In comments to yesterday’s post on exchange rates and European trade imbalances, paine (the e. e. cummings of the econosphere) says,
pk prolly buys your conclusion. notice his post basically disparaging forex adjustment solutions on grounds of short run impact. but long run adjustment requires forex changes.
I don’t know. I suppose we all agree that exchange rate changes won’t help in the short run (in fact, I’m not sure Krugman does agree), but I’m not convinced exchange rate changes will make much of a difference even in the long run; and anyway, it matters how long the long run is. When the storm is long past the ocean is flat again, and all that.
Anyway, what Krugman actually wrote was
We know that huge current account imbalances opened up when capital rushed to the European periphery after the euro was created, and reversing those imbalances must involve a large real devaluation.
We “know,” it “must”: not much wiggle room there.
So this is the question, and I think it’s an important one. Are trade imbalances in Europe the result of overvalued exchange rates in the periphery, and undervalued exchange rates in the core, which in turn result from the financial flows from north to south after 1999? And are devaluations in Greece and the other crisis countries a necessary and sufficient condition to restore a sustainable balance of trade?
It’s worth remembering that Keynes thought the answer to these kinds of questions was, in general, No. As Skidelsky puts it in the (wonderful) third volume of his Keynes biography, Keynes rejected the idea of floating exchange rates because
he did not believe that the Marshall-Lerner condition would, in general, be satisfied. This states that, for a change in the value of a country’s currency to restore equilibrium in its balance of payments, the sum of the price elasticities for its exports and imports must be more than one.  As Keynes explained to Henry Clay: “A small country in particular may have to accept substantially worse terms for its exports in terms of its imports if it tries to force the former by means of exchange depreciation. If, therefore, we take account of the terms of trade effect there is an optimum level of exchange such that any movement either way would cause a deterioration of the country’s merchandise balance.” Keynes was convinced that for Britain exchange depreciation would be disastrous…
Keynes’ “elasticity pessimism” is distinctly unfashionable today. It’s an article of faith in open-economy macroeconomics that depreciations improve the trade balance, despite rather weak evidence. A recent mainstream survey of the empirical literature on trade elasticities concludes,
A typical finding in the empirical literature is that import and export demand elasticities are rather low, and that the Marshall-Lerner (ML) condition does not hold. However, despite the evidence against the ML condition, the consensus is that real devaluations do improve the balance of trade.
Theory ahead of measurement in international trade!
(Paul Davidson has a good discussion of this on pages 138-144 of his book on Keynes.)
The alternative view is that the main relationship is between trade flows and growth rates. In models of balance-of-payments-constrained growth, countries’ long-term growth rates depend on the ratio of export income-elasticity of demand and import income-elasticity of demand. More generally, while a strong short-run relationship between exchange rates and trade flows is clearly absent, and a long-run relationship is mostly speculative, the relationship between faster growth and higher imports (and vice versa) is unambiguous and immediate. 
So let’s look at some Greek data, keeping in mind that Greece is not necessarily representative of the rest of the European periphery. The picture below shows Greece’s merchandise and overall trade balance as percent of GDP (from the WTO; data on service trade is only available from 1980), the real exchange rate (from the BIS) and real growth rate (from the OECD; three-year moving averages). Is this a story of prices, or income?
The first thing we can say is that it is not true that Greek deficits are a product of the single currency. Greece has been running substantial trade deficits for as far back as the numbers go. Second, it’s hard to see a relationship between the exchange rate and trade flows. It’s especially striking that the 20 percent real depreciation of the drachma from the late 1960s to the early 1970s — quite a large movement as these things go — had no discernible effect on Greek trade flows at all. The fall in income since the crisis, on the other hand, has produced a very dramatic improvement in the Greek current account, despite the fact that the real exchange rate has appreciated slightly over the period. It’s very hard to look at the right side of the figure and feel any doubt about what drives Greek trade flows, at least in the short run.
Now, it is true that, prior to the crisis, the Euro era was associated with somewhat larger Greek trade deficits than in earlier years. (As I mentioned yesterday, this is entirely due to increased imports from outside the EU.) But was this due to the real appreciation Greece experienced under the Euro, or to the faster growth? It’s hard to judge this just by looking at a figure. (That’s why God gave us econometrics — though to be honest I’m a bit skeptical about the possibility of getting a definite answer here.) But here’s a suggestive point. Greece’s real exchange rate appreciated by 25 percent between 1986 and 1996. This is even more than the appreciation after the Euro. Yet that earlier decade saw no growth of the Greek trade deficit at all. It was only when Greek growth accelerated in the early 2000s that the trade deficit swelled.
I think Yanis Varoufakis is right: It’s hard to see exit and devaluation as solutions for Greece, in either the short term or the long term. There are good reasons why, historically, European countries have almost never let their exchange rates float against each other. And it’s hard to see fixed exchange rates, in themselves, as an important cause of the crisis.
 Skidelsky gives the Marshall-Lerner condition in its standard form, but the reality is a bit more complicated. The simple condition applies only in cases where prices are set in the producing country and fully passed through to the destination country, and where trade is initially balanced. Also, it should really be the Marshall-Lerner-Robinson condition. Joan Robinson was robbed!
 Krugman wrote a very doctrinaire paper years ago rejecting the idea of balance of payments constraints on growth. I’ve quoted this here before, but it’s worth repeating:
I am simply going to dismiss a priori the argument that income elasticities determine economic growth, rather than the other way around. It just seems fundamentally implausible that over stretches of decades balance of payments problems could be preventing long term growth… Furthermore, we all know that differences in growth rates among countries are primarily determined by differences in the rate of growth of total factor productivity, not by differences in the rate of growth of employment. … Thus we are driven to supply-side explanations…
The Krugmans and DeLongs really have no one to blame but themselves for accepting that all the purest, most dogmatic orthodoxy was true in the long run, and then letting long-run growth take over the graduate macro curriculum.
UPDATE: I should add that as far as the trade balance is concerned, what matters is not just a country’s growth, but its growth relative to its trade partners. This may be why rapid Greek growth in the 1970s was not associated with a worsening trade balance — this was the trente glorieuse, when all the major European countries were experiencing similar income growth. Also, in comments, Random Lurker points to a paper suggesting that another factor in rising Greek imports was the removal of tariffs and other trade restrictions after accession to the EU. I haven’t had time to read the paper properly yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that is an important part of the story.
Also, I was discussing this at the bar the other night, and at the end of the conversation my very smart Brazilian friend said, “But devaluation has to work. It just has to.” And she knows this stuff far better than I do, so, maybe.