Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

The Modesty of German Workers Is Impeding Inflation

Labor unions kept a lid on pay demands, signaling weak inflation pressures to come

Germany is rediscovering its ancestral angst over rampant price growth, now that inflation is suddenly back at the threshold of 2 percent. 

Accordingly, the European Central Bank is watching for signs that these energy-driven gains are feeding through to the labor market, as when workers demand higher wages it means that inflation is bedding in.

Fresh data from Germany suggests that's not going to be the case, at least for now.

The Federal Statistics Office in Wiesbaden reported on Monday that real wages -- that is, discounting the impact of inflation -- rose only 1.8 percent in 2016, the slowest pace in the last three years.

This is only a preliminary reading but it comes in a country where the economy is running above trend growth, and unemployment is at the lowest level on record.

ECB Executive Board member Benoit Coeure said last week that even if the inflation pick-up was so far mostly down to oil prices, he and his fellow policy makers would be “vigilant regarding any second-round effects.”

The ECB would actually like to see some of those effects on wages, because it would mean their quantitative easing policies to lift the region away from deflation are working. QuickTake Here's a primer on deflation.

For now, Germany's tradition of restraint in wage negotiations -- which Deutsche Bank has credited as one of the roots of the country's economic success -- suggests that they'll be waiting a bit longer.

In fact, unless wages in Europe's largest economy suddenly accelerate, there will be few second-round effects for the ECB to react to, according to Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING-DiBa AG in Frankfurt.

Wage gains have been reasonable, “but not what you would expect in a country which is near full employment,” he says  “This is a result of the traditional cooperation between unions and employers, given the common understanding that employees don't want to ask too much because they don't want to price their companies out of the global market.”

(For more economic analysis, see Benchmark)
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