Sunday, July 6, 2008

What Is The Recession Risk For The German Economy?

Christian Menegatti in his Global Recession Watch post on RGE Monitor last week strang together an impressive list of countries which might be at risk of entering recession during 2008. One name which was conspicuously absent from the list was that of Germany. Yet the situation here is not as self evident as some may assume, and one of the aims of this post is to pose the question: just how realistic it is to expect an export dependent German economy to avoid recession when so many of its most important customers - the UK, the US, Spain, Italy... - are either skirting or entering recession even as I write? Indeed Sebastain Dullien implicitly asks this same question in his most recent post here on Europe EconMonitor.

As Sebastian points out there are now a growing number of indicators which suggest that the German economy is not only slowing, but slowing comparatively rapidly. And maybe one indicator here says it all: industrial output. Increasing industrial output to fuel rapid growth in export demand has been at the heart of Germany's most recent expansion, and, as can be seen from the seasonally adjusted output index in the chart below, industrial output has now been declining for three consecutive months (as of May data, released 07/07/2008).

In addition all the main sentiment indicators are now down (including the EU Composite Economic Sentiment Indicator, which came in at 101.5 in June, its lowest level since January 2006). The latest Ifo institute business climate index fell to 101.3 in June (again its lowest level since January 2006) down from 103.5 in May, and the Sentix institute index (released this morning) fell to minus 9.3 from a positive 5.2 in June. That's the lowest since June 2005 and the biggest one-month drop since the start of the index in February 2001.

The GFK consumer confidence index was also down this month, with the forward looking index for July dropping to 3.9 from a revised 4.7 in June. Again this is the lowest reading in quite some time. In particular in their monthly report GFK highlighted how continuing high inflation was eroding income expectations and the consumer propensity to buy. According to the latest flash estimate from the German federal statistics office, inflation is thought to have hit 3.3% annually in June, and if confirmed this will be the largest price increase since December 1993.

German manufacturing orders declined in May, the sixth straight month that orders have been down. Orders, adjusted for seasonal changes and inflation, fell 0.9 percent from April, according to data from the Economy Ministry last week.

And The Real Economy Is Faltering

So much for the sentiment indexes, but what about the real economy? Well if we look at retail sales these were up by 0.7% in real terms in May over May 2007. However, if we look at a longer term time series, we can see that, despite the comparatively positive general economic environment, sales have not been strong for some time now, and in fact they have only registered monthly year on year increases five times since January 2007.

Despite the fact that May saw quite a sharp increse over April - 1.3% in real terms m-o-m sales seem to have contracted again markedly in June according to the last Bloomberg retail PMI reading. The index slumped from May's eighteen-month high of 56.6 to the low level of 44.9 (remember that on the PMIs 50 marks the neutral point, with readings over that level indicating expansion, and below contraction. Looked at this way it would seem sales were contracting almost as fast in June as they were expanding in May).

If we look at the monthly (seasonally adjusted) sales index we find ouselves with a very clear before and after picture, with the sharp pre tax-increase spike in December 2006 being followed by a huge trough in January 2007 following the 3% VAT hike. After that retail sales have never really fully recovered, suggesting that raising consumer taxes may not be as harmless a move as many seem to have thought, and is certainly not the most advisable way to finance the fiscal liabilities presented by population ageing.

If we now turn to industrial production - which, as I say has really been at the heart of the current German expansion - we find that output declined for a third consecutive month in May. Seasonal and inflation adjusted output was down 2.4 percent from April, when it fell 0.2 percent, according to data from the Economy Ministry in Berlin this morning. That is the larges month on month fall since February 1999. Output was up 0.8 percent on May 2007, on a working day adjusted basis.

Manufacturing output was down 2.6% month on month, while construction was up 1% from April, but construction in April was already at a very low level. The seasonally adjusted index peaked in February, and has since been declining, as can be seen in the chart below.

