Author(s): Belessiotis, Tassos; Carone, Giuseppe
The purpose of the paper is to review the sources of France's trade surplus in recent years and to attribute trade balance movements strictly to those determinants of trade flows suggested by economic theory. The paper is organised as follows: after the introduction, section II reviews some salient characteristics of France's trade in recent years; section III discusses an accounting decomposition of movements in the non-energy and in the manufacturing trade balance over the period 1990 to 1996; section IV presents econometric methodology used in the empirical work; section V examines the error-correction model for non-energy and manufacturing imports; section VI examines the possibility of hysteresis in imports through equation stability tests; section VII examines the corresponding model for non-energy and manufacturing exports and section VIII reviews the question of hysteresis in exports; section IX uses elasticity estimates from the economic estimation to shed light on the relationship between the trade balance and demand and competitiveness developments; section X presents simulation results for the non-energy and the manufacturing trade balance since the 1990s; and, finally, section XI presents conclusions. There are 8 annexes complementing the paper.
One of the striking characteristics of France’s economic performance since the beginning of the present decade has been the strength of the external accounts. In particular, on the basis of national accounts data, since 1989 the current account and the non-energy trade balance have recorded rising surpluses, which in 1996 amounted to 1.7 % of GDP and to close to 1.5 % of GDP, respectively. The service balance, on the other hand, has registered persistent surpluses which averaged between 1 and 1.4 percent of GDP in the 1990s. The largest component of merchandise trade is trade in manufactured goods. The balance on manufacturing trade recorded surpluses throughout the period following the 1973 oil crisis to the late 1980s. The manufacturing trade balance slipped into deficit in the period 1987-1991 but subsequently moved into surplus which rose to almost 1 % of GDP in 1996. Graph 1 presents quarterly data on the evolution of these variables from the beginning of the 1970s to the end of 1996; data adjusted for inflation present a similar picture. It is clear that since movements in the current account are dominated by movements in the non-energy and, in particular, in the manufacturing trade balance throughout this period the sources of the current account improvement in the 1990s are likely to be those explaining the improvement of the manufacturing trade balance.
Awareness of the importance of developments in France’s external transactions became more pronounced following the commitment to sustain a stable franc in the ERM. External accounts deficits were considered as leading to devaluations and, consequently, exchange rate stability required that the trade balance was not systematically in deficit, in order not to undermine exchange and the stability. Since the dominant component of France’s external transactions is trade in manufactures, the commitment to a stable franc inevitably implied the necessity to strengthen the manufacturing trade balance, principally through improvements in competitiveness. These took the form of cost and price restraint which has had a beneficial effect on export growth and on the manufacturing trade balance, and on supporting the external value of the franc.
Graph 1 also shows the importance of manufacturing in France’s external and, more specifically, in non-energy trade. Over much of the period since the beginning of the 1970s peaks and troughs in the former coincide with peaks and troughs in the latter, while the level of the manufacturing trade balance accounts on average for virtually the level of the non-energy trade balance. This relationship has been particularly close in the period up to the second half of the 1980s. Since then, a systematic deviation has emerged where the level of the manufacturing trade balance has been lower than the level of the non-energy trade balance. Furthermore, since 1987 improvements in the non-energy trade balance have been larger than those in trade in manufactures where notably larger deficits have been recorded until late 1991. Clearly, marked improvements in non-manufacturing, non-energy trade (that is, trade in agricultural and food commodities) are at the background of these developments. By 1996, the non-energy trade balance had registered surpluses amounting to over 1 percent of GDP while the manufacturing trade balance had recovered from a peak deficit of 0.7 percent of GDP recorded at the end of the 1980s and in the beginning of the 1990s to a surplus of 0.7 percent of GDP in the first three quarters of 1996. This improvement has taken place against a background of turbulence in the ERM marked by the substantial nominal and real depreciations of the exchange rate for the Italian lira, the Spanish peseta, the Portuguese escudo, and the British and the Irish pound against the French franc.
There are three significant factors which have undoubtedly contributed to France’s external performance in recent years. First, the different cyclical position of France relative to its main trading partners; secondly, relative price developments which have moved to France’s advantage or disadvantage principally, but not exclusively, as a result of nominal and real exchange rate changes; and, third, supply improvements which have promoted export expansion and import substitution, principally through gains in cost and price competitiveness but also through improvements in non-price competitiveness associated with changing technology through new investment in the trading sectors of the economy, increased export capacity, productivity-induced relative price changes etc. The impact of the first two factors has likely dominated, especially in short-term developments, the latter’s influence on France’s trade. Ultimately, however, many supply-side improvements have undoubtedly themselves taken the form of improvements in France’s relative costs and relative prices.
The purpose of the present paper is to review the sources of France’s trade surplus in recent years and to attribute trade balance movements strictly to those determinants of trade flows suggested by economic theory. These determinants are price and/or cost developments, and demand in France and in the rest of the world. Nominal exchange rate movements in the 1990s have been perceived as playing a significant role in France’s trade performance, particularly during the depreciation episodes of 1992 and 1993, since they were considered to have imparted a competitive advantage to those trading partners whose currency had depreciated against the franc; ceteris paribus, and assuming that the nominal depreciation led to a real exchange depreciation, imports would increase and exports would decline, and the trade surplus in real terms would decline. This could have permanent effects on the trade balance since, according to some models of international trade, prolonged exchange rate appreciations, or depreciations can induce hysteresis phenomena (see Baldwin (1988), for example). At the same time, slow growth in France relative to the rest of the world in the 1990s would be expected to have led to a widening of the trade surplus. These two factors have a conflicting impact on trade balance movements, and since income elasticities are generally substantially larger than relative price elasticities it is possible to argue that the emergence of the trade surplus since the beginning of the 1990s is dominated by relative demand movements. A primary objective of the paper is to examine the empirical support for these propositions and to analyse the dynamics of adjustment of trade flows to changes in competitiveness and in relative demand. To do so, a cointegration/error-correction model is applied to flows of both imports and exports, and the estimates of key elasticities obtained are instrumental in shedding light on this question.
The paper, in addition to the introduction, is organized as follows: Section II reviews some salient characteristics of France’s trade in recent years in terms of trade patterns, price and cost competitiveness developments, import penetration and export market performance, and in terms of demand developments in France and abroad; section III discusses an accounting decomposition of movements in the non-energy and in the manufacturing trade balance over the period 1990 to 1996 according to the state of price competitiveness and of relative demand; section IV presents the econometric methodology used in the empirical work; section V examines the error-correction model for non-energy and manufacturing imports; section VI examines the possibility of hysteresis in imports through equation stability tests; section VII examines the corresponding model for non-energy and manufacturing exports and section VIII reviews the question of hysteresis in exports again through equation stability tests; section IX uses elasticity estimates from the econometric estimation to shed light on the relationship between the trade balance and demand and competitiveness developments; section X presents simulation results for the non-energy and the manufacturing trade balance since the beginning of the 1990s where the contribution of price competitiveness and of relative demand is evaluated; and, finally, section XI presents conclusions.
There are eight annexes complementing the paper. The sources and the time series properties of the data are presented in Annex A; Annexes B, C and D present additional cointegration results and further evidence on the stability of the import equations; and Annexes E, F, G, and H are devoted to reviewing further cointegration results and to examining the stability of the export functions.