Germany has once again become the world’s favorite whipping boy, roundly criticized over the past few days by the U.S. Treasury, a top International Monetary Fund official and the European Commission president, among others, for running record trade and current account surpluses that are supposedly detrimental to the European and global economy.
The arguments continue, with the Germans themselves saying that the surpluses are simply the happy result of the nation’s industrial competitiveness and don’t hurt anyone else. Lost in the debate, however, is what’s happening in Berlin right now. As Chancellor Angela Merkel seeks to form a new coalition government, she appears to be on the verge of throwing out some of the very policies that underpin the export boom of the past decade.
Most controversially, the new government to be formed is likely to introduce a minimum wage, a novelty for Germany, and a move that both symbolically and in reality would herald the end of the tough wage restraint that has characterized the past decade. A range of social policy changes, including a possible reduction in the retirement age, are also being discussed, as is higher government spending.
It’s not clear whether such shifts would provide the boost to domestic spending that the U.S. and Germany’s other critics are demanding. But their very prospect is sending chills down the spines of German business leaders. Ulrich Grillo, president of the Federation of German Industries, warns that “Germany can’t afford a grand coalition of election gifts,” and says that the politicians are acting as though Germany’s continuing prosperity is a given, rather than something that needs to be worked at.
Deutsche Bank says flatly in a research report that the proposed minimum wage is “the wrong policy choice.”