Germany flirts with recession – again

Powerhouse economy of Europe contracted in the second quarter, increasing calls for Berlin to ditch fiscal discipline.

Germany Economy
Weakening exports and slowing global growth are dragging Germany's economy [File: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg]

Slumping exports sent Germany‘s economy into reverse in the second quarter, and the prospects of early recovery are slim as manufacturers struggle at the sharp end of a global slowdown amplified by the US-China trade war and the fallout from Brexit.

Overall economic output as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) fell 0.1 percent in the quarter ending June from the previous three months, data from Germany’s Federal Statistics Office showed on Wednesday. On an annual basis, Germany’s economy grew only 0.4 percent in the year ending June – the slowest rate in six years.

The new figures will pile pressure on the government to ditch fiscal discipline and pursue measures designed to stimulate the economy, such as running deficits. The economy minister said action was needed to prevent a second consecutive quarter of contraction that would tip the country into recession.

A technical recession is defined as six straight months of negative economic growth.

The global economic slowdown, reinforced by Chinese industrial output expanding at its lowest rates in 17 years in July, has broadly affected the eurozone, where corresponding data showed that second-quarter growth halved to 0.2 percent.

But Germany’s traditionally export-driven economy – Europe’s largest – has been particularly vulnerable, amid signs that the boost it has received from a sustained period of surging domestic demand is waning.

Turmoil in Germany’s car industry has also weighed on the economy.

“Today’s GDP report definitely marks the end of a golden decade for the German economy,” said ING analyst Carsten Brzeski.

“Trade conflicts, global uncertainty and the struggling automotive sector have finally brought (it) … down on its knee.”

For 2019, overall Berlin expects growth to drop to just 0.5 percent from last year’s 1.5 percent.

The economy ministry called the outlook subdued, noting that Britain’s scheduled exit from the European Union on October 31 looks likely to be a disorderly one, while the Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier said Wednesday’s data was a wake-up call.

“We are in a phase of economic weakness but not yet in recession. We can avoid that if we take the right measures,” Altmaier told mass-market daily Bild.

His ministry said impetus was unlikely to come from the industrial sector, whose BDI association – in an unusual move – joined a growing chorus of voices urging the government to kick-start growth by ditching its balanced budget rule and finance more public investments through new debt.

A government spokeswoman said Berlin did not currently see “any need for further measures to stabilise the economy,” which was still expected to grow slightly this year.

Despite Wednesday’s headline quarterly figure matching expectations, markets were roiled, with the yield on Germany’s benchmark 10-year government bond hitting a record low of -0.624 percent.

“The bottom line is that the German economy is teetering on the edge of recession,” Andrew Kenningham from Capital Economics said, noting that exporters were facing an even bigger potential hit if a no-deal Brexit materialised.

Domestic safety net?

The statistics office said that net trade slowed second-quarter economic activity as exports recorded a stronger quarter-on-quarter decrease compared with imports.

Construction was also a drag after the sector pushed up overall growth in the first three months due to an unusually mild winter.

In a conclusion echoed by the economy ministry and Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, the office said domestic demand remained robust.

That has become an important growth driver for Germany in recent years as consumers benefit from record-high employment, inflation-busting pay hikes and low borrowing costs.

But UniCredit analyst Andreas Rees suggested the positive effect of those factors was limited.

“For a year now, the German economy has been only crawling forward,” Rees said, with the many uncertainties facing exporters presaging more pain for the rest of the year.

ING’s Brzeski said a national debate about easing fiscal policy to provide stimulus – a focus for international criticism of the government’s economic management since the peak of the financial crisis – would get more heated.

In a guest article in Wednesday’s edition of business daily Handelsblatt, BDI association managing director Joachim Lang said the balanced budget that the government has stuck to rigidly since 2014 “should be called into question in an economically fragile situation”.

A government official told Reuters news agency last week that Berlin was considering issuing new debt to finance a costly climate protection package.

But on Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel poured cold water on calls for more fiscal stimulus, and on Wednesday the government spokeswoman said this position had not changed.

“The fiscal policy of the German government is already expansive,” the spokeswoman added.

Merkel had noted the already-agreed upon removal of the Soli income tax surcharge for most employees from 2021, a relief worth some 11 billion euros ($12bn) a year that is likely to support domestic demand and with it overall growth.

Source: Reuters