In a speech in Berlin yesterday, Merkel said the German trade surplus was propelled by two factors over which the government had no influence, namely the euro’s exchange rate and the oil price. Well, there’s some truth in that, but not much. It’s fair to say that a weak euro probably does increase the trade surplus, though the impact of the exchange rate is quite delayed and weak. And a lower oil price does reduce the oil deficit, but there is still a substantial deficit in oil so you can hardly blame this for a trade surplus. These factors may have led to a higher trade surplus than would otherwise have been the case, but they are not the primary cause of the large and persistent German trade surplus. That much is obvious just by looking at the German trade and current account surpluses in recent years. Yes, the surplus has increased a little in the last few years in response to the lower euro and the lower oil price, and is expected to be 8.8% of GDP in 2017. But the current account surplus was already 6.8% of GDP 10 years ago in 2007 and 7.1% of GDP 5 years ago in 2012. In 2007, the euro was around 10% higher in real effective terms (for Germany) than it is now, and the oil price was around $70 a barrel. In 2012 the euro was actually not very far from current levels in real effective terms (though stronger against the USD), and the oil price averaged around $110 per barrel. The German trade and current account surpluses were nevertheless still very large. Merkel’s attempts to claim that they are a function of a weak euro and a high oil price just won’t wash.
Merkel’s comments are an attempt to evade criticism of German policy, which have come most recently from the US but have been heard before in Europe. She is arguing that the problem is out of her control because she doesn’t want to take the measures necessary to reduce Germany’s trade surplus. What could be done? It is not an easy problem to solve, but she could make some contribution with easier fiscal policy. Her fiscal stance has been very conservative and makes Britain’s attempts at austerity look spendthrift. The German budget is expected to show a 0.5% of GDP surplus in 2017, following similar surpluses in the previous 3 years. This is certainly on the austere side, and government debt has been falling fairly rapidly as a result, expected to hit just 65% of GDP this year, back to 2008 levels after seeing a peak of 81.2% in 2010. Of course, the original target for this debt level was 60% of GDP, but much higher levels are sustainable with much lower real interest rates. The Eurozone average government debt is over 90% of GDP.
However, the big problem is really the private sector rather than the public sector. The private sector save too much (or don’t invest enough). The proper monetary policy response to this is to keep interest rates as low as possible, so on that basis the ECB are doing exactly the right thing. But more could be done with fiscal policy in Germany, either with stimulative tax cuts, or more government spending. This would both directly encourage imports and, by forcing up wages and prices, would lead to improved lower real interest rates and reduced German competitiveness. Part of the reason for the big German trade surplus is the big wage competitiveness advantage built up in the aftermath of the creation of the euro. That’s why Germany has been running big trade and current account surpluses since the mid 2000s.
But Merkel doesn’t really want to do this. She doesn’t want to undermine Germany’s competitive advantage with the rest of Europe (as well as the rest of the world). She doesn’t want to run a less austere budgetary policy and alienate the conservative wing of the CDU. So she’s blaming the ECB and the oil price. The rest of Europe need to tell her she’s wrong. I see no chance that Draghi or the ECB will take any notice of her, so logically there is little reason for the Euro to benefit directly from her comments. But with the political and economic winds behind it, there is little reason to oppose euro strength anyway. The CHF and GBP look the most vulnerable of the major currencies in this environment, though the USD could also suffer if rate expectations drop away significantly.
Source: EU Commission