During the last two weeks, Deutsche Bank (DB) the largest German Bank (identical to our State Bank of India) making headlines in financial press because of the downward slide of its share value to the record low. A fall by 65 % in share price that has not only erased more than half of its market value but is likely to lead to a closure of 25% of its branches and loss of job for over 2,000 staff. Financial circles are afraid that DB once a triple-A-rated bank is likely to be the next Lehman Brothers which caused the famous US financial crisis.
This is not a speculation but a likely event pregnant distinct certainty because rating agency Standard & Poor, has already lowered DB’s rating even lower than what was that of Lehman Brother three months prior to the historical debacle in 2008. It was then the US Government had to bail out the US financial sector by burning tax payers 13 Trillion Dollars. The DB crisis is more serious because this time the context is radically different. Unlike Lehman Brothers in the United States, it is DB in Germany. And the primary difference is the core German economic philosophy called the Ordo-liberalism which does not permit any state intervention in the market once having laid the rules.
As the Nobel Prize winner economist Paul Krugman has said in one of his articles in Fortune magazine, “Germans are sticklers for principles, while Americans are philosophical and personally “sloppy”. Today, it looks like the German self-righteousness which is holding a hanging sword on the “project unified Europe” is also likely to lead to some kind of self-harm if not self-destruction for the Germany itself.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a hard choice to make between devil and deep sea. On one hand, she has gone to the town with Ordo-liberalism as the panacea for ailing European member states of south and taken hard line against state aid in other European nations (remember Greek crisis) and on the other side is the likely domino effect the DB failure will have on the European financial markets besides her domestic political compulsions.
In a way, it may not be too much of a bad throw at the dartboard if we say that chickens have started coming home to roost for Angela Markel which may see her eventual exit from the political center stage of European Union.
The Iron lady of European Union has for last five years been riding roughshod over democratically elected European Union member states of south; the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) in pursuit of austerity measures and fiscal discipline. Her consistent message to these member states has been to bring about a policy convergence of their economies around the best practice policy template, used by Germany which has made it the most successful economy in the EU. This German bullying is interpreted by some as pursuit of its narrow nationalistic interest above collective interest of the EU on account of its strong economy and capital surplus but more serious minded intellectuals treat this as the typical German approach to economic policy making traditionally called as the Ordo-liberalism.
It may be useful to do bit of theoretical heavy lifting out of the way by understanding what Ordo-liberalism broadly means. It is the German intellectual tradition of liberal economy originally developed by the famous Freiburg school. It evolved in the context of the bitter experience of rising inflation and mass unemployment in Weimar German during the interim period of two world wars. Ordo-liberalism expects that the role of the state is to create an economic and legal framework to enable the market to work efficiently. Ordo-liberalism opposes intervention into the normal course of the economy and staunchly opposes expansionary fiscal and monetary policy during an economic downturn and to stabilize the business cycle in a recession.
Ordo-liberalism forged the template of German growth in post war period where state maintained framework of austerity, balance budgets and price stability and encouraged firms to grow through exports and country gained positive current account surplus. Experts feel that Ordo-liberalism normally succeeds in a more stable economic environment with growing economies something that world witnessed following second world war period up to Eighties. During this period this approach helped Germans build formidable competitive manufacturing sector and enviable current account surplus.
However, Germany is a part of European Monetary Union ( EMU) and the German current account surplus reflected in current account deficit of Southern European members of Union. Close to third of Germany’s current account surpluses are on account of its intra-EU trade. Hence, while Germany has run current account surpluses of more than 7 percent of its GDP, Greece, Portugal and Spain have experienced current account deficits of 10 percent of GDP. And large current account deficits thus lead to quickly rising external debt. This has been partly the genesis of Euro problem.
On this background the DB crisis acquires special ideological connotation. Americans as pragmatic they are, were quick to accept fallibility of their system and resorted to a bail out, no matter the American tax payer had to pick the tab. This was in a way better than letting the economy fail and entire society collectively suffering endless miseries by of unemployment hunger and deprivation. So the Americans swallowed the bitter pill reminding themselves the famous argument of “Too big to Fail”.
On the contrary, Germans have taken all along a “Holier than though” stance and deprived crisis ridden nations of south any state sponsored economic initiative. Mostly it was done because of their sincere belief in their economic philosophy of Ordo-liberalism. The philosophy which not only built the might of Post war German State but as EU leader and chief protagonist of the Union, gave it the moral right to force down the throat its Economic approach to member states across the community. Now when the financial crisis is knocking on its own door, it will be interesting to see if Germany finds some creative solution from its Ordo-liberal tool box retrieving once again the high moral ground or does the famous American flip flop. In a way, it will not be only a defining moment for Angela Merkel but the entire German state and its economic policy based on Ordo-liberalism.