Coming to employment, German unemployment declined in again in June, pushing the jobless rate to its lowest level in almost 16 years. The number of people out of work, adjusted for seasonal changes, fell 38,000 from May to 3.27 million.

And employment is still increasing. There were a total of 40.19 million people employed in Germany in May, an increase of 619,000 (or 1.6%) on May 2007. Compared with April 2008, the number of persons in employment was by 111,000 ( or 0.3%).

Thus the German job creation machine continued to function in May, although at a slightly slower pace than in previous months. From January to March this year, the number of persons in employment each month was by 1.8% higher than in the corresponding month of the previous year, while in April and May 2008 the increase had dropped slightly to 1.6% on April and May 2007. It is too early at this point to decide definitevely whether the current trend can be considered to mark a general slowdown on the labour market. At least part of the slowdown can probably be explained by the fact that the winter months had been unusually employment-friendly because of the mild weather, so that the usual upturn in spring was smaller, although of course this also means that growth in the earlier months of the year was not as stong as appears at first sight.

When looking at the unemployment numbers it is also important to bear in mind that the German labour force is now near its historic peak, and will now steadily decline. An indication of this can be found in the chart below where it can be seen that the rapid growth in the population available for work which characterised the years between 1997 and 2005 has now come to an end, and since 2005 the numbers have been stagnating.

This stagnation in the potential labour force (before an eventual decline if immigration is not leveraged to facilitate growth) is also a reflection of the fact that Gernamy's population is now, slowly but steadly, declining, and has been declining since Q4 2004, as can be seen in the chart below.

The only way to really swim against the stream in these conditions and to continue to achieve sustained GDP growth is by raising labour productivity, but this has been one of the weak spots in the current expansion. Overall labour productivity (price-adjusted gross domestic product per person in employment) rose only very slightly - by 0.1% - in Q1 2008 as compared with a year earlier, although as measured per hour worked, there was an increase by 0.8% (this is because the number of hours worked by those in employment rose much less than the number of persons in employment). The bootom line here is that a lot of the new jobs Germany has been creating are part time and temporary work, often in relatively low value activities.


The core of the German economy, and the principal driver of its GDP growth, is its export sector. Basically, as a crude first approximation, when German exports do well, the German economy grows, and when they don't it falters. In part this is simply the natural corrolary of the fact that German household consumption has remained congenitally weak. The chart below should make this relative co-movement reasonably clear.

Now in April, which is the latest month for which we have data, German exports continued to grow on a year on year basis, led by demand from countries outside the 27-member European Union. Sales abroad, on a seasonal and working day adjusted basis were up 1.2 percent in April over March, when they had fallen back 0.8 percent on February. April exports rose 14 percent on a year on year basis.

One interesting data point is that during the period January to April exports to countries outside the EU increased 11.6 percent from a year earlier (and by 18% April on April) while exports to EU countries rose 5.8% percent, and to the eurozone alone only 4.6%.

If we go back to 2007, which is the last period for which we really have a detailed breakdown of the export data, about three quarters of German exports went to European countries, and 65% went to the member states of the European Union. The second market after Europe was Asia with a share of about 11%, followed closely followed by the United States, with a share of approximately 10%.

So Europe (whether inside the EU or not) is the key to German growth, and this, of course, is one of the reasons why German exports have been so resilient to the rising value of the euro, since (at least until the problems of the property slowdown started to hit the value of the pound sterling) even those coutries who did not share the common currency (like the UK or most of Eastern Europe) had currencies which had by and large appreciated side by side with the euro itself. Of course all of this has now started to change, the UK has its own problems, and inside the eurozone, Spain and Italy are no longer increasing the volume of German products they buy in the way they were even six months ago.

On the other hand, even as some of the traditional customers have begun to falter, new ones have arrived to take their place to some extent, and in particular here new members of the European Union and Russia. To put things in perspective a little, in 2007, and despite all the talk about the "China factor", Germany exported roughly the same quantity of products to the Czech Republic ( 26,026.6 million euro) - population circa 10 million - as it did to China (29,922.7) - population circa 1.3 billion.

