The Federal Statistics Office reported that German consumer prices increased 0.2% on a seasonally-adjusted basis in October, translating into a 1.3% annual gain on a harmonized basis. German prices are very sticky, since the domestic economy doesnâ€™t see the boom and bust cyclical behavior like that in other developed economies. However, inflation may headed north, especially if the trend in industrial prices (PPI), a +3.8% annual clip, is any leading indicator. (Click on chart to enlarge.)
Will German policymakers see the inflation for what it is? Itâ€™s a shift in relative prices to drive real German appreciation in order to rebalance current accounts across the region amid a fixed currency regime.
The Eurozone is now characterized by massive current account imbalances. According to the IMF October 2010 World Economic Outlook, Germany will run the second largest current account surplus in the Eurozone as a percentage of GDP this year (second to Luxembourg), 6.1%, while Greece and Portugal will run the largest deficits, -10.8% and -10%, respectively. Among the bigger economies, Spainâ€™s 2010 current account deficit sticks out at -5.2% of GDP. In fact, just 6 of the 16 Eurozone economies are expected to run current account surpluses in 2010.
If these fiscal austerity measures are to succeed in Europe, the hardest hit economies â€“ Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece â€“ must generate income externally via export growth. In order to gain export growth, competitiveness must be drawn upon in one of three ways (or a combination): (1) the nominal exchange rate depreciates in the debtor countries (CA deficit countries); (2) final goods prices fall in the debtor countries relative to the creditor countries; or (3) unit labor costs fall in the debtor countries relative to the creditor countries. Any combination of the three will shift the real exchange rate in favor of the debtor countries and drive export growth.
Since (1), depreciation of the nominal exchange rate, is clearly not an option in the single-currency Eurozone, itâ€™s up to (2) and (3). Iâ€™ve talked about wage-cutting; and most of the fiscal austerity packages include some degree of public sector wage cuts, so I won’t address that here. And point (2) has been addressed mostly via fiscal austerity dragging price pressures domestically, and leading to increased competitiveness. But point (2) can be seen from another light…
…it’s all about relative prices, and inflation in Germany realtive to the debtor countries can establish competitiveness in debtor countries.
German inflation is important for two reasons.
First, it’s all about relative prices (point 2 above), so competitiveness in Spain, for example, could similarly be generated if German inflation rises relative to that in Spain, holding Spanish inflation constant â€“ even more so if Spainâ€™s inflation rate is falling . In fact, a rather stark increase in German inflation is likely needed to generate a rebalancing effect when nominal depreciation is out of the question (as is the case for the Eurozone).
On to the second reason why German inflation is important: the ECB average inflation target.
The table to the left illustrates the compounded annual rate of inflation (CAGR) for each of the current member Eurozone economies since 2000. Germany has, on average, seen prices rise at a 1.7% annual rate, while Spain has seen prices rise at a 2.9% annual rate.
Amid fiscal austerity, German inflation is needed is to keep the ECBâ€™s target average inflation rateâ€“ the average inflation rate is the weighted HICP across all of the Eurozone economies â€“ around 2% while the much of the Eurozone experiences disinflation (or deflation).
Spanning 2000-2009, the Spanish economy contributed roughly 0.4% to the Euro area’s average 2.1% annual inflation (based on the HICP country weight, which is 12.6% – see the Eurostat publication for links to the data). Greece contributed roughly 0.1%, on average, to overall inflation. Going forward, there will be a lot of inflation slack to be picked up as these economies contract further.
Itâ€™s gotta be Germany!
But will German policymakers and its massive export sector tolerate higher average annual inflation? Letâ€™s say at roughly 3%, and for some time? Iâ€™m skeptical â€“ so the outlook for the Eurozone, in my view, has just worsened.