Skip to main content
Speech by Richard W. Fisher, President and CEO (2005–2015)

Can Germany Hold Its Own in the New World of a Reconfigured Europe, an Ascendant China, and 21st Century America? Is German Economic Decline Exaggerated? Or Inevitable?

Remarks before the Atlantik-Brücke Annual Meeting

June 9, 2004 Berlin, Germany

On October 12, 2005, at a meeting organized by the Dallas Committee on Foreign Relations and the American Council on Germany, German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger referred to a speech that Dallas Fed President Richard W. Fisher delivered at the Atlantik-Brücke annual meeting in Berlin in June 2004. “It rocked the nation,” Ambassador Ischinger said. “And Richard, I am here to tell you we have listened.” Although the speech was given before Mr. Fisher came to the Federal Reserve, in response to audience requests to make the speech available, it is posted here in its entirety.

I am aware of the German proverb which warns one to “never give advice unless asked.” But my friend of almost 30 years, Beatte Lindemann, kindly but recklessly asked me to speak to you today on a topic that demands, if not advice, then at least a viewpoint. The topic I have been asked to address tonight is, “Can Germany Hold Its Own in the New World of a Reconfigured Europe, an Ascendant China, and a 21st Century America? Is German Economic Decline Exaggerated? or Inevitable?”

The answer to the first two questions is no. Unless it rapidly changes course, Germany cannot hold its own in the new world of a newly configured Europe, a rapacious China, and a flexible, highly adaptive American economy. German economic decline is, if anything, understated rather than exaggerated. And the decline of Germany’s economy and Germany’s role in the world is all but inevitable unless dramatic reforms are taken soon. Very soon.

How is that for a happy beginning?

I am a Texan. As you have seen from the actions of two Texan presidents, Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush, we are blunt people. But, unlike my far more distinguished and accomplished brethren, I have a background in international affairs, so kindly alluded to by my introducer. And I have a long involvement with, and genuine love for, Germany. I speak from the heart.

To frame this, permit me a little personal history.

I was introduced to Germany by John McCloy. When I graduated from Stanford Business School in 1975, I was taken on as the assistant to Robert Roosa at Brown Brothers Harriman, the great private bank. Roosa was a giant of a man in international finance; he was also a generous man. As his assistant, I was immediately swept into his considerable circle of what we referred to then as his “world beater” friends. McCloy was one of them. Over lunches with Bob and the other partners at the bank, Jack McCloy would describe his work as high commissioner after the war and his admiration for Konrad Adenauer and for the many successors he had known—every chancellor, right up to Helmut Schmidt, who was in power at the time.

To prepare for this speech, I went back and looked at my diaries from those days, little notes I would make when I got home from the bank at night. I noted McCloy saying that “Germany is the heart of Europe. It is the backbone of the European economy. No country in Europe is more important to the United States.”

And he would say, “Our alliance with Germany needs close attention, nurturing and vigilance…because its strength embodies profound advantages, while its weakness could involve far-reaching dangers and risks.”

In one of his many speeches I kept in my files he added, “The continuity of our good relations with Germany will depend upon a sustained effort on both sides to improve communications and contacts with a full appreciation of the difficult and sensitive problems the FRG faces.”

Thus began my lifelong fascination with Germany. Inspired by McCloy, I felt it was my responsibility as a good citizen of the world to know Germany and to remain sensitive to the problems Germany faces and ever vigilant to the risks of signs of potential German weakness.

Otto Lambsdorff would also come by the bank to see Bob. I am honored that Graf Lambsdorff would be here tonight to hear me speak. I remember him from those days at Brown Brothers as a steadfast booster of Germany, an ardent believer in the potential of the German people’s spirit, however fenced in he felt it to be. Graf Lambsdorff and the other German leaders whom I met through Bob were impressive men—they were indeed “world beaters”—and through them I came to understand how Germany had been able to claw its way back from utter destruction of the World War to become what we considered to be the paradigm of industrial efficiency: a locomotive of global economic growth, a formidable member of the G-6 (we only had six then), a stout and fearless ally of the United States during the Cold War.

