Economic Costs and Benefits of German Unification

On Wednesday, it had been 20 years since the fall of the Berlin wall and the eventual collapse of communist political and economic system in Central and Eastern Europe. However, there is still discussion about economic costs and benefits of German reunification (Wiedervereinigung). I’ve been motivated to open this debate by professor Becker’s analysis (link) on the size of countries and by the recent article in Financial Times by the contributing German economist (link).

Economists in Germany and the rest of the world have long warned against the consequences of the unification of East and West Germany. After the unification, German central bank set the exchange rate at 1:1. Because East German workers’ relative productivity level lagged far behind the West German level, East German workers migrated to West Germany in search of higher wages. When wage rates between West and East Germany were equalized in the absence of productivity catch-up in East Germany, the excess labor supply in the East led to high unemployment and slow changes in the economic structure. As the exchange rate was equalized and wages prevented from the natural adjustment to productivity growth, the unemployment soared as East German manufacturing sector couldn’t employ labor anymore. The unemployed received massive transfer payments which, even more than a decade after the reunification, still present about 4 percent of total German income.

Today, the figures suggest that East German GDP per capita is roughly 70 percent of the Western German level and the unemployment rate exceeds 12 percent – more than twice the Western level. Low population density and high share of rural population are the main structural obstacle to higher productivity growth in the East. The majority of models in economic geography and urban economics suggests that agglomeration economies occur where population density is high. The latter yields significant advantages in terms of spillovers, search cost, factor mobility, know-how and economies of scale. Low population density is a major obstacle in attracting investment mostly because firms are not eager to locate at the periphery in the presence of high search costs and in the absence of high-skilled labor, agglomeration and linkages to economies of scale. In the U.S, for instance, Pittsburgh’s industrial restructuring from resource-based steel industry into knowledge-intensive information technology, biotechnology and software development required agglomeration which combined high-skilled labor, human capital, access to regional and international markets as well as high population density.

In Germany, for example, Hamburg generated the highest GDP per capita (€51,000) among cities and Bavaria (Bayern) generated the highest GDP per capita (€36,000) among German states. Hamburg and Munich, as well as the linking cities located in their vicinity are among the most densely populated areas which enabled them to develop core industries, spillovers, know-how and dynamic knowledge externalities. There is an overwhelming evidence that differences in population density are a good source of growth difference between east and west Germany.

After the unification, German fiscal policymakers favored an expansive fiscal policy which directed federal expenditures into poorer regions of the East to boost the development of infrastructure. However, at an exchange rate 1:1, West German firms were reluctant to invest in East Germany mainly because of higher relative price of labor. As East German workers moved to the Western part of the country, west German firms hired eastern workers. As brain drain became widespread, the convergence of east German income per capita slowed.

East Germany were far better off, if the country remained independent. The reunification of Germany would yield significant economic benefits, if the unification itself were based on close economic integration with the establishment of free trade area and free movement of capital, goods and labor. If East Germany remained independent and retained its own currency without the uncovered exchange rate realignment to to West German exchange rate parity, the relative price of East German labor wouldn’t increase and thus the unemployment rate would be significantly lower than it has been ever since the reunification. Thus, West German firms would easily find attractive investments in East Germany. The process would dramatically reduce disparities in population density compared to the West. Under such scenario, East Germany’s macroeconomic stabilization and institutional reforms would be a lot easier and the overall economic and political transition much less painful.

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