Is Germany’s Economic Model Truly Kaputt?

An overreliance on foreign markets puts Germany in a difficult place, but its well-preserved industrial base is an advantage at a time of widespread reshoring

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Aug. 11, 2023

By guest author Jon Sindreu from the Wall Street Journal.
Germany gen 1 XXXX German industrial production fell 1.5% in June from the previous month, worse than analysts expected. PHOTO: Darren Staples/Bloomberg
More than two decades after Germany was famously called “the sick man of the euro” by The Economist magazine, investors must wonder if the country’s industrial heart is once again critically weak.
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This week brought more dismal German economic data: Industrial production fell 1.5% in June from the previous month, worse than analysts expected. Though figures released on Friday showed a rise in exports, the volume of goods Germany sends abroad is still close to lows plumbed in the 2009 global financial crisis. German gross domestic product has clocked three quarters of negative or zero growth, making the country the worst performer among major eurozone nations since 2019. Previously it was the top performer.
How long this “slowcession” lasts is a crucial question for picking stocks in Europe. Despite the recent economic reversal, the DAX has been by far the best equity index in the eurozone over 20 years, returning almost 360 %. By comparison, investing in long-stagnant Italy yielded a paltry 140 % return.
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German industrial output has been in decline since 2018, when global vehicle sales fell for the first time in almost a decade. A postpandemic rebalancing of spending toward services has made the situation worse. Growth in China, the fourth-largest market for German exporters, has slowed. On Thursday, shares in Siemens—the largest industrial firm in Europe—fell 5% after it cited these two factors as the cause of a fall in orders during the second quarter.
Some of the grit that has gotten into the German economic machine might be hard to dislodge. Chinese carmakers have turned from partners into fierce competitors as Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz play catch-up in electric-vehicle technology. It isn’t just China that is seeking to substitute imports for domestic products; the Biden administration is copying Beijing’s playbook.
There is also energy. At the same time as German industry has lost Russia as its main source of cheap gas, Berlin has closed the country’s last three nuclear power plants.
Angst has gripped German officials and executives in an echo of worries voiced at the start of the millennium, when unemployment surged and globalization ravaged factories.
Back then, the response was a policy package that prioritized international competitiveness, incentivizing the creation of low-pay “minijobs.” The government embraced fiscal austerity and nudged unions to push for wage restraint. The result was a 20-year decline in unemployment and a current-account surplus that reached an eye-watering 8% of GDP even as the U.S. ran huge deficits.
Many economists praised German labor flexibility and fiscal austerity. Conversely, critics pointed out that surpluses made most households worse off, and that Germany’s factory-job losses were just as large as America’s. Politics aside, it was largely a fortuitous jump in foreign demand that drove growth, allowing the nation to solidify gains in industries where it already had an advantage.
“Over the last 20 years, Germany always had an external sugar daddy: China, the eurozone and then the U.S.,” said Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING.
The flaw in this model was that it outsourced economic policy, leading to problematic dependencies on geopolitical rivals. It also fostered an excessive focus on old winners at the expense of new digital technologies and renewable energy.
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Bearish investors are right that it will take years to rectify these problems, particularly given the complexity of consensus-based German politics.
Yet the German export-led model also got a lot right. As in China or South Korea, it channeled demand toward higher-productivity, higher-wage firms. Unlike in the U.S., German manufacturing became more complex. That allowed the country’s industrial base to survive better than in other Western countries.
In a world where nations are scrambling to reshore industries, Germany already has them. The readiest answer to its growth challenge isn’t to turn away from manufacturing but to double down by taking a page from Chinese and now U.S. industrial policy.
The German government is already doing this with semiconductors as part of the European Chips Act. Back in June, it signed off on 10 billion euros (around $11 billion) in subsidies for American chip maker Intel to build two plants, and earlier this week it committed €5 billion to help Taiwan’s TSMC set up a factory with local partners like Infineon. A similar approach is needed to upgrade the country’s power generation and transmission and accelerate the transformation of carmakers and other industrial incumbents. Long-term energy guarantees could stem cost swings in the meantime.
Given its political influence over the European Union, it seems hard to imagine that the bloc’s green-economy push could somehow leave Germany in a less dominant position. Historically, this is one patient that always leaves the hospital.