The euro has fallen by almost 20 per cent against the dollar since last November, and the general view in Europe is that this is good news – indeed, one of the few pieces of good economic news to have come Europe’s way recently. The argument goes as follows: euro weakness = more European exports = higher European economic growth.
Unfortunately, the real world is not as simple as that. Inside the 16-nation eurozone, not every country benefits equally from the euro’s decline on foreign exchange markets. As Carsten Brzeski of ING bank explains, what matters is not so much bilateral exchange rates as real effective exchange rates. These take into account relative price developments and trade patterns, and their message for the eurozone is far from reassuring.
Buried in this month’s “Annual Report on the Euro Area 2009″ from the European Commission is some absorbing material on competitiveness in the eurozone. Some countries, above all Germany, Europe’s export champion, have consistently outshone others in terms of business competitiveness since the euro’s launch in 1999. The result has been the accumulation of large current account deficits in countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Spain – but also in Ireland, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia.
As the Commission says, in impeccably understated language: “The build-up of large external liabilities has increased exposure to financial shocks… In the current downturn, financial markets have become more responsive to the net external financial asset position for the euro area countries. Even if to a large extent the net external position is related to the private sector, the public sector can be affected by private sector debt in the form of potential bail-outs and other fiscal implications.”