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The Re-Balancing of Trade Within the Euro Area: Some Improvement But Not Enough

I thought that the whole point of fiscal austerity was to turn the balance of trade and capital flow within the Euro area: debtors becoming savers and capital flows out of the Periphery and into to the core. We’re seeing the outset of such a shift; but it’s probably too slow in the making.

The chart below illustrates the trade balance (exports minus imports) within the Euro area (17) for key austerity – Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Italy – and core – Germany, France, and the Netherlands – countries. The data span the last six months and are normalized by the European Commission’s 2010 GDP estimate for each country (listed on the Eurostat website).

(Let me be clear here: the trade balances illustrated below include only trade flows within the Euro area.)

intra-euro%2Btrade.jpg

It should be noted that this is an incomplete picture, since there are 17 Euro area countries. However, the following point is worth noting: the balance of trade is arduously improving in Spain and Greece at the cost of just a small share of surplus in the core. To me, policy makers are grasping at straws when they stick to the ‘exports will grow the Periphery out of their debt problems’ story.

* The Netherlands’ intra-Euro area trade surplus increased near 2 pps to 22.6%. * Italy’s intra-Euro area trade deficit hovered at just under -1% of GDP. * Spain’s trade deficit improved somewhat, falling roughly 50 basis points to -0.5% of GDP – probably nothing to write home about, given that the economy’s facing a 20%+ unemployment rate. * The Greek trade deficit improved 90 bps to -5.3% of GDP. * Ireland remains as open as ever. * The German surplus dropped 15 bps to 1.3% of GDP.

It is true, that the re-balancing will take time. Some will argue that it’s extra-euro area trade that will provide the impetus for growth in some of these countries (Spain, Ireland, Greece, the usual suspects). However, while exports to the extra-Euro area market have played an important role in some growth trajectories – Spain, for example – intra-Euro area trade is critical. Below I list the average share of total export income derived from within the Euro area:

Average share of exports (source: Eurostat and Angry Bear calcs) 40.9% 38.8% 41.5% 55.7% 48.6% 43.8% 62.0% Germany Ireland Greece Spain France Italy Netherlands

How much more austerity and ‘competitiveness’ will it take to turn the tide here? Probably more than some are willing to give. A nominal devaluation is needed. Without that, it’s ultimately ‘bailout’ or ‘default’, or both.

A side note: it would have really helped if the ECB allowed prices in Germany, for example, to overshoot the 2% Euro area inflation target.


This post originally appeared at Angry Bear and is reproduced here with permission.

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Otaviano Canuto

Otaviano Canuto is Senior Advisor on BRICS Economies in the Development Economics Department, World Bank, a new position established by President Kim to bring a fresh research focus to this increasingly critical area. He also has an extensive academic background, serving as Professor of Economics at the University of Sao Paulo and University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in Brazil.

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