Europeans Are Still Unemployed

The production of macroeconomic data from the European Union for the last two quarters of 2014 is a bit slow. The main source, Eurostat, took until last week to release GDP data for the third quarter, though that was under ESA 2010 standards. We are still waiting for the “modernized” versions to be released.

According to the “older” series, which I reported on last week, economic stagnation continues to hold Europe in an unforgiving chokehold. A look at unemployment statistics – which is updated faster than national accounts data – confirms this picture:

EU US U

Regardless of what configuration Europe is given – the EU as a whole or the euro zone – its unemployment rate is not where it should be. Before the Great Recession, U.S. unemployment was almost half of what it was in Europe; after a brief period of declining jobless rates, Europe experienced a long period of unrelenting increase. In fact, as Figure 1 shows, European unemployment has been creeping upward for five years, from mid-2008 to mid-2013.

It remains to be seen if 2013 actually was the peak, and if 2014 represents the beginning of a long-term decline. There is no underlying trend in GDP or any of its individual components to hint of a real recovery. Here, the European economy stands in stark contrast to the U.S. economy, where unemployment has been falling, albeit slowly, since 2010.

All is not dark as night in Europe, though. Some countries have seen a drastic decline in unemployment since the peak. Measured from the first quarter of 2013 through the third quarter of 2014, the unemployment rates in…

Hungary fell by more than a third;

Lithuania declined by almost one third;

Estonia, Poland and Portugal have plummeted by about one quarter;

Bulgaria, Czech Republic and the U.K. are down by just over one fifth.

Despite these reductions, rates are still disturbingly high in many countries. Here are the EU member states with an unemployment rate higher than the U.S. rate of 6.2 percent:

Unemployment, EU States, Q3 2014
Greece 25.6 Slovenia 9.3
Spain 23.7 Lithuania 9.1
Cyprus 16.1 Belgium 8.7
Croatia 15.7 Poland 8.2
Portugal 13.3 Estonia 7.5
Slovakia 12.9 Finland 7.5
Italy 11.8 Hungary 7.4
Ireland 11.3 Sweden 7.2
Bulgaria 10.8 Denmark 6.5
Latvia 10.6 Romania 6.5
France 9.9 Netherlands 6.4

While it is good to see that “only” a quarter of all Greeks were unemployed in Q3 2014, as opposed to 28 percent a year ago, it should also be noted that unemployment was lower in 2012 when their economy was plunging like the Titanic after she hit the iceberg. In Q3 2012 the Greek unemployment rate was 25 percent exactly.

Spain, with Europe’s second-highest unemployment rate, saw its peak in early 2013 at 26.9 percent. They are now back where they were in 2012, but the decline is very, very slow.

Cyprus is actually still in the phase where unemployment is increasing. It is unclear if the same is true for Croatia, where unemployment has been fluctuating between 14 and 18 percent – averaging 16.6 – over the past three years. What is clear, though, is that there is no downward trend in the Croatian unemployment rate.

Fifth on the list is Portugal, where unemployment topped at 17.8 percent in Q1 2013 and has been moving down very slowly since then. To their credit, the Portuguese have seen a slow improvement in GDP growth, from an annual, inflation-adjusted rate of -1.4 percent in Q2 2013 to one percent in Q3 2014. Greece and Spain have seen similar improvements:

2013Q2 2013Q3 2013Q4 2014Q1 2014Q2 2014Q3
Greece -4.2% -2.6% -3.1% -0.4% 0.4% 1.9%
Spain -1.5% -0.5% -0.1% 0.7% 1.3% 1.7%

The Spanish improvement is predominantly driven by exports. The same is ostensibly true for Greece and Portugal as well, in which case the case for a lasting improvement is basically non-existent. A more detailed examination of national accounts data will give us a more detailed picture (stay tuned).

The small decline in Europe’s notoriously high unemployment reported above is far too weak, far to little to indicate anything beyond a temporary easing of the social and economic pressure that comes with large segments of the labor force being unemployed for years.