Is Germany really the poorest eurozone country?

Not really, no.

Last week, a study released by the European Central Bank showed that the median net wealth of German households was the lowest in the eurozone – with the median Italian and Spanish households being nearly four times richer.

The study sparked a debate over how far apparently poor taxpayers in Northern Europe should have to support the bailouts of the "wealthy" Southern European, but a response this week from the double-team of Paul De Grauwe and Yuemei Ji highlights the other side to the initially reported data.

The Wall Street Journal was typical in its reporting of the paper, with Brian Blackstone and Nina Koeppen writing:

[T]he report offers a reminder that citizens in some of the countries hardest-hit by Europe's debt crisis aren't as bad off as many believe.

The question of how much taxpayer money should be put up to bail out governments in Greece, Cyprus and Portugal tops the political agenda in Germany, Europe's biggest economy and financial backer…

By one ECB measure of typical households, Germany is the poorest country in the euro bloc, behind even Slovakia and Portugal. A number of factors appear to have skewed the results, such as the emphasis on homeownership, household size and small-business ownership that favors countries in Southern Europe.

But de Grauwe and Ji argue that the rest of the data in the paper presents a different picture. Compare and contrast the distributions for the ten biggest Eurozone countries when the mean and median household wealth is examined:

Figure 1. Net wealth of median households (1000€)

Figure 2. Mean household net wealth (1000€)

Germany is roughly middling when it comes to mean household wealth, suggesting a massive inequality of household wealth in the country. Indeed, of all the counties de Grauwe and Ji look at, Germany has the largest discrepancy between mean and median household wealth – the latter is almost a quarter the former.

They write:

Put differently, there is a lot of household wealth in Germany but this is to be found mostly in the top of the wealth distribution.

That's partially because Germany itself is a relatively unequal society, but also due to the lack of widespread homeownership. As a result, poorer German households spend the same amount on housing as in comparable countries, but don't come out of it owning a house.

Germany also has a different distribution of wealth within the country's total capital stock to many other nations. Far more wealth in Germany is held by corporations and the government, meaning that citizens appear poor on official statistics even as the nation itself is wealthy:

Figure 6. Total capital stock per capita (euro)

What this really tells us isn't the merits or otherwise of distributing wealth from Germany to the European south. That's a question which can only be answered by asking what the value of keeping the euro alive is, and whether there's any way it can survive without a transfer of some sort. But it does tell us where, within the Northern countries, the money to do that lies. It's not with the "normal German", who holds surprisingly few assets – instead, it's with wealthy Germans, and, overwhelmingly, the governments and corporations of Northern Europe.

There is the money to save the south, in other words, but there might not be the will to take it from where it needs to come from.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide