The German economy is the world's fourth largest and, after the expansion of the EU, accounts for more than one-fifth of European Union GDP. Germany is the United States' largest European trading partner and is the sixth largest market for U.S. exports. Germany’s "social market" economy largely follows free-market principles, but with a considerable degree of government regulation and generous social welfare programs.
Germany is the largest consumer market in the European Union with a population of over 82 million. However, the significance of the German marketplace goes well beyond its borders. An enormous volume of worldwide trade is conducted in Germany at some of the world’s largest trade events, such as MEDICA, Hannover Fair, Automechanika, and the ITB Tourism Show. The volume of trade, number of consumers, and Germany’s geographic location at the heart of a 27-member European Union make it a cornerstone around which many U.S. firms seek to build their European and worldwide expansion strategies.
The German economy has improved markedly in recent years. The economy took a serious hit during the economic crisis, but recovered quickly. Like most other OECD countries GDP declined significantly in 2009 (by 4.7%), but grew by 3.6% in 2010, the highest rate since unification. Following a 3% growth in 2011, the pace of expansion is expected to slow in 2012. Most economic research institutes have lowered their 2012 GDP forecast to 0.6% from 1.0% predicted in October 2011.
The labor market remained resilient during the economic crisis and continued to be strong in 2011. In addition to a series of labor and social reforms implemented in recent years, many experts credit the government-funded short-time work program for limiting unemployment. Other factors, such as moderate wage increases, flexibility in bargaining agreements, numerous company-level alliances to retain jobs, and employers’ willingness to accept higher unit labor costs, also contributed to the stability of the German labor market. Job cuts in logistics and manufacturing have been offset by job creation in other sectors, such as services and health care. Also due to a declining workforce, average unemployment dropped to 2.976 million over the course of last year, with an average jobless rate of 7.1% – down from 7.7% in 2010. For 2012, the government expects unemployment to decline to an average of 6.8%.
Although unemployment is still higher in the east of the country than the west (11.3% versus 6.0%), it dropped to the lowest level in 20 years. The number of persons in employment living in Germany reached an all-time high (about 41.6 million) in November 2011, an increase of 521,000 from a year ago.
Germany presents few formal barriers to U.S. trade or investment, although Germany’s participation in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and German restrictions on biotech agricultural products represent barriers for some U.S. goods. Germany has pressed the new EU Commission to reduce regulatory burdens and promote innovation to increase EU member states’ competitiveness. The Merkel government has talked about the need for regulatory reform in Germany. In particular, Economics Minister Rainer Bruederle (pro-market Free Democratic Party - FDP) has pushed to reduce bureaucratic costs, since Germany's regulations and bureaucratic procedures can be very complex. While not directly discriminatory, government regulation by virtue of its complexity may offer a degree of protection to established local suppliers. Safety or environmental standards, not inherently discriminatory but sometimes zealously applied, can complicate access to the market for U.S. products. American companies interested in exporting to Germany should make sure they know which standards apply to their product and obtain timely testing and certification. German standards are especially relevant to U.S. exporters because, as EU-wide standards are developed, they are often based on existing German standards.
For U.S. companies, the German market - the largest in the EU - continues to be attractive in numerous sectors and remains an important element of any comprehensive export strategy to Europe. While U.S. investors must reckon with a relatively higher cost of doing business in Germany, they can count on high levels of productivity, a highly skilled labor force, quality engineering, a first-class infrastructure, and a location in the heart of Europe.
The most successful market entrants are those that offer innovative products featuring high quality and modern styling. Germans are responsive to the innovation and high technology evident in U.S. products, such as computers, computer software, electronic components, health care and medical devices, synthetic materials, and automotive technology. Germany boasts one of the highest Internet access rates in the EU and new products in the multi-media, high-tech and service areas offer great potential as increasing numbers of Germans join the Internet generation. Certain agricultural products also represent good export prospects for U.S. producers. Price is not necessarily the determining factor for the German buyer, given the German market’s demand for quality.
The German market is decentralized and diverse, with interests and tastes differing dramatically from one German state to another. Successful market strategies take into account regional differences as part of a strong national market presence. Experienced representation is a major asset to any market strategy, given that the primary competitors for most American products are domestic firms with established presences. U.S. firms can overcome such stiff competition by offering high-quality products, services at competitive prices, and locally based after-sales support. For investors, Germany’s relatively high marginal tax rates and complicated tax laws may constitute an obstacle, although deductions, allowances and write-offs help to move effective tax rates to internationally competitive levels.