Last week’s chart showed that the world is turning Japanese with tales of economic malaise, extreme monetary policy, and negative rates. Germany, with its 5-yr government bond currently trading at a -0.33% yield, is no exception to this story.
However, negative yields are not the only concern that the country has in common with Japan. It’s the overall demographic picture that is worrying, and it could have a big effect on Germany’s economic future as well as the tough choices that must be made today.
Germany is the most populous and productive economy in Europe, with 80 million people and a GDP of almost $4 trillion. It’s also the world’s third largest exporter, and that’s why it had the largest trade surplus globally in 2014 with $285 billion.
For all of its economic power, Germany has a key weakness that could potentially be its Achilles heel: it’s projected that Germany’s population will decline significantly over the coming decades, and the ratio of workers to dependents will become one of the worst in the world.
Every year, there are 8.4 births and 11.3 deaths per 1,000 people in Germany. The way this plays out over time is that the percentage of Germans under 15 will fall to 13% of the population by 2050, while the amount of people over 60 years old is to rise to 39%.
In the future, it is likely that there will not be enough youth or workers in the country. As Baby Boomers retire, there will be a larger burden placed on those paying into the government’s social safety net and other programs. Further, this widening gap will also mean a significant loss of experience, skill, and know-how in the workforce that will create coinciding economic challenges for the population.
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In many Western nations, immigration plays a key role in keeping a population with low birth rates to be sustainable. However, in Germany’s case, both the high and low immigration scenarios look dire for future numbers. Germany’s state statistical authority currently projects a “high immigration” trend resulting in a drop to 73.1 million people by 2060, while a low-end estimate sees the population falling all the way to 67.6 million.
The U.N. projects that one in every six Germans will be over 80 years old by 2050. Are Germans comfortable with their nation remaining on this path?
If yes, then they must also be comfortable with a significant decrease in Germany’s economic role in the future. The country will almost certainly be on a more level stage with the U.K. and France, and it will have a diminished place on the world stage as Asia and Africa continue their rise. Tax rates will surge as a decreasing amount of workers pay into the system, and economic growth could stall in such a way that Germany has its own “Lost Decade”.
If no, then Germans must accept that there is only one realistic way to combat this trend: to open the immigration floodgates even more. While this is not what many Germans want to hear, especially as the current migrant and refugee crisis progresses, it is an option that must be weighed with careful consideration.
Either way, there are difficult choices to be made. How Germany proceeds with this question has implications both today and tomorrow on cultural, economic, and political levels.