By Jack Ewing at the New York Times
FRANKFURT — China is cutting back on mining machinery as its economy slips. The United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries are no longer awash in oil money, putting luxury car brands at risk. Russia, still facing Western sanctions, cannot buy as much high-tech energy equipment.
The downshift in the emerging markets is leaving Germany vulnerable — and, by extension, Europe.
As many businesses in the region struggled just to tread water in recent years, German companies prospered by selling the goods and technology that emerging countries needed to become more modern economies. As they did, Germany’s strength served as a counterweight to the economic malaise, financial turmoil and Greek debt drama that dragged down many European countries.
Now, Germany, which accounts for the largest share of the European economy, is looking like the laggard. Compared with the economies of other countries in the region, Germany’s has been more deeply tethered to emerging markets. And the political climate is only adding to the uncertainty, as Germany deals with a wave of migrants and a potential exit of Britain from the European Union.
Against that backdrop, the country’s export engine is sputtering, while business confidence is eroding.
During the good times, the German manufacturer Eickhoff Bergbautechnik sold 20 machines a year as China dug ever more coal mines to feed its energy-hungry factories. The machines, shearer loaders that use giant spinning claws to scrape coal or potash from underground seams, sell for up to 4 million euros, or about $4.6 million apiece.
ast year, the company sold just eight. With profit dropping, Eickhoff laid off about 10 percent of its local work force of 300.
“We are going from an unbelievable boom to a down phase,” said Karl-Heinz Rieser, the managing director of Eickhoff.
Less torrid sales at Eickhoff and hundreds of other midsize German exporters translate into slower overall economic growth. Suppliers of mining equipment generated exports of €6.2 billion in 2012, according to the German Engineering Federation, an industry group. Last year, those exports fell to €3.5 billion, a trend that has played out in a number of industries.
As exports have slipped, the mood in Germany has turned glum.
Pessimists outnumbered optimists in February for the first time since late 2014, according to the survey of business managers by the Ifo Institute in Munich, which is considered a reliable predictor of the growth. Although there was a small uptick in March, manufacturers remain wary. If confidence remains weak, they are likely to cut back plans to invest in new equipment or hire people, prompting growth to slow.
A weaker German economy would have political consequences for Europe.
As much as other Europeans like to bash the Germans, it is doubtful that the eurozone could have survived its recent debt crisis without Germany’s checkbook. Germany contributes more than a quarter of the financing for the European Stability Mechanism, the new bailout fund used to prevent the total collapse of countries like Greece.
For producers around the eurozone, German shoppers also filled the void left by struggling Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese. When auto sales entered a deep slump beginning in 2009, Germans bought not only Volkswagens and Mercedeses but also Italian Fiats and French Renaults.
“It’s the biggest market in Europe,” Thierry Koskas, the executive vice president of sales at Renault, said in an interview. “Due to the weight of this market, it’s big volume for us and it’s important.”
The changing economic picture also threatens to undercut the influence of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
The country’s financial strength has made it the dominant political power. Though protesters in Greece were known to burn effigies of Ms. Merkel over her harsh austerity policies, she helped impose a measure of discipline among bickering eurozone leaders.
But there has been a tonal shift in recent months.
Austria and other countries have defied Ms. Merkel’s wishes on how to handle the influx of refugees from Syria. While she wanted to preserve Europe’s openness, her counterparts instituted border controls.
“Germany’s political standing in Europe has declined in the last number of quarters from a position of undisputed hegemony just to one where they are the most important country,” said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “It has been more difficult for Berlin to herd the cats.”
During the last decade, Germany has been something of a shopping mall for developing countries. If a country was mechanizing its farms, German companies like Claas made the tractors and grain harvesters. If a country needed a factory to produce liquid oxygen or one to bottle beer, German companies like Linde or Krones could design, equip and build the whole plant.
Soaring demand from China, as well as places like Russia, Brazil and Kazakhstan, made Germany nearly impervious to the woes of its neighbors. While more than one-fifth of the work force in Spain is jobless, German unemployment has fallen to only 4.3 percent, lower than that of the United States. When Eickhoff, the mining company, had to lay off workers, many of them found jobs at sister companies.
China has been particularly good to German automakers, and therefore to the whole country. Autos are Germany’s biggest export and one of the most important sources of jobs. China last year became the biggest market for the German sports car maker Porsche, surpassing the United States for the first time.
But there are signs of trouble. Growth in the Chinese auto market is expected to be around 4 percent this year, half what it was last year. “We will continue to grow,” Detlev von Platen, the head of sales for Porsche, said in an interview. “But not as quickly as before.”
The Middle East is another boom market turned troubled. Civil war in Syria and plunging oil prices have hurt the confidence and buying power of countries like Kuwait.
German exports to oil-producing countries fell 7 percent last year. The decline hurt sales of companies like Voith, based in Heidenheim in southern Germany, which produces motors used to pump large quantities of oil in refineries or drilling sites. “Customers in these industries are postponing or stopping investments,” said Dirk Böckenhoff, a spokesman for Voith.
No matter where German executives look, they struggle to identify any region that is booming the way that China did until recently.
Growth in the United States is looking mixed. Brazil is in the midst of a severe recession. And Russia has suffered from low commodity prices and political tension with the West.
Iran poses an opportunity, since sanctions have been lifted and the country has been opening up. German companies are rushing to exploit the new market. The engineering and electronics giant Siemens last month signed an agreement to deliver electricity-generating equipment to Mapna, an Iranian power and transportation conglomerate.
But Iran, with an economy smaller than Turkey’s, is not big enough to support German growth. And German companies will probably have to adapt to a growth rate that is closer to the mediocre eurozone average of about 1 percent — making it a member of the pack rather than the leader.
Mr. Rieser, the maker of coal mining equipment, says his company is reacting to the slowdown by introducing machines for different segments of the market. He does not expect to have to cut any more jobs.
But he added, “There are a lot of firms that are smaller than us that have a lot more trouble.”