Austerity, sluggish market put region in double bind
PARIS – The eurozone is in its longest recession – a stubborn slump that has surpassed even the calamity that hit the region in the financial crisis of 2008-09.
The European Union statistics office said Wednesday that nine of the 17 EU countries that use the euro are in recession, with France a notable addition to the list. Overall, the eurozone’s economy contracted for the sixth straight quarter, shrinking by 0.2 percent in the January-March period from the previous three months.
Though the contraction is an improvement on the previous quarter’s 0.6 percent decline, it’s another unwelcome report for the single-currency bloc as it grapples with a debt crisis that has prompted governments to slash spending and raise taxes.
“The eurozone is facing a double blow from necessary restructuring of its domestic economy and somewhat disappointing growth in world trade, in particular demand from emerging markets,” said Marie Diron, senior economic adviser to Ernst & Young.
This recession is not nearly as deep as the one in 2008-09, which ran for five quarters, but it is now the longest in the 14-year history of the euro. A recession is typically defined as two straight quarters of negative growth.
Austerity measures have inflicted severe economic pain and produced social unrest across the eurozone, where the average unemployment rate is a record 12.1 percent and higher in some places. In Spain, it’s 26.7 percent and in Greece 27.2 percent.
Wednesday’s report also brought bad news for the wider 27-country EU, which includes non-euro members such as Britain and Poland. The EU too is now in recession after shrinking by a quarterly rate of 0.1 percent in the first quarter, following a 0.5 percent drop in the previous period.
With a population of more than half a billion people, the EU is the world’s largest export market. If it remains stuck in reverse, companies in the U.S. and Asia will be hit. Last month, U.S.-based Ford Motor Co. lost $462 million in Europe and called the outlook there “uncertain.” McDonald’s saw its sales in Europe, the hamburger chain’s biggest market outside the U.S., fall 1.1 percent in the first quarter.
Other major economies have faltered this year, but none are in recession. The annualized contraction in the eurozone, based on this quarter’s figures, of around 0.9 percent contrasts with the equivalent expansion of the U.S. of 2.5 percent. Meanwhile, China, the world’s No. 2 economy, is growing around 8 percent a year.
For many analysts, that discrepancy highlights Europe’s flawed economic approach since the end of the financial crisis. Instead of keeping the spending taps on – as the U.S. has largely done – the region concentrated on austerity even though companies and consumers weren’t able to plug the gap left by the retrenching state.
However, there have been some recent indications that Europe’s leaders are willing to ease up on their adherence to cuts and tax increases at a time of recession. Some countries, for example, are being given more time to meet certain economic and financial targets.
Also, the European Central Bank cut its benchmark interest rate this month a quarter-point to a record low of 0.50 percent. President Mario Draghi has said the ECB was prepared to flex its muscles further if needed.
Despite the latest relaxation of some deficit-reduction targets – and an easing of concerns over the debt crisis in financial markets – most economists think the eurozone will remain in recession in the second quarter.
The eurozone has been in recession since the fourth quarter of 2011. Initially it was just the countries at the forefront of its debt crisis, such as Greece and Portugal, that were contracting.
But the malaise is now spreading to the so-called core countries. Figures released Wednesday showed Germany, Europe’s largest economy, grew by a less-than-anticipated quarterly rate of 0.1 percent, largely because of a severe winter.
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