Berlin's Dangerous Sense of Invulnerability

By Simon Tilford

Countries around the world fear that Europe's handling of the eurozone crisis will cause a global slump. But in Germany, the currency union's biggest economy, there is a curious sense of invulnerability. For many Germans, including many senior policy-makers, the crisis seems to be someone else's problem. Indeed, some even believe that Germany would be better off without the euro. Merkel's obduracy is widely credited with striking a blow for Germany's national interests. The German government and media portray demands that Germany accept debt mutualisation or a banking sector union as a call for German charity or benevolence. Such reforms are rarely, if ever, seen as being in Germany's self-interest, but rather an imposition on the country. This is puzzling, because Germany is much more vulnerable than German policy-makers appear to believe. And Germany's strategy for dealing with the crisis is maximising, not minimising, the risks to the country's economic and political interests.

What explains this sense of invulnerability? Is the German economy really so strong that it can sail through an EU slump and a renewed global crisis? The German economy has certainly bounced back stronger than most of the rest of the Europe. Over the four years to the first quarter of 2012, the economy grew by 1 per cent. This hardly qualifies as the Wirtschaftswunder it is sometimes portrayed as in Germany (and is a worse performance than the US), but is considerably better than the EU or eurozone average. Germany's labour market has also performed strongly. Unemployment has fallen steadily, contrasting sharply with surging joblessness in France, Italy and Spain. German youth unemployment is at a 20 year low. This partly reflects demographics - the number of Germans coming of working age each year has fallen steeply due to the country's persistently low birth-rate. But demand for labour has also held up well.

However, Germany's export dependence remains as pronounced as ever. The country's current account surplus has fallen but not significantly so: after peaking at 7.4 per cent of GDP in 2007 it was still equal to 5.7 per cent in 2011. Over the four years to the first quarter of 2012, domestic demand rose by 2 per cent, and hence outpaced growth in overall GDP. However, this was largely down to a steep fall in exports in 2009. Since then the contribution of net exports (exports minus imports) to economic growth has been positive: growth in domestic demand has lagged that of the economy as a whole. Moreover, stripping out government consumption - which has risen relatively strongly - domestic demand increased by just 1 per cent over the last four years. And growth in government consumption has now slowed sharply.

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But what of the argument that Germany is no longer so dependent on the eurozone because of growing trade with the rest of the world? The eurozone accounted for 39 per cent of German exports in 2011, down from 43 per cent in 2007; the EU's share fell from 63 per cent to 59 per cent over this period. Put another way, exports to the EU are still equivalent to over 25 per cent of German GDP. And Germany exported 10 times as much to the EU in 2011 as it did to China. What of the country's trade surplus with the rest of EU? The surpluses with the EU have fallen from the highs reached in 2007. In 2007, trade with the rest of the eurozone accounted for 60 per cent of Germany's overall trade surplus and the EU for over 80 per cent. By 2011 these proportions had fallen to 40 per cent and 55 per cent respectively.

Germany has not rebalanced decisively towards domestic demand and remains highly dependent on trade with the rest of Europe. What of Germany's foreign investments? Almost two-thirds of Germany's total foreign assets (equivalent to around 200 per cent of GDP) are denominated in euro.

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Simon Tilford is a chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.

(AP Photo)

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