A detailed comparison of relative performance between 2006 and 2007 is even more revealing. Of particular interest is, for example, the fact that exports to China only increased by 8.7% in 2007 while exports to the Czech Republic rose at almost double the Chinese rate ( 16.9%). The importance of United States as an export destination, on the other hand, declined, since exports to the US were down from 78 billion euro in 2006 to 73.3 billion euro in 2007, a decrease of 6%. Exports to Poland (another important destination for German exports with 36 billion euro in 2007) were up 25.2%. Spain was also up considerably (as was Italy), rising from 42 billion euro in 2006 to 48 billion euro in 2007 (up 14.2%). The Russian Federation also stands out outside the EU, with exports there rising from 23 billion euro in 2006 to 28 billion euro in 2007, that is an increase of 20.6%. It is clear that the rate of increase of German exports to Russia has accelerated even further during 2008.

Now the list I have just gone through is scarecly a randomly chosen one. The decline in importance of the United States as an export destination for both Germany and Japan - which are the world's No 3 and No2 economies respectively (and both are CA surplus export-driven economies) - surely has some implications for the whole decoupling-recoupling debate.

Also, the dependence of the German economy for exports growth on Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, Italy and Spain - all of which may find themselves with economic issues in 2008 of greater or lesser importance - is surely more than a minor detail, and the evolution of the east european and latin economies needs to be closely monitored for what they can tell us about the future path of the German one. At this point it is clear that German exports have been labouring in recent months more under the difficulties produced by the slowdown in Spain, Ireland and the UK than they have been suffering the direct consequences of reduced demand in the US.

Q1 2008 GDP

As I reported in detail here, the German economy started 2008 with what seemed on the face of it to be considerable momentum, since on a price, seasonal and calendar adjusted basis gross domestic product (GDP) was up by a very large 1.5% in the first quarter of 2008 over Q4 2007.

Perhaps rather surprisingly, economic growth in the first quarter of 2008 was primarily supported, not by exports, but by gross fixed capital formation. Compared with the fourth quarter of 2007, investment in machinery and equipment was up by 4%, and capital formation in construction by 4.5%. The latter, it has been suggested, being partly the result of a comparatively mild winter. Overall final consumption expenditure increased by 0.5% q-o-q, the first such rise in over a year, however breaking this down we find that government final consumption expenditure was up markedly (+1.3% q-o-q), while the final consumption expenditure of households showed a rather smaller increase (+0.3% q-o-q). But the big "little secret" of the German Q1 2008 data is that inventory levels were up sharply, and inventory building added a substantial 0.7% points (of the 1.5% total) to growth in the first quarter. Obviously this situation is most likely to be corrected in Q2, and this, together with the steady slowing of general economic momentum, is undoubtedly the reason Deputy Economy Minister Walther Otremba is predicting a contraction in Q2.

Exports continued to grow (+2.4%) but since imports rose even more strongly (+3.5%), foreign trade actually had a downward effect on gross domestic product in Q1 2008 when compared with the preceding quarter. So whatever else the Q1 headline number was about, for once this was not an exports story.

So we can draw two conclusions from all this rigmorole: firstly it would be far from in order to announce the Q1 2008 result as strong evidence for anything very important about the Germany economy or its future trajectory, and secondly, given that the inventory correction is virtually bound to take place (and that early construction momentum has almost certainly not been maintained - construction output was down 2.9% in April over March and by 2.3% over April 2007, and only bounced back 1% in May over April, so was still under the March level) we should not interpret a negative number in Q2 as meaning that Germany is actually entering recession at this point. Global trade is still growing (not as fast as previously, but still growing) and German exports are still sufficiently resilient at this point for this eventuality to be very likely.

For the German economy to enter recession the global economy will need to slow further - which all the signs are that it most probably will do, as country after country falls into the grip of higher inflation and increased central bank monetary tightening.

