Economic Outlook: Europe in dire straits

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  Feb. 14, 2013 at 7:53 AM
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The European recession is deeper and more entrenched than many believed, the continent's primary data agency said Thursday.

The European Union's data office Eurostat said the eurozone's economy in the fourth quarter dropped 0.6 percent compared to the third, a deeper contraction than expected. The larger European Union's gross domestic product dropped 0.5 percent quarter to quarter.

It is a report where positive numbers are hard to find, primarily because the duration of the recession in Europe has pushed positive figures off the standard charts Eurostat provides.

The sovereign debt crisis in Europe is in its fourth year. On the charts, the GDP in the eurozone has been negative for three consecutive quarters and it was unchanged for the two quarters preceding that. For the third quarter of 2012, the GDP for the European Union as a whole actually rose over the second quarter at a marginal 0.1 percent.

In Germany, Europe's largest economy, the economy contracted 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter, dragging the country's annual growth down to 0.4 percent. France, with the second largest economy in the EU, experienced a decline of 0.3 percent, falling for the third quarter out of the past four. In Spain, the economy shrank 0.7 percent in the fourth quarter and 1.8 percent compared to the same quarter of 2011. Italy's numbers are even worse, down 0.9 percent quarter-to-quarter and down 2.7 percent from the same period a year earlier.

The most pronounced drops are in Greece and Portugal. The economy in Greece, where positive numbers have been a no-show for years, is off 6 percent from the same three months of 2011. In Portugal, the economy shrank 1.8 percent quarter to quarter and 3.8 percent from the fourth quarter of the previous year.

Stock markets took the news hard. In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain dropped 0.74 percent while the DAX 30 in Germany dropped 1.14 percent. The CAC 40 in France fell 0.87 percent while the Stoxx Europe 600 index lost 0.46 percent.

The prospects also look dim. Like the United States, the economies of Europe are attempting a recovery without spending a dime to pull it off. After a brief experiment with stimulus programs that were too thin and too short lived, European leaders, alarmed by sovereign debt crisis in Greece, pulled back, choosing austerity over stimulation.

By all rights, investor confidence should be higher but investors gravitate toward profits as much as they do sound footing. A show of hands: How many would invest in a sure-fire, short-lived meteoric scheme versus a sound investment? Yes, Warren Buffett, your answer was clear before the question was asked, but how about everybody else?

The White House and the European Commission announced Wednesday trade talks would begin with broad agenda including matching regulations on either side of the Atlantic Ocean to spur the largest trading relationship in the world to even greater heights.

This is precisely the strategy Europe and the United States can afford right now: stimulus provided by rule changes rather than by tossing money into job-creating initiatives.

It's the type of program that comes around when you look at your checkbook and realize you can't afford anything else. But it's a start, even if the United States runs a trade deficit with Europe every month.

In other markets, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan rose 0.5 percent while the Hang Seng index in Hong Kong added 0.85 percent. The Sensex in India dropped 0.57 percent while the S&P/ASX index in Australia rose 0.66 percent.

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