Thursday, October 02, 2008

Scapegoating the US lets others off too easily

by Simon Tilford

Huge amounts have been said about the consequences of the credit crunch for the US and UK economies. They undoubtedly face major adjustments, and several years of very weak economic growth. There has also been trenchant criticism of spendthrift ‘Anglo-Saxons’ living beyond their means, derailing the global economy in the process. The US is a convenient scapegoat for politicians confronted with economic uncertainty, but it needs to be remembered that a number of European and East Asian economies benefited enormously from the credit boom. Indeed, it could not have happened without excess savings generated by the likes of China, Germany and Japan.

The credit booms in the US and UK, as well as in other countries such Spain and Australia, were not simply the result of poor commercial practices and policies in those countries. They were also the by-product of imbalances in the global economy. The US is regularly pilloried for running a large external (current account) deficit, for playing fast and loose with its currency, and hence for destabilising the global economy. This is misleading. The US did not cause the current problems all on its own. Those governments that believe a rising current account surplus is a symbol of national economic virility and competitiveness played a major role too. Indeed, their surpluses are the underlying cause of instability.

If some countries routinely run huge current account surpluses, others must run huge deficits. German and East Asian surpluses have to be invested somewhere and they got invested in housing and other assets in the US, UK and elsewhere. Criticism of the US Federal Reserve for pursuing an excessively weak monetary policy, and hence inflating asset prices is fine as far as it goes. But low interest rates were needed to encourage enough borrowing to soak up the excess liquidity produced by rising current accounts surpluses. Those condemning the US need to ask themselves where the global economy would have been without the demand generated by the US and other big deficit countries. China would certainly have grown much less rapidly and Germany and Japan would probably still be mired in economic stagnation.

Many in Germany, Japan and China argue that their dependence on the US is declining because the US accounts for a falling share of their respective current account surpluses. What they fail to notice is that the US has still been absorbing much of the liquidity that China, Japan and Germany have generated by running external surpluses with other economies. Furthermore, US demand has stimulated trade between other countries (for example, Chinese purchases of Japanese components or German machinery).

With credit conditions now tight and employment growth very weak, there will be a progressive narrowing of the US current account deficit (along with those of the UK, Spain etc). The governments that regularly criticise the US for the destabilising impact of its imbalances might not like the implications of this process. This unwinding poses a big problem for export-dependent economies. It exposes their domestic imbalances, which are just as much of a ‘problem’ as those of the US. An external surplus suggests that there are inadequate investment opportunities in an economy.

In a European context, it is imperative that the German government takes steps to rebalance the German economy. Domestic savings need to fall and investment needs to rise. Much is made of the competitive ‘gains’ the Germans have made in recent years and how this stands their country in good stead. Improved price competitiveness could help German firms to gain market share in the downturn, but collapsing export orders demonstrate that it will provide only so much support. Steep falls in investment in machinery and equipment and in purchases of cars in most of the country’s key export markets will hit the Germany economy hard next year.

The German finance minister, Peer Steinbruck, needs to spend more time thinking about how to address the country’s exceptionally weak domestic demand. Tax cuts would be a good first step. The German government needs to get over its obsession with fiscal probity. In the long-term, of course, fiscal discipline is a necessity, but at present it risks aggravating an already serious situation. China and Japan faces different challenges, but the underlying problem is one of excessive dependence on exports.

Unfortunately, there is little sign of any rethinking of economic strategy in these three economies. If anything, the problems experienced by the US have confirmed the belief that a competitive economy is one with a big external surplus and rising international reserves. This is bad news for everyone. Unless China, Germany and Japan make a net contribution to global demand, the world really could face a slump. Instead of gloating about the US’s comeuppance they should be considering what will drive their own and others’ economic growth.

Simon Tilford is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Simon,

Thank you for this interesting take on the situation. As a non-economist and lay person, I need help understanding something which you touched upon.

I believe you are speaking on a macroeconomic level with regard to trade and the "excess savings" of China, Japan, and Germany.

Can you tie it to a micro level--on individuals'/households' responsibility in this debacle? Various media talk about the massive savings rate of Japan, and I always thought they were referring to individuals who save by putting away yen in the bank (thereby providing banks with greater liquidity) instead of spending it on gadgets, travel, or what have you that Americans are always blamed for (and rightfully so).

Is there culpability on the part of Americans for their poor personal saving habits? If the US govt had continued with its deficits and international debt, but American citizens had saved a lot in the bank, would the picture today look much different?

In other words, does the average Joe who doesn't have a mortgage but spends more than he earns, using credit cards, etc. play a role in all of this? Or is he one of these "innocent" Americans the Congressmen have been railing on about as of late?