Beggar thy neighbor

I was surprised this week to read several reports that Europe announced improving production and business confidence, particularly out of Germany.  Several European companies announced better than expected earnings, too. 

After all, weren’t financial commentators the world over (including yours truly) prattling on a couple of months ago that Europe was coming apart at the seams?

And then I remembered the phrase “beggar thy neighbor.”  It refers to the political policy of devaluing one’s currency and/or erecting trade barriers to boost one country’s economy at the expense of other economies. 

It’s called beggar thy neighbor because it only works as long as your neighboring countries don’t react (hence the begging).  If they erect their own trade barriers or devalue their currency, then the game is up and everyone ends up worse off.  Like most boondoggles, it only seems to work as long as you focus on the surface and not the aggregate.

Because I have a sarcastic sense of humor, I couldn’t help but be amused by all the Germans who were coldly saying, a few short months ago, that the Club Med countries should be dumped from the euro currency and even the European Union.  Now that the Club Meds have caused the euro to drop, Germany seems to be making out like a bandit. 

The main reason is that Germany is mostly an export economy (like China and Japan).  In fact, China overtook Germany only last year as the world’s largest exporter.  Germany’s economy would grind to a halt if it weren’t selling to others.  Not surprisingly, the euro dropping benefited them most.

But, it won’t last too long.  Even now, U.S., Japanese and Chinese politicians are most likely forming policies that will lead to our own devalued currencies or new trade barriers that will eliminate the euro advantage.  The effort will succeed in kicking Europe–particularly German–in the shins, but it won’t make anyone better off.

In the long run, people adjust to currency changes.  Over time, a burger in Asia, Europe and America will cost about the same in real value.  Buyers and sellers adjust the prices they are willing to pay and receive until things are back to the way they were.  Currency depreciations don’t work for long, and trade barriers just reduce everyone’s standard of living. 

Beggar thy neighbor doesn’t work, unless of course your goal is to get elected in the short run.  It may be the only thing less productive than re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Beggar thy neighbor