The Dirty Little Secret of Berlin’s Bankers

Germany’s tough line on eurozone laggards is for the public good, it says. But it's been particularly good for rich Germans.

A person takes out Euro banknotes from an automated teller machine (ATM) at a "Sparkasse" cash point in Berlin on August 28, 2013. AFP PHOTO / JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Why did Germany try so hard to stop the European Central Bank from giving the eurozone a trillion-euro boost? Why did Germany decree fiscal austerity for Greece instead? And why, despite Greece’s travails and alleged duplicity, does Germany insist that Greece stay in the eurozone? These actions may have seemed irrational and contradictory, but the same people benefited in every case.

First, consider Germany’s recent economic history. In 1990, the reunification of the East and West added an enormous, low-wage population of Germans to the labor supply. Though integrating them into the West’s business environment took time, these millions of new laborers in the workforce instantly made German exports more competitive. Then, with the launch of the euro in 1999, Germany diluted its currency — among the strongest in the world — by mingling it with those of less stable economies from across the European Union. Again, the effect was a huge boost to German exports.

These dramatic shifts in Germany’s economic position might have been expected to benefit both German workers and owners of German capital. For workers in the poorer East, wages were sure to rise, and they did. Workers in the West may have suffered by comparison, but the boom in exports — which went from 23 percent of the economy in 1990 to 42 percent in 2010 — should have been big enough to boost their incomes as well.

Indeed, in the first decade, incomes for Germans from top to bottom on the economic ladder rose by about 7 to 8 percent in real terms. But with the advent of the euro, things started to change. Incomes at the top kept rising, with gains for the top 10 percent of earners continuing apace for the next decade as shareholders reaped record profits. At the bottom, however, there was a sharp dip that eventually left incomes exactly where they started at the beginning of the 1990s.

The effect on inequality was startling. By itself, the integration of East and West should have reduced German inequality substantially. In a country where labor retained some bargaining power, the export boom might have been expected to encourage this convergence as well. Yet Germans at the top of the income distribution saw such an upturn in their fortunes that inequality actually rose. With incomes continuing to diverge, Germany’s wealth inequality was the worst in the eurozone and almost on a par with that of the United States, which was no mean feat.

With all of this in mind, let’s return to policy. The eurozone was dangling on the edge of deflation for months, and even Germany’s inflation rate had been below the European Central Bank’s target of just under 2 percent since August 2013. But German bankers and politicians were dead set against the use of credit easing or other unconventional monetary tools to create inflation, devalue the euro, and presumably improve short-term economic growth in the eurozone.

Instead, they decided that countries in need of an economic lifeline — like Greece — should keep making massive cuts in public services while servicing debts on terms set by wealthier nations such as Germany. For most economists, this was an impractical prescription that would only make the patient suffer more. So why did the Germans insist on it?

The bankers in Berlin realized that inflation eroded the value of savings, of which their wealthy countrymen had quite a lot, and also made German investments less attractive to foreigners. As long as Germany continued to grow, they had no use for inflation. In fact, growth with low inflation — and thus little upward pressure on wages — was a perfect formula, especially for owners of capital. Indebted and unemployed Germans might have benefited from a weaker euro and more inflation, just like the Greeks, but they clearly weren’t the bankers’ top priority.

And Germany did grow, at least until late last year. By the fourth quarter of 2014, its economy was on the brink of recession. Not by coincidence, when the European Central Bank’s governors met in January, Germany’s bankers and politicians finally relented — or at least failed to convince their colleagues of the remaining dangers of inflation. Now, a new challenge has emerged.

Greece is calling Germany’s bluff. A few years ago, the Germans wanted Greece to stay in the eurozone enough to bail them out of their fiscal deficits, but the cost was penury for the Greeks. Back then, Germany seemed to have all the bargaining power. But Greece’s new leftist government has apparently realized that the real bargaining power lies in Athens, because Germany will now do anything to hold the eurozone together.

Germans have read plenty of articles alleging that Athens never should have been allowed to join the eurozone in the first place. But the bankers in Berlin know that each weak country that leaves the eurozone now is likely to push up the value of the euro. This would increase the value of German savings, but it would also harm exports, and at the moment Germany needs them more than ever. Moreover, uncertainty about the euro in the short term might cause investors to pull their money out of German securities, leading to lower asset values and higher interest rates — a double-whammy for wealth and economic growth.

Today, this cluster of threats is unacceptable to Germany. As its growth rate changed, so did its bankers’ priorities and, as a consequence, the balance of power in the eurozone. The Greeks figured this out, and other countries are cottoning on. But it was a good run for wealthy Germans while it lasted.

John MacDougall/AFP

Daniel Altman is the owner of North Yard Analytics LLC, a sports data consulting firm, and an adjunct associate professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Twitter: @altmandaniel