John Maynard Keynes On Surplus Nations’ Obligations

Recently, The Economist‘s cover story declared that the government of Germany ought to expand domestic demand and its refusal to do so is a threat to the world economy. It also said, “Germany’s surpluses are themselves a threat to free trade’s legitimacy.”

Post-Keynesians have long recognized this problem with the world economy. Keynes himself said in 1941:

It is characteristic of a freely convertible international standard that it throws the main burden of adjustment on the country which is in the debtor position on the international balance of payments. … The contribution in terms of the resulting social strains which the debtor country has to make to the restoration of equilibrium by changing its prices and wages is altogether out of proportion to the contribution asked of its creditors. Nor is this all. … The social strain of an adjustment downwards is much greater than that of an adjustment upwards. … The process of adjustment is compulsory for the debtor and voluntary for the creditor. If the creditor does not choose to make, or allow, his share of the adjustment, he suffers no inconvenience. For whilst a country’s reserve cannotfall below zero, there is no ceiling which sets an upper limit. The same is true if international loans are to be the means of adjustment. The debtor must borrow; the creditor is under no such compulsion

– in Collected Works, Vol. XXV, pages 27-28.

Few things:

Keynes is building a narrative to argue that creditor nations have responsibilities, although at that time (and also at present), they have no obligation. This was the motivation for his plan for Bretton-Woods, where he proposed to impose fines on creditor/surplus nations and set out some responsibilities for them.

Also, although the above was written keeping in mind a new world order (at 1941), it’s still valid for the post-Bretton-Woods era. This is because, although floating exchange rates help making adjustments, their power is completely exaggerated.

It’s also important to keep in mind, that the world is more complicated now. Creditor/suprlus nations have achieved their status by making adjustments, i.e., by keeping wages and domestic demand low. So it’s not exactly or literally like what Keynes presented. It’s not the best of worlds in Germany or China.

Still, what Keynes said was highly insightful.

It’s also interesting that for The Economist, Germany’s behaviour is a “threat to free trade’s legitimacy.” Nicholas Kaldor also said the same in 1980:

In the absence of … measures all countries may suffer a slower rate of growth and a lower level of output and employment, and not only the group of countries whose economic activity is ‘balance-of-payments constrained’. This is because the ‘surplus’ countries’ own exports will be lower with the shrinkage of world trade, and they may not offset this (or not adequately) by domestic reflationary measures so that their imports will also be lower.

– in Foundations And Implications Of Free Trade Theory

For The Economist, Germany’s behaviour is a threat to free trade. For Post-Keynesians, Germany’s behaviour is expected (and ought to be different) and is a good reason to reject free trade.

But it’s not a bad thing that The Economist recognizes Keynes’ insights.

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