Once the colossus of the global economy, Germany today stares down the barrel of an unprecedented economic crisis, earning the dubious distinction of being the world’s worst-performing major developed economy. The country, which once led the world in high-end exports, now grapples with a shrinking economy, a reality underscored by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. The turn of fortunes follows the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent loss of Moscow’s inexpensive natural gas, a blow that has sent shockwaves through Germany’s energy-intensive industries, long recognized as the manufacturing engine of Europe.
The sudden economic slump in Europe’s largest economy has sparked a wave of criticism and ignited debates on the path forward. Germany, now at the precipice of "deindustrialization," faces the risk of high energy costs and government inaction driving away new factories and high-paying jobs. Christian Kullmann, CEO of major German chemical company Evonik Industries AG, warns of the dire consequences of the loss of cheap Russian natural gas, stating that it has "painfully damaged the business model of the German economy." Amid the external shocks, the cracks in Germany’s foundation, once overlooked during its years of prosperity, have become glaringly apparent.
Germany’s Economic Downturn: From Global Powerhouse to Underperformance
After decades of economic prosperity and dominance in global markets, particularly for high-end products like luxury cars and industrial machinery, Germany finds itself in an unexpected predicament. The country, which once had half its economy running on exports and was renowned for its abundant jobs and thriving government finances, is now considered the world’s worst-performing major developed economy. This comes in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent loss of cheap natural gas, which has dealt a severe blow to Germany’s energy-intensive industries.
An Economic Shockwave
Christian Kullmann, CEO of major German chemical company Evonik Industries AG, warns of a potential "deindustrialization" in Germany. High energy costs and government inaction on other chronic problems could drive new factories and high-paying jobs to other locations. The loss of cheap Russian natural gas, which was crucial for powering factories, has "painfully damaged the business model of the German economy," according to Kullmann.
Several solutions are being hotly debated, including a government-funded cap on industrial electricity prices to manage the transition to renewable energy. However, this proposal from Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck of the Greens Party faces opposition from Chancellor Olaf Scholz and pro-business coalition partner the Free Democrats. Environmentalists argue it would only prolong reliance on fossil fuels.
External Shocks Expose Internal Cracks
The external shocks from the energy crisis and a slowdown in key trade partner China have exposed cracks in Germany’s foundation. Issues like the lagging use of digital technology in government and business and a lengthy process to get renewable energy projects approved have been ignored during the years of success. Moreover, companies are grappling with a severe shortage of skilled labor, with job openings hitting a record of just under 2 million.
Germany’s future now hinges on how it navigates these challenges. Massive clean energy subsidies being offered by the Biden administration to companies investing in the U.S. have sparked concerns that Germany is being left behind in the global competition for the most attractive future technologies. Kullmann states, "We’re seeing a worldwide competition by national governments for the most attractive future technologies — attractive meaning the most profitable, the ones that strengthen growth."
Germany’s current economic scenario serves as a stark reminder of how external shocks can expose and exacerbate internal weaknesses. Moving forward, Germany will need to act swiftly and decisively to address these challenges, particularly in the areas of energy and digital technology. The government will also need to create an environment conducive to investment and technology development to ensure that the country remains competitive on the global stage. This is a pivotal moment for Germany, and the decisions made now will shape the country’s economic trajectory for years to come.