The important point to understand about the export sensitivity of the German economy is that this is a by-product of permanently weak household demand, which is, in my opinion, associated with the progressiving ageing and numerical stagnation of the German population.

Government Debt

Among the sources of support for the German economy in the coming quarters we should not count on the possibility of fiscal loosening. Germans debt to GDP ratio was 65% in 2007, down significantly from the 67.8% peak hit in 2005, and Germany has been gradually move the fiscal books back into balance (0% deficit in 2007) after four years of breaching the EU's 3% deficit limit (2002-2005). We should not expect any enthusiasm from the German government for hitting reverse gear at this point.

Indeed Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück is forecast this week to unveil a even tighter-than-expected 2009 budget in an attempt to stay on track with the target of completely eradicating the federal deficit by 2011. The draft budget will be put to the German cabinet on Wednesday and is thought to envision total federal spending in 2009 of €288.4bn, up 1.8 per cent from this year. The deficit is forecast to fall by €1.4bn to €10.5bn. The finance ministry’s four-year fiscal plan is said to be little changed from earlier versions and foresees a fall in the deficit to €6bn in 2010 and zero from 2011 onwards despite an average yearly increase in spending of 1.5 per cent.


There seems to be a general consenus at the present time that the German economy is slowing. Where there is no real consensus is over the rate at which it is slowing and where and when the slowdown will settle. It is already clear, however, that GDP growth in 2008 will be below the heady 2.9% annual rate achieved in 2006, or the 2.5% clocked up in 2007.

The median of five forecasts published in June by the major German economic institutes sees growth in the German economy this year of 2.2%. This really now seems a highly optimistic number, especially bearing in mind the economy may in fact have shrunk in the second quarter after expanding 1.5 percent in the first three months, according to the recent statement of Deputy Economy Minister Walther Otremba.

I personally will be very surprised if we see growth at or near the 2.2% the institutes are forecasting (and much less the 2.5% put forward in the now somewhat dated EU commission April forecast, although Eurostat now have a 1.8% forecast pencilled into their database). I even consider the 1.7% from the OECD and 1.9% from Morgan Stanley to be still on the high side given the extent of downside risk and the sort of real economy data we are now seeing.

At the start of the year the German government was reckoning on a growth rate of 1.7 per cent, while Peer Steinbrück is basing himself on 1.2% for the draft budget.

“Now the president of the Bundesbank told the cabinet it might be 2 per cent, to my surprise,” Peer Steinbrück informed the Financial Times in an interview this week. “For my 2009 budget, I estimated growth at around 1.2 per cent, which accounts for all the downside risk ... Some people say it might be 1.4 or 1.5.”

Obviously I am one of the people in question, since I would go much nearer to the 1.4% rate forecast by the IMF in its April World Economic Outlook forecast, and my reasoning would be as follows. We have already had 1.5% growth in the first quarter, but we may have a negative number to put next to it in Q2. Lets make a guess: -0.2%. That brings us back to around 1.3% (its not as simple as this in practice, but bear with me for a second). So then, what if we get, say, a reasonably positive Q3: 0.4% expansion, say. But what then if we get a contraction in Q4? Then everything would depend on the rate of contraction.

Well, there's a lot of guessing going on here, and we will be a little clearer when we get the Q2 number, but the basic structure of the situation is, I think, the one I am suggesting here. Very weak (and possibly negative) growth in Q2 followed by a "bounce back" in Q3, and then a second negative quarter in Q4, a quarter which could well by that point be the first of two consecutive quarters of negative growth, that is the first part of a recession.

In addition all the indications suggest that German consumption will continue to be weak throughout 2008. So if consumer consumption is at best flat, government consumption equally so, and investment and construction weakening, we are simply lefy with export growth, and here the outlook is definitely more negative in 2008 than it was in 2007. So I would say that, based on current data, 1.4% growth in Germany in 2008 looks to be a reasonable estimate at this point, and if there is risk to this call, then I would say that it was mainly downside.

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