It was Roosa who sent me to Washington to be Mike Blumenthal’s assistant at the Treasury, and it was through Blumenthal that I was selected to participate in the American Council on Germany/Atlantik-Brücke Young Leaders conference in 1977 here in Berlin.

I remember two things about that introduction to Berlin 27 years ago, in addition to the remarkable participants the Brücke and the Council had pulled together for their conference, ranging from now-Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger on the German side to now-U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer on the American side. The first was the elevator in Axel Springer Haus: it was nothing more than a vertical conveyor belt and you risked life, or at least, limb, if you did not jump off quickly on whatever floor you were headed for. The other was a dinner with Mayor Richard von Weizsacker. He somehow singled me out and took me on a private tour of his office, and into that corner nook that jutted over the Wall. “Standing here, I hope you will understand the anguish that we Germans live with every day,” he said. “We will never be a great nation again until we are united with our families in the East.”

Indeed, I was there on the steps of the Reichstag as the clock struck midnight between the 2nd and 3rd of October 1990, when unification was celebrated. If you were to take out a magnifying glass and pass it over the picture of Chancellor Kohl and the members of government and parliament standing beside him that glorious night, you would see me and my wife Nancy standing behind him, off to the side a little, right next to Karsten Voight in fact, looking out over the delirious crowds bearing their torches and waving the German flag, celebrating what some never dreamed would happen in their lifetimes.

It is a long story of how I got to be there that memorable, inspiring night, and I won’t bore you with the details. Over the years and along the way, I had the privilege of meeting Schmidt and watching him work both in Washington and Bonn and at the G-7 summits with President Carter. Karl Carstens was a guest in my home when he came to celebrate the sesquicentennial of German immigration to Texas in 1986. On trips to Bonn I was the beneficiary of a few one-on-one blistering tutorials on German foreign policy (pre-Croatia) by Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, thanks to my friend Matthias Wissmann. I sat in Chancellor Kohl’s inner office in Bonn, heard the recitations of Hoover soup and other deprivations and images he experienced after the war, and sensed first hand his abiding passion for international affairs and specifically, for Europe. (I continue to see him with my daughter Texana, a German studies major at Harvard, to translate for me so that she can practice assimilating very long and complex German monologues!)

For almost 30 years, I have enjoyed close friendships with people of my generation like Beatte Lindemann and others too numerous to mention—I see Peter Roggen and Christoph Walther sitting right in front here. I feel especially privileged to have a special relationship with Wolfgang Ischinger, whom I consider to be an exceptionally talented statesman and quite possibly the best ambassador ever posted to Washington by Germany.

All of these good people have been generous to me here in Berlin and throughout Germany, and have honored me by coming to Dallas and to our ranch in Texas for those wonderful biennials organized by the Atlantik-Brücke and the American Council on Germany, as well as for various functions, including a little dinner some in this room will remember I hosted for you with a young man named George W. Bush when he was but a baseball team manager.

In return, my German friends kept me constantly informed about German politics and the economy, its emerging leaders and the Weltanschauung. Senior among those friends was Walther Leisler Kiep, who has been a constant friend and for that, Walther, I thank you and congratulate you on becoming honorary chairman of the Brücke.

This intimate involvement with Germany was disrupted when I became Deputy U.S. Trade Representative for President Clinton. I was assigned responsibility for making NAFTA work, for overseeing our trade negotiations in Latin America and Asia, helping Charlene Barshefsky negotiate China’s accession to the WTO, co-chairing the Clinton-Hashimoto commission to deregulate the Japanese economy, and settling remaining issues with Vietnam through a trade agreement finally signed by President Bush in 2001. For several years I so thoroughly immersed myself in that job that I took my eye off of Germany, unable to refocus it back here until just recently.

The Germany I remember and the Germany I have come back to are different places.

The Germany I have come back to is no longer a world beater, no longer a land of giants.

It is a place so weakened economically and so riddled with outdated operating methods that it threatens the prosperity of Europe, the Euro-Atlantic alliance, and the global balance of economic power.

Absent change, Germany most certainly cannot hold its own in the new world of a reconfigured Europe, an ascendant China, and 21st century America.

