Tough EU stance? It’s in Germany’s culture

In this Nov. 19, 2009 file picture, stickers on a window show which credit cards are valid in a shop in Frankfurt, central Germany. Just as an American or any number of others wouldn't hesitate to whip out a credit card for a morning coffee on the way to work, a German wouldn't think twice about having to pay cash for a television.

In this Nov. 19, 2009 file picture, stickers on a window show which credit cards are valid in a shop in Frankfurt, central Germany. Just as an American or any number of others wouldn't hesitate to whip out a credit card for a morning coffee on the way to work, a German wouldn't think twice about having to pay cash for a television. Photo by The Associated Press.

BERLIN (AP) — Head to the checkout at an Ikea in Stockholm to pay for your new leather corner sofa and with the swipe of a Visa card it’s yours. Don’t try that in Berlin — that’ll be (euro) 1,699 ($2,080) up front please.

It’s that financial culture — a deep-seated aversion to debt and an emphasis on responsibility — that makes Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hardline approach to solving the European financial crisis so popular in Germany.

The attitude shows up in all walks of life, from the daily trip to the grocery store to putting a roof over your head.

The economy is so reliant on cash for transactions small and big, a way to ensure you don’t spend more than you have, that Germany pushed hard for the (euro) 500 note to replace its popular 1,000 mark bill when it joined the common currency.

It’s one of the largest denomination notes being produced anywhere today, worth around $600, and is even known in neighboring France as “the German note.” While even discount supermarkets in Germany happily take the (euro) 500, very few shops in France will accept the bill.

Even though Germany is Europe’s largest economy and one of its richest per head, it is last in home ownership with just over 40 percent. That compares to some 80 percent in troubled EU nations like Greece, Italy and Spain, and around 70 percent in Britain and the U.S., where owning your own home is part of the “American Dream.”

Germans tend to be instinctively averse to taking out a mortgage. And lenders often demand a 20 percent down payment on a house or substantial collateral. So a culture has sprung up of just renting and holding on to cash.

When mortgage debt shot up by more than 20 percent in the 27-nation European Union between 1998 and 2010 — and more than 35 percent in Britain and 60 percent in Ireland — Germany was the only EU nation to see it fall, with a drop of 5.4 percent in that time period, according to the European Mortgage Federation.

The German aversion to debt also translates to credit card use — or non-use. Only 36 percent of Germans over the age of 15 even possess a card, compared with 62 percent in the U.S., according to World Bank figures. And even when Germans do have a card, the limit is usually tied to a customer’s bank balance and the bill is automatically paid off — in full — from the customer’s account within a month or so.

“If I pay with my Visa, then Visa takes it from my account — I don’t get any real benefits,” said Rainer Hoedt, a Berlin high school teacher.

“When we use our credit cards it’s basically only when we go to the States and do our travel expenses through it because it’s so easy. Here in Germany I don’t use it at all.”

Around the world Merkel has been derided as intransigent in her approach to the financial crisis, demanding budget cuts and fiscal austerity from allegedly profligate EU members.

But her hardline stand plays well among the people who elected her.

A new poll for Stern magazine shows 64 percent of Germans think the chancellor should stick to her guns, while only 32 percent think she should reconsider her insistence on austerity. The Forsa agency questioned 1,003 adults on July 5 and 6 for the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

That means measures which some politicians and economists believe offer a way out of the debt crisis are considered unacceptable here.

Take Eurobonds, for example. Such joint debt could help ease the crisis by pooling risk between rich eurozone countries like Germany and their crisis-hit neighbors. No way, say Germans. Eurobonds, they argue, would just encourage profligate countries to blow their budgets even further, not to mention raise German borrowing costs.

Bailouts? Fine, but only if countries agree to strict austerity measures to get their financial houses in order. Print money? Not a chance, Germans say, still haunted by the memory of the hyperinflation of the early 20th century that helped create the conditions for Hitler’s rise.

Germany’s attitude to credit and debt largely stem from the financial trauma of the years that preceded the Nazi era. In the wake of massive reparation payments after the loss of World War I, the German mark went from its wartime level of about 4-5 per dollar to several trillion to the dollar.

Germany only agreed to eventually give up the mark in favor of the euro because the European Central Bank was designed just like the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, as an anti-inflation watchdog whose mandate does not include political considerations — such as stimulating job growth like the U.S. Federal Reserve.

The experience of hyperinflation is one that has been passed from generation to generation, said DZ Bank research economist Michael Stappel.

“My grandmother always talked about how every day prices were going up, how a bread roll that cost 10 pfennings then cost 5 million marks, and that could never be permitted to happen again,” he said. “And my grandmother never spent — she always saved, maybe 80 percent she saved.”

Germans today don’t save quite that much — 11 percent on average — but that’s still much higher than less than 6 percent in the U.S. or 6.5 percent in Japan, for example.

And even the approach to saving is conservative, with 40 percent going into bank accounts, 30 percent into life insurance — and only 6 percent into stocks, Stappel said. Another 3 percent goes into bonds.

So when Merkel holds Greeks and Spaniards to strict standards in return for European Union bailout funds — to which Germany is the largest contributor — and regularly shoots down ideas on quick fixes to the euro crisis, it should come as no surprise, Stappel said: “It’s a part of the German culture.”

Attitudes toward debt are starting to change, albeit slowly.

Credit cards, for example, are often needed for online purchases and are starting to become accepted in more places — albeit often only with a roll of the eyes. And Ikea is taking them now in two of their nearly 50 German stores, spokeswoman Josefin Thorell said.

But both the stores that do take plastic are near the border with France where there’s more demand from customers that they accept credit cards, said Thorell.

“It’s to make it easier for the French customers,” she said.

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Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm contributed to this report.

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