Tuesday, August 23, 2011

European Cold Water

From the August 17th EU Observer:
An absurd Merkel-Sarkozy summit

Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy spent part of Tuesday (16 August) mapping the future of the Euro Area (EA) and apparently came away pleased with their work. The good news is that they want to move towards serious EA economic governance and seemed to have agreed on a Tobin tax as part of the deal. The bad news is that they want all members of the EA-17 to write a 'balanced budget' rule into their constitution; ie, to replicate the German 'debt brake' (Schuldenbremse) law across the EA. It won’t work.

The reason a generalised balanced budget rule won’t work is simple; it follows from the basic national accounting savings balances. Because (over the business cycle as a whole) the private sector normally runs a savings surplus, a government balance of zero logically entails a current account surplus. While this may hold true for Germany, it cannot be true for all EA countries taken together.

For the EA as a whole, one country’s exports are another’s imports--for some countries (like Germany) to run a surplus, others must run a deficit. This is not an empirical matter but follows logically from national accounting definitions; Merkel and Sarkozy are guilty of a basic fallacy of composition.

There is only one way a 'balanced budget rule' might work for the EA as a whole--each EA deficit country would have to run a countervailing surplus with the non-EA world. But there are two problems here. The first, shown in a paper by Whyte, is that there is not enough excess demand in the rest of the world to absorb the extra EA exports. Even if there were, the resulting global trade imbalance would result over time in the EA accumulating excess reserves, much as China today.

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