Not gloomy enough

November 10, 2008

The European Commission has been pretty gloomy about the prospects for European Union economies in recent days. Its latest forecast last week was for the 15 countries of the euro zone to grow by just 0.1 percent next year. For the 27-nation EU as a whole – this time incorporating the likes of Britain, Poland and Sweden – the number was only slightly better at 0.2 percent.  In fact, the Commission said the outlook was bleak. “The horizon,” said Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia, “is dark.”

Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform, reckons it may be even darker than the Commission expects. The Commission, he says in an article, has a tendency to be slow to downgrade its forecasts, and much of what it said last week was already looking out of date when released. “The indications of an unprecedented slump in economic activity are multiplying all the time.”

Tilford reckons the forecasts for Germany and Spain — the euro zone’s first and fourth largest economies, respectively – are among the most out of sync. Germany, for example, is seen standing still. But Tilford asks where such strength as even that will come from given the economy’s reliance on exports and a projected dive in global trade volumes. As for Spain, he wonders how a decline in output can be held to the Commission’s minus 0.2 percent with unemployment rising rapidly, industrial production tanking and construction and housing activity collapsing.

All this, Tilford says, shows that the Commission is too complacent about the state of the European economy. What it needs is to cajole member states that have run up large surpluses and strong fiscal positions to boost demand. “Current account surpluses are not sustainable in the present climate,” he concludes.

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