“Erfolgsgeschichte”, that’s the beautiful German word for success story. And that is clearly what the recent German economic history reads like. The German economy has recovered more rapidly from the 2008 crisis than any other traditional economy. The whole country seems to be vibrating with a newly found self-confident entrepreneurial spirit. This economic success is not without political consequences. At the latest EU Summit, statesmen from other European countries saw an unprecedented German assertiveness. Miss Merkel’s argument seemed to be: “since Germany is the best-performing economy of Europe, all other countries should adopt our economic policy”.
Today, a next chapter in the success story of the German economy is written. The Belgian business newspaper ran as its headline today “Deutsche Börse takes over the New York Stock Exchange”. The headline is exaggerated as headlines should be. Deutsche Börse is not taking over, it is merging with the world’s most famous trading place on Wall Street. But as 10 of the 17 top jobs in the new company will be held by Germans, it is clear that Frankfurt is the leading dancing partner. So, to continue in hyperbolic language, who would have thought that Germans would once run Wall Street?
I guess that in the next years we will be able to buy many books that explain in detail for what reason the German economy recovered at such a rapid pace. I don’t have the arrogance to share more than an observation with you on this topic. In recent years, I have done a lot of business in Germany. What I have come to appreciate especially in the way Germans do business is their ability to balance discipline and creativity. This can also be observed in the policy adopted by the German government to recover from the crisis, a policy which they would like other European countries to copy. It is a cocktail of budgetary discipline and increased entrepreneurial flexibility, e.g. by relaxing rigid employment conditions.
The question is of course, whether we can see a similar positive, vibrating development in the German energy market. Many would argue that this is not the case. In my opinion, the German energy market is still facing two major issues:
- The non-commodity part of the energy bill is higher in Germany than in any other country. As I have written earlier in this blog, Germany has developed its green power production remarkably fast. But it comes at a massive cost of now 35 euro per MWh. On top of that, grid fees are the highest of any Western-European country. The reason for that is very simple. There are more than a thousand different grid companies, all of which have fixed costs. Michèle Bellon, the CEO of ERDF, the French electricity distribution grid operator, probably has a decent salary. But the French pay just one CEO salary for having electricity distributed in 95% of their country. The Germans pay a thousand CEO salaries for that same service.
- To some extent the German energy market remains stuck in archaic structures. There are not only a multitude of local grid companies, the Stadtwerke, most of them also continued to run a supply business after liberalization. What is the future of such companies? If they don’t develop a commercial approach to attract customers outside their traditional supply area, they are sitting ducks, waiting for new suppliers to steal away clients from them. As the Stadtwerke are run by local politicians, they often lack the willingness to expand the business beyond their locality.
In many cases we observe negative consequences of the archaic market structure with buyers of energy. I have already praised the unique German cocktail of discipline and creativity. However, sometimes the discipline takes over and becomes conservatism. This is nurtured by the local supply companies that rely heavily on the decades long relationship that they have with a client to convince him to continue working with him. But when these local companies are small, they often lack the ability or willingness to develop the new energy buying solutions to face today’s energy market challenges and grasp the opportunities. German energy buyers then continue to sign fix price contracts for electricity and oil-indexed gas contracts, out of habit, and not based on a genuine analysis of their risk exposure in the energy markets.
I am not too negative about the German energy market however. We do see the discipline – creativity cocktail manifest itself in many – surprisingly rapid – evolutions:
- The German gas market is developing at light speed. We now find gas contracts based on Hub prices available for almost every client. Prices can be spot based with good possibilities for forward hedging. We can see most suppliers still struggling to develop the right approach, but such contracts are almost as good as anything you can find in for example the UK or the Netherlands.
- Especially as I come from Belgium, I’m surprised to find in Germany a country with a government that takes decisions and implements them relatively efficiently. This is probably why German politics succeeded in coming out of the crisis the way they did. We also observe it in the energy markets. One of the main issues with deregulating the German market is having free access to grids arranged in a country with such a massive amount of grid companies. Even the transportation grid is split up in a multitude of different grids. In the past four years, the German authorities have worked very hard on assuring free third party access and with great success. In the electricity market, any supplier can now supply to any client anywhere in the country if he wants. For gas, some restrictions remain, but they are removed at an extremely rapid pace.
- Thanks to the multitude of energy companies in the country, the supply market is very vivid and competitive. The German power market, for example, is not dominated by a single large supplier such as EdF in France or Electrabel in Belgium, there are four big players in the power market: E-On, RWE, Vattenfall and EnBW. Next to that there are several local suppliers or conglomerates of local suppliers that have developed a nation-wide business, players such as EWE, MVV, Trianel, N-Ergie, etc. And then there are new players, newly created companies such as Natgas or Gasag in the gas market. One of the consequences of this vivid competition is that new products such as a tranche model contract for buying gas on the TTF or NCG have been developed very rapidly.
- Leipzig-based EEX is the most liquid of all continental European energy exchanges. I remain skeptical whether the energy markets will develop as exchange-traded or as OTC markets. But if the exchange-traded model prevails, the EEX will be the big name in Europe. A little bit like Deutsche Börse in the stock markets?
The German energy market is full of opportunities. And I am confident that the newly-found economic self-confidence will inspire the creativity in German companies to grasp these opportunities.