BERLIN — Amid crushing unemployment, slashed benefits and deep pessimism about Europe’s future stands one beacon of cheer this holiday season: Germany, where shoppers are spending more than they have in years.
The country whose leaders have the most power to address the euro crisis is also the one that has been most insulated from its effects, resulting in an unhurried pace to address the continent’s problems as others gnash their teeth. While Germany preaches the virtues of governments not spending more than they have, its own means have proved expansive, with unemployment the lowest in decades and government benefits largely untouched.
As cash registers ring with activity, Europe’s largest economy feels far different from its southern neighbors, where shuttered businesses line the streets. The lack of pain among ordinary taxpayers here is contributing to a skepticism that Europe’s ills are truly as urgent as leaders elsewhere on the continent have made them out to be. That sentiment has been reflected in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reluctance to assent to drastic actions to save the currency zone, which the reelection-minded leader knows would be deeply unpopular at home.
German retail sales are up 4.8 percent since June 2009, when they hit a low because of the previous recession, according to data from Eurostat. Spain’s retail sales have declined 10 percent in the same time period, and Greece’s have declined 14 percent. Even in the first 10 months of this year, retail sales in Germany were up, and businesses say that trend has continued into December. A survey of German businesses released Tuesday showed slightly improved optimism, interrupting a slide over the year as they waited for Europe’s problems to hit.
“Germany, amongst all E.U. countries,” has consumers who are “saying it’s a good time to make big purchases,” said Gernot Nerb, an economist at the Ifo Institute, an economic research firm. “It’s astonishing.”
German consumers may not be able to keep spending much longer: Germany’s central bank slashed its 2012 growth estimates last week to near flat, as the world’s economic ills reduce demand for Germany’s exports, and many analysts expect unemployment to start rising again after scraping bottom, 5.5 percent, the lowest since November 1991.
But since that hasn’t yet taken hold, German buyers have continued to be uncharacteristically spendthrift, after years in which their leaders tried to cajole them into buying more and saving less.
“We personally don’t see a need to change our habits” in response to the crisis elsewhere, said Gisela Becker, 62, a schoolteacher, who was shopping with her daughter at a chic clothing store in Berlin’s bustling central district this weekend. “We’re quite optimistic about the future.”
That optimism doesn’t travel much beyond Germany’s borders, as many officials, economists and investors worry about what might happen if a country with a tremendous amount of debt, like Italy, can no longer pay its bills as a result of a spike in borrowing costs. Some worry that such a scenario is only a matter of time.
Economists say that the fastest route to halting the crisis is to allow troubled countries to borrow money with the backing of the euro zone as a whole, through “eurobonds,” or to set loose Europe’s printing presses to unleash a wave of euros that would help push down borrowing costs that in Italy, Spain and elsewhere have soared to euro-era highs in recent months. That would buy time to address the root problems of the crisis, such as poor growth prospects.
German leaders have focused on the euro zone’s root problems first, arguing that the easy fixes would be worse for the currency union in the long run. The head of Germany’s central bank, Jens Weidmann, compared printing more money last month to “sweet poison.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel and her top associates say that if they do not push for reforms now, the euro zone will quickly run into the same problems in the future.
“If the house is burning, you have to call for the firefighters, and help them in their work. But you also have to make up your mind why this fire started,” said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, in an interview in Berlin last week as a summit billed as make-or-break for the euro zone was underway.
At the summit, 26 of the 27 countries of the European Union pledged to follow Germany’s lead in an austerity pact that will force many countries to slim their budgets in coming years. But a proposal for eurobonds was cut at Germany’s insistence, and the agreement contained no short-term relief measures.
Instead, countries have pledged to cut their deficits to near zero and reduce their debt to 60 percent of their economies, steps Germany was already working toward and on which it has made gradual progress. But because Germany has continued to do better than the rest of the euro zone, its brand of austerity is relatively less painful domestically — politicians found money for a tax cut next year, and plan to increase public workers’ Christmas bonus — and significantly harsher for countries like Ireland, which has raised taxes, cut public pay and instituted other tough measures in a bid to get its finances looking more like Germany’s.
Markets this week have bounced up and down as investors struggle to decide what they think of the deal. Some analysts warn that the pact focuses too much on cutting and not enough on growth.
“What we are going to see is very coordinated fiscal austerity,” said Sebastian Dullien, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. “We’re going to have at least half a decade of very strong fiscal retrenchment in the euro area. I think this will have a very strong negative effect on economic growth.”
That, in turn, could quickly impact Germany, since 60 percent of its exports go to fellow members of the European Union. A one-time poor showing at a German debt auction last month rattled the country’s policymakers, and analysts say more pain for Germany could actually create more support here to take the dramatic actions to prop up the euro zone it has thus far been unwilling to do — though some worry that by the time Germany is facing serious problems, the rest of its neighbors will be too far gone for even Germany’s mighty treasury to help them.
For now, German shoppers continue to be a class apart.
“We’ve already made it through,” said Karin Bayerlander, 40, a stay-at-home mother who was recently shopping with her husband in the trendy Hackescher Markt neighborhood of Berlin. “For us personally, since we’re flexible, it’ll all be fine.”
Special correspondent Eva Schroeder contributed to this report.