Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Is the Federal Reserve Following Germany's Example?

Germany is Europe's economic engine. Its recent recession wasn't Great, like America's. Its unemployment levels didn't rise as sharply as America's. It has a trade surplus and a strong manufacturing sector at the core of its economy. Considering that West Germany had to absorb moribund formerly Communist East Germany during the past 20 years, one has to wonder how the Germans did it.

Part of the answer is they concentrate on producing high value added goods, taking advantage of their technological know how. The vaunted German machine tool industry makes highly specialized equipment, and constantly seeks to improve, which makes them hard to compete against.

But a crucial part of Germany's success is that wages have been held down. German workers are paid less than French workers (although both nations are well above the EU average). And, surprise! The French economy is weaker. German unions have gone along with wage restraint, in order to promote employment. German workers accepted limited income growth for the sake of fostering national competitiveness in export markets. The American image of Germany is a swirl of Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Porsche logos. The truth is more modest--a nation whose GDP per capita, disposable income per capita and other measures of economic well-being are lower than America's.

The U.S. Federal Reserve is, by all appearances, on a quiet, not for attribution mission to devalue the dollar. Although paying lip service to the sanctity of the Almighty Greenback, the Fed has relentlessly pushed down the dollar's value with a two and a half years and counting zero interest rate policy. Even now, as inflation is rising and central banks in many other nations are raising their rates, the Fed continues to believe that a free dollar is the best dollar (but free only for the financial institutions eligible to borrow at the ultra low rates available in the fed funds market; credit card borrowers can look in the mail for yet another interest rate or fee hike). The free dollar is, on the international currency markets, a falling dollar. That, in turn, raises the costs of imported goods. With the world economy now tightly integrated--some "American" cars have more foreign content than some Hondas and Toyotas--a falling dollar means higher costs for American consumers. This is most evident in the oil markets, where the rising price of gasoline and other petroleum products is the leading factor in pushing up prices. But price pressures are gradually spreading across the spectrum of consumer goods, and the Fed may have to narrow the definition of core inflation if it's going to keep prices down. As prices rise, real wages fall.

By weakening the dollar and, in effect, lowering American wages, the Fed makes America more competitive in the world economy. U.S. exports have been gradually rising, boosting employment (although at 8.8% of the labor force without jobs, we're still a long way from full employment). The price of "recovery" in this manner will be Germany's compromise: more jobs but constrained wages. And American consumers will have to become more like German consumers--tighter with the nickels, making do with last year's model, darning socks, mixing liquid soap with water to make it last longer, and, ugh, saving. Saturday afternoon at the mall will be replaced by Saturday afternoon in the kitchen home canning tomatoes grown in the back yard. The Model T in grandpa's barn will have to be fixed up and put back on the road. But it was and can still be a great car.

The Fed now prescribes America's economic policy. Congress and the Administration manage only to offset each other in a bipolar tango between partisan confrontation and distasteful compromise. Fiscal policy is virtually nonexistent. Only the limited tools available to the central bank are being put to use. And we will have to live with the consequences, because there are no other options.

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