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FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Automotive giant Daimler, a leading German exporter, is against keeping Greece in the euro zone at all costs and believes Europe's single currency will survive even if Athens is forced to return to the drachma.
"It depends on how you define the word, but I wouldn't consider one link splitting off from the rest as a 'break-up' of the euro zone," Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche told Reuters in an interview at the company's headquarters in Stuttgart.
"Creating one bailout fund after the other won't help if Greece economically cannot return to the level of the rest of Europe over the next 10 to 20 years."
Zetsche's comments implying Greece is unfit to remain in the euro zone are the first from a major German exporter.
The sovereign debt crisis first triggered by Athens nearly two years ago threatens to engulf Italy, with roughly 1.84 trillion euros ($2.5 trillion) the fourth largest bond issuer in the world, and yield spreads suggest it now even risks spreading to France.
Daimler's CEO argued that Italy's comparatively low level of corporate and household debt can only partially offset the immense burden of the state's financial obligations, which amount to about 120 percent of its economic output.
"The important thing is that a political leadership can emerge that is capable of instituting structural reforms that can lead to more dynamic growth rates," he said.
Zetsche said he was not worried that a Lehman-style crisis could plunge the company back into heavy losses as in 2009, when Daimler was 2.6 billion euros in the red.
"Our base scenario for next year foresees global economic growth, but in the event that a crisis develops, we are much better prepared. In all of our risk scenarios, we are far north of a breakeven," he said.
Zetsche, who forecasts his company will generate significantly more than 100 billion euros in revenue this year, believes car demand will be driven by rising sales in China and the United States, the world's two biggest auto markets.
China's luxury car sales in 2012 may not expand at the same torrid pace as this year or last, but Zetsche said he believed another double-digit growth rate in retail volumes for Mercedes was possible.
"I think there is a good chance that we can return to being the fastest growing premium brand in China next year, a title we have held for six or seven years in a row," he said, adding Beijing looked set to steer its economy toward a soft landing.
"The first signs of success in combating inflation are visible and if that proves sustainable, then there is a greater chance that they can let up a bit from the brakes if necessary," he said.
The Daimler CEO said he was optimistic that the U.S. auto market would continue to improve next year, currently forecasting a size of 13.5-14 million vehicles versus about 13 million for 2011.
"I would expect that the current government would do everything in its power in an election year to achieve the most growth possible," he said.
This week Daimler struck a deal with the German government to sell half of its 15 percent stake in EADS to state-owned development bank KfW next year for an amount still to be agreed.
"Clearly its value on the stock market supplies a price (of nearly 1.35 billion euros for the 7.5 percent). We're certainly not talking about a discount -- if at all, then a strategic premium," Zetsche said.
Daimler wants to exit EADS in order to focus on its core auto business Mercedes, which Zetsche also runs as brand CEO and which has been a source of unhappiness among investors due to its underperformance versus BMW and Audi.
In the interview, Zetsche acknowledged Mercedes notably lagged the two German rivals in terms of profitability, a fact he ascribed to higher staffing levels used to build components like transmissions that a BMW, for example, simply procures from gearbox supplier ZF Friedrichshafen.
"We have a higher level of manufacturing depth and a larger share of sales and distribution we operate directly. That automatically leads to a greater number of workers employed, and this impacts profitability beneficially or detrimentally depending on the situation," Zetsche said.
Speaking about the 130,000 German employees whose jobs are guaranteed through the end of 2016, the Daimler CEO said unions should remember ahead of next year's collective wage bargaining that Germany's economic prosperity is based on its moderate increase in inflation-adjusted pay over recent years.
"One has to consider whether to put that at risk in what likely will be more difficult times ahead," he said.
"So I don't believe it will come either to senseless demands or an irresponsible wage hike." ($1 = 0.736 Euros)
Reporting by Christiaan Hetzner, Hendrik Sackmann and Jan Schwartz; Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford