Only a year ago, the German company Getrag was on the brink of bankruptcy. An auto parts supplier based in southwestern Germany, the company had been hit hard by the economic crisis. Revenues had dropped by 25 percent, to about €2 billion ($2.45 billion), and the company was forced to reduce its workers' hours under the government's "short work" program. Only a state loan guarantee saved Getrag from falling victim to the crisis.
Today the company is inundated with orders. BMW alone orders 140 transmissions a day, even through Getrag can only manage 120 per day. "Week after week, I sign requests by the company to have its employees work on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays," says Frank Iwer of the district office of the metalworkers' union IG Metall in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. Iwer is familiar with many cases like Getrag's: the machine builder that is hiring large numbers of new workers; the manufacturer of packaging machines that has retrieved almost all of its employees from the "short work" program; the small supplier that rehired all 24 workers it had recently laid off because the business climate unexpectedly improved.
Suddenly there is good news coming from German companies again. Some are so busy that they have added extra shifts, while others have shortened their summer shutdown periods to satisfy global demand.
The German economy was more severely affected than most by the global recession -- few other economies are so skewed toward exports and so dependent on the global economy. When the global economy took a nosedive after the near-collapse of the financial markets, the German economy shrank by 5 percent in 2009. Some companies saw revenue declines as high as 50 percent.
Back on Track
But now, the world economy is back on track and growing even faster than expected. Demand for German machines and automobiles has spiked upward. Sales are still not back to pre-crisis levels, and setbacks cannot be ruled out given the tense situation on the financial markets. Nevertheless, Germany's comeback has sparked renewed criticism of the German economic model.
Germans are living at the expense of others, say detractors, because the country's trade surpluses mean that countries with already large deficits will have to borrow even more. The Germans, they say, are also gaining competitive advantages in unfair ways, because of the weak euro and a reluctance to increase wages. On top of all that, Germany refuses to stimulate domestic demand, say critics, which would improve foreign producers' prospects of selling their goods in Germany.
For decades, the Germans were admired around the world for their export industry and high-quality products. Now, that has changed. Now, Germany is seen as an egoist who refuses to play by the rules. Once a role model, Germany is now the global bogeyman.
Leading the charge are US President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. They are supported by Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate in economics, and billionaire George Soros, who cultivates the self-image of the enlightened speculator. They are all calling on countries like Germany to abandon their thrifty policies and launch new economic stimulus programs.
There is also pressure from Europe. Politicians like French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde accuse Germany of growing at the expense of other euro-zone countries. The crux of the accusations is Germany's effort to curb increases in unit labor costs, thus taking market share from others. Greece uses the same argument when blaming Germany for being partly responsible for its dire fiscal problems.
At its heart, the critique is aimed squarely at Germany's export industry. Many economists hold that global trade imbalances are one of the causes of the economic crisis. They are thus calling upon the Germans to do nothing less than embrace an entirely new economic model.
Thrown Out of Balance
It is hard to deny that the world has been thrown out of balance. The United States, for example, has been living beyond its means for decades. It imports far more than it exports, and it pays for this deficit by borrowing from others, mostly China, which has already accumulated foreign currency reserves worth $2.5 trillion.
But if the US is living beyond its means, then, according to this line of thinking, surplus countries like China, Germany and Japan are living well within theirs. They produce more than they consume, which forces them to invest their excess cash abroad -- in American and Greek government bonds, for example.
Surpluses are only possible when others have deficits, and the greater the imbalance, the greater the risk that the growing tensions will eventually erupt. Global leaders agreed to address the problem last September at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. But the question remains: How?
In an ideal world, this occurs automatically through exchange rates. Exports provide a country with profits, resulting in rising wages and more expensive products. This automatically curbs exports. In addition, the leading industrialized nations often require payment for their exported goods in their own currencies. This means that as a country's exports grow, so does the demand for its own currency, thereby increasing the value of the currency. This currency appreciation likewise curbs exports by making them more expensive.
The unfettered interplay of these economic forces produces a tendency toward equilibrium. Competition creates affluence, which in turn counteracts competitiveness.
So much for theory. In practice, the Chinese have invalidated this principle with a trick: Instead of being paid for their exports in their national currency, they are paid in dollars, which they then use primarily to buy American treasury bonds. This keeps the value of the dollar artificially high, while the Chinese yuan remains relatively weak. As a result, Chinese goods are dirt cheap, enabling the country to unseat Germany as global export leader.
A new equilibrium can only develop if China stops keeping its currency artificially undervalued. In the past, the country has consistently rejected the West's demands that it alter its currency policy. But shortly before last weekend's G-20 summit in Toronto, Beijing signaled that it might be willing to budge.
