The Wilder View

EA Balance of Payments: the Current Account

I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on the balance of payments flows within the Euro Area (EA). Given the complexity of the balance of payments, there are too many angles to tackle in one post. Therefore, spanning the next week I will dedicate my commentary to the EA balance of payments. In this post, we start with square one: the current account.

The Euro area (EA) current account

Often times I hear comparison of the EA sovereign debt crisis to past emerging market balance of payments crises. This is not correct, since the EA runs only mild current account deficits, -0.9% of total EA GDP as of Q2 2011 (Q3 data reported in December). There’s no need for a sharp revaluation of the euro to drive the balance of payments to its identity – remember, the current account (CA) + capital account (KA) + official reserves + errors/ommissions = 0.

The standard emerging market-style balance of payments crisis goes something like this: large current account deficits must be financed by foreign inflows of capital (financial account surpluses), so that the currency comes under pressure when foreigners lose confidence in said emerging market economy. As foreign capital flows start to reverse, the currency comes under pressure to balance the financial and current accounts. Under currency depreciation, relative costs rise (via imported goods), so the central bank ‘defends’ the level of the currency through FX intervention (they sell down FX reserves and buy the domestic currency). With the central bank’s stock of FX reserves depleting quickly, speculators can sell the domestic currency for much longer than the national central bank can buy up those assets. Eventually, the whole thing comes crashing down. The currency depreciates (quite materially in some cases) and brings the current account into balance.

The EA initial condition for a balance of payments crisis is just not there: the current account is, well, rather ‘balanced’. Within the EA, country-level current accounts are well out of balance. This is the central theme associated with the EA sovereign debt crisis: debtor countries are reliant on foreign inflows of capital from the credit countries to support current spending.

The chart above illustrates the 4-quarter moving average current account deficit (red)/surplus (green) as a % of national GDP ending in Q2 2011.

In the context of the standard balance of payments crisis, Greece and Portugal would/should have seen precipitous nominal FX depreciation by now. In contrast, the Netherlands or Germany would have seen significant appreciation. However, the single currency union prevents nominal depreciation, so the focus has been on real depreciation. The debtor countries are forced into a policy of internal devaluation (fiscal austerity, they call it) to shift relative prices and real exchange rates. This could work if global growth was going gangbusters, but it’s not.

These imbalances are no longer sustainable.

I’ll leave you with a link as to the direction we’ll be headed here on The Wilder View. Last month Thomas Mayer released a report titled Euroland’s hidden balance-of-payments crisis, which describes imbalances building in the EA financial flows. Next post we’ll look into the balance of payments flows within the EA.

4 Responses to “EA Balance of Payments: the Current Account”

Ed Dolan EdDolanNovember 21st, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Your chart on country-level CA balances is very revealing. The differences are even more dramatic when you view them over time to see the clear divergence in CA performance. Here's a link to a chart I used in a recent course:

BbelmirDecember 2nd, 2011 at 9:07 am

the charts show the very hard reality of the Euro Area. The EA is naturally divided in tow areas with France in the middle in the second chart(CA). Yesterday Sarkosy speech confirms that option in the future to revisite the Maastrisch treaty .Europe must to be re-thinked.

rodeneugenDecember 23rd, 2011 at 11:18 pm

The problem of the sovereign debt crisis is not the EU balance of payments, but the loss on asset values of Germany and other economically strong performing European countries. The accumulated surpluses of the strong performing countries, has been wasted in over consumption of Greece, Portugal, Spain etc. The result is that the net asset value of EU as whole has been reduced in form of loss on junk bonds. If this taxation of the strong economies by Greece, Portugal, Spain etc will cease, in the future the strong economies will have improved capacity to increase the economic performance of the whole European region.

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