Mittwoch, 3. Januar 2007

Letter from Berlin: Boom Time for Revamped Economy

The German economy, written off in the last five years as fat, lazy and condemned to long-term decline, is bouncing back thanks to corporate cost-cutting, surging demand for its cars and machinery and the reforms of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

By David Crossland in Berlin


Shoppers crowded into the new Karstadt department store in Leipzig ahead of Christmas. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who declared in June that Germany was a "basket case" in need of a radical restructuring, must be eating her words. Seven months on, the world's third-largest economy behind the United States and Japan is powering ahead as fast-growing economies in eastern Europe and Asia clamour for just the kind of goods Germany specializes in -- autos, industrial equipment and chemicals.

The "sick man of Europe" tag that stuck to Germany for half a decade after 2000 has disappeared. Germany is now regarded as the most competitive economy in the 13-nation euro single currency area, according to a survey of 1,175 European top executives published by business daily Handelsblatt this week.

Its perceived competitiveness even matches that of the United Kingdom, long cited as a model for Europe after the radical privatization and welfare cutbacks imposed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

The speed of the recovery has surprised the government which in the spring was predicting growth of 1.6 percent this year -- it has since revised that up to 2.5 percent. Until a few months ago, some economists were warning that the €25 billion in tax hikes coming into force in 2007 could choke off the upturn.

They too have changed their minds. After an expected dip to below 2 percent in 2007, growth is widely expected to pick up again in 2008.

The upturn was evident during the buoyant Christmas shopping season which delighted retailers, even though part of their higher sales was attributed to advance purchases to avoid the three-point hike in the VAT (sales tax) to 19 percent at the start of 2007.

A stream of good news has washed away the gloom and self-doubt which prompted former German President Johannes Rau to declare in 2004 that the country was in a state of "collective depression."

Southern German toy manufacturer Playmobil ran extra shifts but still couldn't keep up with Christmas demand for its biggest seller, a €120 hospital. December saw MTU Aero Engines win a €110 million contract to supply engines to China. And Siemens together with IBM clinched a €7.1 billion deal to modernize the entire IT network of the German army.

Figures out on Wednesday showed that unemployment, Germany's biggest headache for over a decade, fell by a seasonally adjusted 108,000 in December, the ninth consecutive monthly decline, to 4.115 million or 9.8 percent of the workforce.

"This appears to be a sustained upturn," Gernot Nerb, chief economist at the Munich-based Ifo economic research institute, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Germany has become more competitive in recent years, unit labor costs have fallen here while they've increased in rival economies such as Italy."

"It's primarily been due to painful restructuring by companies, but the government has done things too," said Nerb. Top companies such as industrial group Siemens or Volkswagen have been outsourcing production to lower-cost countries in eastern Europe and have pushed through cost-cutting deals with their employees in Germany. In many cases workers have been agreeing to work longer hours for lower pay to avoid threatened plant closures.

Ifo expects GDP growth to slow to 1.9 percent in 2007 from a projected 2.5 percent in 2006, and sees it accelerating back to 2.3 percent in 2008. The DIW economic institute projects 1.7 percent growth in 2007.

Jobless benefit cuts and tougher rules for the long-term unemployed implemented in 2003 and 2004 proved so unpopular that they effectively brought down former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, defeated in a 2005 general election he called early after a string of regional election routs.

But to Merkel's delight, they now seem to be having an effect. "People are under much more pressure to find work now," said Lothar Hessler, an economist at HSBC Trinkaus. "Germany makes just the kind of investment goods that are in strong demand in growth markets like Asia," said Hessler, who said he saw no major risks to the economy in 2007.

Even the slowdown in the US economy, which sucks in 20 percent of German auto exports, is expected to be so soft and temporary that it won't do huge harm, say economists.

With everything looking hunky dory, powerful voices in the government seem tempted to spare the country further reforms. Kurt Beck, the leader of the center-left Social Democrat party which shares power with Merkel's conservatives, said the government's current program of measures had taken Germans to "the limit of what they can take."

While Merkel responded by stressing that her government would push forward with further reforms, Beck's comments were widely interpreted as a signal that the grand coalition isn't going to venture far beyond the health service cutbacks, tax and labor market reforms it has decided over the last year.

The problem is that there's so much still to do. Germany's rate of long-term unemployed people at 5 percent in 2005 was among the highest in the European Union. Few of them are qualified for the thousands of vacancies for skilled jobs in top industries. Industrial firms reported in December that they had vacancies for more than 20,000 engineers.

Meanwhile, eastern Germany continues to fall further behind the far more prosperous west. And red tape still represents a major obstacle to business start-ups. Examples of bureaucratic folly abound, such as the building firm that was almost shut down because its ceiling was two centimeters too low, or the photographer who was told to install a window in his darkroom so that his staff had access to natural light.

And despite the recovery, Germany can't yet be described as an engine of growth for the continent, said Ifo's Nerb. "Germany remains very strongly reliant on its exports. It won't be a real engine of growth until its domestic demand really takes off, which would suck in imports from elsewhere in Europe."

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