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The export-dependent economy has taken a substantial hit from the stagnation of global trade, with declines in export orders and industrial production. After expanding by an estimated 0.6% in 2019, GDP is projected to grow only by 0.4% in 2020 and 0.9% in 2021. Continuing trade disputes and Brexit uncertainty are weighing on business confidence and investment. Private consumption and construction are expected to stay resilient, but weaknesses in manufacturing will spill over to the rest of the economy. However, in light of the shortage of skilled labour and programmes to support flexibility in working hours, large deteriorations in the labour market are not expected.

Expansionary monetary and fiscal policy will continue to support growth. As investment is needed across a broad range of infrastructure sectors and the economy is slowing, budgetary margins allowed under the debt brake should be used to strengthen long-term growth and facilitate the transition to a low emissions economy.

Weak external demand is offset by domestic forces

Sustained weak world trade growth has contributed to a further reduction of industrial production and a slowdown of the German economy. The outlook for exports remains poor with new orders stabilising at a low level. Business investment has also declined, as manufacturing business confidence has continued to weaken. While the initial decline in production in late 2018 was partly caused by temporary supply disruptions relating to new emission requirements for motor vehicles, the weakness is now more widespread across all of manufacturing. The motor vehicle manufacturing industry faces a structural challenge from the shift toward low-emission vehicles. Although confidence is still high in the service sector, worsening business expectations suggest some spillover from manufacturing, particularly in closely related business services.

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External demand and Industrial production: Germany
External demand and Industrial production: Germany

Source: Statistisches Bundesamt; OECD Economic Outlook 106 database and OECD calculations.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934045392

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Germany: Demand, output and prices
Germany: Demand, output and prices

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934046418

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Domestic markets and labour market: Germany
Domestic markets and labour market: Germany

Source: Ifo Business Survey; Deutsche Bundesbank; and Statistisches Bundesamt.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888934045411

Employment growth slowed over the course of 2019 but remains positive, and the unemployment rate continues to be at a record low. However, the number of vacancies has started to decline in recent months, albeit from a very high level. Firms’ intentions to use the government’s short-time work subsidy scheme have started to pick up. Private consumption is supported by growth in household disposable income due to fiscal measures and wage growth, which exceeded 3% in the second quarter. Headline and core inflation were around 1.5% during the first half of 2019, but fell in the third quarter. Despite an attenuation over the year, consumer confidence is still high. The construction sector has remained robust and business confidence in the sector is strong. Slowing housing investment in the second quarter was largely temporary as relatively mild weather enabled more construction during the winter months and order books are still well stocked.

There is fiscal space to respond to the downturn

With the implementation of various measures from the coalition agreement, such as higher tax allowances, child benefits and pensions, fiscal policy has been expansionary this year. Some of the measures will also stimulate demand in 2020 but to a lesser extent than in 2019. In 2021, a further increase in child benefits and the necessary reform of the solidarity surcharge introduced in the 1990s to finance the costs of reunification will stimulate the economy somewhat.

As the economy is slowing and an investment backlog exists across a broad range of infrastructure sectors, such as broadband internet, roads, schools, housing, energy, waste and water, budgetary margins should be used to strengthen long-term growth, foster regional cohesion and speed up the transition to green, low-emission energy and transport. At the same time, financial and labour constraints on project planning in many municipalities need to be addressed urgently through local training and capacity building. Tight capacity in construction and the labour market also limit the extent to which public investment can be ramped up immediately without raising costs, though this could be alleviated by making use of foreign labour in occupations that restrain output expansion, and it may in any case change if current economic weakness continues. Current spending plans are insufficient to resolve the investment backlog.

Despite the planned law on financial support for mining regions and the climate package, the federal budget is still foreseen to be balanced. Using the available fiscal space, which has expanded with the decline in government borrowing costs, is crucial, as euro area monetary policy is already expansionary with limited scope to do more. Sustained low interest rates amplify financial stability risks from high leverage and accelerating credit growth. The financial supervisor in July 2019 raised the countercyclical buffer to 0.25% to increase the resilience of the banking system.

Enduring weak external demand is a risk to economic growth

As global demand is expected to stay subdued over the projection period, output will grow only modestly in 2020, before picking up gradually in 2021. Unemployment is expected to increase only slightly as the flexible government-supported short-term work programmes absorb some labour market slack as long as the slowdown is temporary. Also, employers will be reluctant to lose skilled employees, as the share of firms seeing a shortage of skilled workers as a risk to business development has risen sharply over the past decade. The strong labour market and modest fiscal measures will support domestic consumption, while housing construction is set to expand to meet unfilled orders as capacity constraints ease. Inflation will remain comfortably below 2%.

Germany’s export-dependent economy is particularly exposed to external risks and a further slowing of global trade. Intensifying trade disputes, a sharper slowdown in China or continued uncertainties around Brexit would worsen the outlook and increase the risk of substantial spillovers to the domestic economy and labour market. Structural shifts in the motor vehicle manufacturing industry are another downside risk and could lead to job losses; conversely, a bounce back is likely if temporary factors prove to be a large part of the recent downturn and if trade uncertainty is resolved.

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