often a piece about which establishment politicians and the economists that support them are in denial: Germany’s trade surplus of over 8 percent of GDP really is a problem for the other countries with whom they trade.
That’s not just my view. Both Ben Bernanke and more recently, Lord Mervyn King, former governor of the Central Bank of England, have expressed serious concerns about the impact of Germany’s large trade surplus on other countries.
But here are two things that I’m sure Trump misunderstands. First, Germany is not manipulating its currency to build its surplus. Instead, it’s the single currency of the Eurozone that’s the culprit. Germany is the economic powerhouse of the region, with stronger growth and production practices than its Eurozone partners. Thus, if it’s currency could float, it would surely appreciate, but it can’t, so its goods are underpriced in export markets relative to those countries’ exports.
Second, as I’ll get to in a moment, it’s not clear what Germany should do about it.
In many posts, I’ve explained that, contrary to conventional wisdom, including the pushback I’ve already heard from German EU ministers, trade imbalances are not always benign, nor do they represent efficient markets at work. King stresses the damage of currency misalignments, as well as the fundamental arithmetic of global trade. Since trade must balance on a global scale, one country’s trade surplus must show up as other countries’ deficits. When a country like Germany produces so much more than it consumes (runs a trade surplus), other countries must consume more than they produce (run trade deficits). And when the magnitudes get this large as a share of GDP—Germany’s surplus hit a record 8.6 percent of GDP last year—the damage to other nations can be severe.
Bernanke in 2015:
“The fact that Germany is selling so much more than it is buying redirects demand from its neighbors (as well as from other countries around the world), reducing output and employment outside Germany at a time at which monetary policy in many countries is reaching its limits.”
Bernanke’s last point is key. When economies are percolating along at full employment, trade deficits can, in fact, be benign. But unemployment in the Eurozone is still 9.5 percent, which combines Germany’s 3.9 percent with Spain’s 18.2 percent, Greece’s 23.5 percent, Italy’s 11.7 percent, and so on. Germany’s massive surplus has cribbed labor demand from those high unemployment countries, but neither the fiscal nor monetary authorities in these nations have undertaken adequate counter-cyclical policies (“why not?” is a good question having to do with constraints of the monetary union and austerity economics).
To be clear, even at full employment, large, persistent trade deficits—which again, are the flipside of large, persistent surpluses—can be problematic. Here in the US, they’ve hurt our manufacturers and their communities, a fact that Trump exploited in the election. And one can, of course, see similar political dynamics in the weaker parts of European economies.
Trade deficits have also contributed to asset bubbles. They must be financed with borrowed capital, and such flows from surplus countries were clearly associated with our housing bubble in the 2000s, as well as the longer-term “secular stagnation” economist Larry Summers talks about (weak demand, even in mature recoveries).
At this point, the growing group of economists who recognize the importance of these international imbalances are pointing towards the capital flows themselves as the force behind persistent trade deficits. This is an important insight because it belies the simple solution we tend to hear from the mainstream: if only you’d save more, your trade deficit would shrink. But if other countries persist in exporting their savings to us, short of capital controls to block those flows, our trade deficit will also persist.
What could/should Germany do to be more of team player, spreading demand to others instead of hoarding it? The usual recommendation, made by Bernanke, is to take their excess savings and invest them at home, say through more public infrastructure or some other sort of fiscal stimulus. But King makes the good point that since Germany is already pretty much at full employment—recall their 3.9 percent unemployment rate–they may be disinclined to take this advice.
King suggests that they should instead do something to raise the value of their exchange rate (appreciate their currency), but here again, it’s not obvious how, as a member of the currency union, they’re supposed to go about that.
Surely, the solution Trump intimated—a big tariff on German exports into the US—wouldn’t work. For one, such actions invite retaliation, and not only do many of us want to tap the consumer benefits of our robust global supply chains, but Germany has factories here that employ a lot of people making cars and other equipment. That’s welcome investment.
Moreover, team Trump is consistently misguided with their unilateral approach to this problem of trade imbalances. As long as foreign capital continues to flow freely into the US from surplus countries, absorbing less from Germany simply implies absorbing more excess savings from somewhere else.
King suggests that the best solution is for deficit countries to get together with surplus countries and, a la Bretton Woods, figure out a “mutually advantageous path to restore growth.” That sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky until you consider the economic shampoo cycle (“bubble, bust, repeat”) that’s been so repeatedly damaging to countries across the globe. Perhaps that would be a motivator for our trading-partner countries, though the longer Trump’s out there on the road, the harder it’s getting to imagine such forward-looking international coordination.
I too have suggested that President Trump should convene such a commission, but sadly, I’m not the Jared he listens to. In the meantime, he should check out Google Translator before he mouths off.