German trade surplus widens in November amid critics' concerns over reliance on exports

BERLIN – Germany’s trade surplus widened to a near record in November, official figures showed Wednesday in a development that may add potential fuel to critics’ concerns that the country is not spending enough to help out its struggling partners in the eurozone.

The figures could well form the backdrop to discussions later between U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. Lew has voiced his opinion that Germany should be looking to get its current account more into balance as a means of shoring up the eurozone’s stragglers.

Wednesday’s figures from the Federal Statistical Office showed Germany posting a surplus in November of 17.8 billion euros ($24.2 billion), up from a downwardly revised 16.7 billion the previous month. A more detailed look showed exports rose 0.3 per cent compared with the previous month to 93.2 billion euros when adjusted for seasonal and calendar factors, while imports declined 1.1 per cent to 75.4 billion euros.

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, has for a while been criticized of relying too heavily on its exports and not importing enough to boost other economies in what is now the 18-country eurozone following Latvia’s adoption of the single currency at the start of the year.

The United States, for one, has urged Germany to spend more while the International Monetary Fund has said a smaller surplus is the only way to even out the imbalances that plague the eurozone.

Speaking in Paris on Tuesday, Lew didn’t specifically mention Germany but his message seemed aimed at Berlin as he pushed for European countries to help consumers and companies spend.

“Short-term demand has to be part of the agenda in terms of keeping growth moving in the right direction,” he said.

Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, cautioned that a German move to emphasize exports less may not have the positive effect on the eurozone that some think.

“The widening surplus is likely to put increasing political pressure on Germany to rebalance its economy away from export-oriented growth towards domestic consumption,” he said. “However, the flip-side is that stronger German export gains, especially to non-euro countries, helps boost business activity at companies within the euro area that are suppliers to German firms.”