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No doubt about no debt
In Germany, for the most part, cash-only is the only way to go
Question of the Day
BERLIN — Head to the checkout at an Ikea in Stockholm to pay for your new leather corner sofa and with the swipe of a Visa card it's yours. Don't try that in Berlin — that will be $2,080 up front please.
It's that financial culture — a deep-seated aversion to debt and an emphasis on responsibility — that makes Chancellor Angela Merkel's hard-line approach to solving the European financial crisis so popular in Germany.
The attitude shows up in all walks of life, from the daily trip to the grocery store to putting a roof over your head.
The economy is so reliant on cash for transactions small and big, a way to ensure you don't spend more than you have, that Germany pushed hard for the 500 euro note to replace its popular 1,000 mark bill when it joined the common currency.
It's one of the largest denomination notes being produced anywhere today, worth about $600, and is even known in neighboring France as "the German note." While even discount supermarkets in Germany happily take the 500 euro note, very few shops in France will accept the bill.
Even though Germany is Europe's largest economy and one of its richest per capita, it is last in home ownership with just over 40 percent. That compares to some 80 percent in troubled European Union nations Greece, Italy and Spain, and about 70 percent in Britain and the U.S., where owning your own home is part of the "American Dream."
Germans tend to be instinctively averse to taking out a mortgage. And lenders often demand a 20 percent down payment on a house or substantial collateral. So a culture has sprung up of just renting and holding on to cash.
When mortgage debt shot up by more than 20 percent in the 27-nation EU from 1998 to 2010 — and more than 35 percent in Britain and 60 percent in Ireland — Germany was the only EU nation to see it fall, with a drop of 5.4 percent in that time period, according to the European Mortgage Federation.
The German aversion to debt also translates to credit card use — or non-use. Only 36 percent of Germans older than 15 even possess a card, compared with 62 percent in the U.S., according to World Bank figures. And even when Germans do have a card, the limit is usually tied to a customer's bank balance and the bill is automatically paid off — in full — from the customer's account within a month or so.
"If I pay with my Visa, then Visa takes it from my account — I don't get any real benefits," said Rainer Hoedt, a Berlin high school teacher. "When we use our credit cards it's basically only when we go to the States and do our travel expenses through it because it's so easy. Here in Germany I don't use it at all."
Around the world, Mrs. Merkel has been derided as intransigent in her approach to the financial crisis, demanding budget cuts and fiscal austerity from allegedly profligate EU members.
But her hard-line stand plays well among the people who elected her.
A new poll for Stern magazine shows 64 percent of Germans think the chancellor should stick to her guns, while only 32 percent think she should reconsider her insistence on austerity. The Forsa agency questioned 1,003 adults on July 5 and 6 for the poll, which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
That means measures which some politicians and economists believe offer a way out of the debt crisis are considered unacceptable here.
Take Eurobonds, for example. Such joint debt could help ease the crisis by pooling risk between rich eurozone countries like Germany and their crisis-hit neighbors. No way, Germans say. Eurobonds, they argue, would just encourage profligate countries to blow their budgets even further, not to mention raise German borrowing costs.
Bailouts? Fine, but only if countries agree to strict austerity measures to get their financial houses in order. Print money? Not a chance, Germans say, still haunted by the memory of the hyperinflation of the early 20th century that helped create the conditions for Hitler's rise.
Germany's attitude to credit and debt largely stem from the financial trauma of the years that preceded the Nazi era. In the wake of massive reparation payments after the loss of World War I, the German mark went from its wartime level of about 4 or 5 per dollar to several trillion to the dollar.
Germany only agreed to eventually give up the mark in favor of the euro because the European Central Bank was designed just like the Bundesbank, Germany's central bank, as an anti-inflation watchdog whose mandate does not include political considerations — such as stimulating job growth like the U.S. Federal Reserve.
• AP writer Louise Nordstrom contributed to this report.
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