Germany at center of storm as stockmarkets dive

AP News
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Posted: Aug 09, 2011 2:07 PM
Germany at center of storm as stockmarkets dive

For the last year and a half, Germany has been quick to hit the brakes on expensive plans to fight Europe's worsening financial crisis by supporting debt-ridden neighbors with billions of euros in bailout funds and extra credit.

Meanwhile, Germany sailed through the crisis relatively unscathed, recording stellar growth as big companies like BMW AG and Daimler AG showed bumper profits and unemployment sank to its lowest level in years.

Now, with stock markets tanking, the currency union's largest member is starting to feel the pain of a slowing European and global economy, as German companies see waning demand for their exports.

Increasing pressure from Germany's influential manufacturers could make it harder for Chancellor Angela Merkel to keep resisting dramatic Europe-wide moves _ a change with potentially important ramifications for the effort to pull the continent out of crisis.

Since July 22, the day after eurozone leaders decided to give their bailout fund new powers but refused to expand its size, Germany's main stock index, the DAX, has lost 19 percent.

That's worse than the 13 percent drop seen on the FTSE 100 in the U.K., or the 17 percent dive taken by the French CAC-40.

But Merkel's government seems unprepared to take on an even bigger role in fighting the debt crisis. In contrast to France, Berlin has so far ruled out boosting the size of the currency union's bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility.

Such an increase, most analysts say, is necessary to allow the EFSF to effectively intervene in volatile bond markets and help Italy and Spain once it takes over in that role from the ECB.

There is "a certain uneasiness, if not to say unhappiness" with the slow pace of implementation of important economic and financial decisions, said Ralph Wiechers, chief economist at VDMA, an association that represents some 3,000 engineering companies in Germany.

While few of the federation's members are listed on the DAX and have not been direct victims of the recent sell-off, they would quickly feel the pain if fears over the economy lead to cancellation of orders, Wiechers says.

"We need, quite simply, an improved coordination of European economic policy," said Wiechers, adding that European leaders had to stop postponing decisions "from summit to summit."

And yet, German officials have said the implementation of recently decided changes to the EFSF, such as the power to buy bonds or help recapitalize banks, can wait until parliament returns from its summer recess in September _ adding to investor uncertainty as the crisis worsens.

New legislation to strengthen the European Union's limits on government debts and deficits, meanwhile, is foundering in the European Parliament, which has been unable to get states, including Germany, to agree to more automatic sanctions for countries whose finances are on the wrong path.

The difficulties of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to get a handle on their debt troubles has undermined confidence in the economic recovery of both the U.S. and Europe, and triggered fears of a double-dip recession, said Benedicta Marzinotto, a research fellow at Brussels-based economic think tank Bruegel.

For Germany that means waning demand for its expensive cars and machinery in some of its biggest export markets, including the U.S., Italy, Spain and even France.

On Tuesday night, when all other major markets in Europe and the U.S. were back in the green, the DAX had lost another 0.1 percent, its 10th consecutive day in the red. New data, meanwhile, showed that export growth is slowing down.

The Federal Statistical Office said exports in June were up by 3.1 percent to euro88.3 billion ($126 billion) from a year earlier, the smallest increase in 16 months.

"In June we got to feel the first indications of the decreasing global economic dynamism," said Anton Boerner, the head of Germany's exporters' association. The impact of the slowing U.S. economy "will be felt in the coming months," he warned.

Earlier this week, the French central bank said that France, Germany's biggest trading partner, will likely grow only 0.2 percent in the third quarter, just as analysts were warning that the country may soon follow the U.S. in losing its AAA rating.

Italy and Spain saw some relief as the European Central Bank started buying their bonds and stopped their borrowing costs from soaring, but most economist warn that those bond-purchases are only a sticking plaster until the two countries have sorted out their high debt levels and lackluster growth records.

Any more delays on tackling problems will not find much understanding with German companies once they see their profits falling. "When the house is burning down at my firm, I can't just go on holiday," says Wiechers.

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Baetz reported from Berlin. Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this story.