“Dark Clouds on the Horizon” in Europe, Says IMF

Michael W. Klein
Michael W. Klein William L. Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs - Tufts University

April 21, 2012

This weekend’s meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are overshadowed by “dark clouds on the horizon” that threaten the “light recovery blowing in a spring wind,” according to Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF.

The main source of the dark clouds is Europe, where recovery remains weak.

More than three years into the crisis, policy options in Europe are limited; fiscal stimulus is out of reach for many countries, and recent efforts by the European Central Bank provided only a temporary respite. In this environment, strong and sustained recovery depends upon rebalancing within Europe, whereby countries’ trade imbalances are reduced.

But rebalancing is a two-sided affair. We have all heard the ongoing calls for some European countries to rebalance deficits through painful austerity measures.

These calls need to be balanced with demands that countries with surpluses also move to rebalance.

In particular, Germany must take advantage of its scope for fiscal expansion to bolster European recovery and to forestall its own slippage towards an economic slowdown.

There are those who argue that the German surplus reflects its productivity growth and labor market reform. These people argue that Germany could only rebalance by stifling its own economic dynamism.

There are three responses to this argument:

Shared rewards: Reforms have made labor markets more flexible in Germany. Innovative policies, such as the Kurzbeit, the short-time working policy, limited the unemployment effects of the crisis.

German unemployment briefly peaked at 8% in July 2009 while the U.S. unempoloyment rate spiked to 10% in October of that year. Despite the soft landing, workers have not fully shared in the benefits of the recovery, and trade unions have been demanding higher wages.

Higher wages for workers would raise their demand for consumer goods, including the products from other euro-area nations.

Shared consequences: German exporters, and German producers of import-competing goods, have benefited from the weak euro.

Since 2008, the German real exchange rate has depreciated by almost 9%, even while its economy recovered relatively strongly from the crisis and its economy was strongly in surplus.

In contrast, over this same period the Swiss franc appreciated 16% — estimates suggest that had the German real exchange rate tracked the Swiss real exchange rates, German export growth would have been cut in half.

Another major surplus country, China, saw an appreciation of its real exchange rate by more than 10% over this period.

If Germany had a free-floating currency of its own, rather than one whose value is determined by the fate of the full set of euro members, it would have seen an appreciation that would have brought down its current surplus.

Shared experiences: Another surplus country offers a striking recent example of rebalancing: China. In 2007, China’s surplus exceeded 10% of its GDP.

The IMF projects that the debt to GDP ratio will fall to 2.3% in 2012, well below the 6.3% forecast published in its World Economic Outlook last year. In contrast, the most recent IMF forecast of the 2012 German debt to GDP ratio, of 5.2%, exceeds last year’s forecast of 4.6%.

As a member of the euro area, Germany will not see the natural forces of a currency revaluation bring about a reduction in its current surplus.

But the government has the tools available to rebalance, and foster growth both domestically and more widely in Europe, through a stimulative fiscal expansion.

There are other tools available as well, such as policies to promote female labor force participation (which is low relative to other industrial countries) and liberalizing retailing (which could help promote domestic demand), to raise growth and to widen its benefits among its citizens.

Rebalancing needs to occur for both deficit and surplus countries to support and sustain growth during these challenging times.