Germany the currency manipulator?

Today gives us an opportunity to look again at the German economy. As we do so we see yet another situation where conventional analysis and media reporting is flawed. So often we read that Germany has in some way been defeated in its efforts to direct the policies of the ECB ( European Central Bank). The evidence for that are the regular bursts of rhetoric from the German Bundesbank against the policies of negative interest-rates and a balance sheet of the order of 4.5 trillion Euros. However this to my mind ignores a much larger victory Germany gained when it joined the Euro because it has achieved for itself a much lower and therefore more competitive exchange rate. It did so in a way which has avoided the barrage of “currency manipulator” allegations that have been fired at others because it was a type of stealth effort.

Also the impact of this move has been heightened by the credit crunch era. We find evidence for this if we look at Switzerland and the Swiss Franc which of the currencies we have is the most similar. How is it doing? Well let me hand you over to the Swiss National Bank. From Reuters yesterday.

The Swiss National Bank’s (SNB) policy of negative interest rates is not ideal but is nevertheless necessary in order to weaken Switzerland’s “significantly overvalued” currency, Chairman Thomas Jordan said on Thursday…………Jordan said negative interest rates, along with the central bank’s willingness to intervene in the currency were absolutely necessary in order to protect exporters from a stronger Swiss franc, which is a safe-haven currency in times of market stress.

So if the Swiss Franc is a safe haven currency what would a German Deutschmark be if it existed? I think we can be sure that its value would have soared in recent times which leads me back to the competitive advantage point. There is also an irony as we note that on Switzerland’s road Germany would have had negative interest-rates anyway and maybe more negative than now. Ouch! We find ourselves in some strange places these days. Also would it now be a hedge fund manager as it tried to find somewhere to put its currency reserves? This week raised a wry smile as Apple passed the US $150 mark as I thought that the Swiss National Bank would be one of those most pleased via its holdings. I guess if you have 695.9 billion Swiss Francs they burn a hole in your pocket or something like that.

The trade surplus

The opening paragraph of Tuesday’s trade figures hammer home a consequence of this.

Germany exported goods to the value of 118.2 billion euros and imported goods to the value of 92.9 billion euros in March 2017. These are the highest monthly figures ever reported for both exports and imports. Based on provisional data, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) also reports that German exports increased by 10.8% and imports by 14.7% in March 2017 year on year.

So if you are looking for evidence of a lower currency leading to trade advantages it is hard to miss the persistent surpluses of Germany.

The foreign trade balance showed a surplus of 25.4 billion euros in March 2017. In March 2016, the surplus amounted to 25.8 billion euros. In calendar and seasonally adjusted terms, the foreign trade balance recorded a surplus of 19.6 billion euros in March 2017.

Indeed the statistics agency has an in focus highlight which rams this home.

According to Eurostat data, Germany had the highest export surplus among EU countries (257 billion euros) in 2016, as was the case in the previous years. Germany exported goods totalling 1,210 billion euros while the value of imports was 953 billion euros. Compared with the previous year, the export surplus rose by roughly 3% – in 2015, it had been 248 billion euros.

Interestingly we see that the idea of the Euro area having a large trade  surplus is true but that the vast majority of it is Germany as it was 257 billion out of 272 billion Euros in 2016.

Bond yields

The other gain for Germany from a combination of ECB policy and the credit crunch era is the extraordinary low level of interest it has to pay to issue new debt. Indeed this has frequently been negative in recent times meaning that Germany has been paid to issue its debt.  Some of that is still true as for example the yield on its five-year benchmark bond is -0.31% as I type this.

Even if it were to borrow for ten years then Germany would only have to pay 0.41% which I cannot say often enough is extraordinarily low. So it has clearly benefited from the 368 billion Euros of purchases of German debt by the ECB as we mull if there was a country which needed them less?

The catch is that it is mostly the German government that has benefited as it looks to run a fiscal surplus. As to the ordinary German well as I pointed out earlier this week first-time buyers will be much less keen as the easy monetary policy of recent years has led to something of a house price boom in Germany.

GDP and economic output

This morning’s official GDP data had a familiar drumbeat to it.

In addition, the development of foreign trade was more dynamic and contributed to growth as exports increased more than imports, according to provisional results.

The quarterly number was good and this impression was reinforced by the breakdown of the numbers.

. In the first quarter of 2017, the gross domestic product (GDP) rose 0.6% on the fourth quarter of 2016 after adjustment for price, seasonal and calendar variations……. Capital formation increased substantially. Due to the mild weather, fixed capital formation especially in construction, but also in machinery and equipment was markedly up compared with the fourth quarter of 2016.

Is the weather allowed to be a positive influence? Only in Germany perhaps as elsewhere its role invariably is to take the blame. There is an undercut to this though as we mull the individual experience and note that economic growth over the past year was 1.7%.

The economic performance in the first quarter of 2017 was achieved by 43.7 million persons in employment, which was an increase of 638,000 or 1.5% on a year earlier.

So whilst the employment rise is welcome we see that it very nearly matches the level of economic growth. Also if we look back to the data we are left wondering if the construction investment boom is related to the house price boom and the UK economic model is being copied to some extent.

Comment

The economic outlook remains bright for Germany if the Markit business or PMI surveys are any guide.

IHS Markit expects German economic growth to strengthen to 0.7% qr/qr in the first quarter, and the April PMI provides an early signal that expansion will remain strong in the second quarter.

So something along the lines of more of the same is expected although of course that was only one month of this quarter. If we look at the overall situation let us use a type of Good Germany: Bad Germany type of analysis that mimics Italy.

The good sees that the reforms of the past have enabled Germany to expand its economy post credit crunch such that GDP  reached 110. 02 last year compared to 101.66 in 2008. It has a substantial trade surplus and these days has an internationally rare fiscal surplus.

The trouble is that some of the latter points are also part of Bad Germany as we see how its adoption of the Euro has helped feed its trade surplus via a more competitive exchange rate. Also there is the issue that one of the problems pre credit crunch was world imbalances and the German trade surplus was one of them. Within the Euro area some will wonder if it would be helped by less fiscal austerity. Then we get to the issue of comparing the rise in employment with GDP growth, is Germany like the rest of us struggling for productivity growth with its implications for wages? Also as I pointed out earlier this week the rise in house prices will make first-time buyers wonder if they are indeed better off?

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