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Blog Carsten Brzeski

German economy surges in Q1

Still outpacing the Eurozone. The German economy grew by 0.7% QoQ in the first quarter of 2016, from 0.3% QoQ in the final quarter of 2015. The strongest quarterly performance since the first quarter of 2014 and stronger growth than the Eurozone’s 0.6% QoQ growth performance. On the year, GDP was up by 1.6% (in working day adjusted terms). The GDP components will only be released at the end of the month but judging from the available monthly data and the statistical agency’s press release, growth in the first quarter was mainly driven by domestic factors. Particularly, activity in the construction sector boomed on the back of the mild winter weather.

The latest recovery of the German economy lasts already for seven quarters. Without the small stagnation in the second quarter of 2014, the economy could now look back at twelve consecutive quarters of economic growth. Very impressive. Moreover, during this lucky streak, the growth drivers have changed. Initially boosted by strong industrial production and exports, the economy is currently much more driven by private consumption, construction and a bit of exports. The industrial backbone has weakened significantly. Looking ahead, at least in the near term, this new growth mix should further support growth.

Against this background of a long and strong growth performance, it does not really come as a surprise that many German policymakers have become complacent, some even big-headed, or at least not being very open for criticism or proposals to further improve the economic performance. In fact, today’s data provide new ammunition for the proponents of ‘there is no need for change’. Such an attitude stands in sharp contrast with the latest round of international pressure on Germany to implement some change. After criticism on Germany’s high trade surplus and rather naive recommendations to reduce the deficit, it was then a call to increase domestic wages and investments and has now become a clear disclosure of Germany’s lack of structural reforms. First, there was the OECD calling for tax reductions. Now, very recently it has been the IMF proposing infrastructure investments and new reforms in the labour market and the pension system. While the first two phases of international criticism were easily shaken off by many German policymakers, the latest phase is actually hitting the bull’s eye. It hits the German economic establishment in the heart as they have always been the most vocal advocates of structural reforms elsewhere. Now structural reforms are coming home and it will be interesting to watch what the official reaction to the latest IMF proposals will be. After all, it has always been the German government asking for IMF involvement in the euro crisis management, due to the IMF’s uncontested expertise. However, roughly one year ahead of the next national elections, there is the risk that no new reforms will be implemented before the elections. If true, it could eventually turn out be a missed unique opportunity. Implementing new reforms in good times is always easier then implementing them in bad times. Unfortunately, it almost never happens.

Today’s data are another sign of Germany’s economic strength. At least at first glance. The economy defied the financial market turmoil at the start of the year as well as the Chinese slowdown. Even if many Germans don’t want to hear it, strong domestic activity is also the result of the ECB’s loose monetary policy. At second glance, however, the strong growth performance also shows what currently is the biggest risk for the German economy: complacency. Ironically, with growth driven by construction and consumption and a government which is reluctant to follow up on international advice to implement structural reforms, the German economy has almost started to resemble peripheral characteristics.