Corporate Governance and Great Recession: Germany’s Success in the Post-2008 World

The following post comes to us from Pavlos E. Masouros of Leiden University, Leiden Law School.

Capitalism is abundant in contradictions that result in the production of crises. During such crises capital goes through devaluations that give rise to unemployment, bankruptcies and income inequality. The ability of a nation to resist the forces of devaluation depends on the array of institutional or spatio-temporal fixes it possesses, which can buffer the effects of the crisis, switch the crisis to other nations or defer its effects to the future. Corporate governance configurations in a given social order can function as institutional or spatio-temporal fixes provided they are positioned within an appropriate institutional environment that can give rise to beneficial complementarities.

Germany seems to resist most effectively compared to other nations (be it nations of the insider or the outsider model of corporate governance) the effects of the Great Recession. This paper, Corporate Governance and the Great Recession: An Alternative Explanation for Germany’s Success in the Post-2008 World, posits that this is due to an institutional complementarities between Germany’s corporate governance system, its system of industrial relations and the monetary institutions of the European Monetary Union.

Cooperative collective bargaining is viewed upon as a key to the attainment of wage moderation that can boost an export-led growth strategy and increase a nation’s competitiveness. The leading of the German system of industry-wide collective bargaining by the metalworking industry that sets the pace for other industries combined with the independence of the Bundesbank allow for a coordinated environment where wage-setting is non-inflationary. This endowed Germany with trade competitiveness particularly during the period of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (“ERM”), when the Bundesbank was the ERM’s real central bank. Uncoordinated collective bargaining in other Member States resulted in them not benefiting from central bank independence and thus developing inflationary wage-setting that eroded their competitiveness during the same period. Because of the asymmetry in the European Monetary Union (“EMU”) Germany was able to deepen its trade surpluses and competitiveness vis-à-vis other nations and particularly vis-à-vis those of the periphery. To maintain an inflation-free environment and to finance the trade deficit of its intra-EMU trading partners Germany recycled its export profits through capital inflows into deficit nations. This led to asset value inflation and the formation of bubbles in the deficit nations who could not turn the inflows into productive activities. The capital outflows resulted in a slow growth rate in Germany that also because of the Stability and Growth Pact had to reverse the capital flows. This led to a ‘sudden stop’ in the periphery nations, bursting of the bubbles and investors’ flight to safety to Germany that hence increased its benefits from the Great Recession by emerging as a safe haven.

But German industrial relations would not have been cooperative and accommodative of a wage-moderation climate if it were not for the German institutions of corporate governance. Without its corporate governance institutions Germany would not have been able to take advantage of the possibilities for a better positioning because of the EMU reality. The success of the company- and/or plant-level employment pacts, which are viewed as key to both wage moderation during the 1990s and 2000s and labor hoarding during the Great Recession, was the result of the “embedded collectivism” that labor-management codetermination institutions have endowed the German corporate edifice with. These institutions have also resulted in a system of ‘negotiated shareholder value’, where the preferences of institutional investors become subject to the preferences of the larger stakeholder coalition that is typical of German corporate governance; this has contributed to an aversion towards downsizings despite the fact that shareholders would stand to benefit therefrom. Finally, the weak capital market pressure that results from the ability of German firms to defend against hostile takeovers allows bargaining parties to adopt the long-term view during collective bargaining and thus reach concessions unattainable in bargaining situations poised with short-termist thinking.

The takeaway is that regardless of the traditional character of a corporate governance system as inside or outside, the resilience with which such system endows a given economy vis-à-vis the effects of an economic crisis and eventually its potency as an institutional or spatio-temporal fix depends on the system’s interaction with institutions located in other domains. The addition of the monetary institutions of the EMU to the German institutional equation helps explain the distinctive route that Germany has followed during the Great Recession when compared to its traditional institutional relative, Japan, and widens the range of factors that comparative corporate governance scholarship should henceforth take into account in seeking the “one best way” of regulating the corporation.

The full paper is available for download here.

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