Eurozone economic lift-off still appears a long way off
LONDON (AP) — The eurozone economy can't achieve lift-off, it seems, despite a number of positive tail-winds.
Official figures Friday are expected to show the single currency bloc, which comprises 330 million people across 19 countries, is still growing only at a subdued rate. The consensus is it expanded by a quarterly rate of 0.4 percent in the July-September period, unchanged from the previous quarter.
In fact, growth has been around this level for over a year.
Any growth is welcome for a region that's spent seven years firefighting financial crises. But to really bring down high unemployment, the economy needs more. That's partly why the European Central Bank is expected to back more stimulus in December.
In a region spreading from the Atlantic Ocean to the eastern Mediterranean, the economic outlook varies between countries.
Here are the key points of interest in Friday's figures.
Eurozone Consumers: They're Back
For years, eurozone consumers have been afraid to spend amid high unemployment — particularly in Greece and Spain — and government cutbacks.
This year, many consumers have gained confidence. Retail sales grew a healthy 0.6 percent in the third quarter. "Unlike 2011, the euro area domestic economy appears to be in much better shape," said James Nixon, chief European economist at Oxford Economics.
The reasons are clear.
Oil prices have fallen sharply in the past year, lowering fuel costs. The savings allow people to spend more elsewhere.
Another reason is inflation is low and even negative in some countries.
Though ECB policymakers are concerned low inflation may eventually prompt consumers to delay spending in the expectation of lower prices, so far it's a boon. Doubly so as wages are increasing in many parts of the eurozone, notably in Germany. And unemployment, though high at 10.8 percent across the region, is edging down.
The pick-up in consumer spending couldn't have come at a better time as it compensates for a downturn in industrial activity, particularly in Germany.
The slowdown in global trade, largely due to China, is hurting Germany's export powerhouses. Germany's manufacturing orders plunged by their biggest rate in four years in the third quarter, meaning the sector is set to be a drag on German growth in the third quarter. And that before any potential repercussions from Volkswagen's emissions-cheating scandal.
Any benefit to exporters from the sharp fall in the value of the euro since last year appears to have run out, so many German executives will be hoping the currency makes another break lower.
France On The Up?
Upbeat industrial production figures in France raised expectations that Europe's third-largest economy may have grown faster than Germany in the third quarter.
Claus Vistesen, chief eurozone economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, says it's possible France may post growth of 0.5 percent.
That would be a big improvement on the flat second quarter, though most economists remain skeptical over France, which has been a laggard in recent years.
Its government remains under pressure to speed up economic reforms to get unemployment down from a near all-time high of 10.7 percent.
So far, the recovery has been largely jobless.
Vistesen said one reason could be that employers "likely remain scarred by two severe recessions since 2008, and are more cautious than normal in committing to new hires."
Greece: A Bit Unclear
Greece may account for only 2 percent of the eurozone economy but its performance has been a key interest in the past six years as a recession shrank its national economy by a quarter.
This quarter, no one really knows what to expect.
Even though the country started the three-month period in the grip of a crisis that had it on the verge of leaving the euro, it appears to have coped — recent industrial production and retail sales figures have been relatively positive.
At face value, these figures point to a third straight quarter of economic growth, according to Jonathan Loynes at Capital Economics. That would be surprising since the Greek economy has had to operate under strict limits on money withdrawals during the quarter — a paltry 60 euros per person a day.
Loynes said the "puzzling robustness" of recent indicators contrasts with the "much gloomier message" from business surveys.
Watch this space.