With all the flack Angela Merkel has taken at home for agreeing to help bail out Greece, one could be forgiven for wondering why the Chancellor would want to yolk Germany’s seeming paragon of export-driven economic strength to the Hellenic basket case, let alone to the fortunes of those other peripheral euro states that, with Greece, are collectively known as PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain). Perhaps counter-intuitively, part of the answer lies in the fact that German exports are actually made more competitive because of the weakening of the euro caused by the participation of the PIIGS in that currency.
A weaker euro means relatively cheaper prices for German goods in the currency of non-Eurozone trading partners, giving German exporters an edge in world markets. To understand this effect, one must first consider two histories: that of the euro since its birth, and of German exports prior and subsequent to that introduction.
For all its troubles, the euro has strengthened considerably since its first day of trading, January 5, 1999. It hit $1.19 that day, but by December 3 of the same year it fell below parity with the dollar. The currency has since risen over 40% to $1.4172 as of this writing (it hit a high of $1.5892 on July 7, 2008). Now this appreciation versus the greenback has occurred despite the presence of the PIIIGS in the eurozone, with all the systemic risk that their potential sovereign defaults pose to European banking and economic growth. Imagine how much higher the euro might trade were the PIIGS to exit Euroland’s pen, remaking the euro into something more in the image of the old German mark!
So how did German exports fare before and after it traded marks for euros? From January 1991 to January 1999, under the old mark (1991 being the first full year following reunification) German monthly exports rose from around 30 to 40 billion euros, an increase of about 4% per year. By contrast, in the euro period from January 1999 to January 2011 Germany’s exports rose to over 80 billion euros per month, an increase of over 6% per year (German exports dropped sharply during the ’08-’09 financial crisis but have subsequently more than rebounded, hitting 97 billion euros in April 2011 before easing to 85 billion in September).
Would German exports have risen as sharply were the nation still using a mark, reflecting solely that nation’s monetary policy, as opposed to a euro in whose valuation German export strength, traditionally tight postwar German monetary policy and relatively conservative German fiscal policy are diluted by the PIIGS’ trade weakness and profligate budget policy, not to mention power sharing in the European Central Bank? I strongly doubt it.
To be sure, 60% of German exports still go to the EU, where the euro’s exchange strength would be irrelevant. But it is trade with China that is providing the growth in German exports, having risen four fold over the last ten years to rival the US as Germany’s largest single national market at 5.6% of the nation’s foreign sales, a figure that may triple by the end of this decade. This ballooning China trade is in turn driving German economic growth. Without the squealing PIIGS of the Eurozone’s periphery, a stronger euro could make German goods less competitive and have serious consequences for continued China-trade driven economic expansion.
There is perhaps some irony that, in addition to a “voluntary” 50% markdown in Greek bank debt, Europe is turning to China in hopes of having that nation finance some of the expanded $1.4 trillion European Financial Stabilization Fund, perhaps directly or through the IMF. Like Germany, China’s expansion is dependent on exports, and the global slowdown that could come in the wake of a euro collapse would threaten those sales. Meanwhile, Chinese inflation is still running high, driven by an undervalued yuan and tight commodity markets, so Beijing may also find continued euro-discounted German manufactured imports not unwelcome. And investment in euro assets provides China with some diversification from its substantial dollar holdings.
Chinese investment could at least lessen the need for debt monetization (see “Europe Learns To Default The American Way, Restoring Transatlantic Balance Of Irresponsibility”) and/or the issuance of Eurobonds directly backed by German taxpayers, perhaps under some kind of Eurozone fiscal union. That would be welcome news for Merkel. The former is anathema to a nation whose prewar experience with inflation had the darkest of consequences. As to the latter, Germany’s 83% debt-to-GDP ratio (it may hit 87% in short order, jumping from approximately 67% in 2007) is not at Greek or even American levels, but still speaks to Germany’s own bloated welfare state, which combined with past and potential bank bailouts, stimulus and Eurobond exposure to the PIIGS could yet make even German borrowing unsustainable, bringing us back to monetization and inflation.
So fortunately for Merkel, China seems to realize PIIGS are a desirable ingredient in dumplings as well as wieners. It remains to be seen if Beijing’s investments will eliminate or merely forestall the need for stronger measures. The Chancellor recently warned that the issuance of Eurozone debt and fiscal union would lead to “solidarity in mediocrity.” Yet when your export-led economy is partially built on the weakness of your currency partners, some economic convergence may be inevitable; a cruel truth, perhaps, but then they don’t call it reversion to the “mean” for nothing.