Europe’s wobbly economy

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.

from Anooja Debnath:

When it comes to recessions, 40 is the new 50

If it were about age, 40-somethings would cringe. But it seems a dead certainty that 40 now means 50 -- or even higher -- when it comes to predicting the chances of a recession taking place.

Going by past Reuters polls of economists, every time the probability hits 40 percent, the recession's already started or is perilously close to doing so.

After the brief recovery period from the Great Recession, Reuters once again started surveying economists several months ago on the chances of developed economies stumbling back into the muck.

The euro zone recovery is over

“The recovery has finished, we are now contracting. The forward looking indicators suggest that things will deteriorate further in the coming months,” – Chris Williamson, chief economist at PMI compiler Markit.

Thursday’s PMI surveys make very worrying reading. Not a single economist out of the 37 polled by Reuters predicted the euro zone services number would fall below the 50 level that divides growth from contraction. In the event, it fell from 51.5 last month to 49.1 in September – its lowest reading since July 2009.

Economists like the PMI surveys because they have a very good track record of predicting moves in the economy. Before the Great Recession hit in 2008, they were among the first indicators that hinted at a downturn to come.

Sharply narrower trade gap revives hopes for decent Q3 growth

Economists busy revising down their third quarter gross domestic product forecasts had to backpedal a bit on Thursday after Commerce Department data showed a steep shrinking of the U.S. trade deficit — despite an unexpected rise in weekly jobless claims. The trade gap shrank to $44.8 billion in July, Commerce Department data showed, down sharply from June’s $53.1 billion deficit and much lower than forecasts around $51 billion. The 13.1 percent decline was the biggest month-to-month percentage drop in the deficit since February 2009.

Argues Pierre Ellis, senior economist at Decision Economics:

The trade numbers are probably sufficiently better than expected to cause some upward revision in the GDP forecast. We’re seeing very strong growth in exports, offsetting some weakness last month, and the strength was in the right place, capital goods, without being centered in aircraft. There’s solid foreign demand for U.S. capital goods exports, so that’s a hopeful sign for the outlook. There’s enough strength abroad going into this apparent slowdown to keep the momentum going.

Or Am Ginzburg, head of capital markets at First New York:

The trade balance was better than expected, and despite worse jobless claims, that could move up GDP estimates and that is why we probably didn’t go down more than what we should have on the number. It was telling you there was no indication of the Hurricane Irene effect.

Jackson Hole snapshot: QE3, the chances of recession, and pints of blood

In Jackson Hole, where central bankers and leading economists from around the world are gathering for an annual meeting hosted by the Kansas City Fed, the talk is about the economy, what Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will signal in his highly anticipated speech on Friday and what Warren Buffett’s purchase of a stake in Bank of America might mean for the beleaguered bank.

Here’s a smattering from interviews on the sidelines of the meeting, which begins in earnest with a formal dinner tonight:

– “QE3 is not in the cards, so don’t expect that,” Bank of America economist Mickey Levy told Reuters Insider, referring to the possibility of a third round of bond-buying by the Fed. Instead, the Fed may aim to reduce long-term rates by replacing some of the shorter-term securities in its portfolio with longer-term assets, he said.

Emerging markets: Soft patch or recession?

Could the dreaded R word come back to haunt the developing world? A study by Goldman Sachs shows how differently financial markets and surveys are assessing the possibility of a recession in emerging markets.
One part of the Goldman study comprising survey-based leading indicators saw the probability of recession as very low across central and eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa. These give a picture of where each economy currently stands in the cycle. This model found risks to be highest in Turkey and South Africa, with a 38-40 percent possibility of recession in these countries.
On the other hand, financial markets, which have sold off sharply over the past month, signalled a more pessimistic outcome. Goldman says these indicators forecast a 67 percent probability of recession in the Czech Republic and 58 percent in Israel, followed by Poland and Turkey. Unlike the survey, financial data were more positive on South Africa than the others, seeing a relatively low 32 percent recession risk.
Goldman analysts say the recession probabilities signalled by the survey-based indicator jell with its own forecasts of a soft patch followed by a broad sustained recovery for CEEMEA economies.
“The slowdown signalled by the financial indicators appears to go beyond the ‘soft patch’ that we are currently forecasting,” Goldman says, adding: “The key question now is whether or not the market has gone too far in pricing in a more serious economic downturn.”