Data tell us why. Let me tick off excerpts from a superb report prepared last year by Professor Stephen Silvia for the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, an institute affiliated with Johns Hopkins University of which I am a proud former board member.

  • German economic growth is anemic. It has languished behind its competitors not just recently, and not just since reunification, but for decades. From 1980 to 1989, the real GDP of the Federal Republic grew at an average annual rate of 1.9%, lower than the average growth rate of the 11 first-tier participants in the euro area and well behind the U.K. and the U.S.A. German unification then produced a two-year boomlet, with growth accelerating to over 5% in 1990 and 1991. But then sluggishness reasserted itself. Germany’s real GDP expanded by only 1.4% from 1992 to 2002, and has since been flat.
  • Germany is becoming less and less able to generate employment. Employment as a share of the labor force declined on average by 0.3% per annum between 1980 and 1990, then by a decline rate of 0.7% per year for the following decade, and has since remained unchanged.
  • Germany’s relative competitive position has been eroding for over 10 years. Your wages and social overhead combined are the highest in the world. This would be fine if it was offset by productivity, for after all, in the first three decades after the Second World War, German labor productivity soared by 3% a year. But that has not been sustained. Total factor productivity grew by 1% a year on average in the 1990s. Your workers are less productive than you think, and they work too little.
  • The only way to create lasting and more productive jobs is to increase research and development. This is Economics 101. Yet your corporate sector’s R&D spending as a percentage of GDP in 1999 was 1.5 percentage points lower than it was in 1989, grouping you with only Italy and the Netherlands in continental Europe as having a declining R&D-to-GDP ratio. Despite Germany’s reputation for technical prowess, you place exactly in the middle of the top 13 OECD countries with regard to the share of researchers in the workforce. Between 1991 and 2000, the share of researchers in the German workforce actually declined. And the results show. By the end of the 1990s, you had slipped to 12th place regarding the share of patents that are most frequently cited.
  • Germany’s financial architecture is dysfunctional. You are underserved at the investment end, and overserved with 2,591 banks at the retail end. There is still no vibrant equity and venture capital culture here. There are gross distortions from what Professor Silvia cleverly calls “Teutonic cronyism.” One needn’t go to the Maxim Gorki Theater to see Lutz Hübner’s Bank Play to understand the message sent to all by Bankgesellschaft Berlin. One need only look at the credit crunch affecting the Mittelstand, Germany’s most productive and promising sector. Credit and investment capital is not flowing to where it can be most effectively utilized. This afternoon, a businessman told me that he had gone into a bank and said, “I would like a loan.” The bank clerk replied, “So would I.”
  • There remain countless impediments to business efficiency, ranging from permit requirements to burdensome product approval processes, restrictions on marketing, pricing, and other rules and regulations that, superimposed on EU rules and regulations, create a mare’s nest of complications that tie the hands of entrepreneurs and productive workers.
  • Corporate governance procedures are opaque and antiquated. To be sure, quarterly reporting moves the ball forward. But co-determination, the Works Constitution Act, your unique brand of collective bargaining, and other residuals from what made Germany hum with harmony and efficiency during the Wirtschaftswunder, when the industrial age belonged to “the West,” are hindrances in an era requiring Germany to move up the value-added ladder to the info- and bio- and nano- and financial age, where the requirement for success is what goes on inside the head rather than what derives from the strength of workers’ arms and legs. Let me add parenthetically that if you want to be inspired by great economic literature, go back and read Winston Churchill’s speeches of 1905 and 1906. He speaks of “the super-fine processes.” In response to those who wanted to protect England from competition by restricting trade flows, he brilliantly suggested that England should let other governments have their taxpayers “subsidize with their tax money, not ours,” the production of cheap goods. And then England would import them and refine them and use them to develop “super-fine” products that could then be sold at higher prices and fatter margins. Moving up the “super-fine” or value-added ladder, of course, requires an education system that will help gear society to be able to do so.
  • And yet Germany’s educational system is overcrowded, underfunded, and suffocating from bureaucracies that respond more to statutes than to the future needs of students. Germany’s poor showing in the 2002 PISA international competition of primary and secondary education reveals the neglect of your once-mighty educational infrastructure. But the demise of your university system is the most alarming. While a handful of academies like the Technical University of Munich under its president, Dr. Wolfgang Herrmann, and centers like the Max Planck and Fraunhofer Institutes turn out world-class research for German industry, the harsh truth is that it would be hard to name a single German university that would rank in the top 100 in the world in terms of the broad education one needs for success in the modern interconnected world. And university rules governing employment and intellectual property make it very difficult to commercialize research. The best and brightest minds look longingly at distant shores where academic research is better funded and more richly rewarded. How can Germany move up the value added ladder under such circumstances?
  • In the interest of time, I will give you one more data point to ponder: demography. There are now more people over 60 in Germany than there are people under 20. The mathematic implications are straightforward: by 2040, there will be only two working-age people for every retiree (that is, if those of working age do not emigrate, who knows where—to Poland? Or someplace else where they can make and keep money or work in truly liberal universities). This has enormous implications for retirement, pension, labor, education, infrastructure, and other policies, all of which have budgetary implications. Small wonder that Das Methusalem-Komplott has been a bestseller. (Before the Cuban immigration wave into Florida, we used to jokingly refer to its aged demography as “God’s Antechamber.” Perhaps the title best rests now with Germany.)

So, now, I ask you: against this background, can Germany hold its own with the rest of the world? Ludwig Georg Braun gave more than an inkling of a German answer when he politely advised the members of the Chambers of Commerce “not to wait for better policies but to act now and make full use of the opportunities of enlargement.” His was hardly “an unpatriotic act”—nor would Josef Ackermann’s be if he indeed decided to move a merged Deutsche Bank to Luxembourg or Vaduz. It is an expression of despair.

I mentioned Mike Blumenthal as having first sent me to Germany. At almost the same time as he sent me to Berlin, he took me with him to China to negotiate with Deng Xiaoping in 1979. I remember the first meeting we had with Deng. He entered the room and said, “Where are these mighty capitalists that we are supposed to be so afraid of?” And then he sat down and laid out his “capitalist road,” his plan for “liberating” the Chinese economy, a plan which over 25 years has yielded 8% average economic growth—a cumulative sixfold expansion in the size of the Chinese economy.

George Schultz and I were recently speakers at a conference in Japan. He told me of his last meeting as Secretary of State with Deng Xiaoping. He asked Deng what he thought of Gorbachev’s glasnost. Deng’s reply was that “Gorbachev has it all backwards. First you liberate the economy. Then you can liberate the body politic.”

Deng was a communist. We are capitalists. But he understood the basis of the well-being of any people, and that is a strong economy. Germany cannot hold its own without a wholesale revamping—without reinventing its economy.

This is the challenge of German political leadership, be it for Angela Merkel or Roland Koch or Wolfgang Clement or Joschka Fischer or maybe perhaps even Horst Köhler (who I expect will test the limits of conventional presidential restraint given the urgency of the situation). Beyond them, it is the challenge of young leaders whose future is truly at stake, like Karl-Theodor Guttenberg and Eckart von Klaeden and others of the successor generation.

I understand the German fear of “strong leadership.” I know that the bogeyman of “der Fuhrer” lives in many German closets. But, come on. One hundred and thirty-three years after the Franco-Prussian War and the Treaty of Frankfurt, 86 years after Compiegne, and 60 years after D-Day and the Nazi surrender in that little red schoolhouse in Reims, the meaning of what Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, building on the work of their predecessors, achieved is clear: there is no risk of war between the great Western European powers.

The likelihood of strong German leadership turning warlike and to territorial expansion is less than de minimus.

The likelihood that continued poor leadership will lead to German ruin, however, is certain.

I understand that Germany has been impacted by the psychosis of defeat. You were defeated first by the Japanese in consumer electronics, then by Intel and Microsoft and the technology giants of the United States, then by bankers from New York, London and Zurich, and now you are besieged by the Chinese. For awhile, you were carried far by the impressive accomplishment of the Wirtschaftswunder. It propelled Germany from the devastation of World War II and became the standard of the industrial age—a sort of alchemy was created by a cooperative mixing of the government, industrial and labor sectors, yielding the gold of economic prosperity.

