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MONEY

Is Germany planning more energy relief measures?

The German government has already unveiled two multi-billion euro relief packages to help struggling households. But with the energy crisis showing no sign of letting up, is there a third one on the horizon?

German themostat
A thermostat in a German apartment. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez

As the cabinet prepares to meet on Wednesday, voices calling for new social measures to support citizens are growing louder.

With inflation hitting record levels, unions and centre-left politicians are urging the government to introduce new measures to help offset the soaring consumer prices.

These include a proposal from Agriculture Minster Cem Özdemir to reduce the VAT on certain food products and a proposal from the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) to raise tax-free thresholds to counteract inflation.

READ ALSO: German Agriculture Minister wants to scrap VAT on fresh food

Ahead of the meeting, SPD leader Lars Klingbeil also aired his support for raising the basic allowance for people on long-term unemployment benefits, otherwise known as Hartz IV. 

“That the standard rates have to be increased, is, I think, absolutely clear,” Klingbeil told German broadcaster Tagesschau. “Because prices are rising everywhere.”

Though the cost of living is currently rising at a rate not seen in 50 years, the last pay rise received by those on Hartz IV amounted to just €3 per month – an increase that the Left Party slammed as “little more than a pittance”.

The second-largest party in the ‘traffic light’ coalition, the Green Party, has also voiced support for a hike in benefits payments. 

Speaking to Tagesschau on Friday, Greens’ parliamentary group leader Britta Haßelmann said the coalition should come to an agreement on Hartz IV. 

“People who suffer enormously and cannot offset this need more support,” she said.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Germany’s plans to ditch sanctions for the unemployed

‘Unfavourable effects’

So far this year, Germany has rolled out two support packages designed to help households with rising costs due to the ongoing energy crisis and Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

Headline measures included a €300 allowance for taxpayers, a one-off payment for benefits recipients, a cut on fuel taxes and a €9 monthly ticket for local and regional transport. The total cost of the measures is estimated at around €30 billion. 

READ ALSO: Who gets Germany’s €300 allowance – and when?

However, some experts believe that the current measures aren’t targeted enough.

“Both the fuel discount and the nine-euro ticket are very imprecise, non-specific instruments,” economist Oliver Holtemöller told Tagesschau. “They also have unfavourable effects on wealth distribution.”

In response to the suggestion of extending the €9 ticket beyond September – which the Greens are believed to be in favour of – Holtemöller said the measures should not be prolonged “under any circumstances.”

“In fact, they should be discontinued immediately,” he added. 

The centre-left parties in government are also facing opposition from the pro-business FDP when it comes to new measures.

In recent days, Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) has been reiterating his support for strict caps on future borrowing – a policy known as the debt brake.

READ ALSO:

Energy relief package III? 

According to the government, people shouldn’t expect any new relief package to be announced immediately. 

Linder is currently preparing a provisional budget for 2023 – and is hoping to be able to reinstate the debt brake next year. This budget will need to be approved by the cabinet on July 1st. 

A few days later on July 4th, trade unions and business leaders will meet with the government to discuss how a so-called wage-inflation spiral can be avoided. One option on the table is for unions to commit to lower pay rises in return for more social support from the state. 

Finance Minister Christian Lindner

Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) gives a statement in Berlin on excess profit tax. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

This could determine whether an additional relief package is needed and, if so, whether it’s feasible for the government to keep caps on spending in place for in 2023. 

Speaking to German tabloid Stern, Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) said it would be impossible for the government to completely compensate for rising prices.

“In principle, I do not see any scope to relieve people who have a very high income,” Heil said. “We have to cushion the consequences of the price development specifically for those people for whom it really is an existential threat.”

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MONEY

‘€10-€15 more for groceries’: How price hikes are hitting consumers in Germany

Russia's war in Ukraine is driving up energy and food prices. While the German government mulls new measures to protect consumers, buyers are increasingly feeling the price hikes, reports Cecilia Filas.

'€10-€15 more for groceries': How price hikes are hitting consumers in Germany

Consumer prices are rising in Germany – and people are noticing it in their wallets. In May, inflation rose by nearly 8 percent year-on-year, the highest level since the country’s reunification in 1990. First, it was the pandemic and the resulting disruption of global supply chains that pushed up prices, now, it is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that is driving energy and food prices to record high levels. 

Olaf Scholz’s coalition government launched a €30 billion plan to help German consumers, especially the most vulnerable. The measures included the €9 monthly ticket over summer; fuel tax cuts; energy subsidies; and a one-off €300 payout for all taxpayers, plus a €100 ‘Kinderbonus’ for children.

But while the measures provided temporary relief – in June inflation fell to 7.6 percent – experts fear another surge is around the corner. The numbers could get significantly worse in the coming months when some of the measures end and Germany will face the winter with a reduced amount of Russian gas – or none at all. 

