August 14, 2012
Does The Mittelstand Even Exist?
Posted by David Zaring

The Times has a not that newsy profile of the Mittelstand, today, Germany's vaunted SME sector, and one that counts for 60 percent of its employment.  The big reveal is that the Mittelstand likes the euro, though that calculation is largely on the basis of interviews at one obscure (every Mittelstand company is obscure, that's rather the point) shut-off valve manufacturer.

If you hang out at business schools, the Mittelstand is a useful corrective to everything you think you're supposed to know about finance.  German companies eschew debt, we are told, rely on banks instead of capital markets for funding, and retain their employees at all costs.  Basically the opposite of the private equity playbook.  And yet ... look at the awesome German economy!  It has implications for corporate law, too, given that Mittelstand firms are likely to be closely held, with representation for workers and banks if it isn't just a family thing.  Maybe that's what Delaware ought to be offering!

But I think this obsession with the Mittelstand may be branding more than anything else. Take that 60% employment number.  In the US, though, small businesses account for half, and 65% of all new jobs.  And some Mittelstand firms probably count as large businesses in the American definition (500 employees is the cutoff).  Nor is Germany radically more industrialized than the US, though that's what the Mittelstand is supposed to be.  28% of the country's employees are in manufacturing.  The we-just-do-service United States proportion?  22%

Wiser heads than mine accept the Mittelstand as different - the interest in SME-usable research is an excellent way to fund a project in not just German, but European universities more generally.  But surely some perspective is in order.  It's easy to overstate modest differences, and while I'll be happy to conclude that the German model well and truly is unique, I'd like to see a few more differences between that approach and ours before doing so.

Business Ethics, Business Organizations, Corporate Governance, Economic Development, Economics | Bookmark

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