Ever so slowly, the euro zone economy awakens
ECB forecasters and economists expect it to grow at slightly faster pace this year
Consumer confidence is on the rise and economic sentiment is at a more than four-year high.
Moribund. Decrepit. Sclerotic. Popular words to describe the economy shared by the 19 countries of the euro zone - but perhaps no longer apt.
Very slowly - and primarily because of massive stimulus from the European Central Bank - the euro zone is showing signs of recovery. It is a dawn that policymakers are struggling to nurture into broad daylight.
It also may not be felt equally across the board, viz Spain and Greece’s unemployed versus Germany’s busy builders.
But putting aside for the moment that the euro zone’s nascent recovery is happening just as China is wobbling and financial markets are unhinged, the numbers look generally positive.
Economic growth was running at an annual rate of 1.6 per cent in the third quarter. While this may not seem robust, it is roughly twice the average annual growth rate between 2003 and 2014 (itself dragged down by the sharp contraction of 2009), and the equal highest rate since 2010.
So, for the euro zone, reasonably good. ECB forecasters and economists polled by Reuters expect it to grow at a slightly faster pace this year at around 1.7 per cent.
Other data - though sometimes mixed - also points to a stronger-than-advertised economic performance.
Unemployment has been falling fairly steadily. It was at 10.5 per cent in November, which is high, but the lowest in more than four years and well below the 12 per cent of 2013.
Consumer confidence is on the rise and economic sentiment is at a more than four-year high. Manufacturing, as measured by purchasing managers’ indexes, rose firmly into expansion in 2015, albeit still shy of its 2013 peak.
Finding positives in such data risks comparison with a polite visitor complimenting a dreary industrial city on its surprisingly good orchestra.
But given where the euro zone has been - and the many prophets of its political and economic doom - its relative improvement is being noticed.
“The world’s third largest economic bloc is actually doing rather well,” said Andrew Milligan, head of global strategy at Standard Life Investments, which is favouring European equities, bonds and property in its portfolios as a result.
“A number of drivers are supportive,” he said, listing “monetary and fiscal policy, a somewhat healthier banking system, better real wages growth helped by lower energy costs, and pent up demand as consumer confidence improves in those countries that have had a hard few years.”
The danger is that it could all be knocked down in a second by what the finance minister of non-euro zone Britain, George Osborne, has dubbed a “dangerous cocktail” of threats to the world economy.
Chief of these is the economic slowdown in China, which is the broader European Union’s second-biggest trading partner behind the United States. China and the EU trade around 1 billion euros between them a day, according to the European Commission.
UBS calculates that a one percentage point slowdown in Chinese growth would slice 0.1 to 0.3 percentage points off EU growth, which it says “should be manageable”.
A similar slowdown in emerging markets would lop 0.2 to 0.4 percentage points off growth.
A case can be made, however, that in Europe - and the euro zone in particular - the economy has been growing even while China and emerging markets have slowed.
In the first half of 2015, for example, big gun Germany’s export growth to China fell to just 0.8 per cent and engineering exports shrank by 4.9 per cent. Yet German gross domestic product (GDP) growth was running at 1.8 per cent at last count even with the slide.
The overriding issue, though, is that the ECB’s 60 billion euro ($66 billion) a month stimulus package is in no danger of ending and can offset much of the impact of trouble overseas.
Lower commodity prices will help too, whatever the concerns about deflation.
Of course, were the United States and the world economy as a whole to have a serious wobble, the euro zone would too.
But for now, the negative adjectives about the euro zone may be overdone. ($1 = 0.9150 euros).