But, again, we no longer live in an industrial age. That is now the province of lower-cost labor and technically capable people who have been liberated by the end of the Cold War: the eastern side of Europe at least up to the Urals, the emergence of the southern countries of Europe as they moved into the modern era of Europe, the implementation of the plans of Deng Xiaoping in China and, now, in response to the successful example of China, the emergence of India. This is the province of others who are building themselves up from the devastation of the Soviet domination or Communist misrule or simple bad management, just as the Wirtschaftswunder was a product of necessity from the devastation of Germany during the Second World War.

We have literally billions of people eager to improve their lot in life by becoming productive members of the global workforce. Labor in the 10 new [EU] member countries is available for a fifth of the cost of German labor; Chinese labor is available for less than 5%—a 20th—of the cost of German labor. No amount of currency revaluation of the renminbi and no amount of foolish bluster about the need to raise taxes in Poland or Estonia or the Euro-acceding countries will make up for this reality. With the end of the Cold War and with the entry into the global economic system of a whole new set of eager, hungry countries, ownership of the lowest value-added manufacturing processes has shifted elsewhere from the Old West. Inevitably, these new competitors will creep up the value-added ladder, hollowing out the comparative advantage once held by the former leaders of the industrial age. This means that not only must there be a change in “product mix” of the German economy, but that old methods of business and financial and labor organizations must also change. It means that the mentality of government must change and perhaps even its structure.

The massive changes required of Germany will be hard. It is always easier to choose a certain present over an uncertain future. The beginning of the end of an old regime, of the old way, of business as usual, is always a troubled time. It requires new thinking, bold thinking. Transitions are full of pitfalls, of risk, of pain. I implore you to stop hiding behind both the failures and the successes of your past. Identify a leader or leaders who will take the kernels of promise that begin with Agenda 2010 and truly make this the beginning of the end of a Germany that no longer delivers. Make this the end of the beginning of reform. Get on with the real reform and a vital, renewed Germany that can lead Europe upward rather than downward.

That phrase “the beginning of the end,” and the well-known litany that followed in Churchill’s stirring speech about the Battle of Egypt in 1942, is not intended to conclude with an alliterative flourish. Like all good speakers and writers, Churchill was inspired by a more profound source. The phrase “the beginning of the end” is adapted from the Bible: I Peter, Chapter 4, Verse 7, to be precise. And the chapter concludes with an additional plea: “Come, be serious and discipline yourselves.”

It is time for Germany’s leaders to be serious and discipline themselves, to stop talking and moaning about their predicament, to stop making convenient patchwork solutions to sustain themselves in office or position themselves for the next election, to stop feigning ignorance of the severe consequences of maintaining the status quo, to hope against hope that exogenous forces (like last year’s floods in the East) somehow will miraculously bail them out. It is time to get on with making the changes necessary to save this great nation from economic and geopolitical mediocrity.

Standing up to George Bush will not create a single German job or secure the future of a single German child. “Standing up to America” will not determine Germany’s future (other than possibly fueling support in the United States for an even more rapid withdrawal of American troops). Nor will seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Only bold reform of the domestic structures in Germany will do the job.

As I speak, at home we are mourning the passing of Ronald Reagan. Regardless of what one thinks of his politics, Ronald Reagan’s gift as a leader was his willingness to frontally and unabashedly address the economic malaise that was rampant in the United States. Unlike his predecessor, he did not just talk about it (although when he did, he did so eloquently). He acted upon it—with indifference to his critics and to prevailing political and economic orthodoxy.

Today, Germany faces the kind of profound crisis of confidence the United States faced in the late 1970s. Just as Reagan moved the U.S. towards the vision of a brighter future, Germany’s leaders need now to inspire the people of this great country by deeds, in addition to words.

So, come, be serious and discipline yourselves. For the sake of Europe, the Atlantic Alliance and the world. For your sake. And ours. Get on with it. Now.

About the Author

Richard W. Fisher served as president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas from April 2005 until his retirement in March 2015.