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
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

0800 7318496