Daily Archives: October 6, 2011

The eurozone is confronted with a crisis of not just labour costs and prices – but culture. Between 1999 and the first quarter of 2011, there has been a continuous net transfer of goods and services shipped from the north to the south. Northern Europe in effect has been subsidising southern European consumption from the onset of the euro on January 1 1999. It is not a recent phenomenon.

I recall that in the early years of the eurozone there was a general notion in the markets that the Greeks were behaving like the Germans. But there is scant evidence that on embracing the euro southern members significantly altered their behaviour – behaviour that precipitated chronically depreciating exchange rates against the D-Mark.

Euro-north has historically been characterised by high saving rates and low inflation, the metrics of a culture that emphasises longer-term investments rather than immediate consumption. In contrast, negative saving rates – excess consumption – have been a common feature of Greece and Portugal since 2003.

If the euro is to remain a viable currency across the eurozone, members must behave in the responsible manner contemplated in the Maastricht treaty. But it is not clear that culture, so integral to a nation’s personality, can be easily altered.  

Charles Schumer is stirring up tensions between the US and China again. It is the fourth time the Democratic senator from New York has proposed legislation aimed at imposing high tariffs on “currency manipulators”, a pseudonym for China. But this bill is unlikely to fare any better than the previous incarnations because it shoots America in the foot.

The US would not have a smaller trade deficit if the Chinese renminbi appreciated against the dollar. And a strengthened renminbi would not reduce Chinese exports to the US as much as many expect. In part, this is because Chinese exporters are able to absorb the costs of moderate appreciation. But another reason is that China’s trade surplus has been entirely created by processing trade, where imported components are assembled at factories in the country. This is less sensitive to the appreciation of the currency than ordinary trade because companies can save on the imports, even while exports suffer.

Instead of pressing for the renminbi’s appreciation, it would be much wiser for Mr Schumer to work to persuade both governments to enter a free trade agreement. A trade deal would not add any burden to the US, while a revaluation may force American consumers to pay higher prices. The Chinese authorities would also love the idea, not so much because it corrects the country’s trade imbalances, but rather because it symbolises America’s acknowledgement of China as a country of its rank.