Last year, Germany racked up a record trade surplus of 217 billion euros ($246 billion), second only to China in global export dominance. To some, this made Germany a bright spot in an otherwise anemic eurozone economy — a “growth driver,” as the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, puts it. In fact, Germany’s chronic trade surpluses lie at the heart of Europe’s problems; far from boosting the global economy, they are dragging it down. The best way to end this perverse situation is for Germany to leave the eurozone.
Germans usually respond to such charges with a kind of hurt confusion. We run trade surpluses, they patiently explain, because we are simply much more competitive than most of our trading partners. Can you blame us, they ask, if the world prefers to buy superior German goods (and has nothing we want in return)? So goes the argument: The rest of the world just needs to up its game, get its house in order, and become a bit more like Germany. In the meantime, don’t hate us ‘cuz we’re beautiful….
Contrary to popular mythology, however, there’s absolutely no reason why being “competitive” should mean running a trade surplus. As far back as 1817, the economist David Ricardo pointed out that the optimal basis for trade is comparative, not absolute, advantage. In other words, even if a country is better at everything, it should export what it is best at and import what it is less better at. Having an across-the-board advantage does not imply that it makes good economic sense to produce everything yourself, much less to sell more than you want in return. Or, to put it a bit differently, there’s no inherent reason why earning more can’t mean spending more, on consuming both public and private goods, as well as investing in future productive capacity.
Trade surpluses take place when a country chooses to spend less than it produces — when it has excess savings, beyond its domestic need for credit. It lends that excess savings abroad, financing another country’s ability to spend more than it produces and, by running a trade deficit, purchase the lender’s excess production. It’s true that a highly productive country might have the wherewithal to conjure up excess savings, while a less productive country might be inclined to borrow rather than scrape up the savings it needs. But fundamentally, trade imbalances arise not from competitive advantage but from choices about how much to save and where that savings should be deployed — at home or abroad.
Does it ever make sense to run trade imbalances? Sure it does. In the 19th century, Britain’s Industrial Revolution enabled it to reap vast earnings from expanded output, some of which it invested in the United States. The money lent to a rapidly growing American economy generated higher returns than it would have back home, while creating a market for British-made goods. The potential productivity gains made it a win-win: It made sense for the Americans to borrow and for the British to lend. But the case also highlights something that’s easy to forget: Running a trade surplus means financing someone else’s trade deficit.
The eurozone crisis is often called a debt crisis. But, in fact, Europe as a whole did not have an external debt problem, but an internal one: German surpluses and mounting debt in Europe’s periphery were two sides of the same coin. Germans saved (a lot), and the single currency induced them — rather than save less or invest it at home — to lend it to their eurozone trading partners, which used the money to buy German goods. By 2007, Germany’s trade surplus had reached 195 billion euros, three-fifths of which came from inside the eurozone. Berlin might call this “thrift,” but it’s hard to argue that Germany’s excess savings, which its banks often struggled to put to use, were well invested. Instead, they gave Germans the illusion of prosperity, trading real work (reflected in GDP) for paper IOUs that might never be repaid.
So what should be done? The best solution — and the least likely to be adopted — is for Germany to leave the euro and let a reintroduced Deutsche mark appreciate.
It will never happen but it is a solution that makes sense.