More than two decades after Germany was famously called “the sick man of the euro” by The Economist magazine, investors must wonder if the country’s industrial heart is once again critically weak. This week brought more dismal German economic data: Industrial production fell 1.5% in June from the previous month, worse than analysts expected. Though figures released on Friday showed a rise in exports, the volume of goods Germany sends abroad is still close to lows plumbed in the 2009 global financial crisis.
German gross domestic product has clocked three quarters of negative or zero growth , making the country the worst performer among major eurozone nations since 2019. Previously it was the top performer. How long this “slowcession” lasts is a crucial question for picking stocks in Europe. Despite the recent economic reversal, the DAX has been by far the best equity index in the eurozone over 20 years, returning almost 360%.
By comparison, investing in long-stagnant Italy yielded a paltry 140% return. German industrial output has been in decline since 2018, when global vehicle sales fell for the first time in almost a decade. A postpandemic rebalancing of spending toward services has made the situation worse. Growth in China, the fourth-largest market for German exporters, has slowed.
On Thursday, shares in Siemens —the largest industrial firm in Europe—fell 5% after it cited these two factors as the cause of a fall in orders during the second quarter. Some of the grit that has gotten into the German economic machine might be hard to dislodge . Chinese carmakers have turned from partners into fierce competitors as Volkswagen , BMW and Mercedes-Benz play catch-up in electric-vehicle technology.
It isn’t just China that is seeking to substitute imports for domestic products; the Biden administration is copying Beijing’s playbook. There is also energy. At the same time as German industry has lost Russia as its main source of cheap gas, Berlin has closed the country’s last three nuclear power plants. Angst has gripped German officials and executives in an echo of worries voiced at the start of the millennium, when unemployment surged and globalisation ravaged factories.
Back then, the response was a policy package that prioritised international competitiveness, incentivising the creation of low-pay “minijobs.” The government embraced fiscal austerity and nudged unions to push for wage restraint. The result was a 20-year decline in unemployment and a current-account surplus that reached an eye-watering 8% of GDP even as the U.S. ran huge deficits. Many economists praised German labor flexibility and fiscal austerity.
Conversely, critics pointed out that surpluses made most households worse off, and that Germany’s factory-job losses were just as large as America’s. Politics aside, it was largely a fortuitous jump in foreign demand that drove growth, allowing the nation to solidify gains in industries where it already had an advantage.
“Over the last 20 years, Germany always had an external sugar daddy: China, the eurozone and then the U.S.,” said Carsten Brzeski , chief economist at ING.
The flaw in this model was that it outsourced economic policy, leading to problematic dependencies on geopolitical rivals. It also fostered an excessive focus on old winners at the expense of new digital technologies and renewable energy. Bearish investors are right that it will take years to rectify these problems, particularly given the complexity of consensus-based German politics. Yet the German export-led model also got a lot right. As in China or South Korea, it channeled demand toward higher-productivity, higher-wage firms.
Unlike in the U.S., German manufacturing became more complex. That allowed the country’s industrial base to survive better than in other Western countries. In a world where nations are scrambling to reshore industries, Germany already has them. The readiest answer to its growth challenge isn’t to turn away from manufacturing but to double down by taking a page from Chinese and now U.S. industrial policy.
The German government is already doing this with semiconductors as part of the European Chips Act. Back in June, it signed off on 10 billion euros (around $11 billion) in subsidies for American chip maker Intel to build two plants, and earlier this week it committed €5 billion to help Taiwan’s TSMC set up a factory with local partners like Infineon.
A similar approach is needed to upgrade the country’s power generation and transmission and accelerate the transformation of carmakers and other industrial incumbents. Long-term energy guarantees could stem cost swings in the meantime. Given its political influence over the European Union, it seems hard to imagine that the bloc’s green-economy push could somehow leave Germany in a less dominant position . Historically, this is one patient that always leaves the hospital.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Couples find that lab-grown diamonds make it cheaper to get engaged or upgrade to a bigger ring. But there are rocky moments.
Wedding planner Sterling Boulet has some advice for brides-to-be regarding lab-grown diamonds, which cost a fraction of the natural ones.
“If you’re trying to get your man to propose, they’ll propose faster if you offer this as an option,” says Boulet, of Raleigh, N.C. Recently, she adds, a friend’s fiancé “thanked me the next three times I saw him” for telling him about the cheaper lab-made option.
