The high point of the day for Ulrich Schumacher, chief executive of semiconductor maker Infineon Technologies, was his celebrating the company's initial public offering by cruising down Wall Street in a red Porsche driven by racing veteran Mario Andretti. In contrast, when the shares of the Siemens spin-off hit the Frankfurt exchange a day earlier and doubled in price, Schumacher had to face a wall of complaint from those who didn't receive shares. Therein lies a lesson in how far Germany has come toward being a society that celebrates entrepreneurial spirit--and how far it still must go.
Germany's small investors stampeded into the Infineon IPO. That's amazing, considering that semiconductors are a boom or bust market with plenty of risk. Demand outstripped supply 33-fold. So much for your conservative Germans and their savings passbooks. Infineon is no anomaly, either. Ever since Deutsche Telekom's IPO in 1996 delivered paper wealth to hundreds of thousands of ordinary Germans, share ownership has been soaring. Some 8.2 million Germans now own stocks or mutual funds, about 13% of the population over age 14. In 1998 the figure was 6.8 million.
But Infineon also shows that Germans still haven't lost their impulse to react with envy rather than admiration when somebody strikes it rich. It didn't matter that the company avoided favoritism by allocating shares in a lottery, or that Infineon gave employees preferential treatment, allowing them to snap up 6% of the issue. Workers' groups complained that employees should have gotten more, while shareholder advocates were upset that institutional investors walked away with 60% of the IPO.
That's shortsighted. Germans should be congratulating themselves on how far they've come in a short time. The shareholder culture they're creating will help create new companies, fuel economic growth, and cut unemployment. Nothing wrong with that.