Is France’s trade deficit entirely structural?

By Eric Heyer

The issue at the heart of the debate between those arguing that a lack of supply is behind the low level of activity in France over the last four years and those arguing that the problem is a lack of demand is the nature of the country’s trade deficit.

On the one hand, the French economy has a number of symptoms characteristic of an economy experiencing a shortfall in demand: strong disinflation, high unemployment, businesses declaring substantial spare capacity due mainly to a lack of demand, etc. But, on the other hand, the existence of a persistent deficit in the trade balance (Figure 1) casts doubt on the competitiveness of French firms and on their capacity to meet additional demand, which would thus express a problem with supply.

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So, after more than ten years of trade surpluses, which represented over 2 GDP points in 1997, France’s trade balance turned negative in 2005. After widening gradually until 2010 when the deficit reached nearly 2 GDP points, the trend turned around. In 2013 (the latest available figure), the trade deficit still stood at 1 GDP point.

This observation is not however sufficient to dismiss all the arguments of the proponents of a demand shortage that France simply suffers from a supply problem. What is needed at a minimum is to analyze the nature of the deficit and try to separate its structural component from its cyclical component. The latter is the result of a difference in the economic cycle between France and its major trading partners. When a country’s situation is more favourable than that of its partners, that country will tend to run a deficit in its trade balance linked to domestic demand and thus to more buoyant imports. A trade deficit may thus arise regardless of how competitive the country’s domestic firms are.

One way to take this cyclical gap into account is to compare the gaps between an economy’s actual output and its potential output (the output gap). At the national level, a positive output gap (respectively negative) means that the economy is in a phase of expansion (respectively of contraction) of the cycle, which, other things being equal, should lead to a cyclical deterioration (or improvement) in its trade balance. In terms of the trading partners, when they are in a cyclical expansionary phase (positive output gap), this should lead to a cyclical improvement in the trade balance of the country in question.

Using data from the latest issue of the OECD’s Economic Outlook (eo96), we calculated an “aggregate” output gap for France’s partners by weighting the output gap of each partner by the weight of French exports to that country in France’s total exports.

This calculation, shown in Figure 2, highlights two points:

  1. The first is that, according to the OECD, France’s output gap has been negative since 2008, signalling the existence of room for the French economy to rebound.
  2. The second is that the economic situation of our trading partners is even worse. The cyclical gap, measured by the difference between the output gaps of France and of its partners, indicates a significant difference in favour of France.

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It is then possible to assess the impact of the cyclical situation of the country and that of its main partners on the trade balance.

A simple estimate using Ordinary Least Squares over the period 1985-2013 shows a relationship of cointegration between these three variables (trade balance, output gap of France and output gap of its partners) for France. The signs obtained are consistent with what we would intuitively expect: when France is in an expansionary phase, its trade balance tends to worsen (coefficient of -0.943). In contrast, when rival countries are experiencing a boom, this makes for an improvement in France’s trade balance (coefficient of +0.876).

France’s structural trade balance since 1985 can then be calculated by subtracting the cyclical effect (national and competitors) from the observed trade balance.

Figure 3 shows this calculation. First, the fall in the euro in the late 1990s led to a structural improvement in France’s structural balance. The sharp deterioration in the trade balance between 2001 and 2007 would then be entirely structural: it would be explained in particular by China’s entry into the WTO, by the competitive disinflation policy adopted by Germany, and by the appreciation of the euro. Since the 2008 crisis, however, an increasingly substantial portion of the French trade deficit would be cyclical. So even if French growth were sluggish, the country’s economic difficulties were nonetheless less dramatic than in the case of some of its trading partners[1]. It is this relatively more favourable performance compared to its major trading partners that would have led to the rise of a trade deficit, part of which was cyclical. By 2013, the imbalances in the current account would be entirely cyclical in origin.

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This result echoes the analysis provided by the French national accounting office on the factors driving growth over the last four years: the level of real GDP in the third quarter of 2014 was only 1.4% higher than in first quarter 2011. An analysis of the factors contributing to this performance is unambiguous: private demand (household and business) was down sharply (-1.6%), particularly household consumption, the traditional engine of economic growth. While there are more households today than four years ago, their total consumption was 0.6% below their 2011 level. However, while the French economy’s ability to deal with the global competitive framework is being questioned by the dominant discourse, foreign trade has in fact had a very positive impact in the last four years, with a boost from exports, which contributed a positive 2 GDP points to growth. In short, for four years the French economy has been driven mainly by exports, while it has been held back by private demand.

