Germany 6% Current Account Surplus a "Threat to
the Continent" Says EU Commission; Solution is Gold Coupled With
current account surplus has reached six percent, an
amount that bureaucrats in Brussels have decided is a threat to the entire
continent. The EU commission will likely issue a warning to Germany with threats
of sanctions if Germany does nothing about it.
I picked up this story from Eurointelligence which writes "FT Deutschland
reports that Germany’s current account surplus is likely to exceed 6%
of GDP this year, the threshold which triggers a European Commission warning.
The German government maintained its position that there was no problem with
current account surpluses. On the contrary, the German economics ministry
sees this a “very positive” development.
The German government spokesman said yesterday that the problem of imbalances
was a problem for a countries with large current
Got that? Allegedly, large deficits are a problem but large surpluses are
Given that surpluses and deficits must net to zero, the position that only deficits
are a problem is ludicrous. Mathematically, both are problems or neither are
problems, because you cannot have one without the other.
Bear in mind it was not Eurointelligence that took
a mathematically ludicrous position, but rather articles they referenced.
Germany's Surplus Could Trigger Collection Procedures
Let's take a look at the Financial
Times Deutschland article
referenced above (translated from German and further modified by me for ease
This year Germany recorded its highest
trade surplus ever. This could crumble into the Federal Republic 2013
The new macro-economic early warning system in Europe provides that a current
account surplus over 6.0 percent of gross domestic product is a threat to the
economic stability of the continent.
The EU urges its members not to allow imports and exports fall apart too far.
The early warning system developed Brussels to name mistakes and sanction if
necessary. Since this year can be monitored in addition to the current
account including private and public debt and the development of the real
As part of the EU early warning system Luxembourg and Sweden also have
excessive surpluses. In Luxembourg, the current account surplus in 2011 was
6.4 percent of economic output - approximately $4 billion. For the same year,
Germany had a surplus of over $200 billion.
Only Deficits a Problem Says Frankfurter
An article in German Daily paper Frankfurter Allgemeine,
by business editor Philip Plickert says Only Trade
Deficits a Problem.
The very concept of "macroeconomic
imbalances" is highly questionable.
If countries have permanently high current account deficits and foreign debts
pile up higher and higher, things may not go well. So the Euro periphery has
slipped into crisis. Trade deficits were and are an expression of lack of
competitiveness. Germany's surpluses are high contrast to the special
strength and structure of the local economy.
Germany produces high-quality (investment) goods that are used in emerging
countries. This is no cause for concern.
Euro as Gold Standard
In one of the silliest articles ever written about European trade imbalances,
Joe Weisenthal writes Actually,
There Is A Gold Standard Today, And It's Causing An Economic Catastrophe.
While it's easy to talk about
the endless crises under the gold standard days of the 1800s, the truth is
that we don't have to go back that far at all.
Europe is a close analogue to a gold standard.
each European country lacks the ability to print their own
European countries have a fixed 1-to-1 exchange rate, with no ability to
devalue their currencies to correct trade imbalances.
currency is designed to keep governments
accountable, acting as a check on uncontrollable spending.
have to raise through taxation or the bond market a certain amount of Euros
each year to spend.
Bottom line, [the euro] is a hard money scheme in sheep's clothing.
Notion the Euro Acts Like Gold Standard
Equating the euro to a gold standard is ridiculous.
The ECB's (Emergency Liquidity Assistance) program acts exactly the opposite
of a gold standard by allowing imbalances to accumulate to the point of
crisis, a state the Euro is clearly in now.
For further discussion, please see Target2 and
the ELA (Emergency Liquidity Assistance) program; Reader From Europe Asks
"Can You Please Explain Target2?"
"The Trade Imbalance Dilemma and Soaring Chinese Debt"
Here are some comments from Michael Pettis that I wrote about in Hugo Salinas
Price and Michael Pettis on the Trade Imbalance Dilemma; Gold's Honest
The strength of the German economy in
recent years has largely to do with its export success. But for Germany to
run a large current account surplus – the consequence I would argue of
domestic policies aimed at suppressing consumption and subsidizing production
– Spain and the other peripheral countries of Europe had to run large
current account deficits.
