How to be more German

The How To Issue: Britain is broke; Germany is a roaring success. Should we be more like the Germans?

by Matthew von Gwyther
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Who wouldn't want to be a German at the moment? Britannia is broke and rudderless, while the Germans are solvent and in the driving seat.

As the rest of Europe wallows in the misery of downturn, the virtuous German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble has announced his government will come very close to balancing the budget in the Federal Republic this year.

Unemployment is very low: in December it was 6.8%, the lowest figure since 1991. The fact that the nation has achieved this while absorbing the cost of reunification and improving the dismal Stalinist mess that was East Germany is truly remarkable.

The euro crisis has shifted the centre of power in Europe eastwards from Brussels. So Berlin and its values are being imposed on the rest of us. Thus, you might think it's time we all learned How to be More German.

Michael Lewis in his entertaining book Boomerang (Penguin) bagged a rare interview with Jorg Asmussen, Germany's deputy minister of finance, who noted of the run-up to 2007's crash: 'There was no credit boom in Germany. Real estate prices were flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. This behaviour is totally unacceptable in Germany. This is what the German people are. This is deeply in German genes. It is perhaps a leftover of the collective memory of the Great Depression and the hyperinflation of the 1920s.'

So what is it about the German way that has made the nation such a success?

Frugality

 

The rest of Europe may be giving it a reluctant try but Germans understand austerity as a way of life. They just don't do showy, devil-may-care, spendthrift behaviour. While the British maxed out on credit cards, the Germans still frown upon use of the plastic evil. Many shops don't take them.

A classic national stereotype is the schwabische Hausfrau - the thrifty Swabian housewife from the south-west who shops at Lidl, darns her own socks and keeps a close eye on the household budget.

At the domestic level, if you are invited to a dinner party given by ordinary Germans, they are highly unlikely to bring out the River Cafe cookbook and lay on costly bresaola and Barolo. The conversation may be Teutonically sparkling, but you'll get pork, potatoes and cabbage, the same kind of food as your hosts eat every night.

This is epitomised by the Chancellor, former East German Angela Merkel, who continues to live in a modest flat and tries to make her husband a nice supper at home when she isn't detained by other matters, such as bailing out feckless Greeks who resolutely refuse to become more German by paying a few taxes and spending a little less.

Germans are not fixated by house-ownership

 

The origins of the bust in Britain, Spain and Ireland lay in an unsustainable property boom.

Germans lack the British obsession with house ownership and often prefer to rent. In Germany, home ownership is about 42% of housing stock, one of the lowest levels in Europe. (In Berlin, rented homes make up 90% of the residential market.)

In the UK, the owner-occupier figure is 69%. Over the past 10 years, the price of UK residential property has nearly doubled, while in Germany it has risen by a mere 2% to 3%.

Having so much capital locked up in housing is not a productive way to run an economy. The Brits and Irish were also past masters at equity release from property before the bust, releasing even more hot money into the lava pit.

Germans don't allow themselves to be run by the banks

 

Unlike the British or the Americans, the Germans are novices at the casino banking game.

The Germans have never allowed the tail of their finance sector to wag the national German Shepherd. They make things, rather than fiddle with money to create value. And yet German banks were taken to the cleaners by the subprime disaster.

As Lewis writes in Boomerang: 'Wall Street banks devised deeply unfair, diabolically complicated bets and then sent out their salesforces to scour the world for some idiot who would take the other side of the bet. During the boom years, a wildly disproportionate number of these idiots were in Germany...'

When you asked a smart Wall Street subprime mortgage bond trader circa June 2007 who was still buying his crap, he could say simply: "Stupid Germans in Dusseldorf". The Germans don't do duplicity. They couldn't believe such crazy and lethal products would be on sale.

Make BMWs and Mercedes, not Fords, Peugeots or Fiats

 

Nobody exports like the Germans. Between 1998 and 2011, their exports grew by more than 115%. BMW, for example, has just announced record sales in 2012 that totalled 1.85 million cars, up 11% on the year earlier.

The margins Germans make on their manufactured goods are excellent. It costs roughly the same to produce a BMW 5 Series Touring as a Ford Mondeo estate, but the former can sell for way over £50,000, whereas the Ford can be yours for just under 20 grand.

But just hang on a minute...

 

Maybe we need to think carefully before turning our British bulldog into a Dobermann. Former US treasury secretary Larry Summers is wary of too much Germany-worship. 'The German economic model,' he said at Davos, 'is not only unextendable, it is also unsustainable.'

They can live like that but most other Europeans find it impossible to imitate. And, anyway, cutting back on spending at the moment would make our already anaemic economy weaker still.

It isn't all sweet perfection in Germany. Their virtuous behaviour has created its own problems.

Their domestic consumption is weak. The average German is not much better off than 10 or 20 years ago. Real personal disposable income per capita rose by just over 7% from 1998 to 2011, whereas it went up by 13% in Spain.

It is a bizarre fact that, technically, Germany is a 'poorer' country today than it was in 1998. Living standards have not risen for two decades. Wages per employee in Germany fell by 3.3% in real terms between 2002 and 2007, while the rest of Europe was on its irrationally exuberant splurge.

We all had a ball but the Germans did not. They just worked very hard and saved, and they are very angry about being forced to bail out the olive-belt dwellers in the debtors' prison. Despite Merkel's entreaties, plenty of Germans now yearn for a return to the Deutschmark and the ditching of the euro, even if the consequences of doing so would almost certainly be worse than staying put.

It's an inescapable truth that the Germans have been very good at keeping their own house in order but hopeless at running Europe. Unlike the French, they never wanted such a position of power. It makes them profoundly uneasy.

So the Germans remain very reluctant to exercise the political leadership that comes with their economic might and national virtue. And the standards of righteousness required of the weaker members of the EU have proved to be beyond them.

In the long run, when we get back to the sunny uplands of growth, Europe should be a bit more German and Germany a little less so.

We Brits need to buy more ISAs as nest-eggs for retirement and Borussia Dortmund needs to buy a few spoiled celeb players on 200,000 euros a week.

But, in the meantime, the paradox is that if we and the Greeks and the Spanish batten down the hatches and all start behaving like schwabischen Hausfrauen, as Merkel wishes, then this misery is likely to go on for far longer.

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