Yesterday’s ECB press conference was, for the most part, fairly lacklustre. No unexpected measures, Draghi sounding quite bored, forecasts very little changed. Markets had vaguely hoped for at least the promise of more action, but got nothing new. But towards the end there were some interesting comments which, together with the G20 statement last week, underline that the ECB and other central banks are telling governments – specifically Germany – that there isn’t much more monetary policy can do and it is time for some fiscal action. Draghi’s two comments on this were to state that governments which had scope to do more on fiscal policy should, and he noted that Germany had scope to do more. He also agreed strongly with a questioner who noted the weakness of German wage growth and underlined that higher wage growth in Germany was very much desired. In other words, he told Germany they should be spending more money.
There are a few things the German government can do directly about wage growth. The can pay government employees more, and they can raise the minimum wage, but the majority of wage deals are struck without direct government involvement. As Draghi also noted in answer to another question, Europe is not a planned economy. But without stronger German wage growth, it is very hard to get inflation up in Europe, as German wage costs provide an effective ceiling in many industries to wage costs in the rest of Europe. It was precisely because wage costs elsewhere in the Eurozone rose so much faster than in Germany in the 2000s that the rest of Europe became so uncompetitive, and a lot of this was because German wages barely rose at all. Nominal wage costs in Germany rose less than 1% from 2000 to 2008. That’s in total, not per year. Given the relative weakness of the rest of the Eurozone, unless Germany can get inflation above the 1.5-2% target, there is no chance that the European average can get up there, and to do that, wage costs have to rise a lot faster. So Draghi is putting pressure on Germany to inflate.
There is plenty the German government can do. German is running a (marginal) budget surplus. The government can borrow at negative rates. It is hard to see the downside to expanding borrowing aggressively and spending on infrastructure, especially since they need to find jobs to give all the extra refugees they are letting in (or wage growth will fall further). It would even provide the ECB with more debt for their QE program. It would not just be a good thing for the Eurozone, it would be a good thing for Germany, where I’m told the roads are in dire need of attention.
Another way of looking at this is to note that the German current account surplus last year was 8.5% of GDP, and is forecast to be over 9% this year. 9%!!!!!! The UK is worried about it’s deficit of 6% (and rightly so) but the UK problem is at least partly the lack of demand from the Eurozone, and the rest of the Eurozone also struggles because Germany doesn’t import enough. Germany is the main guilty party. It needs to reduce it’s current account surplus by expanding demand. There is no way of doing this by monetary policy any more, as rates are as low as possible already. The government needs to take responsibility by increasing investment.
Why Germany hasn’t gone down this route already is a mystery to me. It seems to have something to do with the fiscal conservatives who believe in balancing your budget without regard to the cycle, the needs of the EU as a whole, or anything that has been written on economics since the 19th century. But it really is time to get real, and Draghi and the G20 are ramping up the pressure on Merkel, Schaeuble and co. It used to be that Japan was the main guilty party for running massive trade surpluses, then China. Now it’s Germany, and action is overdue.
From an FX perspective, such actions would be supportive for the EUR in the short term, and some may not like that, but amassing a massive current account surplus is far more damaging in the long term, as it will either prevent a European recovery or cause the EUR will surge higher in the next US downturn as capital outflows dry up.