I keep telling people that the German euro is undervalued, but some folks seem not to believe me. (See the comments section from this post last year for an example.) But this is a really big deal. The dominant narrative about the eurozone crisis is that fiscally irresponsible countries like Greece were bringing the once-proud currency to its knees, and weakening the European project to boot. Meanwhile, the virtuous Germans keep on cranking out trade surpluses and have to bail out Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain. And it’s pretty clear that the Germans believe this version of events.
Never mind that Spain and Ireland, for two, had budget surpluses prior to the crisis, or that Spain’s economy is five times as large as Greece’s. What’s going on in Greece is supposedly the true explanation for the eurozone’s problems.
Let me challenge that narrative that with a simple thought experiment. Instead of one euro, let us reason as if each of the 18 eurozone members had its “own” “euro.” Let’s begin by thinking about what creates the value of the current 18-country euro. We might include interest rates, inflation rates, growth rates, and trade balance, among other things, and of course expectations for all these variables. What we need to remember is that the value of today’s euro represents the averaged effect of all these variables in all 18 countries, rather than reflecting the economic conditions of any one of them.
So the euro is currently worth about $1.25. It used to be higher; what is dragging it down? The simple answer is that conditions in Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and at time Italy have pulled its value down. As has often been noted, if Greece pulled out of the euro it would then devalue the drachma, becoming internationally competitive again without the need for the brutal austerity that has pushed its unemployment rate over 25%. The same is true for the other peripheral countries. By looking at what would happen to the drachma/punt/peseta/escudo, we can see that, for these countries, the euro is overvalued. Another way to say it is that the “Greek euro,” for example is overvalued.
So why isn’t the value of the euro lower than $1.25? The answer, of course, is that Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg, and so forth, are performing well and pushing the value of the euro upwards. These countries, by contrast, would see their currency values rise if the euro were suddenly abolished. For Germany, for instance, the euro is undervalued; an equivalent DM would rise in value.
U.S. officials constantly rail about the undervalued Chinese yuan and the huge bilateral trade deficit it creates for this country. But officials could (and to some extent do) say the same thing about Germany, which now has a larger trade surplus than the vastly larger Chinese economy. In fact, last year Morgan Stanley estimated that a stand-alone German euro would be worth $1.53, compared to the actual euro exchange rate then of $1.33.
With an undervalued currency, Germany gets a much larger trade surplus than it would have had otherwise, magnifying trade deficits in the United States and elsewhere. At the same time, it gets to pretend that this surplus is simply due to German thrift and virtue, rather than currency misalignment. It then points to its virtue as justification for doing nothing to increase domestic consumption, wages, or inflation, and for demanding austerity from the countries to which Paul Krugman rightly says Germany is exporting deflation.
Let me leave you with Krugman’s chart. You can see at a glance that Germany has throttled nominal wage growth and has inflation far below the European Central Bank’s announced target of just under 2%. When you combine its low inflation with an undervalued exchange rate (remember, low inflation should tend to raise the currency’s value), you come to realize that Germany is a huge part of the world economy’s problems today.
Source: Paul Krugman
Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.