Rolf Englund IntCom internetional
"Imbalances can last a long time, but they do not last for ever"
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It could be that future generations of German politicians find ingenious ways around the balanced budget law.
I never expected a message of austerity to emerge from the Palace of Versailles, where Nicolas Sarkozy outlined his economic strategy.
One can have endless debates about the relative benefits of Germany’s legalistic approach or Mr Sarkozy’s alternative version.
Germany, as I argued last week, is heading in the direction of a zero level of government debt in the long run as a consequence of a new constitutional balanced-budget law.
In fact, Germany’s new law imposes an upper deficit ceiling of 0.35 per cent of gross domestic product over the economic cycle. But remember this is a ceiling. There is no floor. If the cyclically adjusted deficit came in exactly at that ceiling, year after year, and assuming a nominal rate of output growth of 4 per cent, this would stabilise Germany’s debt-to-GDP ratio at just under 10 per cent. So if this constitutional law sticks, Germany’s debt-to-GDP ratio will settle somewhere between zero and 10 per cent in the long run.
Now, Germany is a country with a large current account surplus, or excess of domestic savings over domestic investments – 6.6 per cent of GDP in 2008 and 7.6 per cent the year before. It is no surprise therefore that German banks have been hit so heavily by the securitisation crisis. They had to channel masses of surplus savings abroad. In the event, they bought US subprime mortgages and their derivative products.
They will not repeat the same mistake, but they will still be facing a problem. If Germany’s national debt converges towards zero, Germany’s surplus savers will have to invest huge amounts of their savings outside the country, since the supply of German government bonds will diminish over time as the outstanding stock of debt is depleted.
Now this is where Mr Sarkozy’s bad deficits come in. Most German savers, especially pension funds, will want to invest in euro-denominated government debt, which, for practical purposes in this scenario, means French debt, because no other domestic European bond market is sufficiently large and mature. As a result France may enjoy a version of America’s exorbitant privilege.
If Germany unilaterally goes down the road of deficit reduction, and if France unilaterally goes the opposite way, the result will be a serious imbalance. France will find it progressively easy to finance its public sector deficit, as German savers have no choice but to buy French debt instruments. They will get trapped in French debt, just as the Chinese got trapped in US debt.
This means that Germany will suffer two successive blows. The first is a sacrifice of economic growth as a result of the pro-cyclical policies needed to do away with the deficits for ever. We got a taste of that last week, when Klaus Zimmermann, president of the German Institute for Economic Research, advocated an increase in value added tax from 19 to 25 per cent. Such action would obviously be disastrous for economic growth. It would throw Germany into a full-scale depression. But he is right in a narrow technical sense. If Germany is hell-bent on eliminating its structural deficit by 2016, some drastic measures are inevitable. Ms Merkel has said she will not raise VAT, but she will either have to raise other taxes or cut spending. Politically, the first will be easier than the second.
Once budgetary balance is achieved, at huge economic cost, German savers will then suffer the second blow in the form of poor returns on investment, as their surplus savings will be financing Mr Sarkozy’s good, bad and ugly economic policies.
Germans are amazed at global reaction to their fiscal proposals
FT Deutschland had an interesting culture shock article in which it quotes several economists as saying that
Germany’s debt rule, if applied to the whole of the eurozone, is much more likely to result in investor panic than solve the problem. This is one of the great debate mismatches at present, as the Germany are reducing the eurozone’s entire difficulties to fiscal indiscipline and speculative attacks,
while many professional economists believe that the problems are the result of internal imbalances that got out of control.
Eurointelligence 20 may 2010
A decision was taken recently in Berlin to introduce a balanced-budget law in the German constitution.