If nothing else, Michael Lewis is always entertaining. After briefly describing the German peoples’ long fascination with “scheisse”–more specifically the love of being near it without getting dirtied by it–Lewis tells us that character also extends to German banking:
I had gone to see Germany’s deputy minister of finance, a 44-year-old career government official named Jörg Asmussen. The Germans are now in possession of the only Finance Ministry in the big-time developed world whose leaders don’t need to worry whether their economy will collapse the moment investors stop buying their bonds. As unemployment in Greece climbs to the highest on record (16.2 percent at last count), it falls in Germany to 20-year lows (6.9 percent). Germany appears to have experienced a financial crisis without economic consequences. They’d donned head condoms in the presence of their bankers, and so they had avoided being splattered by their mud. As a result, for the past year or so the financial markets have been trying and failing to get a bead on the German people: they can probably afford to pay off the debts of their fellow Europeans, but will they actually do it? Are they now Europeans, or are they still Germans? Any utterance or gesture by any German official anywhere near this decision for the past 18 months has been a market-moving headline, and there have been plenty, most of them echoing German public opinion, and expressing incomprehension and outrage that other peoples can behave so irresponsibly. Asmussen is one of the Germans now being obsessively watched. He and his boss, Wolfgang Schäuble, are the two German officials present in every conversation between the German government and the deadbeats.
The following from Lewis is a gem, especially when reading it in conjunction with Howard Marks’s latest memo (“Down to the Wire” July 2011):
The curious thing about the eruption of cheap and indiscriminate lending of money during the past decade was the different effects it had from country to country. Every developed country was subjected to more or less the same temptation, but no two countries responded in precisely the same way. The rest of Europe, in effect, used Germany’s credit rating to indulge its material desires. They borrowed as cheaply as Germans could to buy stuff they couldn’t afford. Given the chance to take something for nothing, the German people alone simply ignored the offer. “There was no credit boom in Germany,” says Asmussen. “Real-estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behavior is rather alien to Germans. Germans save whenever possible. This is deeply in German genes. Perhaps a leftover of the collective memory of the Great Depression and the hyperinflation of the 1920s.” The German government was equally prudent because, he went on, “there is a consensus among the different parties about this: if you’re not adhering to fiscal responsibility, you have no chance in elections, because the people are that way.”