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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Exports And Investment Drag German GDP Down In First Quarter

By Edward Hugh: Barcelona

German exports and investment spending plunged in the first quarter, dragging Europe’s largest economy into its deepest economic slump on record.

Exports were down 9.7 percent from the fourth quarter and company investment declined 7.9 percent, according to the Federal Statistics Office. The Office reported that gross domestic product fell a seasonally adjusted 3.8 percent from the previous three months, confirming an initial estimate from May 15. That’s the largest drop since quarterly data were first compiled in 1970.

From October to December 2008, the German economy had already contracted by 2.2%, and by 0.5% in each of the the second and third quarters.

According to the statistics office, the decline in economic performance was mainly due to movements in the balance between exports and imports of both goods and services. As in the fourth quarter of 2008, German exports fell much more than German imports in the first three months of this year. While exports declined 9.7 % year on year, imports were down 5.4%, so that the chnaged balance of exports and imports contributed minus 2.2 percentage points to the decline of GDP.

The negative first quarter evolution was also characterised by a notable decline in investments (– 7.9%, quarter on quarter). Capital formation in machinery and equipment, in particular, was much lower than in the last quarter of 2008. Companies invested 16.2% less in machinery, equipment and vehicles than in the last quarter of 2008.

The decline in capital formation in construction was small in comparison with a drop of 2.6% on the quarter. Inventories were also run down considerably during the quarter, thus reducing growth by 0.5 percentage points. Growth was positive only only for household consumption and government consumption, which up by 0.5% and 0.3% respectively.

Year on year, German GDP was down by 6.7% in the first quarter of 2009. After calendar-adjusted, the figure is 6.9% , since there was half a working day more in the first quarter of 2009 than there was in 2008 (easter impact minus the leap year effect).

39.9 million people were employed in Germany during the first quarter, an increase by 48 000 persons (or 0.1%) on a year earlier. The number of unemployed (ILO definition) was just under 3.4 million, 7.8% of the entire economically active population.

The recession in Germany has hit industrial activity (including energy) particularly hard, and output was down 20.2% over the first quarter of 2008. Marked declines in real gross value added were recorded also by construction (– 8.9%) and by trade, transport and communications (– 6.4%). Financial, real estate, renting and business activities fell much less - by 0.9% compared with the first quarter of 2008.

In contrast to the bleak picture for investment, fixed capital formation and German exports, final consumption expenditure was ever so slightly up quarter on quarter - by 0.1% - and even did slightly better than in the last quarter of 2008 (– 0.0%).

On a year on year basis, household consumption was marginally down though - by 0.1% (following a 0.5% drop in the fourth quarter of 2008), but general government consumption expenditure was up by 0.8%.

The Long Term Outlook

The first-quarter drop in GDP marked an unprecedented fourth successive quarterly contraction for Germany’s economy. The government expects the economy to contract 6 percent this year, while ECB council member Axel Weber said earlier that while “rays of light” are positive, there’s “no reliable indication that the global economy is past the worst.” The euro-region economy may only “gradually stabilize during the latter part of 2009.”

The longer term decline in German GDP performance is now pretty clear (see chart below).

According to the Federal Statistics Office:

Measured in terms of gross domestic product changes at 1995 prices, the rates of economic growth in the former territory of the Federal Republic of Germany and - since 1991 - in Germany have continuously declined since 1970. While the average annual change was 2.8% between 1970 and 1980, it amounted to 2.6% between 1980 and 1991 and to 1.5% between 1991 and 2001.

Since 2001 the performance of the German economy has in fact been worse rather than better, much to the consternation of those who hoped that many years of sacrifice in the form of wage deflation and structural reform would lead to a rebirth of the country's former economic prowess. In reality the German economy shrank (0.2%) in 2003, and grew by only around 1% in both 2004 and 2005. And while the German economy picked up notably in 2006 and 2007 (with growth rates of 3.2% and 2.6% respectively) and many talking in terms of such grandiose notions as global uncoupling and "Goldilocks" type sustainable recoveries, the most striking feature of the recent German dynamic has been the way that internal demand failed to respond to the externally driven export stimulus. Of course, all the speculation came to an abrupt end in 2008 when the German economy once more entered recession as world trade expansion slowed and exports collapsed (with GDP only growing by 1% over the year), while 2009 looks set to be a lot worse (with the IMF currently forecasting a contraction somewhere in the region of 5%, and forecasts of up to minus 7% not seeming exaggerated).

What we seem to have here is "engine faliure" rather than mere "magneto problems" (using Claus Vistesen's memorable phrase for a very similar situation in the Japanese economy, and it would be nice if the current crisis could serve as the stimulus for an open, and "in the real world" debate about why this is. So some part of the traditional mechanism of economic transmission seems to have been broken, and the "second leg" of the economic cycle, the domestic consumtion driven one, seems no longer to work. Long term GDP growth rates in the German economy are clearly falling, and the decline looks clearly set to continue. Now falling and ageing population couldn't have anything to do with it, could it?