German industrial production dropped by a depressing 1.2% MoM in December, putting an end to a rather disappointing year for the German industry. This was the sharpest monthly drop since August 2014. On the year, industrial production was down by 2.2%. Looking at the details, there was only one bright spot in the production of intermediate goods (+0.8% MoM). All other sectors saw a decline in production. Parts of this December drop can be explained by the timing of the Christmas vacation which put parts of the production process on halt for almost two weeks in December. However, the fact that industrial production in the final quarter of the year was almost 1% lower than in the third quarter illustrates the general weakness of Germany’s former growth engine.
At the same time, exports and imports both dropped by 1.6% MoM in December, narrowing the non-seasonally adjusted trade surplus to 18.8bn, from 20.5bn euro in November. December trade data show that German exporters have also started to suffer weaker foreign demand. Nevertheless, contrary to industrial production, the trade performance over the entire year 2015 was still positive. For most parts of the year, German exports benefitted from a weaker euro. Particularly, exports to the US have benefitted from the sharp depreciation of the euro since 2014. As a consequence, the US has become Germany’s most important trading partner in 2015, taking this number one spot from France. In this regard, renewed fears of a Chinese hard landing should not push the German economy into severe problems. Germany currently exports almost twice as much to the US as to China. Interestingly, help to offset weaker demand from emerging economies did not only come from overseas but also from next door. Exports to the Netherlands also increased strongly in 2015, making the Netherlands Germany’s third most important trading partners, taking both exports and imports together.
All in all, this morning’s data were a painful reminder that not all is hunky dory in the Eurozone’s largest economy. In fact, the German “Wirtschaftswunder” has only some domestic magic left. With the strong labour market, low inflation, low interest rates and higher wages, consumption is strong and, in addition, services and the construction sector have become important growth drivers. The German industry, however, is still standing on shaky grounds. While the industry had been able to stomach the cooling of the Chinese economy, the slowdown of emerging markets, the euro crisis and geopolitical risks, it now seems as if extremely low oil prices and the slowdown of the US economy are simply two risks too much for the industry. Particularly, the possible US slowdown could turn out to be the biggest risk for the German economy as it could weaken the country’s most important export driver these days. Moreover, as capacity utilization in the industry is close to historical averages, an imminent investment boost also seems far from certain. Finally, last week’s new orders data combined with dropped product expectations, increased inventories and narrowed order books all do not bode well for industrial production in the coming months.