Industry bounce soothes but does not cure

Phew. Industrial production rose 0.9% in July, the fastest in seven months. For the moment, that appeared to forestall fears that another U.S. recession  might be imminent, even if stocks were down on worries about weak economic growth in Germany. Harm Bandholz at Unicredit saw the figures as a bright spot:

Today’s report, in combination with the recent improvements in initial jobless claims and retail sales, corroborates our view that GDP growth in the second half of the year is likely to accelerate to (a still low) 2%-2¼% from less than 1% in the first half.

Economists at Credit Suisse were less sanguine:

The July industrial production performance is not consistent with recession.  But industrial production tells us where we are, not where we are going.

Recession predictions? Better late than never

The chances of a second U.S. recession are rising. But just how high a probability is always difficult to gauge. The latest Reuters consensus from private sector economists – most employed by an industry that got us into the mess – is currently one in four. That’s not very high, but it has crept up from one-in-five when we asked the same people two weeks ago.

In the meantime, the U.S. has done what many would never have thought possible – it lost its AAA sovereign debt rating from Standard & Poor’s, thanks to an acrimonious political debate over the debt ceiling and, in S&P’s judgment, inadequate legislation to tackle deficits over the long-term. Global stock markets have plummeted 20 percent since May, racking up staggering losses over the past few days, rattled by that U.S. rating downgrade, worries about a world economic slowdown, and a spiralling euro zone debt crisis that now is lapping at the shores of a G7 country — Italy.

The fact it’s been too long since the Great Recession technically ended to call any new recession a “double-dip” shows just how dire the situation is. Nouriel Roubini, known to most as “Dr Doom” for talking down the U.S. economy through bubble years but getting the call right on the last recession, is one of the few who have already called the next one.

Goldman recession-meter flashes yellow

So much for jobs being a lagging indictor. Economists at Goldman Sachs have constructed a handy little model for predicting recessions based on increases in the unemployment rate. We’ll let them explain the details in their own words, but here’s the short of it: If the jobless rate ticks up to 9.3 percent in July from 9.2 percent in June, then stays there in August, the U.S. expansion is toast:

Technically, the “rule” is as follows: if the three-month average of the unrounded unemployment rate increases by more than three-tenths of a percentage point (35 basis points to be exact) from a trough, the economy has either entered recession already, or will do so within six months. The intuition behind this statistical regularity is that if the labor market stalls for more than a short period, a vicious cycle of weaker income growth, weaker spending, and weaker hiring typically results. An important exception is in the early phase of economic recovery, when the unemployment rate often continues to drift higher for several months.  Currently, the three-month average rate is 9.07%, up from a recent trough of 8.90% in April. The unemployment rate would need to increase to 9.3% in July and stay there in August to trip the 35-basis point threshold; our forecast for Friday’s July labor market report is that the unemployment rate will remain steady at 9.2%.


D-day averted, R-word looms

The United States appears to have averted a default with a theatrical last-minute agreement to raise the debt ceiling. But it must now grapple with what appears to be the growing threat of a new recession. Consumer spending contracted for the first time in two years in June. At the same time, manufacturing grew at its weakest pace in two years in July, suggesting the third quarter has not gotten off to a very good start.

Economists in a Reuters poll expect only 85,000 new jobs were created in July, a forecast that may be optimistic given that the threat of default loomed over the economy for much of the month.

Research notes from Wall Street economists were still studiously avoiding the word recession, but the evidence was becoming harder to ignore.