Michael Pettis, a respected economist and commentator on China, provides an important contribution on the global imbalances theme. Many observers have pointed fingers at debtor nations like Greece, Portugal, Spain, and the US and argue that they need to start consuming less. While narrowly there is some merit to that argument, Pettis points out that the trade deficit countries (the debtors) are not the ones in the driver’s seat and it it the trade surplus countries that must take the lead in making adjustments.
The problem is that trade surplus countries gain substantial advantage from adopting mercantilist policies (the most important is high levels of employment) and under our international trade system, they bear few costs. This defect was why Keynes proposed his Bancor system, which would penalize both trade surplus and trade deficit countries.
I’m excerpting Pettis at some length, since he constructs his arguments in a step-by-step manner:
Whichever argument you think is the more just – that the imbalances are mainly the fault of the US or the fault of China – since the Chinese accumulation of US Treasury bonds was the automatic consequence of Chinese policies that the US opposed, it seems a little strange that the US should feel any strong obligation to maintain the value of the PBoC’s portfolio…
Likewise with Germany…. for Germany to run a large current account surplus – the consequence I would argue of domestic policies aimed at suppressing consumption and subsidizing production – Spain and the other peripheral countries of Europe had to run large current account deficits. If they didn’t, the euro would have undoubtedly surged, and with it Germany’s export performance would have collapsed. Very low interest rates in the euro area (set largely by Germany) ensured that the peripheral countries would, indeed, run large trade deficits.
The funding by German banks of peripheral European borrowing, in other words, was a necessary part of deal, arrived at willingly or unwillingly, leading both to Germany’s export success and to the debt problems of the deficit countries…
In that case it is strange for Germans to insist that the peripheral countries have any kind of moral obligation to prevent erosion in the value of that loan portfolio. It is like saying that they have a moral obligation to accept higher unemployment in order that Germany can reduce its own unemployment. Whether or not these countries default of devalue should be wholly a function of their national interest, and not a function of external obligation.
But aside from whether or not there is a moral obligation for creditor countries to protect the value of portfolios whose accumulation was the consequence of policies that those countries opposed, there is a more concrete reason why it does not make sense to demand that deficit countries act to protect the value of the portfolios accumulated by surplus countries…. It turns out that the maintenance of the value of those obligations is largely the consequence of trade policies in the surplus countries.
To explain why this is the case, let me again, following my practice from last month’s newsletter, simplify matters by calling all surplus countries “Germany” and all deficit countries “Spain”. Germany and Spain jointly have put into place policies that ensure that Germany runs a large current account surplus and Spain a large current account deficit for many years. As I argued three weeks ago, I think that it is far more likely that German policies rather than Spanish policies created the huge distortions, but for our purposes we can ignore the direction of causality.
As long as Germany runs current account surpluses for many years and Spain the corresponding deficits, it is by definition true there must have been net capital flows from Germany to Spain as Germany bought Spanish assets (which includes debt obligations) to balance the current account imbalances. The capital and current accounts for any country, and for the world as a whole, must balance to zero….
There is no adjustment mechanism – specie flow or imperialism – that permits or prevents persistent current account imbalances.
This means that if Germany runs persistent trade surpluses with Spain, there are only three possible outcomes. First, Spain can borrow forever to finance the deficit (of which the ability to sell off national assets is a subset). This may seem like an absurd claim – no country has an unlimited borrowing capacity – but it is not quite absurd. If Germany is very small – say the size of Sri Lanka – or if Germany runs a very small trade surplus, for all practical purposes we can treat the borrowing capacity of Spain as unlimited as long as the growth in debt is more or less in line with Spain’s GDP growth. However if Germany is a large country or runs large surpluses, this clearly is not a possible outcome.
That leaves the other two outcomes. First, once Spanish debt levels become worryingly large Germany and Spain can reverse the policies that led to the large trade imbalances. In that case Germany will begin to run a current account deficit and Spain a current account surplus. In this way German capital flows to Spain can be reversed as Spain pays down those claims with its own current account surplus. Neither side loses.
Second, Spain can take steps to erode the value of those claims in real terms. It can do this by devaluing its currency, by inflating away the value of its external debt, by defaulting on its debt and repaying only a fraction of its original value, by expropriating German assets, or by a combination of these steps…
Without unlimited borrowing capacity these are the only two options, and once the market decides debt levels are too high, a decision must be made. Either Germany must accept a reversal of the current account imbalances or it must accept an erosion in the value of the Spanish assets it owns as a consequence of the current account imbalances….
It is pretty clear that the countries of the world represented in my example by Germany (Germany, China, Japan, etc.) are doing everything possible to resist the first option. They are not taking the necessary steps to reverse their anti-consumptionist policies and plan to continue running current account surpluses for many more years. Even Japan, for example, a country that has abandoned its old growth model and has finally been adjusting domestically for nearly two decades has been unable, or has refused, to take the necessary steps to reverse its current account surplus.
In that case some mechanism or the other must erode the value of the Spanish assets the German banks have accumulated. Either Spain must devalue, or if must inflate away the real value of the debt, or it must default, or it must appropriate German assets – perhaps in the form of a large German gift to Spain…
Given the limits, especially debt limits, it is irrational for anyone to expect that Germany can continue to run large current account surpluses while Spain does nothing to erode the value of Spanish assets held by Germans…
China, for example, implicitly makes the same argument when it demands that the US raise its savings rate while China avoids making the necessary domestic adjustments, including to the currency. But of course this means nothing more than that some other country must replace the US as the current account deficit country of last resort. This obviously cannot solve the underlying problem. It simply pushes off the imbalance onto another country, and ultimately with the same dire consequences.
This is why I find the moaning and gnashing of teeth over the possible erosion of the value of claims accumulated by surplus countries surreal. There is only one possible way to avoid that erosion of value, and that requires that the surplus countries work with the deficit countries to reverse the trade imbalances. If the surplus countries refuse to take the necessary steps, an erosion in the value of those claims is the automatic and necessary consequence. In practice that means that either the claims must be devalued or they will lead to default.