The West German economy has managed so far this year to steady itself against the combined shocks of price increases by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and high domestic interest rates, churning out a growth rate that is still above target and comfortably out of step with the recession-pained United States.
But it is a German habit to look at the wrinkles instead of the grin, and characteristically, West Germany is braced for a turn for the worse.
The shadow of a sharp downturn began to creep over the country with the announcement this week that unemployment this week that unemployment rose a steep 9 percent in July over June to a total of 853,000 out-of-work West Germans. While the proportion of unemployment in the total work force still is not much by U.S. standards -- only 3.7 percent -- the summer jump was the biggest in years for West Germany. It reflects a general slowing down of the West German economy as forecast for the second half of 1980.
Production in key capital and consumer goods industries has fallen, and the construction sector registered a dramatic drop of 4.5 percent from May to June as a result of high interest rates and lower public spending.
Munich's IFO Research Institute predicted that the number of jobless in West Germany is likely to reach 1.1 million next year, although government officials are less pessimistic, saying much depends on the severity of the coming winter.
Bonn officials still believe that production will rise 2.5 percent for the year, largely because West German growth was rapid in the first quarter compared with the year before.
Since this is a federal election year, government officials are showing more than usual concern about the economy. The new unemployment figures are likely to pivot public attention away from the war-and-peace foreign policy debates that dominated West German national discussion during the first half of the year and toward the one issue Germans like to worry about the most: the economic outlook.
Rising oil prices had made West Germany unable to do as it had done in the past -- export enough to offset the cost of imported oil, now equal to 4.5 percent of West Germany's gross national product. Tourism was also to blame -- West German travelers were expected to spend abroad nearly one-third as much as West Germany would pay for its oil.
West Germany's high interest rates have attracted enough foreign capital to relax Bonn's need to borrow more from Arab states. They have also helped keep West German inflation in check at what is forecast to be an average 5.5 percent for the year.
It may seem a bit strange for a nation that has been one of the world's postwar economic models, but ever since the late 1960s, economic concerns have ranked first among those things West Germans fret about. A March poll by the Allensbach Institute listed as the top four German worries: rising prices, endangered energy supplies, endangered environment and increasing unemployment.
Asked what should be West Germany's greatest concern, 85 percent said economic problems. Coming in a distant second with 35 percent was peace and the East-west conflict.
Occasionally, such popular brooding about the country's economic performance spills over into official government musings.
One controversy bubbled up earlier this summer about some offhand remarks by Economic Minister Otto Lambsdorff who, returning from a trip to Japan, praised Japanese productivity and urged West Germans to "work harder" in order to stay competitive.
The suggestion that West German workers might have gotten lazy over the postwar years drew a flurry of indignation and protest, especially from the country's trade unions.
"Foul insult!" cried Eugen Loderer, chairman of I. G. Metall, the engineering workers' union. The chemical worker's union invited the minister "to do piecework for three months at dye cauldrons, pill-packaging conveyor belts, tire presses or in front of red-hot furnaces" to see if he really meant what he said.
The West German press also jumped into the fray. Bild and Sonntag,, which started it all in the Lambsdorff interview headline "Minister Lambsdorff Shakes the Germans Awake," began a series of news features on West German workers entitled "The Great Awakening."
The conservative daily, Die Welt, took note of the fact that West Germany has been importing more than it has been exporting for two years and concluded: "Of course the high wage raises are to blame for the drop in competitiveness of German industry, but not they alone. The change of mood in industry also has an effect. With growing prosperity people no longer want to work as hard."
Lambsdorff had never really accused West Germans of being lazy. What he said was that West German productiviy could catch up to Japan's if West Germans would work harder without incurring higher costs. He noted that West Germans have more time off work than the Japanese -- an average 143 days including weekends and holidays in West Germany compared with 124 in Japan. They alsot ake more sick days.
His primary purpose in speaking up at all seemed to be to counter West German union demands for the introduction of a 35-hour week. This proposal is likely not to move off boardroom tables so long as the economy remains sluggish. Polls here show industrialists to be extremely pessimistic about business developments during the next six months and to have reconciled themselves to a period of austerity.
Actually, the West Germans have done better up to now than was expected. Last spring. Bonn was moved to take loans from Saudi Arabia and the United States to finance its current account deficit, making the country's prosperity appear more fragile than it had in 15 years.
But thanks to a mild water and price resistance, oil consumption in West Germany was down 8 percent in the first half of 1980. Meantime, exports to OPEC countries have been rising faster than expected, aided by a still-under-valued German mark and by a boost in service contracts.
Labor, too, did its part. The metal workers' union, whose contracts generally establish patterns for the country's collective bargaining agreements, settled for a 6.8 percent increase, instead of the 10 percent they had demanded.