Holy stagnation, Batman!
For the better part of the past four years, I’ve been tracking the way the world’s leading industrialized economies have performed since the 2008-09 global crisis through a chart which shows real GDP relative to their pre-crisis level. The beauty of this chart is that it shows the post-crisis recovery as a sort of race between the various economies as they struggle to regain the lost output from the crash. For those who find reading Excel charts to be akin to reading a manuscript in Aramaic or Swahili, allow me to explain. The chart takes the peak pre-crisis level of real GDP as “100” and tracks quarter-on-quarter growth from there. So the first data point (“100”) for each country is the quarter before the crisis when real GDP peaked, this being Q1 2008 for most (Q4 2007 for the US where the crisis began, and Q2 2008 for Spain whose crisis began later). As you can see, the paths of these countries have diverged considerably since bottoming out during the 2008-09 crash. Some of the hardest-hit countries at the beginning like Germany and Japan are doing better, while some of the lesser affected ones, like Spain, now appear to be on a death spiral with no end in sight.
It doesn’t pay to be frugal
Perhaps the first obvious conclusion from this chart is just how bad the Eurozone is doing, and how the continent’s on-going crisis is dragging down even its star performer, Germany. Germany, until quite recently (Q2 2012), had been the best performing among the “trillion-dollar” economies and along with the US, the only to have managed to exceed its pre-crisis output. But it just goes to show how even a hyper-productive economy like Germany’s will feel the pinch if its trading partners get mired in recession which is what has been happening over the past year. This further makes the case that even if bailing out the continent’s basket cases may not be “morally” right from the frugal Germanic perspective, it makes perfect economic sense in order to keep your own economy from sinking in the same ship. Continue reading
The future is looking increasingly blurry
I have long believed that the only real solution to the Euro crisis, barring a fiscal union which Germany so staunchly opposes, is to publically announce a mechanism whereby countries can leave the Euro in an orderly and negotiated fashion. This would diffuse the crisis’ most volatile element: the market uncertainty arising from the potential domino effect of defaults and Euro exits. As I’ve argued on more than one occasion, a Greek collapse matters little in the grander scheme of things. It’s the uncertainty over how European institutions would handle a Euro exit that generates the potential for contagion to other countries that indeed matter, like Spain or Italy which by virtue of their size are capable of breaking the union should they end up in Greece’s sandals.
Blasphemy say the Eurocrats! Such a mechanism is an implicit acknowledgement that the union has failed and there’s no legal basis for it anyway. Plus, you don’t just walk out of your family do you? Well, actually you do if your family is completely dysfunctional and the house is burning down in front of your very eyes. This is the unfortunate position that Europe once again finds itself in, barely a few months after a series of measures had led many to believe that the crisis had been “solved”. The first was the ECB’s bond buying programme in late 2011 and early 2012 which brought Italian yields back to stable levels (they had hit 7% for a while). The second was the fiscal compact agreed by 25 out of 27 countries in which they agreed to abide by certain fiscal rules or else face an empowered EC now able to dish out punishment. The third was the second Greek bailout, accomplished only negotiating a bond swap with private bondholders. Problem solved? Not. Continue reading
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words and an economist would probably agree that a chart has similar value. And if one chart can make the claim that Germany has been the single country in the Eurozone to most benefit from the common currency, then this is it: the current account balances of all Eurozone states over the past two decades. The implications of this chart are staggering. Since the Euro was adopted in the year 1999, Germany’s current account balance (which basically sums up the balances of trade in goods and services, as well as income and transfers) has ballooned from a mild deficit into a colossal surplus – in absolute terms it is now the second largest surplus in the world, only behind China’s. German policymakers will not stop boasting that the country’s surplus is actually a reflection of its competitiveness, itself a consequence of the efficiency of its export-based manufacturing base, as well as in the self-sacrifice of the German labor force who accepted a decade of stagnant real wages and consumption in order to stay competitive. This is partly true. Yet in the last decade before adopting the Euro, Germany was actually running a deficit. Looking at the other side of the line is equally interesting, for those countries now running massive deficits were actually doing quite well during the 1990s: Italy and France all had surpluses and Spain’s deficits were negligible. Is this all just one giant coincidence or did the Euro have a fundamental role in widening the imbalances of the Eurozone to critical proportions?
The Eurozone’s imbalances
To answer that question, it’s important to recall the ways in which unproductive economies (mainly the southern European periphery), stayed competitive in the bygone days of national currencies: by devaluation. The constant debasement of their currencies would offset the productivity differences with their more efficient trading partners (such as Germany), and also offset the differentials in inflation rates which worked against them (a country with higher inflation sees its currency strengthen in real terms to its partners). By keeping their currencies weak, they kept their exports strong, the flip side being that little effort was made to address the structural issues behind their lack of competitiveness since there was such an easy way out of the trap. But the Euro changed all this. By having the same currency as their main trading partners, the easy route of instant competitiveness disappeared. This was exactly what the Germans wanted, for according to Germanic logic such limits would naturally push these countries into “turning German”, i.e. becoming competitive the right way, through increased productivity. The Eurozone would therefore turn into a hyper-competitive economic giant to rival, if not surpass, the United States which since the 1980s had widened the productivity gap with its trans-Atlantic rivals. Continue reading