In an increasingly protectionist world, plagued by escalating trade tensions, the export-focused German economy is clearly suffering. We look ahead and explore the investment implications of a weaker German economy.
Over the past 15 years, Germany has moved from being the "sick man of Europe" to being the region's most important growth engine. The shift occurred as the country overcame the challenges of reunification in the prior decade, and reformed the economy in a way that significantly improved its competitiveness.
While the German outperformance was notable in recent years, especially as other eurozone economies were engulfed in the recent sovereign crisis, recent developments challenge this trend. In an increasingly protectionist world, plagued by escalating trade tensions, the German economy is clearly suffering.
The country's well-known Ifo business confidence index has been on a steep downtrend, with the expectations component - highly correlated to gross domestic product (GDP) - falling to the lowest level in a decade in September. The fall in the Ifo came alongside a decline in the composite purchasing managers index (PMI) to 48.5, showing outright contraction in activity. Combined, the PMI and Ifo surveys point to negative quarterly growth in the order of -1.5% annualized late in the third quarter, as shown in Figure 1.
It now seems very likely that Germany will experience a technical recession in mid-2019, with a slight -0.3% annualized GDP decline in the second quarter possibly followed by a deeper fall afterwards.
And chances are rising that the recession will be more prolonged, given the deep slump in global manufacturing and the consequent precipitous decline in German industrial data. Looking ahead, the German economy looks challenged on several fronts:
- Global trade wars: With exports representing around half of the economy, global trade tensions are having an outsized impact on Germany. Some relief in U.S.-China tensions should help the outlook, but at PIMCO we do not expect a full resolution of the conflict anytime soon. This means that any improvement might be only gradual.
- Spillover into services: While the German service sector has held up better than manufacturing, there are signs that the industrial weakness is increasingly spilling into the rest of the economy (as signaled by the recent 3.4-point fall in the German services PMI to 51.4). The banking sector could be further challenged in this context, in light of already weak profitbility and the need for several banks to restructure their business models.
- Structural problems: Selling cars may become more challenging going forward as more climate-change-sensitive generations forego owning a car, or opt for electric vehicles, where other countries are currently at the forefront in terms of technology. Also, as Western economies become less capital-intensive and more technology-dependent, demand for industrial machinery may be dented. Europe has seen a dearth of IPOs in recent years.
- European neighbours will not be of much help: Germany's neighbours are hardly significant engines of growth, with Italy experiencing significant structural growth headwinds, France needing to recoup losses in competitiveness that have built since the inception of the eurozone, and Spain improving but not being big enough to lift the region. In this context, the eurozone composite PMI in September dropped 1.8 points to 50.1, a level consistent with stagnant GDP.
Our base case for Germany over the next year is one of gradual improvement, given the potential easing of trade tensions through 2020, and monetary stimulus getting some traction. But the reacceleration is likely to be slow…
To read on and discover what is ahead for the German economy and investment implications of a weaker economy, see our full article: Germany: Back to "Sick Man of Europe"?
Mr. Mai is an executive vice president in the London office and a sovereign credit analyst in the portfolio management group. He leads sovereign credit research in Europe, and is a member of the European portfolio committee. He is responsible for formulating key macro views for the region and for identifying and analyzing global macro and investment trends. Prior to joining PIMCO in 2012, Mr. Mai was senior euro area economist at J.P. Morgan for seven years. He started his career as an economist in the U.K. government, in a program run by HM Treasury. He has 17 years of investment and financial services experience and holds a graduate degree in economics from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and an undergraduate degree in economics from the London School of Economics.