Standard & Poor’s reported in 2009 that in 2007, the average age of cars registered in EU-15 countries was 8.2 years, up from 5.8 years a decade earlier. This increase was in part because of the improved overall quality of cars. In Ireland in 2007, a driver of an 8-year old ‘banger’ would have been viewed as a loser.
Cars were the biggest export sector for Germany at 16% in 2010; the majority of German cars were built outside Germany in 2010 — which was a boost for the German car parts industry.
Of the €10.9bn goods surplus in April, €1.5bn related to the Eurozone. In 2010, imports from the then other 15 EZ countries grew 4% faster than exports.
Germany became a net exporter of food and drink in 2008 for the first time since the Federal republic was founded; the arrival of Aldi and Lidl in Ireland has been a gain as Tesco now faces serious competition.
Common claims that exports have risen because of competitiveness should not be taken at face value in Germany or Ireland.
German companies were best placed to respond to demands from rapidly expanding emerging economies; the output of both big firms such as Siemens, Volkswagen and BASF and smaller family-run firms with a tradition of making quality machine tools, was in demand.
For several years, the Irish business economy total labour cost per hour has been a few percent below the German level and 30% below Denmark’s. Irish employer social security costs are low as there has been no obligation to provide pension cover.
The influx of migrants kept labour costs lower than they would otherwise have been during the boom and also enabled companies like Google to centralise localisation services in Ireland.
There is no evidence that overall competitiveness has impacted exports from the FDI sector. The closure of Dell’s Limerick plant was a special case as the PC manufacturing sector travelled the same road as the TV set industry.
Big electricity users have got low rates and while the indigenous food sector was hit by the fall in sterling, it is now benefiting from the resumption of a food commodity boom.
Excessive costs in the non-tradeable sector do of course impact the potential for economic development.
Now think about the competitiveness challenge Ireland has. Ireland must (and will) return to the Eurozone average at least, by accepting lower wages and deflating the economy. But will it ever really get close to Germany’s level of competitiveness?
In 1991, when Ireland’s interest on the national debt took 28% of tax revenues, German financed structural grants more than offset that burden and typical building site costs were 10% of the cost of a house. Site costs jumped to as much as 50% and the land rezoning system remains unreformed.
Public staff pension costs jumped 14% in the year to March and the litany could go on…legal costs have risen 12% since 2006 despite the crash and deflation.
A speech by the ECB’s Jürgen Stark on Mar 17, 2008 has a table of unit labour costs total economy - - (not to be confused with labour costs per hour in the business economy) for EZ economies 1999-2007.
It shows a rise of 33.3% for Ireland compared with 2.9% for Germany.
German labour reforms, including flexibility during downturns in collective agreements, proved their worth in the recession.
Prof. Hans-Werner Sinn had a book published in 2003:Ist Deutschland noch zu retten? (Can Germany Be Saved?) - - Its blurb read:“Taxes keep rising, the pension and health insurance systems are ailing. More and more companies are going bankrupt or are leaving the country. Unemployment has reached alarming levels. Germany is outperformed by its neighbours. Its growth rates are in the cellar, and it can’t keep up with Austria, the Netherlands, Britain or France. Germany has become the sick man of Europe.“