By Tom Fairless
FRANKFURT -- Economic growth in Germany slumped to a six-year low in 2019, underscoring the vulnerability of Europe's export powerhouse to tensions in the global economy.
A recession in Germany's outsize manufacturing sector, especially its automotive industry, was the main factor behind the tepid performance, the federal statistics agency said Wednesday. Global trade conflicts, a slowdown in China and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit all weighed on Europe's largest economy.
The German economy grew by 0.6% last year, the slowest rate since 2013, at the height of the eurozone's debt crisis. Output in the manufacturing sector excluding construction, which accounts for around a quarter of the overall economy, fell by 3.6%. Private consumption rose robustly, helping support growth.
Official growth data for the last three months of 2019 will be published in February. Tanja Mucha, an agency official, said the economy probably grew slightly in that quarter.
International trade disputes and the China slowdown have weighed heavily on Germany's flagship auto manufacturers and midsize engineering firms. Together with sweeping changes in the global auto industry, those tensions have driven Germany's large manufacturing sector into recession. The slowdown appears to be leveling off, but there are few signs of a rebound.
Germany is among the most open economies in the West and is highly reliant on trade after decades of wage moderation, rising taxation, government belt-tightening and corporate cash hoarding have weighed on domestic demand.
Many German companies have been laying off staff, raising concerns that the manufacturing slowdown could start to affect private consumption.
Brose Group, an auto parts producer, said in October it would reduce its German workforce by around 2,000 by late 2022. It blamed the declining auto market, especially in China. Continental AG, a giant auto parts manufacturer, announced plant closures in Germany in November as part of a sweeping restructuring plan.
German car production fell to its lowest level in almost a quarter of a century last year, according to the VDA auto lobby group. Weakness in the auto sector likely trimmed German growth by 0.75 percentage points in 2019, according to the Ifo economic think tank.
Germany's slowdown helped trigger an aggressive response in September from the European Central Bank, which cut interest rates and launched an open-ended bond-buying program to shore up growth.
Other major central banks also loosened policy last year, including the Federal Reserve, as global trade growth fell to its lowest level since the 2008-09 financial crisis.
Europe remains vulnerable to renewed flare-ups in economic tensions involving the U.S., notwithstanding the latest trade deal with China, as well as rising geopolitical stress involving Iran, Brexit negotiations and strikes in France.
German exports fell 2.3% on the year in November, hurt by a fall in exports to China.
The World Bank last week trimmed its global economic growth forecasts for 2019 and 2020, pointing to a sluggish recovery in trade and investment despite a thawing of the U.S. -- China trade conflict.
"As German machine builders we feel that huge uncertainty exists in China," Carl Martin Welcker, president of Germany's Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, said in December.
Germany's unemployment rate edged up to 4.9% last month, while job openings fell and more firms reduced working hours to save jobs, according to the Federal Employment Agency.
The auto workforce in Germany has shrunk by 1.3% since the start of 2019, after adjusting for seasonal variations, Ifo said. Some 14% of auto companies say they have shortened working hours to avoid layoffs.
With Chinese economic expansion unlikely to return to earlier rates, German growth "will remain close to zero for now," said Marco Wagner, an economist at Commerzbank.
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