Chart of the Week : Weak Germany
Head of Macro Analysis
Summary: In today’s ‘Macro Chartmania’, we give an update on the German economy. Back in 2019, we wrote that the German economy was structurally doomed to decelerate due to China’s slowdown and severe underinvestment in the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) sector. This was before the 2020 pandemic outbreak and the 2022 energy crisis. Now, there is little doubt that Germany will enter into a recession this year. It is facing a perfect storm : high inflation for a prolonged period, failure of the multi-decade model growth based on cheap Russian energy and massive imbalance in R&D investment. This is not to say that Germany will become Europe’s new sick man. The country has everything in hand to overcome these challenges. But, in the short-term, it is without doubt a tough time for Germany and thus for the rest of the eurozone.
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The below chart partially explains why the German economy is not out of the woods anytime soon. So far, the country has avoided entering into a technical recession. This is explained by a rebound in external demand reflecting improved export growth to Turkey and a stabilization in export growth to the United Kingdom - two key trade partners. However, a recession is certainly only a matter of time. On Monday, the Bundesbank acknowledged that a recession is likely this year. The weak economic momentum in China is a source of concern. China is Germany’s most important trading partner with an average total trade volume in recent years of around €200bn. The latest data show that Germany export growth to China is close to its lowest level since the pandemic outbreak, at minus 8.3 % year-over-year in July. Based on preliminary trade data, the recent stabilization we can see in the below chart is likely to continue. But China’s weak growth is not Germany’s only problem. Inflation is here to stay. The Bundesbank forecasts it will peak around 10 % in the coming months versus 8.5 % year-over-year in July. This is likely. Contrary to the United States, the peak in eurozone inflation is ahead of us. Even if we pass the peak, inflation will remain elevated for long due to higher energy prices (lower reliance on Russian gas and oil will take years to materialize), weak euro exchange rate (a drop of the EUR/USD cross to 0.96 by year-end is highly possible) and the easing of government measures to cap prices (eurozone inflation is actually now artificially low).
On top of that, Germany is also facing a structural challenge due to misallocation of investment. This is nothing new. But this is becoming an accurate problem nowadays as the economy is showing worrying signs of weakness. Looking at the global level, Germany is well-ranked in terms of R&D investment. Here comes the issue. A big chunk of it is attributable to the struggling automotive sector. It represents more than 50 % of total R&D investment over the recent years against only 6 % in the United States, for instance. The automotive sector is now in disarray. Supply chain disruptions, weaker demand and high energy bills are hurting carmakers. In the latest ZEW report for August 2022, the current conditions subindex for the car industry was out at minus 44.1. This is a better reading than a few months ago. It fell at minus 61.7 in April 2022 on the back of the Ukraine war, for instance. This is still close to its lowest annual levels, however. The oversized share of R&D investment coming from the car industry has an immediate negative impact : the ICT sector suffers from chronic underinvestment. This negatively impacts potential growth and leadership in key technological innovation. The pandemic outbreak and the following lockdowns showed that Germany is lagging behind in digitalization notably. Germany’s economy is now at a crossroads. For years, policymakers avoided tackling the issue of overdependence on cheap Russian energy (which was a key factor behind German industry’s high competitiveness) and massive imbalance in R&D investment. Hopefully, the upcoming recession will help to move forward on these two issues. There is no other choice but to find new energy alternatives. The process has already started. This is also urgent to reduce economic dependence on the car industry and channel R&D investment in other sectors. This has yet to happen. In the meantime, if Germany sinks into a recession, expect the eurozone to follow immediately after.
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