Investors are now more pessimistic about the German economy than they have been at any time since the eurozone debt crisis more than a decade ago, worrying that a sharp fall in Russian natural gas supplies and soaring energy prices will plunge the country into recession.
The ZEW Institute’s gauge of investor expectations about Europe’s largest economy has sunk to its lowest level since 2011, dropping from minus 53.8 to minus 55.3, underlining the deepening gloom about the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The think-tank’s survey of financial market participants provides an early indicator of economic sentiment after Russia reopened the Nord Stream 1 pipeline following a maintenance break last month, but kept the main conduit for delivery of gas to Europe operating at only a fifth of capacity.
Economists have slashed their estimates for growth in Germany and the wider eurozone this year, while raising their inflation forecasts and warning that an end to Russian energy supplies would force Berlin to ration gas supplies for heavy industrial users.
On Tuesday, German baseload power for delivery next year, the benchmark European price, rose over 5 per cent to a record €502 per megawatt hour, according to the European Energy Exchange. This is six times higher than the price a year ago — driven upwards by the sharply higher cost of gas used to generate electricity and the prolonged European heatwave that has disrupted generating capacity.
The surging price of energy has driven up the cost of imports for Germany and other eurozone countries, sending the bloc’s trade deficit up to €24.6bn in June, compared with a surplus of €17.2bn for the same month a year earlier, according to data from Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistics bureau. The value of exports from the bloc rose 20.1 per cent in June from a year ago, but imports were up 43.5 per cent.
“The still high increase in consumer prices and the expected additional costs for heating and electricity are currently having a particularly negative impact on the prospects for the consumer-related sectors of the economy,” said Michael Schröder, a researcher at the ZEW.
He said investor sentiment also worsened due to an expected tightening of financing conditions after the European Central Bank raised its deposit rate by 0.5 percentage points to zero in response to record levels of eurozone inflation.
Carsten Brzeski, head of macro research at Dutch bank ING, said the German economy was “quickly approaching a perfect storm” caused by “high inflation, possible energy supply disruptions, and ongoing supply frictions”.
A heatwave and dry spell has reduced water levels on the Rhine below the level at which barges can be loaded fully, restricting important supplies for factories, which Brzeski estimated was likely to knock as much as 0.5 percentage points off German growth this year.
Adding to the gloom, German households will have to pay hundreds of euros more in fuel bills this winter after the government unveiled an extra gas levy of 2.419 cents per KWH from October. This is expected to push up the cost for a family of four by €240 in the final three months of the year.
Germany’s top network regulator told the Financial Times this month that the country must cut its gas use by a fifth to avoid a crippling shortage this winter. The economy ministry has also ordered all companies and local authorities to reduce the minimum room temperature in their workspaces to 19C over the winter.
The country has achieved its target of filling gas storage facilities to three-quarters of capacity two weeks ahead of schedule, after high prices and fuel-saving measures led to reduced use. But there are worries its objective to lift gas storage to a 95 per cent target of capacity by November will be more challenging if Russia keeps throttling supplies.
The German economy stagnated in the second quarter, the weakest performance of the major eurozone countries. Last month, the IMF slashed its forecast for German growth next year by 1.9 percentage points to 0.8 per cent, the biggest downgrade of any country.
Additional reporting by Harry Dempsey