Eurozone Economy: When Paradigms Collide

When scientific paradigms collide everyone should duck, at least that is the best advice I can offer at the present moment. The provisional German retail sales for January are now in, and they don’t make especially pleasant reading:

European retail sales dropped for the first time in 10 months in January as spending in Germany slumped, adding to signs economic growth is slowing, the Bloomberg purchasing managers index showed…..German retail sales had the biggest drop in two-and-a-half years, with its index declining to 43.9 from 55.2 in December

Now for those who have been following the German economy in recent months none of this should be particularly surprising, since as is reasonably well known Angela Merkel’s government has just upped VAT from 16% to 19% in an attempt to address the ongoing federal deficit problems. And of course, one months data never offer a complete picture. But this decline in retail consumption in Germany forms part of a much longer ongoing weakness in domestic consumption (and here), one which many were arguing had finally come to an end in 2006. Some of us, however, seriously doubted that this was the case, and hence the initial significance of today’s reading. In particular what we may be faced with are changing structural characteristics of economies as median population ages rise. In particular – and following the well-known life cycle pattern of saving and consumption – more elderly economies may have a higher rate of saving and a lower rate of consumption increase than their younger counterparts.

Some more evidence to back this point of view comes from Japan, where today we learn that household spending in December declined for a 12th straight month, dropping 1.9 percent from a year ago. Yet the Japanese economy is not in recession, and output is actually rising. As Bloomberg say:

Japan’s factory production rose to a record and household spending fell, underscoring the central bank’s concern that growth has bypassed consumers and left the economy dependent on exports.

So please note: growth appears to have by-passed consumers, and the economy is ever more dependent on exports. The same goes for Germany, and this is why I talk about paradigm collision, since the neo-classical theory of economic growth – with its core conception of ‘steady state’ growth – was never built to handle median age related changes in economic performance and structural characteristics. Something new is clearly needed.

Over the coming weeks I will undoubtedly have more to say about all this, as we get to see more of the 2007 Eurozone data, but for now let me point you in the direction of Claus Vistesen, who has been patiently toiling away trying to work through a hypothesis which, in terms of the data we are now seeing, certainly seems more in keeping with current economic realities than the view we currently see emanating from the ECB. His arguments on Japan can be found in depth here, and his latest piece on the eurozone is reproduced below the fold.
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German Exports Continue To Rise

German exports, long the mainstay of the national economy, rose for a third month in four in August according to data released today from the Federal Statistical Office. The year on year increase of 13.4% is partly a reflection of the way the recent drop in the value of the euro has helped boost demand.

According to provisional data of the Federal Statistical Office, Germany exported commodities to the value of EUR 63.4 billion and imported commodities to the value of EUR 51.9 billion in August 2005. German exports of August 2005 thus were 13.4% and imports 15.3% above the respective August 2004 levels. Upon calendar and seasonal adjustment, exports increased by 3.5% and imports by 6.0% compared with July 2005.

The foreign trade balance showed a surplus of EUR 11.6 billion in August 2005. In August 2004, the foreign trade balance showed a surplus of EUR 11.0 billion. Upon calendar and seasonal adjustment, the foreign trade balance showed a surplus of EUR 12.7 billion in August 2005.

While exports power ahead the continuing weaknesses in domestic consumer demand and investment are to be seen in the fact that German industrial production fell 1.6 percent in August while factory orders fell 3.7 percent.

China Trade With EU

I’m not very happy with the ‘US Trade Figures‘ post I put up last Friday. I think it’s a glorious mess. The key to the problem is that I tried to deal with two – interrelated but disinct – topics at once: the euro and China trade. So today lets ignore the euro (which has once more resumed the downwards drift, even as I write) and take a bit of a closer look at where we are – in trade terms – with China. (Btw: the planet has finally returned to its orbit, and Brad Setser has an analysis of the US trade data here).

The big item in this weekend’s news is, of course, the agreement reached with Beijing on textiles. The EU textile industry will now have three years to adapt, but since textile manufacturers don’t appear to have taken too much advantage of the ten previous years, it is hard to know whether this will serve any useful purpose. Doubly so, since it is not yet clear how the calculations will be made, and I have the distinct impression that much of the recent surge in imports will now, in effect, be consolidated.

Be that as it may, what about the broader issue?
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US Trade Numbers Are In

So are the China trade surplus ones. Dave at MacroBlog has the details on China. I’m waiting for Brad Setser to post, but he must be either doing his sums, or having a late breakfast :). Before we get some blog analysis (even Brad Delong is quiet today) you can get the basics here. In fact the rise in the April CA deficit to $57bn, from $53.6bn in March, is supposed to be good news, since the increase wasn’t as big as expected.

Essentially I am outside the Atlantic blog consensus here, since I think the US dollar will hold, and that it is the euro which is in trouble. I have a little post on this here. Logically if the other major alternative as a reserve currency is in trouble under Bretton Woods Mark I, everyone goes home to Daddy. I think that is how it will be.

Update: Well Brad still isn’t there but Stephen Roach is. I think his view is the dominant one on the US blogging scene, and shared by non-blogging economists like Paul Krugman. I’m sorry, I think it’s wrong, and by a long way.

Update 2 I’m getting a little tired of waiting (incidentally General Glut has just passed by in comments, and he *does* have a post on the topic). Now the politically sensitive US trade gap with China widened $14.0 percent in April to $14.7 billion. This means it was $12 billion in March, or that it rose $2.7 billion. Now China’s surplus widened to $8.99 billion from $4.59 billion. Doing the arithmetic the surplus rose $4.4 billion. $4.4 billion minus $2.7 billion gives $1.7 billion, a hell of a big chunk of which was probably with Europe. I wish someone who really knew about this would write something, but my educated guess is that Chinese import penetration in Europe is now big and getting bigger by the month. Hence the row about globalisation in the French referendum. Basically what I am saying is that having this kind of issue in the Free Trade US of A is one thing, having it in the more anti-globalisation European core is going to be quite another. China the global imbalance to end all (im)balances.

Now if you want to understand something about China:
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Germany: Exports and Inflation Revised Down

According to NTCResearch:

Inflation in Germany rose less than previously thought in May, the Federal Statistics Office reported on Thursday. Germany’s harmonised index of consumer prices rose 0.2 percent month-on-month and 1.4 percent year on year, compared with initially reported rates of 0.3 percent and 1.5 percent, the Office said. Meanwhile, it was revealed today that Germany?s trade surplus narrowed in April as imports surged. After accounting for expected seasonal factors, the surplus declined from 14.7 billion euros to 12.6 billion. The smaller surplus reflected a 0.4 percent fall in exports and a 3.8 percent jump in imports, the data showed.

The downward drift in inflation needs careful monitoring. I’ve got a deflation alert call out on Germany remember. If Germany goes through the inflation wall, then the proverbial s*** really will hit the fan, since I can’t see the ECB doing non-conventional monetary policy. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what the meeting with Fels was all about.