Trade Imbalances Lead to Debt Imbalances
The funding by German banks of peripheral European borrowing, in other words,
was a necessary part of deal, arrived at willingly or unwillingly, leading
both to Germany’s export success and to the debt problems of the
As long as Germany runs current account surpluses for many years and Spain
the corresponding deficits, it is by definition true there must have been net
capital flows from Germany to Spain as Germany bought Spanish assets (which
includes debt obligations) to balance the current account imbalances. The
capital and current accounts for any country, and for the world as a whole,
must balance to zero.
In the old days of specie currency – gold and silver – this
meant that specie would have flowed from Spain to Germany as the
counterbalancing entry, and of course this flow created its own resolution. Less
gold and silver in Spain relative to the size of its economy was deflationary
in Spain and more gold and silver in Germany was inflationary there –
until the point where the real exchange rate between the two countries had
adjusted sufficiently because of changes in domestic prices to reverse the
The Current Account Dilemma
In today’s world things are different. There
is no adjustment mechanism – specie flow or imperialism – that
permits or prevents persistent current account imbalances.
This means that if Germany runs persistent trade surpluses with Spain, there
are only three possible outcomes.
First, Spain can borrow forever to finance the deficit (of which the ability
to sell off national assets is a subset). [Given the size of Spain], this
clearly is not a possible outcome.
Second, Spain can take steps to erode the value of those claims in real
terms. It can do this by devaluing its currency, by inflating away the value
of its external debt, by defaulting on its debt and repaying only a fraction
of its original value, by expropriating German assets, or by a combination of
[Third] Germany must accept a reversal of the current account imbalances or
it must accept an erosion in the value of the
Spanish assets it owns as a consequence of the current account imbalances.
This is the important point.
Once you have excluded infinite borrowing capacity there are arithmetically
no other options.
Given the limits, especially debt limits, it is irrational for anyone to
expect that Germany can continue to run large current account surpluses while
Spain does nothing to erode the value of Spanish assets held by Germans. I
suspect that Germany is hoping and arguing that Spain can somehow reverse its
current account deficit without the need for Germany to undermine current
account surplus. But this won’t work.
Problem in Europe is Arithmetic, Not
I wrote about European math again, just a few days ago, also referencing
Michael Pettis. In case you missed it, please consider Problem in
Europe is Arithmetic, Not Confidence; Why the Eurozone Cannot Possibly
The current problem most certainly is math, and mathematically "Germany
must accept a reversal of the current account imbalances or it must accept an
erosion in the value of the Spanish assets it owns as a consequence of the
current account imbalances."
Everyone is looking for magic bullets but there are none. One way or another,
much pain is coming to Europe, including Germany. Mathematically it must be
Root Cause of the Debt Crisis and Trade Imbalances
The root cause of this mess (including the USA's huge trade imbalance with
the rest of the world) is twofold.
Fractional Reserve Lending
Lack of a
Gold Standard (Or Other Enforcement Mechanism)
No Better Enforcement Mechanism than Gold
Rather than blaming this mess on the gold standard, one of the reasons for
large trade imbalances is precisely because there is not a gold standard.
Most of the problems people assign to the gold standard are not problems with
the standard at all, but rather problems associated with fractional reserve
lending that allowed more gold to be lent out than there was actual gold.
Bear in mind that Pettis does not support a return to the gold standard.
However, Pettis does believe an enforcement mechanism is needed.
For further discussion, please see Michael
Pettis Warns of "Virulent Political Turn Against Euro", Adds
Clarification to "Gold's Honest Discipline"
Certainly, lack of an enforcement mechanism regarding trade is an enormous
problem. Debts pile up forever, with no way to pay them back.
From my point of view, history suggests there is no better enforcement
mechanism than gold.
Unfortunately, Mitt Romney believes the solution to the US trade imbalance
with China is labeling China a currency manipulator, to which he has promised
Should Romney do that, a collapse in global trade is likely, just as happened
during the Great Depression following passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.