Merkel’s wake-up call alarms German savers

An artist with money is a rare breed in unemployment-ridden, staunchly proletarian Berlin. But Claus Amler says having cash in the bank became a cause for concern once the government guaranteed all deposits and savings accounts, rather than the comfort it used to be. “I told myself: If they’re doing this, then the situation must really be desperate,” he says.

Now he is looking for a new home for his savings. “I have long thought about buying property in Berlin,” he says as he pauses on the doorstep of the Berlin Savings Bank near the Friedrichstrasse train station. “Now I’m doing it. I will put everything I have, including money parked in Austria, into this.”

He is not alone. Anecdotal evidence shows the surprise statement this week from Angela Merkel, chancellor, that all savings were safe was a wake-up call for a country that had treated the global financial crisis as a remote threat on a par with climate change or jihadist terrorism.

“All hell is breaking loose here,” says the lady on the savings bank’s hotline. “Since Monday it’s been an uninterrupted flood of calls.”

A bank manager who asked not to be named describes the reaction to Ms Merkel’s statement as: “Ouch! I’d better look into this crisis thing.” The guarantee, he says, “seems to have alerted people to something they ought to be worried about but haven’t been so far”.

Such feelings have been exacerbated by signs that the financial crisis is affecting the real economy, making it more difficult for companies in industry and small businesses to secure refinancing.

Constanze Stempel, a spokeswoman for Berlin Landesbank, says: “We have seen a huge increase in demand for information this week. People want to know what forms of savings are covered by the guarantee and also what they should do with their long-term investments.”

Thomas Kramer, deputy editor of WISO, the ZDF television network’s flagship consumer programme, says: “The sentiment used to be that the crisis could be contained to the financial sector and that Germany had good economic fundamentals. This week, people are asking about their shares, whether they should buy gold or put their money into property.”

A snap poll of passers-by on the Friedrichstrasse showed anger at US bankers. The mild schadenfreude that initially greeted the crisis was giving way to personal concerns about the future.

“I need a small loan,” says Andelo Abanto, a 30-year old self-employed cleaner. “I think I might have to rush to get it now. The more I wait, the higher the rates will be.”

Some savings banks, often perceived by the public as safer than commercial banks, are witnessing fresh customer interest.

Hans-Dieter Homberg, chief executive of Taunus Sparkasse, a small regional savings bank, says: “We are seeing more requests from clients, both old and new, who want to open an account here as fast as possible, some of them with large deposits.”

As often in times of uncertainty, the media have been in the spotlight and some government officials have accused journalists of stirring a sense of alarm.

Although data showing an increasing demand for cash in the eurozone were the main trigger for Ms Merkel’s guarantee announcement, Stefan Olbermann, a finance ministry spokesman, says the tenor of news programmes the previous week also influenced the decision. “I don’t spend much time watching TV, but it seems you cannot switch it on without landing on a talk show discussing the financial crisis these days,” he says.

An Infratest opinion poll for the ARD public-sector channel conducted last week showed a quarter of respondents had asked their banks about the safety of their deposits, while 20 per cent had taken measures to re-organise their savings. New surveys being conducted this week could reveal rising concern.

Additional reporting by James Wilson in Frankfurt

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