German Finance Minister :'The US Has Lived on Borrowed Money for Too Long'

'The US Has Lived on Borrowed Money for Too Long'

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

In an interview with SPIEGEL, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, 68, criticizes US calls for Germany to reduce exports, outlines his plans for an insolvency framework for indebted European nations and the emphasizes the significance of the German-French axis for Europe.

SPIEGEL: Minister Schäuble, how well do you get along with your American counterpart, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner?


Schäuble: Mr. Geithner is an excellent minister. We have a good personal relationship.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, he constantly criticizes government officials in countries that are achieving high export surpluses and not doing enough to stimulate their domestic economies. He's referring to you, isn't he?

Schäuble: It would appear that way. That's why I tell him again and again that I think his point of view is incorrect in this regard.

SPIEGEL: All the same, the value of goods Germany sold to the United States exceeded imports from that country by almost €14 billion ($19.8 billion) last year. Can't you understand that the American treasury secretary is concerned about this?

Schäuble: No, because since we introduced the euro in Europe, the determining factor is no longer US trade with Germany, but US trade with the totality of countries in the euro zone. And in that respect the balance of trade tends to be even. So what's the problem? After all, we don't complain about the export successes of individual American states.

SPIEGEL: But the German economy benefits from the fact that German industry has focused primarily on foreign markets and wages have hardly gone up in years. The Americans see this as unfair.

Schäuble: The German export successes are not the result of some sort of currency manipulation, but of the increased competitiveness of companies. The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. There are many reasons for America's problems, but they don't include German export surpluses.

SPIEGEL: The US government sees it differently. It wants to see German exports to the United States curtailed in the future once they reach a certain threshold. Will you give in to the pressure?

Schäuble: The proposal is not acceptable for Germany under any circumstances. If we were to introduce such measures, we would be restricting international competition. But for years we, together with the Americans, have believed that world trade needs to be opened up further. We should stick to that approach and, for example, press ahead with the Doha round to promote world trade. This would stimulate global growth far more effectively than a bilateral agreement on quotas.

SPIEGEL: Last week, the US Federal Reserve Bank decided to flood the economy with $600 billion in new money. Will this stimulate the economy as hoped?

Schäuble: I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don't recognize the economic argument behind this measure.

SPIEGEL: The US wants to depress the value of the dollar in this way, so that it can sell its products abroad more easily. In light of the ailing US economy, isn't that a completely reasonable strategy?

Schäuble: No. The Fed's decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. They make it more difficult to achieve a reasonable balance between industrialized and emerging economies, and they undermine the US's credibility when it comes to fiscal policy. It's inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

SPIEGEL: The G-20 nations will meet in South Korea this week to discuss the condition of the world economy two years after the deepest financial and economic crisis since the war. When the crisis erupted, the international community reacted with astonishing unanimity. But now many countries are trying to achieve advantages by influencing their exchange rates. Are you worried about a worldwide currency war?

Schäuble: I don't believe in such belligerent terms, but it's obvious that the global economy is in a tough situation. This is due to the enormous national debts many countries have taken on while fighting the crisis. Reducing these deficits is the primary objective, as the G-20 countries decided at their most recent summit in Toronto, where everyone, including the United States, agreed to cut their deficits by half by 2013. We should stick to these decisions, and if we do we will be able to curb unrest in the markets.

SPIEGEL: But the United States isn't the only country that's responsible for unrest in the markets. The euro crisis also continues to smolder. The risk premiums for government bonds from the crisis-plagued countries Ireland and Greece have gone up again. How much longer will it take before Europe has to issue new state guarantees?

Schäuble: I'm not that pessimistic in this regard. Although the Irish have accumulated huge debts to bail out their banks, they are making good progress in cleaning up their economy. And I also have great respect for the Greek government's resolve. A few months ago, hardly anyone would have believed that the Greeks would manage to implement such a drastic austerity program. They're moving in the right direction now.

SPIEGEL: Conditions in Europe are not as orderly as you describe. Just two weeks ago, the European Council (the EU body in Brussels that includes the heads of state and government of the membber states) decided to introduce a new crisis mechanism for over-indebted euro nations. Are you satisfied with the result?

Schäuble: The Council's decisions are a great success. Only a few weeks ago, many predicted that France would never support Germany in its commitment to a European crisis mechanism. And that the French would be willing to change the European treaties to do so was seen as completely out of the question. But then Chancellor (Angela) Merkel and President (Nicolas) Sarkozy met in Deauville and achieved a historic breakthrough on both issues. It's completely in line with the approach we Germans have always supported.

SPIEGEL: You can't possibly believe what you're saying. Until recently, Germany was demanding automatic penalties for countries that violated the debt rules of the euro zone. That demand is now off the table.


Schäuble: In Europe, it just so happens that you don't always get everything you wish for. The overwhelming majority of EU members have made it clear that they would not accept automatic sanctions. Our response was: Instead of fighting for something you can't have, we'll try to achieve what's feasible.

SPIEGEL: That sounds like supreme statesmanship. But now there will be no change to the situation on the European Council, where the offenders and the watchdogs remain identical, as former constitutional judge Paul Kirchhof has said. The countries that don't have their budgets under control are helping to decide what penalties will be imposed for that. This isn't the way to come up with effective, prompt sanctions.

Schäuble: I disagree. It will be much easier in the future to enforce sanctions against deficit sinners. We will also be able to take preventive action earlier in the game. Besides, it didn't exactly advance the German position when the red-green government (the former center-left coalition of Social Democratic Party and Green Party that governed from 1998 until 2005), together with the French government, did serious, lasting damage to the Stability and Growth Pact by saying: The pact applies to everyone, just not to the two largest member states.

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