Germany seizes on big business in China

From foreclosure to food shortages, the economic downturn set in motion by the financial crisis of 2008 is having a broad and deeply-felt global impact.
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 3:50 AM

VERL, GERMANY - As Americans fret over high unemployment and the prospect of another recession, an economic renaissance is putting Germans back to work and propelling the economy at a pace not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ask a German executive why, and you are likely to get the same one-word answer that slips like silk off Gunter Scheipermeier's tongue: "China."

Vilified in the United States as a great sucking sound on the American economy, China is courted here as a revered client. Fast-growing demand from Asia's giant is helping to fuel the strong German recovery, and Germany now stands as proof that a rich nation can profit off China's rise.

China passed the United States last year as the No. 1 overseas market for big-ticket German machinery, with Teutonic titans from Siemens to Volkswagen - which so far this year has sold 1.3 million cars in China, five times as many as it has in the United States - ramping up production and payrolls to fill Chinese orders.

More important, China is driving growth at smaller German manufacturing firms like Scheipermeier's Nobilia that form the true backbone of Europe's largest economy. A family-run company making modular kitchens in a half-mile-long factory, where free-roaming robots work alongside humans on the most advanced assembly line of its kind in the world, Nobilia is treating nouveau riche Chinese like Americans of the 1950s - when nothing said success such as a sparkling, modern kitchen.

At the same time, the company is aiding Germany's domination in the surging Chinese market for imported household goods. Through alliances with other German companies, Nobilia is selling kitchens to the Chinese that fit standard European-size appliances, 24-inch-wide ovens, for example. These kitchens do not accommodate the larger ovens commonly made by U.S. manufacturers and built for American families cooking Thanksgiving turkeys and Sunday rib roasts.

Overdependence on China for exports growth, many here say, could hurt Germany as the economy there eventually cools. And German companies, like their American and Japanese counterparts, are facing increasingly sophisticated piracy threats from a nation where blackmarketeers can copy an entire BMW roadster or Mercedes sedan.

But with showrooms in 17 cities and sales surging 40 percent this year alone, Nobilia now sells more kitchens in China than all but two domestic Chinese manufacturers, with no American challengers in the top 10.

"China is vital to Germany's future," Scheipermeier said. If he has his way, he said, "Chinese duck will be cooked in kitchens more like those designed for German chickens than American turkeys."

A trade competition

One thing is for sure: When it comes to building a healthy trading relationship with China, Germany is cooking America's goose. U.S. exports to the world's second-largest economy surged 25 percent in the second quarter of this year, but German sales to China grew twice as fast. Overall, German exports have jumped 17 percent this year, driven in large part by a 55 percent rise in China of imports. Although the United States still exports more to China in total dollar terms, adjusted for the size of their economies, Germany is now out-exporting the United States to China by a factor of three to one.

Last year, Germany's trade volume with China was $115 billion, while the U.S. trade volume with China was more than $370 billion. Like most nations, Germany suffers a trade deficit with China - or the difference between what it sells and what it buys. But it is nowhere near as much in the red with Beijing as the United States. In fact, during one month this year - February - Germany even came within a narrow $1 billion of chalking up a trade surplus with China.

That is partly because of frugal German consumers, who unlike Americans eschew credit and save like mad. As such, Germany's imports of cheap Chinese toys and TVs are ebbing, lower now than they were at any point since 2005. But it is also because of domestic manufacturing prowess that allows Germans to buy many products still made in Germany. At the same time, Germany has created the most finely honed export economy outside of China.

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