The announcement that the country planned to revalue its currency triggered euphoria on global markets. Disillusionment quickly set in when it became clear that Beijing only intends to make minor adjustments in the value of the yuan. Nevertheless, the move enabled China to redirect criticism toward other countries with trade surpluses, including Japan and, most of all, Germany.
But what should Germany do? The country doesn't have its own currency that it could appreciate to make German exports more expensive.
Even worse, critics say, Germany is benefiting massively from the current weakness of the common European currency. Several member states have gambled away their creditworthiness, resulting in the euro's recent freefall. But the euro's woes are a boon for the German economy, which can now sell exports more cheaply abroad.
Merkel Says Criticism Is One-Sided
Within the euro zone, the lack of an exchange rate balancing mechanism has led to growing tensions as economies develop at different rates. If the euro didn't exist, the deutschmark would likely have become more expensive in recent years, which would have reined in German competitiveness. Many experts believe that if Germany were to withdraw from the euro group today, its currency would immediately appreciate by at least 30 percent, which in turn would lead to a sharp increase in unemployment.
Precisely because Germany derives such great benefit from the common currency, particularly in times of a weak euro, the Germans are now coming under growing pressure to do their part to eliminate the imbalances. Critics say that the Germans should increase wages and borrow more instead of saving.
Germany should bring itself into line with the remaining euro countries when it comes to wage levels and debt, says Heiner Flassbeck, chief economist at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Critics of the German position warn that if this does not happen, and if, instead, the weak emulate the strong by saving more and reducing wages, this could lead to a downward spiral.
Irritating the Chancellor
As is so often the case in economics, the controversy pits two irreconcilable camps against one another. The one faction fears that if governments save too much, the result will be deflation, a vicious cycle of falling prices and shrinking economic output. The other faction is worried that uncontrolled borrowing will hamstring the government and fuel inflation.
When Chancellor Angela Merkel is confronted with accusations that Germany is exporting its way out of the crisis at the expense of its partner nations, her irritation is difficult to miss. In a semblance of fatalistic resignation, she typically rolls her eyes and is likely to ask: "Who exactly has the prerogative of defining when imbalances are serious?"
Merkel argues that nations with deficits bear at least as much of the blame as those with current account surpluses. People in countries with deficits, she says, have lived beyond their means for years, buying cars, houses and stocks on credit, while governments did nothing to slow their greed. The chancellor believes that, in light of demographic changes, the Germans should not be chided, but should in fact be praised for not being as wasteful, for saving their money and for providing for their old age.
Besides, Merkel adds, the relative lack of pay increases in recent years, for which Germany is frequently criticized, is not the result of government economic policy. In Germany, as she points out, wage and salary increases are subject to negotiation between unions and employers' associations, not government decrees. And in her view, Germany's export successes are also not the result of government control. If German companies are successful abroad, says Merkel, this simply proves that they offer decent quality at reasonable prices.
The government believes that the criticism of German surpluses is far too one-sided, because without the German surpluses, the balance of trade for the entire euro zone would not be almost level, as it is, but would be deeply in the red.
By implication, this means that Germany's export success contributes to the stabilization of the common currency. "Since we already have a common European domestic market, we should no longer be treated as an individual nation," says Merkel.
Merkel's economic advisors are also convinced that Germany's trading partners will benefit from the country's export strength as the recovery begins. They argue that if the German economy grows by 2 percent this year, because it will benefit more and earlier from the global economic recovery, income and profits will increase, and Germans will spend at least some of the additional money on foreign products.
Plus, few see much of an alternative to the current economic model. "We cannot slow down the pace so that other countries have more time to do their homework," says Anton Börner, head of the Federation of German Wholesale and Foreign Trade (BGA). If the Germans relinquish their position in global markets, Börner argues, others -- the Koreans, the Indians and, most of all, the Chinese -- will simply pick up the slack.
The rapidly growing Asian economies often expand their industrial capacity under government direction. They build state-of-the-art factories and do everything in their power to acquire the necessary know-now for the latest developments in machine building and auto manufacturing. German industry's competitive advantage shrinks with every newly minted Chinese graduate of a university engineering program.
About 25,000 Chinese are now enrolled in technical universities and regular universities in Germany. "We are feeding the dragon every day," says Carl Martin Welcker, chairman of the German Machine Tool Builders' Association.
It would not do the Americans any good if the Germans lost their export strength. Plus, orders from Asia have become far more important to the German economy then orders from the US.
Jürgen Fleischer bears witness to this new reality. Fleischer heads up European activities for MAG, an international maker of specialist machines, and also has an office on Madison Avenue in New York. But even though MAG generates about half of its sales in the United States, Fleischer hasn't been spending much time at all in his New York office lately.
"China is the key growth market," says Fleischer. "When I'm flying west, the plane is usually half-empty. But when I'm heading east, there are usually two flights in a row."