Cars for exports at the port of Emden, Germany. File/Reuters
Growth in Germany and Spain and a smaller-than-expected contraction in France pointed to resilience in the eurozone economy in the final three months of last year, but the bright spot belies a more troubled outlook for the bloc.
European Central Bank (ECB) data released on Friday showed lending to eurozone companies picked up last month though the bloc was probably back in recession and banks said they were tightening access to credit amid fear of defaults amid a fresh wave of lockdowns.
In Germany, robust exports helped Europe’s largest economy eke out 0.1% growth in the fourth quarter, staving off contraction despite a second wave of the new coronavirus slamming the brakes on consumption, data showed.
France, the eurozone’s second-largest economy, shrank 1.3% in the final three months of 2020 after the country entered a second coronavirus lockdown in October to contain a second wave of infections.
Spain achieved timid quarterly growth of 0.4%. But that has not stopped Spain from recording its worst-ever annual economic contraction, with output falling 11% from 2019’s level, official data showed.
“Numbers for Germany, France and Spain showed that GDP was relatively resilient in Q4,” Nicola Nobile at Oxford Economics wrote in a research note. But he added, “there are not many indications that this dynamic could have continued in Q1.”
“All in all, the disappointing vaccine roll-out so far, the extension of restrictions in many European countries and the latest data now point to continued weakness in the eurozone over the coming months.”
The French slump, which followed an 18.5% rebound in the third quarter after a first lockdown, beat expectations for a 4% contraction on average in a Reuters poll of 28 economists, surpassing even the highest estimate of -1.4%.
But France is on tenterhooks to find out in the coming days whether the government will put the country under a new lockdown and in particular whether schools will be closed.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders agreed last week to extend a lockdown until mid-February as the country, once a role model for fighting the pandemic, struggles with a second wave and record daily numbers of COVID-19 deaths.
On Wednesday, German government slashed its growth forecast to 3% this year, a sharp revision from last autumn’s estimate of 4.4%, caused by a second coronavirus lockdown.
The economic outlook across the 19-country eur zone is being muddied by a row between the European Union and Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca over its supply of vaccines to the bloc, and by the return of inflation in Germany.
The International Monetary Fund said this week the euro area is likely to slip behind the United States in its recovery.
“Recovery paths vary within the group, with the U.S. and Japan projected to regain end-2019 activity levels in the second half of 2021, while in the euro area and the United Kingdom activity is expected to remain below end-2019 levels into 2022,” the IMF said in its in its World Economic Outlook.
The AstraZeneca supply issue is a blow to Europe’s COVID-19 vaccination drive, and the German inflation spike - consumer prices turned positive and rose in January to 1.6% on the year - adds to a complex mix of data for the European Central Bank to assess.
The ECB is unlikely to cut its already-record-low policy because that would do little to revive the pandemic-hit euro zone economy, five sources told Reuters, playing down concern about a strong euro.
The eurozone’s recovery from its pandemic-induced economic downturn was much stronger than expected in April as the service industry adapted to lockdowns and made a surprise return to growth, a survey showed.
Eurozone business activity surged in May as the easing of some coronavirus related restrictions injected life into the bloc’s dominant services industry, a survey showed,
German exports to China fell by 6.5 per cent on the year in January and the Federal Statistics Office said the drop could not yet be linked to the coronavirus, as the looming impact of the epidemic threatens to tip Europe’s largest economy into recession.
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