This analysis is of course based on an assessment of output gaps, whose measurement is tricky and subject to sharp revisions. In this respect, while there is an institutional consensus on the estimate that France has a negative output gap, there is also a broad range in the magnitudes of the room for a rebound, ranging in 2014 from 2.5 to 4 points, depending on the institution (IMF, OECD, European Commission, OFCE).

This diagnosis would be somewhat attenuated if an output gap were used for France that was more negative than the one calculated by the OECD: using the OFCE’s estimate for France (an output gap of -2.9 GDP points in 2013 instead of the OECD’s -1.4 points) and retaining the OECD measure for its partners, France’s more favourable relative performance compared to its major trading partners would now explain only half of its trade deficit[2]. Part of the deficit observed would therefore be explained by the competitiveness problems of French business (Figure 4).

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In conclusion, as with any measurement of a structural variable, the evaluation of the structural trade balance is sensitive to the measure of the output gap. Nevertheless, it is clear from this brief analysis that:

  • If the French economy is considered to suffer mainly from a supply problem (output gap close to zero), whereas our partners, mainly European, face a shortfall in demand (negative output gap), then the deficit in our trade balance would essentially be cyclical.
  • However, if France, like its partners, is also experiencing a shortfall in demand, then only part of our deficit is cyclical, and the rest is related to a problem with the competitiveness of our companies.

This last point seems to us closer to the actual situation of the French economy. While French companies’ have undeniably lost some competitiveness, this should not be overestimated: the sluggishness that has characterized our economy for nearly four years is due not only to a lack of supply and the disappearance of the potential for growth – even if this is unfortunately likely to taper off – it is also due to a significant decline in demand.

 


[1] For example, Italy and Spain entered a second recession in third quarter 2014, leaving their GDP lower than its pre-crisis level by 9% and 6% respectively.

[2] We find a similar result when the previous version from the OECD (eo95) it used for France and all its partners.

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France – the sick man of Europe?

by Mathieu Plane – Economist at OFCE (French Economic Observatory – Sciences Po)

The year 2014 was marked for France by the risk of European Commission sanctions for the failure of its budget to comply with Treaties; by the downgrade by Fitch of French government debt (following the one by S&P a year earlier); by the absence of any sign of a in the unemployment rate; by a rising deficit after four years of consecutive decline; and by the distinction of being the only country in Europe to run a significant current account deficit: economically, it seemed like the country’s worst year since the beginning of the crisis, in  2008. France did not of course go through the kind of recession it did in 2009, when the Eurozone experienced a record fall in GDP (-4.5% and -2.9% for the EMU and for France respectively). But for the first time since the subprime bubble burst, in 2014 French GDP grew more slowly (0.4%) than eurozone average (0.8%). The country’s weakening position is fuelling the view that France may be the new sick man of Europe, a victim of its leaders’ lax fiscal approach and its inability to reform. Is this really the case? Continue reading “France – the sick man of Europe?”

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Decline of the euro and competitive disinflation: who’s going to gain the most?

By Bruno Ducoudré and Eric Heyer

For nearly two years, between mid-2012 and mid-2014, the euro appreciated against the world’s major currencies. Having reached a level of USD 1.39 in May 2014, the euro had increased in value since July 2012 by more than 12% against the dollar. During the same period, the euro appreciated by 44% against the yen and more than 3% against the pound sterling.

Since May 2014, this trend has reversed: after rising by nearly 10% between mid-2012 and mid-2014, the real effective exchange rate for the euro, which weights the different exchange rates based on the structure of euro zone trade, has depreciated by 5.2% over the last six months (Figure 1). In fact, within a few months, the euro has lost nearly 10% against the dollar, more than 3% against the yen and 4% against the British pound. The weakening against the pound sterling actually began in August 2013, and has reached over 9% today. We expect the euro to continue to depreciate up to the beginning of 2015, with the single currency’s exchange rate falling to 1.20 dollars in the second quarter of 2015. Continue reading “Decline of the euro and competitive disinflation: who’s going to gain the most?”

