Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Feeble recovery leaves economies confused

Sep 29, 2009

Over the past week, our correspondents looked at the seeds of revival in key Asian economies. Today, to wrap up the series, our Europe correspondent Jonathan Eyal looks at the prospects for the continent.

LONDON: A gentle sigh of relief can be heard from all European capitals. A year after the worst financial crisis in living memory, manufacturing output is rising, house prices are reviving and stock markets roaring again.

Yet the recovery is feeble - a mere 0.2 per cent overall growth. And the downturn has left deep scars. The economies of the 'old continent' are emerging from the storm battered and confused about their future.

After initially dismissing the crisis as just an American 'disease', European governments quickly made up for lost time: While the United States Congress was still debating its options, Europe bailed out its failing banks and was the first to unveil massive economic stimulus packages.

In doing so, the continent enjoyed two distinct advantages. It has a European Central Bank which runs the euro, the currency of its biggest economies. Despite its reputation for prudence, the bank flooded Europe with cash. Even the small east European countries, outside the euro zone and vulnerable, were helped by this largesse.

Europe's second trump card was its social security net, the world's most extensive and lavish. It swung into action as people became unemployed or fell below the poverty line.

So, the mixture of extra government spending and social benefits ensured that the continent retained its genteel ways of life.

Mr Alfred Butt, a German factory worker, went ahead with his traditional family holiday on a sunny Mediterranean island, despite losing his job: 'We still have enough income, and it was good to get away,' he said.

Perversely, one key European sector actually benefited from the crisis: the car industry. Car manufacturers enjoyed an unprecedented boom, as customers took advantage of state subsidies to swop old models for new ones.

In Germany, at least two million people grabbed the $5,000 individual payout to ditch their old vehicles; new car sales shot up by 28 per cent last month alone.

The carnival atmosphere was so great that one German woman wondered if governments would introduce a scheme to swop old husbands for new. 'I'm in the market for that as well,' she said.

But the day of reckoning is approaching, because the measures to stimulate the economy have resulted in the fastest rise in government debt since World War II. In effect, Europe avoided an economic disaster, only to be saddled with a lingering problem for generations.

If no belt-tightening measures are taken, government debt will exceed Europe's entire annual wealth by the middle of the next decade.

And, if this was not enough, the economic recovery remains uneven. Germany and France may be out of the recession but Britain - hitherto the continent's best performer - is stuck: its economy will contract by a whopping 4 per cent this year.

In London, expatriates who flocked to work in Europe's financial capital are now deserting it in droves.

Mr Andrew Wesbecher, a young American who specialised in selling software to investment funds, left Britain this summer. 'When the performance bonuses go away, the value of being in this country goes away,' he concluded.

Over the past year, 45,000 jobs were lost in London's banking sector alone.

For many Europeans tired of being lectured about the virtues of unregulated capitalism, Britain's predicament is a source of wry satisfaction. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon claimed recently that 'the crisis has modified Europe's ideological landscape'.

From now on, the people of the continent will expect more state intervention, precisely what France argued for all along.

Perhaps, but the snag remains that no European government is in a position to borrow more, without risking massive inflation. Europe will have to cut expenditure and raise taxes at the same time. Governments will need to reprivatise their nationalised banks as fast as possible.

So, far from commanding the economy, economic realities will command policy.

The period of adjustment will be prolonged and painful. Unemployment is already rising fast: it averages 10 per cent of the labour force across western Europe, and stands at a horrible 18 per cent in Spain.

Mr David Gross, who directs the Centre for European Policy Studies think-tank, articulated the continent's frustration. 'This crisis may have started in the US, but even more combustible material had accumulated in Europe, so it is likely that the cost will be higher here.'

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is moving on while the Europeans continue to lag behind.

Perhaps that is why French President Nicolas Sarkozy now advocates a radical new approach to measuring economic performance.

Instead of the old, boring national statistics, Mr Sarkozy is suggesting that other factors - such as long holidays, leisure activities or health care - should be included in a 'new index of happiness'.

Based on such yardsticks, Europe may still score well. But being a pleasant place to live is not the same as remaining a relevant actor on the world stage.

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