Germany skirts recession at the end of 2023 but faces prolonged slump

German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz arrives for the weekly federal government cabinet meeting on Oct. 11, 2023 in Berlin, Germany.

Michele Tantussi | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Europe’s largest economy contracted by 0.3% year-on-year in 2023, as high inflation and firm interest rates bit into growth, the Federal Statistical Office of Germany said Monday.

The estimate is in line with the expectations of analysts polled by Reuters. The decline in economic output eases to 0.1% when adjusted for calendar purposes.

“The overall economic development in Germany stalled in 2023 in the still crisis-ridden environment,” said Ruth Brand, president of the federal statistics office, according to a Google translation. 

“Despite the recent declines, prices remained high at all levels of the economy. Added to this were unfavorable financing conditions due to rising interest rates and lower demand from home and abroad,” Brand added.

German inflation ticked up by 3.8% year-on-year in December on a harmonized basis, the statistics office said on Jan. 4. The European Central Bank in December opted to hold rates unchanged for the second consecutive time, shifting its inflation outlook from “expected to remain too high for too long” to expectations that it will “decline gradually over the course of next year.”

Germany’s manufacturing sector, excluding construction, fell by a sharp 2%, led by lower production in the energy supply sector. Weak domestic demand last year and “subdued global economic dynamics” also stifled foreign trade, despite a drop in prices. Imports fell by 1.8%, declining more sharply than exports and leading to a positive trade balance.

BDR Thermea: Majority of German homes need to switch from oil and gas to renewables

Household consumption contracted by 0.8% on the year, adjusted for prices, while government expenses slimmed by 1.7%.

The fourth quarter recorded a similar 0.3% drop compared with the July-September period. The office said that the German economy stagnated in the third quarter, implying the country has narrowly avoided a technical recession that is defined by two successive quarters of consecutive GDP declines.

Early indicators do not signal a quick German economic recovery is in the cards, a German economy ministry report out Monday warned, according to Reuters.

Capital Economics also expects Germany’s troubles are not yet over and forecasts no growth for the country in 2024.

“The recessionary conditions which have been dragging on since the end of 2022 look set to continue this year,” Chief Europe Economist Andrew Kenningham said in a note. “Admittedly, the recent fall in inflation should provide some relief for households, but residential and business investment are likely to contract, construction is heading for a steep downturn and the government is tightening fiscal policy sharply. We forecast zero GDP growth in 2024.”

Germany was haunted by its moniker as the “sick man” of Europe for the better part of last year, despite weathering the shocks of losing access to some sanctioned Russian energy supplies in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Analysts had predicted Germany would be the only major European economy to shrink last year.

The German economy faced the throes of a deep budgetary crisis at the end of last year, after a constitutional court ruling over the national borrowing restrictions threatened a $17-billion-euro gap in the country’s 2024 spending plans.

Enshrined in Germany’s constitution, the national debt brake restricts the federal deficit to 0.35% of GDP outside of emergencies and became a major bone of contention in national politics last year. The German government agreed to suspend the limit on borrowing, after the constitutional court blocked attempts to repurpose any leftover emergency funds initially assigned to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

Weeks-long negotiations yielded a budget deal that retains debt restrictions into 2024, with the government expecting to save 17 billion euros ($18.6 billion) in its core budget by ending climate-damaging subsidies and implementing cost cutting, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s three-way coalition announced in mid December.