The Germany problem

By Felix Salmon
June 15, 2009

Will Hutton interviews Paul Krugman:

PK: How is it possible that Germany, which did not have a house price bubble, is having a steeper GDP fall than anyone else in the major economies?

The answer is that they depended upon exporting to the bubble regions of Europe, so they actually got side-swiped by the loss of those exports worse than the bubble regions themselves got hit.

It’s Germany on a global scale that is the concern. We worry about the drag on world demand from the global savings coming out of east Asia and the Middle East, but within Europe there’s a European savings glut which is coming out of Germany. And it’s much bigger relative to the size of the economy.

WH: And on top there is an unique and unaddressed huge potential banking crisis. The Germans pride themselves on their three-legged banking system, but it is incredibly interlinked. The IMF warns that Germany could have to take at least $500bn of writedowns, which its banks have not begun to recognise. German banks hold a trillion dollars – maybe more – of maturing collateralised debt obligations that can only be refinanced by crystallising the losses. We’ve had RBS and you’ve had Citigroup. Germany’s GDP will fall 6% this year – before the banking crisis has hit it.

And that’s just the CDOs — it doesn’t include probably another trillion dollars of loans to central and eastern European corporates and sovereigns, which are nowadays looking extremely toxic. Meanwhile, the political leadership in Germany is in denial, acting for all the world as though the loss of central bank independence is the biggest problem facing the global economy.

The base-case scenario, then, is that Germany goes Japan — and drags the rest of the Eurozone, if not the entire world, into a Japan-style Lost Decade. How do we stop that from happening, especially absent political will in Berlin? I have no idea.

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