READ ALSO: Who gets Germany’s €300 payout – and when?

Thinking carefully about bigger purchases

People living in Germany are feeling the pinch.

At the supermarket, a shopping bill that used to be between €70-€80 is “now €10 or €15 extra,” says Nicolás, an Argentine expat in his 30s who lives in Berlin.

Unlike in Argentina, where consumers are used to offers and different forms of financing to cover themselves against inflation, Nicolás says he has no strategy and has not reduced his consumption because of the rising prices, although it is impacting him. “You don’t need to pay in instalments (for items), but you do feel the difference. You save less,” he says.

Federico, another Argentina native who has been living in Germany for more than 10 years, agrees.

“It’s not that you have problems making ends meet, but that you save a little less,” he says. “Or if you have to make a big purchase, you might think about it a little bit more.”

He says everyday food products in Berlin have also noticeably gone up. 

“The most classic thing – to buy a kebab which is something everyone eats – you can see how much it has increased,” he adds.

“There is a lot of advertising on TV and radio showing you ways to save, and years ago there was no advertising or products with so many promos. Now, this has become more visible, as there is a much greater variety of bargains and people tend to go after that a little bit more than they used to.”

Fruit and veg being sold at a market in Oldenburg.

Fruit and veg being sold at a market in Oldenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

‘Price shocks’

Chancellor Scholz has promised more measures in the coming months to cushion the burden, especially on lower-income families. The Chancellor plans to meet with employers, trade unions and the Bundesbank team in September.

Bundesbank President, Joachim Nagel, said recently that there is a risk of inflation remaining high in the medium term, and the German central bank is forecasting an average rate above 7 percent for 2022.

“For this year, we think that we can really manage the inflation headwinds we see on the energy side but also on the salary side,” Bettina Orlopp, CFO of Commerzbank told Bloomberg TV.  “Next years – 2023, 2024 – the story will be different, becoming more difficult”, she said.

But is Germany really experiencing an inflationary process? Dr. Silke Tober of the Hans Boeckler Foundation’s Macroeconomic Policy Institute (IMK) doesn’t think so.

“The inflation we are experiencing in Germany at the moment, and in the euro area as a whole, is not inflation in the real sense. What we have are price shocks”, she tells The Local. “What really makes an inflationary process is that wages and prices rise, and then you get persistent inflation.

“We are not at that stage. What we are really seeing instead is that the energy price hikes and the increase in food prices are pushing up prices.”

READ ALSO: When will Germany’s rising cost of living slow down?

Tober adds that there are assistance measures which make a difference.

“The government has put in place several transfer payments to households, especially low-income households, and other measures that reduce the burden of inflation,” Tober says.

She expects price rises to come down “substantially” next year, provided the war in Ukraine does not escalate.

However, Tober says: “If we have a gas embargo and no more gas from Russia, we will have another jump in energy prices, and then inflation will stay high next year as well. And then we have the problem that there may be second-round effects, meaning wage increases might be excessive and then will have persistent inflation.”

The expert from IMK says that rising prices are especially affecting lower-income households, who must “cut back on other expenses to pay for food and energy” because they tend to have fewer savings to fall back on.  

“Households with higher incomes tend to have wealth and a high savings rate, so they cope with it by reducing their savings rate or maybe even reducing their savings,” Tober says.

“But low-income households usually, in Germany at least, they don’t have a positive savings rate – that means they’ve already spent all of their money or most of it – and have very little wealth, so what they have to do is actually reduce consumption to deal with the current [price] shocks.”

READ ALSO: What is Germany’s new gas ‘tax’ and who will pay it?

Money lies on a radiator.

Money lies on a radiator. People with gas heating will face much higher costs. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Patrick Pleul

Ongoing concerns about price hikes

Indeed, June retail sales plunged 8.8 percent year-on-year, the biggest drop since 1994, according to Destatis. Non-essential items such as furniture, household appliances, clothing and shoes were the hardest hit.

On the other hand, to avoid passing on cost increases to customers and remain competitive, several companies are maintaining prices (or raising them at a very low rate) but reducing the content of their products, warned Verbrauchenzentrale Hamburg, a consumer advice centre. These are hidden price increases, generally referred to as ‘shrinkflation’.

With an interest rate of just 0.5 percent, credit or financing purchases in instalments might seem an attractive option to protect from inflation.  However, Verbrauchenzentrale Nordrhein Westfalen, the consumer protection association in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, says that there hasn’t been, at the moment at least, “increasing demand in our debt counselling service as a result of the current inflation, although we notice ongoing concerns about the price increases”.

“Normally excessive debts and consumer insolvency are not seen immediately but with a time gap -they follow a crisis,” the agency told The Local. “Therefore, it is just possible that in the end, we will see more consumer insolvencies due to these general price increases.”

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