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Rock-bottom rates convert German savers to spending

General view of the characteristic Frankfurt skyline with its banking towers, January 16, 2012. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
General view of the characteristic Frankfurt skyline with its banking towers, January 16, 2012. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

By Michelle Martin

BERLIN (Reuters) - After diligently setting aside his earnings for years, Sebastian decided last year it was time to splurge.

With interest rates at record lows, the 36-year-old took out two loans and bought a three-bedroom flat in a leafy Berlin suburb for 228,000 euros.

"I don't think it's ever been as cheap as it is now," the IT specialist said. He is paying interest rates of just 2.15 and 2.40 percent on 5- and 10-year loans totaling 130,000 euros ($178,300).

Sebastian, who asked that his last name not be used, is one of a growing number of Germans who are suppressing their inclination to save and, instead, shelling out - on everything from property to home renovations and holidays.

Last year, with unions securing strong wage hikes, employment at record levels and interest rates on bank deposits delivering next-to-no return, private households in Europe's largest economy saved a smaller proportion of their income than at any time since 2001.

The latest statistics from Eurostat, the European Union's statistics agency, show German households still save a higher proportion of their earnings than nearly all of their European counterparts.

But the gap has narrowed. The savings ratio in Germany, currently at 10 percent, has fallen since 2008. In some other European countries like Luxembourg and the United Kingdom households were putting aside more of their income in 2012 than in 2008.

According to the GfK market research group, the propensity to save in Germany is at its lowest level since reunification in 1990.

SPARSAMKEIT

That's good news for struggling euro zone partners who are hoping to sell more goods to the currency bloc's biggest economy. It's also a welcome development for Germany, which may not be able to rely on booming exports for growth as it has in past years.

"It's largely because interest rates are at a historically low level and that means you hardly get any interest on classic investments anymore," said GfK economist Rolf Buerkl. "So in real terms, and taking the inflation rate into account, people's savings are being devalued."

A recent survey by Ipsos for ING DiBa showed that two-thirds of Germans consider the interest on bank deposits to be so low that it is no longer worth saving.

This has sparked fierce debate in a country where "Sparsamkeit", or thriftiness, is next to godliness, and the national psyche remains scarred by the experience of hyperinflation in the 1920s which wiped out savings.

At the height of the euro zone debt crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel held up the notoriously money-tight "Swabian housewife" from southwest Germany - as a model for all of Europe.

But with the European Central Bank's (ECB) benchmark interest rate down at a record low of 0.25 percent - down from 4.25 percent in 2008 - and inflation hovering around 1.5 percent in Germany, squirreling away money in the bank makes little sense anymore.

PLEASE SPEND

Jens Weidmann, president of the highly cautious Bundesbank, has said he understands Germans' annoyance at their savings losing value but added: "Please consider also that low interest rates are intended to give a boost to consumption and investment."

That seems to be working in Germany, even if Christian Schulz of Berenberg Bank says the country is unlikely to see Anglo-Saxon style growth in consumption.

Disposable income of German households rose by 2.1 percent last year. Consumption spending rose by an even stronger 2.5 percent.

Morale among consumers is at its highest level in 6-1/2 years, the latest GfK survey shows. Germans are more willing to buy than at any point in the last seven years and their income expectations have risen to a 13-year high.

Retail sales are benefitting, though they are growing less quickly than in previous years. In 2013 retail sales rose by a nominal 1.4 percent as Germans spent more on food, clothing and pharmaceutical goods, compared with 2.0 percent growth in 2012.

Germans spent 8 percent more on holidays and private trips last year, according to GfK. They are expected to shell out even more on vacations this year. A survey by the FUR holiday and travel research association showed one in four Germans want to travel more this year and almost a third want to spend more money on holidays.

Germans are also investing in property and home renovation. While hard data on the number of people buying homes is hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests it is rising in a country where home ownership rates have long been among the lowest in Europe.

Home approvals are climbing, with the latest figures showing German home permits hit their highest level in nine years during the first nine months of 2013.

Interhyp, Germany's largest residential mortgage broker, told Reuters it saw double-digit growth in new business last year and inquiries via its website are at a record high.

And a survey by German savings banks last year showed that one in two Germans now see investing in property as the best way to secure their financial future.

"Private people are investing more in real estate. They're taking advantage of the period of low interest rates which is making taking on more debt worthwhile," said Ralph Henger, a senior economist specialising in real estate at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research.

( $1 = 0.7293 euros)

(Editing by Noah Barkin/Jeremy Gaunt)

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