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Saturday, June 26, 2004

How to slay America's monster trade gap via Economist

America’s trade gap is growing again. Worse, it may be extremely hard to close it without causing much economic pain—and not just for Americans.America’s willingness to spend more than it could strictly afford on other countries’ manufactures was welcome at a time when most of these countries’ economies were sluggish. But deficits of over 5% of GDP in America’s current account could not be sustained. Having carried the world economy through the first, crucial leg of recovery from the slowdown of 2001, some economists felt it was time for America to “hand over the baton” to the rest of the world and pause for breath.But America is refusing to let go of the baton. It continues to import much more than it exports while investing more than it saves. According to figures released last Friday, its current-account deficit, having narrowed to 4.6% of GDP at the end of last year, has widened again in the first quarter of this year, to 5.1% of GDP. In some countries, a swift depreciation of the exchange rate has worked wonders. A fall of 20%-plus, in real terms, in the Swedish krone after 1992, for example, turned a deficit of more than 3% of GDP into a surplus of about 4%. But Sweden is a relatively small economy. Providing it remains outside the euro, it can depreciate, gaining competitiveness against its neighbours, without beggaring them. The United States, on other hand, is such a crucial destination for the imports of so many countries that they may struggle to find alternative sources of demand.To narrow the deficit by two percentage points by the end of the decade, they reckon the greenback would have to lose about a quarter of its current value (as measured against the currencies of America’s major trading partners) by the end of this year. Since China and Malaysia peg their currencies to the dollar, and many other Asian countries track it closely, Japan and the euro area would bear the brunt of the dollar’s fall. They would not bear it easily. America is such an important export market for both that neither would cope easily with such a loss of competitiveness. The European Central Bank (ECB) has some scope to ease the blow by cutting interest rates but the Bank of Japan has already cut them as low as they can go. As a result, the strengthening yen would cut Japan’s output in 2009 by more than 2% and condemn the country to another six years of falling prices, the OECD study reckons. As Europeans accuse the United States of throwing the world economy off balance, Americans accuse an arthritic Europe of holding the world economy back. Europe’s firms and workers are too cosseted, they argue, and as a result the continent’s economies are unable to pull their weight in the world economy. America is prepared to hand over the baton; but Europe must be ready to take it up. A major global economic turbulenceis clearly ahead of us.
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