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'Five wise men'

November 9, 2011

The Council of Economic Experts is an academic body that has been advising German policymakers on economic issues since 1963. Its reports on macroeconomic developments play a major role in government decision-making.

Empty seats in a conference room
Germany's top five economic experts give Berlin policy adviceImage: picture alliance / dpa

Let's begin with a disclaimer: The German Council of Economic Experts doesn't always hit the nail on the head when it issues economic forecasts.

As the council's current chairman, Professor Wolfgang Franz, once said: "I can only stress that economic forecasts should not be trusted blindly. Treat them as you would a weather forecast."

Nor are the "five wise men" all male. At least, not since 2004.

'Miracle child'

The roots of the German Council of Economic Experts can be traced back to 1958, when the nation was enjoying prosperity created by a period of rapid growth now known as the "Wirtschaftswunder" or "economic miracle".

The economy minister at the time, Ludwig Erhard, urged Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's Christian Democrat government to create an "expert committee for economic and social policy."

A 1957 photo of Ludwig Erhard reading a book
The council of experts was set up by Ludwig Erhard, who later served as Chancellor from 1963-66Image: picture-alliance / akg-images

Economic historian Werner Abelshauser told Deutsche Welle that most policymakers took economic growth for granted in the late 1950s, as if they expected it to simply "fall from the sky."

"The special economic conditions that prevailed in the immediate post-war period were diminishing," Abelshauser said. "The ministry of the economy, led by Ludwig Erhard, was under pressure to take a more professional approach to policymaking and adopt 'state of the art' economic techniques."

Erhard's proposal for a committee taking an American-style approach to macroeconomic analysis got bogged down in a long debate about policymaking. By the early 1960s, however, growing concerns about price stability and rising wage levels allowed Erhard to consolidate support for his idea - even though it contradicted many of his own free-market economic principles.

"Erhard believed good economic policy required minimal intervention by the economy minister, and would ideally let the market run its course," Abelshauser said.

Economist Peter Bofinger
Bofinger is not afraid of rocking Germany's economic boatImage: AP

It therefore took a while for Erhard to convince himself and his colleagues that "planning considerations were indeed sensible, in that they could act as a type of guard rail for economic policymakers."

Five experts, one opinion?

The five leading academics appointed to the German Council of Economic Experts do not always agree on the issue they analyze. Relations are often tense, partly due to the council's composition.

The government appoints the members for five years. Traditionally, one comes from the business associations, and one from the trade unions.

Chairman Wolfgang Franz, who is also the head of the Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim, has a reputation for free market economics and reform.

The other members are Lars Feld from the University of Freiburg, Christoph Schmidt from the Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institute of Economic Research, Beatrice Weder di Nauro from the University of Mainz (the council's first and only woman) and Peter Bofinger from the University of Würzburg.

Beatrice Weder di Mauro
Swiss economist Beatrice Weder di Mauro is the council's first woman and foreignerImage: AP

Bofinger's union links have seen him generate numerous headlines over the past two years. He recently recommended hefty wage increases to counter a looming economic slowdown, contrary to other Council members' advice.

The five experts were, however, unanimous in their advice to the German government regarding the Greek debt crisis. They recommended that private investors be given a 'haircut' to the tune of 50 percent – a measure that has since been approved at EU crisis talks.

Authors: Monika Lohmüller, Sam Edmonds
Editor: Michael Lawton

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