Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The German role in the euro-zone crisis

The Economic and Monetary Union that Ireland signed up to under the Maastricht Treaty (1992) and Lisbon Treaty (2009) assumed that the deficit rules of 3 per cent and 60 per cent of GDP for every euro-zone state would be complied with and enforced by means of sanctions that are set out in those treaties.

When Germany and France broke these rules in 2003, the EU treaty sanctions were not applied against them, and they were effectually dropped for everyone else.

Now Germany and France are using the present euro-zone crisis to set about increasing their political sway over the euro zone by changing the whole basis of the Economic and Monetary Union that Ireland signed up to by establishing a permanent €500 billion so-called European Stability Mechanism bail-out fund, surrounded by a framework of controls over national budgetary policy, including a permanent balanced-budget rule (0.5 per cent deficit rule) proposed in the Fiscal Compact Treaty.

Remember that, under the Lisbon Treaty, in two years’ time Germany’s vote in making EU laws, as well as voting in euro-zone matters will double, from its present 8 per cent to 16 per cent, while that of France and Italy will go up from 8 to 12 per cent.

And Ireland’s vote? Cut by half, to 1 per cent.

But what about the German economic model?

Here is a typical portrayal, by Martin Hart-Landsberg at

As growing numbers of countries face renewed austerity pressures, there is a tendency to explain the trend by searching for specific policy failures in each country rather than considering broader structural dynamics.

Key to the credibility of those who argue for a focus on national decisions is the existence of countries that people believe are performing well. Thus, the argument goes, if only policy makers followed best practices their people wouldn’t find themselves in such a bad place. Recently, German has become one of these model countries.

Here is a typical framing of the German experience:
At a time when unemployment rates in France, Italy, the UK, and the US are stuck around 8%–9%, many are turning to the apparent miracle in the German labor market in search of lessons. In 2008–09, German GDP plummeted 6.6% from peak to trough, yet joblessness rose only 0.5 percentage points before resuming a downward trend, and employment fell only 0.5%. In August 2011, the standardized unemployment rate was about 6.5%, the lowest since the post-reunification boom of 20 years ago.
In other words, Germany seems to be doing things right. Despite suffering a deep decline it actually enjoyed a lower unemployment rate. So, how did it do it? Often cited are recent German policies which have increased labour market flexibility.
But are these the best practices that should be adopted elsewhere? One way to answer that question is to look at what these changes have meant to German workers.
A Reuters report concluded: “Job growth in Germany has been especially strong for low wage and temporary agency employment because of deregulation and the promotion of flexible, low-income, state-subsidised so-called ‘mini-jobs’.”
The number of full-time workers on low wages—sometimes defined as less than two thirds of middle income—rose by 13.5% to 4.3 million between 2005 and 2010, three times faster than other employment, according to the Labour Office.
Jobs at temporary work agencies reached a record high in 2011 of 910,000—triple the number from 2002 when Berlin started deregulating the temp sector . . .
Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows low-wage employment accounts for 20% of full-time jobs in Germany compared to 8.0% in Italy and 13.5% in Greece . . .
One out of five jobs is a now a “mini-job,” earning workers a maximum 400 euros a month tax-free. For nearly 5 million, this is their main job, requiring steep publicly-funded top-ups.

“Regular full-time jobs are being split up into mini-jobs,” said Holger Bonin of the Mannheim-based ZEW think tank.
And there is little to stop employers paying “mini-jobbers” low hourly wages given they know the government will top them up and there is no legal minimum wage.

As the New York Times astutely reported,

But hidden behind the so-called German economic miracle is an underclass of low-paid employees whose incomes have benefited little from the country’s stability and in fact have shrunk in real terms over the last decade, according to recent data.

And because of government policies intended to keep wages low to discourage outsourcing and encourage skills training, the incomes of these workers are not likely to rise anytime soon.

That, in turn, means they are likely to continue to depend on government aid programs to make ends meet, costing taxpayers billions of euros a year.

The paradox of a rising tide that does not lift all boats stems in part from the fact that Germany has no federally set minimum wage. But it also has its roots in recent German politics, which have favoured measures to keep unemployment low and win support from employers . . .

The Confederation of German Employers’ Associations says the introduction of a minimum wage would push up labour costs and lead to more unemployment. Jobs would simply move out of Germany and to Eastern Europe or Asia.

An ILO report, Global Employment Trends, 2012, shows the connection between these policies and the euro-zone crisis.

For they have not only taken a toll on German workers, they have also greatly contributed to the crisis in Europe. The low wages and insecure employment conditions have enabled German employers to boost exports and limited imports.

The ILO report concludes:

The rising competitiveness of German exporters has increasingly been identified as the structural cause underlying the recent difficulties in the Euro area. Crisis countries had not been able to export enough of their goods to Germany as domestic demand there was not strong enough because of low wages. 
German policies to keep down wages had created conditions for a prolonged slump in Europe as other nations on the continent increasingly saw only even harsher wage deflation as a solution to their lack of competitiveness.

The report called on Germany to enact swift changes.

“An end to a low-wage policy would create positive spill-over effects to the rest of Europe and restore a more equitable income distribution . . . An end to a low-wage policy would create positive spillover effects to the rest of Europe and restore a more equitable income distribution.”

As the chart shows, German wages have been stagnating for more than a decade. No wonder Germany has been exporting so successfully and other countries in Europe have found it difficult to compete.

While German politicians blame these other countries for their problems, the fact is that German growth has depended on the high consumption and borrowing in those other countries.

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