Relief and fears for future after Germany dodges recession

The German share price index DAX graph is pictured at the stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, in this Aug.19, 2019 file picture. — Courtesy photo
The German share price index DAX graph is pictured at the stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, in this Aug.19, 2019 file picture. — Courtesy photo

BERLIN — Germany on Thursday dodged a technical recession with a slight third-quarter growth, leaving analysts divided over whether sunnier skies or further months flirting with a downturn lie ahead for Europe's biggest economy.

Defying forecasts of a second quarterly contraction in a row in July-September, growth of 0.1 percent was "a hefty, but happy surprise," analyst Jens-Oliver Niklasch of LBBW bank commented.

"In recent months, there were growing hints that other economic sectors were not infected by weakness in industry."

Germany's export-oriented manufacturing industries have been sapped by trade wars between the US, EU and China and Brexit uncertainty, among other factors.

But unemployment hovering at historically low levels, rising wages and a strong services sector have limited the resulting pain at home.

As in the past, "positive impulses came above all from consumption" by households and the state in the third quarter, Destatis said in a statement.

Exports and construction also expanded, while investments in new equipment fell compared with April-June.

The game of two halves in the German economy has limited trade wars' impact on government growth forecasts.

But Berlin is still expecting just 0.5 percent growth this year and last month revised down its projections for 2020 to a 1.0 percent expansion, compared with previous forecasts of 1.5 percent.

Pointing to revised second-quarter GDP figures, which showed a sharper fall than previously thought at 0.2 percent, analyst Andrew Kenningham of Capital Economics warned that "a recession may have been postponed rather than avoided altogether".

"Prospects for the coming quarters remain poor," he added, highlighting still-weak surveys of business confidence.

But most of the uncertainty plaguing German business can be traced to foreign sources, like knock-on effects from the US' massive ramping-up of tariffs on Chinese imports, and fear of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.

President Donald Trump has talked up a Washington-Beijing truce in recent weeks, saying on Wednesday that "our trade agreement with China is moving along very rapidly".

Meanwhile, Brexit has been pushed back to January 31.

A London-Brussels deal is ready to be signed if Prime Minister Boris Johnson secures a majority in elections on Dec. 12.

"Economic policy uncertainty across the globe has started to come off its August peak," while indicators "have also started to signal the eurozone downturn could hit the bottom soon," said economist Florian Hense of Berenberg bank.

"While all could still go wrong, less bad political news and stabilizing data bode well for the German and eurozone economy in 2020."

Given the dangers, calls have grown from economists and international institutions for Berlin to grab a policy lever within its control by boosting spending.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has since 2014 stuck rigidly to a balanced-budget dogma known as "black zero", even stricter than a "debt brake" rule written into the constitution in 2009.

A panel of expert economists known as the "Wise Men" earlier this month advised Merkel to loosen the tough no-new-debt policy "in case of a broad, deep recession", although they saw no such danger as yet.

Newly-installed European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde sent a stronger message on October 30.

She said "countries with chronic budget surpluses like the Netherlands and Germany" need to increase spending to redress "imbalances" in the eurozone, echoing calls from national leaders like French president Emmanuel Macron.

Merkel has so far ignored the growing chorus.

During the G7 summit in August, she said Germany "cannot live sustainably beyond our means" and must be able to finance state pensions for an ageing population.

"After 10 years of almost unstoppable economic growth, a shorter period of stagnation is not necessarily a big crisis," economist Carsten Brzeski of ING bank commented.

But unlike during the recession of 2008-09, "this time around the German economy is not structurally sound and healthy. It is in the middle of severe disruption and structural changes" in vital sectors like carmaking, Brzeski added.

In the end, the government will remain on the hook, he predicted.

"These challenges can either be tackled by a pro-active investment package or later with a more retrospective fiscal initiative to cushion the adverse effects." — AFP