Speaking Euro: Is Competitive A Synonym for German?

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Includes: EWG, FXE, IGOV, VGK
by: The Wilder View

What is ‘competitiveness’? It’s an important part of the euro area leaders’ negotiated terms in the July 21st Summit announcement by the European Heads of State. The first paragraph, #4, and #11 of the announcement all refer to this issue of ‘competitiveness’:

We also reaffirm our determination to reinforce convergence, competitiveness and governance in the euro area.

create a Task Force which will work with the Greek authorities to target the structural funds on competitiveness and growth, job creation and training.

All euro area Member States will adhere strictly to the agreed fiscal targets, improve competitiveness and address macro-economic imbalances.

It’s not totally clear what they mean by ‘competitiveness.’ However, I note that they separate the term ‘competitiveness’ from ‘macro-economic imbalances’. Current account imbalances across the region should be included in addressing ’macro-economic imbalances’. Therefore, it’s bigger than the OECD definition of international competitiveness - measure of a country’s advantage or disadvantage in selling its products in international markets.

See, ‘competitiveness’ is an elusive concept that is often associated with relative price movements, real exchange rates, or openness to international trade. But if we look at a May 2011 speech given by German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, what he (and by association, the Germans) thinks of ‘competitiveness becomes more clear (h/t Marshall Auerback and bold by yours truly):

“All Eurozone governments need not only convincingly demonstrate their commitment to fiscal consolidation but also to increasing competitiveness to restore confidence of markets as well as their citizens.

Besides, one does not resolve one’s own problems of competitiveness by asking others to become less competitive and one cannot permanently close the gap between expenditure and income by asking others for more money.

the Eurozone has to put additional emphasis on strengthening the competitiveness of all its members. Consumption developments, bubbles in housing markets and the accumulation of external and internal debt in some Member States deepened the impact of the crisis and constrained the capacity to respond. This is why a new procedure for detecting and correcting economic imbalances will be introduced. This procedure will concentrate on curing the root causes of macroeconomic deficits by forcing Member States to ensure a high level of competitiveness.

Competitiveness is about strong macro-prudential policy, infrastructure, efficiency and income gains, saving, etc. Schäuble used the word ‘comopetitiveness’ 14 times in this speech – it’s an important part of his (and perhaps more broadly Germany’s) vision of the euro area’s structural construct. After reading the speech, you realize ‘competitiveness’ isn’t just about international trade and exports, it’s about the efficiency of an economy as a whole.

Now we’re on to something. The World Economic Forum measures competitiveness as a composite of various factors that describe institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, health and primary education, higher education and training, goods market efficiency, labor market efficiency, financial market development, technological readiness, market size, business sophistication, and innovation (.pdf link here, and composite technicals listed on .pdf page 49). The chart below illustrates the rankings of the euro area 12 and the USA (for comparison) as measured by the percentage of countries that rank below it across 142 developing and developed economies (.pdf page 15).

(Click to enlarge chart)

In 2011-2012, Germany ranks #6 out of 142 countries, where 95.8% of the 142 countries are less competitive than Germany. Also ranked below Germany is every euro area economy except Finland. So when a German finance minister says that he wants economies to increase competitiveness, he’s effectively saying that he wants economies to be more German. From the bottom up, countries should reform their education, financial markets, business sophistication, innovation, etc., all the while emulating those institutions in Germany.

Better put: being asked to increase competitiveness is really a scam to get these economies to become more ‘German’. If I were Italy or Spain or even Ireland (who by the way is very open but less ‘competitive’ according to this measure), I’d have a problem with that.