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How Germany got it right on the economy

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, November 24, 2010;

BERLIN

It may be turkey week in America, but it's goose month in Germany. In many restaurants, you can get goose in your salad and goose in your soup to go with your goose entree. Diners fairly honk their way through November.

But then, Germans have something to honk about. Germany's economy is the strongest in the world. Its trade balance - the value of its exports over its imports - is second only to China's, which is all the more remarkable since Germany is home to just 82 million people. Its 7.5 percent unemployment rate - two percentage points below ours - is lower than at any time since right after reunification. Growth is robust, and real wages are rising.

It's quite a turnabout for an economy that American and British bankers and economists derided for years as the sick man of Europe. German banks, they insisted, were too cautious and locally focused, while the German economy needed to slim down its manufacturing sector and beef up finance.

Wisely, the Germans declined the advice. Manufacturing still accounts for nearly a quarter of the German economy; it is just 11 percent of the British and U.S. economies (one reason the United States and Britain are struggling to boost their exports). Nor have German firms been slashing wages and off-shoring - the American way of keeping competitive - to maintain profits.

One key to Germany's miracle is the mittelstand, as the family-owned small and mid-size manufacturing firms that dominate the economy are known. Last week, I visited AWS Achslagerwerk, a factory of one such firm, in the farmlands of Saxony-Anhalt, about two hours west of Berlin. As in many such companies, this factory turns out specialized products: axle-box housings for Chinese and German high-speed trains, machine tools requiring climate-controlled precision measurement. With annual revenue of 24 million euros, the factory has won a significant share of the world market, though it employs only 175 production workers.

The workers at AWS Achslagerwerk are highly skilled, and most stay with the firm for decades. When the downturn hit Germany in late 2008, manufacturing firms' business declined the most, but subsidies from a government program called kurzarbeit allowed firms to keep their workers part time rather than lay them off. "Fifteen to 20 percent of our workers were on kurzarbeit," Klaas Hubner, a former member of the German parliament and owner of the mittelstand company that includes AWS Achslagerwerk, told me. By keeping their skilled workers, companies like Hubner's were able to rev up production quickly when China's stimulus boosted the market for their products in 2009.

In America, alas, firms like Hubner's are increasingly hard to find. The mittelstand remains blissfully immune to many pressures that share-price-oriented financial markets inflict on their American counterparts. "We don't have short-term strategies, only long-term strategies," says Hubner. Mittelstand companies are not publicly traded, and they benefit from an extensive system of vocational education and a sector of municipally owned savings banks that work solely with local businesses. Roughly two-thirds of German small and mid-size businesses get their loans from these banks. "Over the past decade, banking largely became a self-fulfilling activity," says Patrick Steinpass, chief economist for the national organization of savings banks. "But our banks are restricted to doing business in their regions; they have to concentrate on the real economy." Through such radical notions has Germany thrived.

Germany's large manufacturers - Volkswagen, Siemens, BMW - surely feel market pressures, but they, unlike a growing number of their American counterparts, still invest quite profitably at home. In large part, that's due to Germany's system of co-determination, which places an equal number of union and management members on corporate boards. The German metal workers union, IG Metall, has been working with automakers to train workers, for instance, to mass-produce electric cars. "Our goal is to really retain high-value-added manufacturing in Germany," says Martin Allespach, the union's policy director. It's hard to identify any group with real input into corporate conduct that's pursuing such a goal in the United States.

Mixing social democratic values with Jimmy Stewart localism, Germany's economy is running rings around America's. "What we have here is stakeholder capitalism, not shareholder capitalism," says Hubner. And like most mittelstand owners, he adds: "I live where my company is located. I want a good image in the town I live in."

They know how to goose an economy, those Germans. Ours, by contrast, seems more and more a turkey.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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