Sean O'Grady: Economy shows signs of new life

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The Independent Online

Germany has been on a rollercoaster ride. Despite the fact that she was conspicuous by her absence from the Anglo-Saxon credit party, Germany's recession has been the sharpest among all the major advanced economies, with the exception of Japan. Germany never experienced the excesses of the City and Wall Street. But what had been strengths during the boom – industry and trade – suddenly turned against her.

At the risk of oversimplification, her hitherto healthy market for Porsche cars in Manhattan and machine tools in China dried up, and she suffered a terrible hangover. Job subsidies and short-term work schemes were the only thing that stopped unemployment from rising to levels last seen during the worst years of the Weimar Republic. It was the sharpest downturn since the federal republic was established 60 years ago.

Yet now Germany's bounce back is almost as dramatic. She is already out of recession, unlike the UK, and she finds her public finances almost the envy of the world. Chancellor Merkel still has plenty of room for manoeuvre: an annual borrowing deficit about half that of the UK, and a total national debt that will be smaller than ours in a couple of years. Moody's, the ratings agency, recently described Germany as "strongly positioned to maintain its AAA rating". While our "golden rules" lie mangled in the gutter, Germany has reaffirmed her probity in a new constitutional amendment.

Yet to Germans, with memories of hyperinflation and economic ruin, the public finances look horrible. Many ordinary Germans wonder when their tax burden – high by European standards – will abate. That must count as one reason for the popularity of the tax-cutting Free Democrats, especially among the prosperous. "Middle-class paunch" is the name given by Germans to the steep rise in tax rates at relatively low levels of income.

Whoever wins the election will face the same long-term challenges as existed before the recession: unreformed labour markets; an underdeveloped finance sector; the threat to her industries from lower cost bases in Asia; and an ageing population in a nation resistant to immigration from eastern Europe. For now, though, Germany has a breathing space.