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Why German stock index DAX breaks record as recession looms

March 13, 2024

Germany is headed toward a technical recession, but the DAX, its blue-chip stock index, is on a streak of record highs. So why are German stocks doing much better than sentiment on the ground?

 A bull statue stands in front of the building of the German stock exchange in Frankfurt,
German stocks have had a bull run for quite some time amid similar advances in markets around the worldImage: AP

Germany's benchmark blue-chip stock index topped 18,000 points for the first time during trading on Wednesday morning, hitting 18,000.42 shortly after opening.

The DAX, which is made up of 40 large publicly traded German corporations, has been on a strong run in recent days despite struggles for the overall German economy.

The trend is a rare piece of positive money news out of Germany as of late. A few weeks ago, Germany's economy minister, Robert Habeck, revised the country's growth expectations for 2024, lowering the forecast from 1.3% to 0.2%.

"The fact that the global economic environment is unstable and global trade growth is historically low is a challenge for an export nation like Germany," Habeck said.

The German Bundesbank, the country's central bank, had also announced that economic output in Germany was set to fall again slightly in the first quarter of 2024, pushing the country into a technical recession , which is defined as two quarters of negative growth. The bank cited widespread strikes as a key contributing factor.

The logo of the DAX 40 index
Many companies on Germany's DAX index have little exposure to the local economy, experts say Image: Silas Stein/dpa/picture alliance

DAX has little exposure to Germany

Like elsewhere, Germany has been plagued by high inflation, leaving consumers strapped for cash. Industrial orders and production in the export nation have also fallen, and surveys show German companies increasingly pessimistic about the year ahead.

"Companies are still pretty uncertain about the situation and what they can expect for the upcoming years," Lara Zarges, an economist at Germany's ifo Institute for Economic Research, told DW.

So why the investor optimism?

"Ironically, I think there's a strong argument to make for an inverse correlation between economic performance and stock market performance," Ben Ritchie, head of developed market equities at investment company abrdn, told DW. 

Currently, the index is on course for the longest record streak since 2015.

"The revenues for these companies aren't in Germany," Ritchie said. "So the German economy doesn't matter."

A white-haired woman reviews the performance of a stock index on her computer
Despite troubles at home, investors are optimistic about how Germany's biggest companies will performImage: Christin Klose/dpa/picture alliance

SMEs don't share the optimism

The retail customers and production sites for these large, international companies are primarily located outside of Germany. Ritchie says the health of those markets, along with structural developments within specific industries and companies, has a far greater influence on DAX performance than the domestic economy does.

However, according to Zarges, that's not the case for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Germany, which employ over 50% of the country's workforce but aren't represented in the DAX index.

"These companies also participate in global supply chains, of course, but they face the problem that wages here in Germany have risen. Production costs have risen. And energy is still expensive," she said.

What's wrong with Germany's economy?

Weak economy could be a strength for equities

The strength of the US economy is, therefore, probably more significant to the DAX's latest streak than Germany's. High coronavirus relief spending and low energy costs there have helped boost consumer spending.

Cooling inflation is likely bolstering investor sentiment, too. Consumer price growth has eased significantly in many countries, Germany included. The government forecasts it dropping from 5.9% in 2023 to 2.8% this year, close to the European Central Bank's (ECB) target of 2%. If the trend keeps up, lower interest rates are likely to follow.

The high borrowing cost introduced to curb inflation was a blow to both retail and corporate investing as well as consumer spending. But investors now appear optimistic that cash will soon be flowing more freely through the economy and that this will boost corporate profits.

And some think the sluggish domestic economy could be a good thing.

For Germany's largest companies, a weak German economy could lead to a cheaper euro as well as lower borrowing costs as the ECB tries to stimulate spending in Europe. At the same time, stagnation would have little impact on revenues due to their large overseas markets.

"I actually think that the biggest bull case for Europe is an increasingly stagnant domestic economy," Ritchie said. 

Edited by: Uwe Hessler

Kristie Pladson
Kristie Pladson Business reporter, editor and moderator with a focus on technology and German economy.@bizzyjourno