Will growth continue to slow, or will Europe fall into recession as global economic risks overtake it? Whatever the result, rather than being a distraction from politics, the economy will probably intensify the political challenges.
Economic Growth continues to slow
The Euro Area is heading for a second straight year of slowing economic growth. In 2017, GDP growth was at 2.4%, while 2018 is expected to be around 2%. In 2019, the IMF has forecast 1.9% (World Economic Outlook, Oct 2018), while the World Bank has forecast 1.6% in 2019, 1.5% in 2020, and 1.3% in 2021 (Global Economic Prospects, Jan 2019).
Some key countries will fare worse. Germany and Italy recorded negative growth in the third quarter of 2018, with notable decreases in industrial production. In contrast, EU members in Eastern Europe are experiencing strong growth.
Slower growth in the Euro Area is not in itself cause for concern. Despite the downward trend and negative growth in Germany and Italy, the forecasts represent continued solid economic growth. The underlying fundamentals are robust for most countries: inflation is under control, consumer spending is healthy, and Euro Area unemployment is at 10-year lows. The Euro Area looks set to add to the five straight years of growth since 2014.
Will global risks push Europe into recession?
Europe’s slowing growth must be seen in the context of increasing global risks to economic growth. These include the risk of a US recession,
aggressive US trade policies, and the risks from further tightening by the US Federal Reserve. If any of these risks are realised, Europe, particularly the Euro Area, may fall into recession.
The US economy appears very strong with low inflation and a strong labour market, but the stock market correction from August 2018, and the flattening (and sometimes inverting) yield curve for US treasuries suggests that the US markets are predicting slower growth. Many market-watchers are spooked by the possibility of a recession in 2019 or 2020. A US recession may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
US trade policies entered a new era in 2018 with the March tariff on steel and aluminium, renegotiation of NAFTA (now USMCA), and the trade skirmish with China. The US has demonstrated that it will play hard on trades issues, even with traditional allies such as Canada and Europe. The steel and aluminium tariffs have had a negative impact on European exports. More tariffs cannot be ruled out.
Europe also needs to be prepared for any collateral damage from a potential trade war between the US and China. Comments after the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires gave hope of a resolution but subsequent reports suggest that negotiations will be complex, particularly as the US leverages a stronger hand with probable slower growth in China.
Another key global risk is continued monetary tightening by the US Federal Reserve in 2019, and the ensuing risk of financial contagion for, and from, emerging markets. Last year marked the long-feared end of cheap liquidity in emerging markets. As the US Federal Reserve tightened liquidity, countries like Argentina and Turkey were put into a tail-spin by markets. Advanced economies, including those in the Euro Area, remain vigilant for any potential financial contagion from emerging markets. Fed chair Jerome Powell has since tried to tone down any hawkish sentiment, and will proceed with more care. The world will be watching the Fed even more closely in 2019.
What can Europe do about recession?
If any of these global risks are realised and the Euro Area falls toward recession, what can Europe do? The ECB and national policymakers appear to have few working levers to stimulate growth. The official ECB interest rate has been below zero since 2014, while the ECB capped Quantitative Easing at the end of 2018. The ECB’s rate would thus need to rely on tools at the margins such as a new round of Targeted Longer-Term Refinancing Operations (TLTROs): discounted multi-year loans to banks. Perhaps the ECB’s biggest remaining lever to mitigate any recession is to do nothing, refraining from raising interest rates in 2019.
Unlike 2007 and 2008, many European governments (including France, Italy, and Spain) have few fiscal buffers to deal with any potential recession in 2019 or 2020. Italy has a public debt to GDP ratio of 133%, Spain 98.8%, and France 97.7% (latest figures are from 2017). Countries such as Germany and the Netherlands do have fiscal buffers, but they alone cannot mitigate a Euro Area-wide recession.
The lack of fiscal buffers will probably feed back into domestic political pressures and anti-EU rhetoric. In the event of a recession, countries with little fiscal space will be tempted to increase their fiscal spending beyond comfortable levels, which will incur the ire of the ECB, and the more fiscally conservative countries in the EU. Local leaders may then deflect this by stirring up anti-EU sentiment – a familiar path. As the economy re-emerges as a key focus, the tensions between many governments, like the new government in Italy, and the EU will probably intensify.
Need for productivity growth to get out of Europe Recession
Beyond mitigating the next recession, what Europe (and all advanced economies) really need is a new wave of structural reforms to reignite productivity-led economic growth. This includes Labour market reforms to increase flexibility and participation, as well as productivity through better vocational education and technology.
In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron introduced labour market reforms. These included changes to the funding of vocational education and the capping of awards for workplace disputes settled in court. These have already had a positive economic impact, according to many commentators, and will help France through any recession. Macron however has resisted German-style Hartz labour flexibility reforms (part of Schroder’s 2010 Agenda).
Hartz reform supporters claim that Germany’s economic growth in the 2000s was largely because of the reforms, which reduced unemployment benefits, removed incentives for early retirement, and increased labour-market flexibility. Opponents claim the reforms had little impact, and that Germany instead.
Whatever its role in strengthening the German economy, the German electorate did not take kindly to the Hartz labour reforms. and replaced the Schroder-led SPD with the Merkel-led CDU. European governments face a similar challenge today. Economies need a new wave of structural reforms, but they are unlikely to be popular in the face of slowing growth. One of the key election-promises of the new Italian government was the removal of labour market reforms by the previous government, designed to increase labour market flexibility. It seems that economic events are set to make European politics even more interesting in 2019.
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