Europe’s wobbly economy

February 15, 2012

Things are  looking a bit unsteady in the euro zone’s economy.  Just ask Olli Rehn, the EU’s top economic official, who warned this week of  “risky imbalances” in 12 of the European Union’s 27 members. And that’s doesn’t include Greece, which is too wobbly for words. 

Rehn is looking longer term, trying to prevent the next crisis. But the here-and-now is just as wobbly. The euro zone’s economy, which generates 16 percent of world output, shrunk at the end of 2011 and most economists expect the 17-nation currency area to wallow in recession this year and contract around 0.4 percent overall. Few would have been able to see it coming at the start of last year, when Europe’s factories were driving a recovery from the 2008-2009 Great Recession. And it shows just how poisonous the sovereign debt saga has become.

Not everyone thinks things are so shaky.  Unicredit’s chief euro zone economist, Marco Valli, is among the few who believe the euro zone will skirt a recession — defined by two consecutive quarters of contraction — in 2012. This year is “bound to witness a gradual but steady improvement in underlying growth momentum,” Valli said, saying the fourth quarter was the low point in the euro zone business cycle.

That could still happen. Business surveys support the idea that the worst is behind us, while European Central Bank President Mario Draghi agrees that last year’s collapse in confidence has now steadied, albeit at low levels. So far, the ECB has not given a strong signal on whether it will take interest rates below the 1 percent level for the first time, but the bigger risk is whether a disorderly Greek default or the threat of a severe credit freeze — which the ECB’s nearly 500 billion euros in loans has so far helped avoid —  come back to crush the green shoots of growth.

The ECB’s latest lending survey showed for the last three months of 2011 reinforces the concerns of a credit crunch, as banks are still not passing the money on to the real economy. Thirty-five percent of banks reported they had tightened the standards they apply to loans to businesses, compared to only 16 percent in the third quarter. The ECB is set to make its second offer of three-year loans at the end of the month and that could ease credit risks, but may also discourage banks with bad loans on their books to reform.

So, in economist-speak, the risks are still on the downside and uncertainty remains high. Basically, things are still looking wobbly.

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