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Merkel's crisis stimulus is already seeping into the grateful German economy



Ahead of the curve: German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has responded rapidly to the crisis. Photo: Markus Schreiber/REUTERS

Ahead of the curve: German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has responded rapidly to the crisis. Photo: Markus Schreiber/REUTERS


Ahead of the curve: German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has responded rapidly to the crisis. Photo: Markus Schreiber/REUTERS

In late March, Arnold Mergell delivered an urgent message to Germany's political elite.

Standing in front of a row of blue metal barrels, he complained that the funds needed by small and mid-sized companies like his to survive the coronavirus crisis weren't getting through fast enough.

"The bazooka's been loaded, but the trigger is stuck," said Mr Mergell, who runs chemicals company Hobum Oleochemicals in Hamburg, with 52 employees.

Two weeks later, Mr Mergell returned to YouTube with a decidedly more upbeat message. Now, he said, the funds were flowing freely. That's after Economy Minister Peter Altmaier unveiled a programme on April 6 aimed at fast-tracking loans to Germany's Mittelstand, the backbone of Europe's largest economy, with unlimited guarantees covering 100pc of their credit risk. The swift turnaround, defying the country's reputation for red tape, underscores the hands-on approach officials are taking to protect growth as the virus shutters shops and factories globally.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has pledged aid worth more than €1trn in state guarantees, loans and direct capital to companies, and also eased access to state wage support for workers.

Businesses elsewhere, meanwhile, are less impressed. Just 1pc of companies in a UK survey reported successful applications for emergency loans. In the US, the government's Paycheck Protection Programme, which aims to issue loans meant to help small businesses, has been beset by confusion and delays.

"It seems surprising how quickly the German government is responding, but at the same time it's completely in line with what it has professed for years about maintaining fiscal prudence in good times in order to spend when it's needed," said Christian Odendahl, chief economist for the London-based Centre for European Reform.

The emergency is real. Germany's economy will shrink almost 10pc in the second quarter, more than twice the pace it suffered at the height of the financial crisis. In one sign of the speed of mobilisation, authorities in Berlin, whose unfinished airport long made it a target of jokes, paid out €1.3bn to freelance workers and small companies, processing 140,000 applications in a few days. The money arrived in some businesses's bank accounts within 24 hours.

The country has had generous crisis-response measures available for years, and their relatively smooth implementation might stem from previous experience. State wage support for workers, for instance, saved hundreds of thousands of jobs during the global financial crisis. While the UK is experimenting with paid furlough schemes for the first time, the Germans are fine-tuning a programme in existence since the 1950s.

Meanwhile, in Ireland the Government introduced the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment of €350 a week for employees or self-employed people who have lost their job due to the pandemic. Revenue here is also operating a temporary wage subsidy scheme.

"One advantage Germany has is its model of preserving businesses and jobs during a recession, allowing it to more easily scale up existing instruments," said Mr Odendahl.

Liquidity support from Germany's state bank, KfW, also existed before and is being expanded. Loans worth several billions of euro have already been approved, and applications for up to €3m can be processed instantly.

Ana Botin, who heads Spain's largest lender as chairman of Banco Santander, said in a series of Twitter posts on Tuesday that Germany's loan programme should become the "benchmark" for the rest of Europe.

Not everything is going to plan. Banks struggled initially, and it remains to be seen how quickly government wage support - which firms pay upfront to be reimbursed later - will reach their bank accounts.

Germany's aid programmes aren't a panacea either. Some smaller companies may struggle to repay loans lasting years, and a survey in late March by the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce showed one in five small and medium businesses saw a risk of insolvency. More than two-thirds said aid in the form of cash injections is most effective and should be expanded.

For some, it's already too late. Appelrath Cuepper, a fashion retailer that employs 1,000 people, filed for insolvency under self administration on April 7 after being denied a KfW loan. It will restructure and try to resume operations when the crisis passes.

Still, for Zack Helwa, a gallery and print-business owner in Berlin, the stimulus is working. He received €8,000 in aid from the government to support his business and replace lost income as a freelancer.

"The unexpected thing was how unbureaucratic it was. The application form took me 10 minutes to fill out, and two days later I had money," he said.