Man-made diamonds are catching on, despite some lingering stigma. This year was the first time that sales of lab-made and natural mined loose diamonds, primarily used as center stones in engagement rings, were split evenly, according to data from Tenoris, a jewellery and diamond trend-analytics company.
The rise of lab-made stones, however, is bringing up quirks alongside the perks. Now that blingier engagement rings—above two or three carats—are more affordable, more people are dealing with the peculiarities of wearing rather large rocks.
Esther Hare, a 5-foot-11-inch former triathlete, sought out a 4.5-carat lab-made oval-shaped diamond to fit her larger hands as a part of her vow renewal in Hawaii last year. It was a far cry from the half-carat ring her husband proposed with more than 25 years ago and the 1.5-carat upgrade they purchased 10 years ago. Hare, 50, who lives in San Jose, Calif., and works in high tech, chose a $40,000 lab-made diamond because “it’s nuts” to have to spend $100,000 on a natural stone. “It had to be big—that was my vision,” she says.
But the size of the ring has made it less practical at times. She doesn’t wear it for athletic training and swaps in her wedding band instead. And she is careful to leave it at home when traveling. “A lot of times I won’t take it on vacation because it’s just a monster,” she says.
The average retail price for a one-carat lab-made loose diamond decreased to $1,426 this year from $3,039 in 2020, according to the Tenoris data. Similar-sized loose natural diamonds cost $5,426 this year, compared with $4,943 in 2020.
Lab-made diamonds have essentially the same chemical makeup as natural ones, and look the same, unless viewed through sophisticated equipment that gauges the characteristics of emitted light.
At Ritani, an online jewellery retailer, lab-made diamond sales make up about 70% of the diamonds sold, up from roughly 30% two years ago, says Juliet Gomes, head of customer service at the company, based in White Plains, N.Y.
Ritani sometimes records videos of the lab-diamonds pinging when exposed to a “diamond tester,” a tool that judges authenticity, to show customers that the man-made rocks behave the same as natural ones. “We definitely have some deep conversations with them,” Gomes says.
Not all gem dealers are rolling with these stones.
Philadelphia jeweller Steven Singer only stocks the natural stuff in his store and is planning a February campaign to give about 1,000 one-carat lab-made diamonds away free to prove they are “worthless.” Anyone can sign up online and get one in the mail; even shipping is free. “I’m not selling Frankensteins that were built in a lab,” Singer says.
Some brides are turned off by the larger bling now allowed by the lower prices.When her now-husband proposed with a two-carat lab-grown engagement ring, Tiffany Buchert, 40, was excited about the prospect of marriage—but not about the size of the diamond, which she says struck her as “costume jewellery-ish.”
“I said yes in the moment, of course, I didn’t want it to be weird,” says the physician assistant from West Chester, Pa.
But within weeks, she says, she fessed up, telling her fiancé: “I think I hate this ring.”
The couple returned it and then bought a one-carat natural diamond for more than double the price.
When Boulet, the wedding planner in Raleigh, got engaged herself, she was over the moon when her fiancé proposed with a 2.3 carat lab-made diamond ring. “It’s very shiny, we were almost worried it was too shiny and was going to look fake,” she says.
It doesn’t, which presents another issue—looking like someone who really shelled out for jewellery. Boulet will occasionally volunteer that her diamond ring came from a lab.
“I don’t want people to think I’m putting on airs, or trying to be flashier than I am,” she says.
For Daniel Teoh, a 36-year-old software engineer outside of Detroit, buying a cheaper lab-made diamond for his fiancée meant extra room in his $30,000 ring budget.
Instead of a bigger ring, he got her something they could both enjoy. During a walk while on an annual ski trip to South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Teoh popped the question and handed his now-wife a handmade wooden box that included a 2.5-carat lab-made diamond ring—and a car key.
She put on the ring, celebrated with both of their sisters and a friend, who was the unofficial photographer of the happy event, and then they drove back to the house. There, she saw a 1965 Mustang GT coupe in Wimbledon white with red stripes and a bow on top.
Looking back, Teoh says, it was still the diamond that made the big first impression.
“It wasn’t until like 15 minutes later she was like ‘so, what’s with this key?’” he adds.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’