It is a strange habit of the German statistical office to release GDP data for the entire past year before actually publishing fourth quarter data. According to the just released numbers, German GDP increased by 1.5% in 2015 (in calendar-adjusted terms), from 1.6% in 2014. Without working day adjustments, German GDP increased by 1.7%, from 1.6%. In our view, this outcome suggests that the German economy has probably grown by some 0.4% QoQ in the fourth quarter. However, as no hard data for December has been available so far and the statistical office normal uses extrapolations and historical patterns for its fourth quarter estimates, some downward revisions cannot be excluded. Let’s not forget that the vacation period could have had a negative impact on production in December. Moreover, the statistical office also released a first estimate of Germany’s 2015 fiscal balance, providing more arguments for the critics of too weak German public investment. For the first time since 1961, the German government recorded a fiscal surplus in two consecutive years. According to the statistical office, the fiscal surplus came in at 0.5% of GDP in 2015, from 0.6% GDP in 2014. German austerity fetishists will love it.
Already yesterday, the German government reported a federal fiscal surplus, which at the federal level came in at 12bn euro, instead of the initially planned 5bn euro. Previously, the government coalition had already decided to transfer any surplus from the 2015 budget entirely into the 2016 budget and not using the surplus to reduce government debt. The funds are needed to finance the costs of the refugee inflow, which the government has currently estimated at around 8bn euro. The reported surplus now offers additional financing leeway for another 7bn euro. While initially this additional fiscal room for maneuver will be used as a buffer for the refugee costs, it is obviously also grist to the mills of proponents for more public investment.
Returning to GDP data, today’s numbers almost close the economic year 2015 for Germany. It was yet another year in which the German economy defied earlier swan songs and, despite many headwinds like the Greek crisis, the slowdown in emerging markets and China and increased geopolitical uncertainties, continued the recovery. The year 2015 clearly marks an important step in the rebalancing of the German economy, as private consumption turned out to be an important growth driver (contributing 1.0 percentage points to growth). Still, despite all talks about the strength of the German economy, it took until 2015 before the current expansion has finally become stronger than the last one between 2004 and 2008. Moreover, it would still need at least two more solid years of growth before the cycle between 1994 and 2000 could be equaled.
Looking ahead, the two-speeded recovery, with strong consumption and services on the one hand and sluggish industrial production and exports on the other hand, should continue in 2016. As regards the domestic part of the economy, the year 2016 should bring at least a short-term consumptive stimulus from the refugee inflow and increased government consumption. At the same time, low interest rates, low inflation and high employment should further boost growth. As regards the external and industrial part of the economy, high inventories, subdued order books and weaknesses in several important export markets suggest that the German export sector could soon simply face too many headwinds to prolong the recent success story.
All in all, the German economy has once again defied many external headwinds and performed another solid growth year in 2015. However, there are at least two caveats to today’s positive data: firstly, after several years of stellar performances (at least vis-à-vis the rest of the Eurozone), the German economy has returned to normality, hardly outperforming the Eurozone any longer. And secondly, without any new structural reforms and investments it is hard to see any sharp acceleration of the economy any time soon. This might be as good as it gets. Therefore, any celebrations and self-adulations should remain extremely modest.