Not All Germans Love The Euro These Days

Bloomberg View had a good column today on the popularity of the European single currency. The article shows how the euro has gone from being unloved in Germany at introduction in 2002 to well accepted, while the opposite has happened in Italy and France.

But behind the aggregates lie deep fissures that tell a different story. Let me start the conversation on that story here.

Back in the mid-2000s, I started to notice that a lot of manufactured goods that I knew were once made in the USA were increasingly made in China. I had a habit of going through the department store and looking at labels just to see where they were made. Clothes were made in Bangladesh or Vietnam, sometimes Mexico. But plastic toys were all made in China it seemed. Something curious happened when I went to the home appliances section of the store though, because a lot of these goods were actually German products. I’m talking about Oral-B toothbrushes, Braun pop-up toasters and the like. And what I noticed was that – as the decade progressed, a lot of these goods that were once made in Germany started to be made in the Czech Republic or Hungary.

So by the late 2000s, when I went to Germany, I did the same checks I did in the US. The first thing I found was that country of origin labelling wasn’t enforced nearly as assiduously as in the US because a lot of products didn’t say where they came from. But I did notice that the Schleich plastic animals that my daughter collected that had all been made in Germany in the early 2000s were now made in China. And of course, practically all of the appliances were made in Eastern Europe. 

Eastern Europe is to Germany as Mexico is to the United States. The forces of globalization and technology that have buffeted developed economies and that Donald Trump blames on NAFTA and China are at work in Europe as well, with the European expansion eastward helping to relocate manufacturing once performed in what Donald Rumsfeld derided as “Old Europe”. So when people in the US talk about manufacturing jobs moving to Mexico, I think about this.

The big difference though is two-fold –  that the Germans manufacture more than Americans and that they have continued to move up the supply chain to higher value-added manufactured goods as the lower end moved to Eastern Europe. But on that second score, it doesn’t mean a bonanza of good, high-paying manufacturing jobs. Take a look at the chart on the percentage of manufacturing jobs in Germany over the 4 decades to 2012, it is a straight-line decline. 

And you and I both know that the service sector jobs that have replaced those manufacturing jobs offer neither the same level of job security or pay and benefits that the lost manufacturing jobs do. Of course, this is the same picture right across the developed world. Take France and Italy, the other two nations mentioned at the outset, or take the US — the picture is the same.

The reason I make this point is that while I understand the German economy is doing better than the economies in France and Italy, not all Germans love the euro these days. 

Let me give you two examples here. Last night I was listening to the German news and two local stories stood out.

First, on the evening news in Baden-Württemberg, the big news was Siemens cutting half the jobs in Tübingen and relocating those jobs to the Czech Republic. Here’s a German-language article about the move. Now, we’re talking only about 330 jobs here but this is just one high profile case in a cascade of similar moves that have been going on for over a decade. And of course, there were protests at Siemens.

The second story was on the main public broadcaster’s evening news. And this was about GM selling its German operations Opel to the French because they had been loss-making for nearly 20 years. The reporters interviewed workers – with the one making the broadcast saying something like ‘no matter how you look at it, this is going to have an impact on jobs- and not a good one either.’

So that’s what’s going on in Germany right now. And so while the German economy is doing well, not everyone in it is benefitting. In fact, I would argue one of the major reasons the German economy has done well – German manufacturing productivity – is a direct result of wage suppression and job losses that creates an economic distress in the German middle classes which feeds anti-Euro sentiment. What happens if the German economy slumps?

It’s the same in the Netherlands on the politics by the way. The difference is that the Netherlands had a house price crash which led to more distress – and therefore more disenchantment with the main political parties. See my comments from earlier in the week about Dutch citizens visiting food banks, the Dutch equivalent of the US increase in food stamp usage. 

My conclusion? The very solutions to the problem that policy makers are trying to get countries like Greece to take on — and also get France and Italy to adopt as well — are likely to lead to slowing wage growth and economic distress. So the talk about “structural reforms” as a magic bullet are misplaced. The problem is the euro! You can’t have a currency union in which countries give up monetary sovereignty and no robust supranational fiscal transfers because it leads to fiscal impotence for fear of the bond vigilantes. And that makes economic performance even worse when the economy turns down.

European policy makers don’t agree with me though. They like Europe just as it is, without fiscal transfers or eurobonds. So eventually, when the next economic downturn comes, we will have to see how that works out economically. And then we will see what the politics are. I’m betting they will be a lot more anti-euro than they are now – and probably anti-EU as well.

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