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German business: Europe should copy, not criticize surplus

Fireworks explode over the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany
Andreas Rentz | Getty Images
Fireworks explode over the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany

Axel Weber, chairman of Swiss bank UBS and former head of Germany's central bank, has told CNBC that Germany's surplus is not a policy problem and any international criticism of the country's economic policy was unwarranted.

Weber joined the German voices defending the country's economic policy in the face of international criticism. The European Commission, the 28-country European Union's executive arm, is set to scrutinize the country's current account surplus and whether it is negatively affecting the rest of the region.

"Studying why Germany is so successful internationally is always warranted," Weber said. "There are a lot of lessons that many countries in Europe, particularly in the periphery, can learn from that."

"To look at is a policy problem is in my view unwarranted...There is very little that Germany does to manipulate any of that success," Weber added.

Germany has faced criticism from elsewhere in Europe and even the U.S. Treasury over its dependence on exports. Last week, it emerged that its foreign trade balance - the amount by which exports outstrip imports - hit a record high in September.

(Read more: Germany rejects U.S. criticism)

Critics argue that this means that Germany should be encouraging its people to spend more on foreign imports and help stimulate growth in the rest of Europe.

"A rise in domestic demand in Germany should help to reduce upward pressure on the euro exchange rate, easing access to global markets for exporters in the periphery," Olli Rehn, EU economic and monetary affairs commissioner, argued in a blog post Monday.

Joaquin Almunia, the EU competition commissioner, told CNBC on Tuesday that at its weekly competition review meeting on Wednesday, the commission would be looking at Germany's trade surplus.

"We need to take stock, we need to analyse the reasons why this surplus is above the threshold and what are the consequences, and what are the remedies if the consequences are negative. Tomorrow, we'll just take stock [of the situation] we won't issue recommendations," he said.

"I'm not talking about punishment, I'm talking about analyzing a situation -- the size of a current accounts surplus and what this means –that the savings rate is much higher than the investment rate in a country and this deserves a careful analysis."

However, the very fact that the European Commission was investigating Germany's economy drew criticism and disbelief from the country's CEOs.

"It's like you get punished if you get good grades," Kaspar Rorsted, chief executive of consumer goods company Henkel, told CNBC.

"Europe's biggest competitor is not within Europe, it's outside."

"The German economy definitely still depends on strong exports," Frank Appel, chief executive of Deutsche Post DHL, told CNBC.

UBS forecasts that the U.S. Federal Reserve will start scaling back or "tapering" its bond-buying program, a key part of its monetary policy, in March. Weber warned of the difficulties facing European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. The ECB's 25 basis point cut to interest rates rocked markets last week - but Weber said he didn't think the cut would have a huge effect.

Weber also pointed out the importance of central banks adopting to changes in the economy. There has been some criticism of the Fed for not tapering in September, and of the ECB for cutting rates.

"Central banks are usually dependent on their economic outlook and whatever policy they develop should be dependent on the economy," he said.

"Europe has been in recession for six quarters. Coming out of a recession happens in a very different way (for core and periphery). It's difficult to come up with a single monetary policy," Weber said.

"Prices and wages have to come down in the periphery."

Turning to the recovery from the five-year global financial crisis, Weber added that the "normalization" of the global economy is continuing but risks remained. "We are in a phase of normalization. The road ahead is long, there is positive momentum but there are risks," Weber told CNBC Tuesday.

These risks include the U.S. government debt ceiling, monetary policy and the potential for a worse-than-expected slowdown in China.

UBS is in the middle of a strategic revamp, which Weber said is making "good progress".

Follow Catherine on Twitter: @cboylecnbc and Carolin: @carolincnbc

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