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Changes in taxation in Europe from 2000 to 2012: A few analytical points

By Céline Antonin, Félix de Liège and Vincent Touzé

There is great diversity to Europe’s tax systems, reflecting the choices of sovereign States with differentiated destinies. Since the Treaty of Rome, the Member States have steadily refused to give up national authority over taxation, with the exception of a minimum level of coordination on value-added tax (VAT). Europe now faces a real risk of a rise in non-cooperative tax strategies, with each country seeking to improve its economic performance at the expense of the others. This kind of aggressive strategy is being fuelled by two factors: on the one hand, a drive for competitiveness (fiscal devaluation), aimed at reducing the tax burden on businesses so as to improve price competitiveness; and on the other, a drive for fiscal advantage, aimed at luring the rarest factors of production to the national territory. On a macroeconomic level, it is difficult to distinguish clearly between these two factors. However, one way of understanding how the European states have improved their position may be to look at how the tax burden on business has evolved in comparison with the burden on households.

Continue reading “Changes in taxation in Europe from 2000 to 2012: A few analytical points”

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Competitiveness: danger zone!

By Céline Antonin, Christophe Blot, Sabine Le Bayon and Catherine Mathieu

The crisis affecting the euro zone is the result of macroeconomic and financial imbalances that developed during the 2000s. The European economies that have provoked doubt about the sustainability of their public finances (Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy [1]) are those that ran up the highest current account deficits before the crisis and that saw sharp deteriorations in competitiveness between 2000 and 2007. Over that same period Germany gained competitiveness and built up growing surpluses, to such an extent that it has become a model to be emulated across the euro zone, and especially in the countries of southern Europe. Continue reading “Competitiveness: danger zone!”

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20 billion euros in reductions on employer payroll taxes on low-wages. But will it create jobs?

By Eric Heyer and Mathieu Plane

Every year the State spends nearly 1 percentage point of GDP, i.e. 20 billion euros, on general reductions in employer payroll taxes on low wages. It is thus legitimate to ask whether a programme like this is effective. A large number of empirical studies have been conducted to try to assess the impact of this measure on employment, and have concluded that it creates between 400,000 and 800,000 jobs.

As these estimates are performed using sector models, they do not take into account all the effects resulting from a policy of reduced social contributions on low wages, and in particular the impact of macroeconomic feedback, i.e. the effect of income gains, competitiveness gains and the financing of the measure. Continue reading “20 billion euros in reductions on employer payroll taxes on low-wages. But will it create jobs?”

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The tax credit to encourage competitiveness and jobs – what impact?

By Mathieu Plane

Following the submission to the Prime Minister of the Gallois Report on the pact for encouraging the competitiveness of French industry, the government decided to establish the tax credit to encourage competitiveness and jobs (“the CICE”). Based on the rising trade deficit observed over the course of the last decade, the sharp deterioration in business margins since the onset of the crisis and growing unemployment, the government intends to use the CICE to restore the competitiveness of French business and to boost employment. According to our assessment, which was drawn up using the e-mod.fr model as described in an article in the Revue de l’OFCE (issue 126-2012), within five years the CICE should help to create about 150,000 jobs, bringing the unemployment rate down by 0.6 point and generating additional growth of 0.1 GDP point by 2018. Continue reading “The tax credit to encourage competitiveness and jobs – what impact?”

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Is nationalization a trap or a tool of industrial policy?

By Jean-Luc Gaffard

The closure of the Florange blast furnaces in the Moselle region by ArcelorMittal and the French government’s hunt for a buyer led it to temporarily consider nationalizing the site, that is, not only the production of crude steel, but also the cold forming line. The threat of nationalization was clearly wielded with a view to forcing the hand of the Mittal group so that it would sell the operations to another firm. If a nationalisation like this had been carried out, it would have been a penalty-nationalization, i.e. a sanction of behaviour by the Mittal group deemed contrary to the public interest. Apart from this unusual feature, it would have also raised issues about competition. Continue reading “Is nationalization a trap or a tool of industrial policy?”

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The dilemma of competitiveness

By Jean-Luc Gaffard

The competitiveness of a country is a complex subject. Some people rebel against the very concept on the grounds that it can’t be applied to a nation and is only meaningful for companies. It is true that if a company gains market share, this necessarily comes at the expense of a competitor. And it is no less true that when one country increases its exports to another, then the extra income earned by the first will, in part, fuel demand that then benefits the second. The benefits of one become a condition of benefits for the other. This back-and-forth justifies international trade, whose aim is a better use of resources by everyone, with the benefits being shared by all, on an equitable basis. This story makes sense. And it does indeed indicate that the competitiveness of a nation is not comparable to that of a business.  Continue reading “The dilemma of competitiveness”

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