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.

Photo: Getty
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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.