EU Economic Standstill in Details

Today it is time to review in more detail the latest national accounts data from Eurostat. A disaggregation of the spending side of GDP reinforces my long-standing statement: the European economy is in a state of long-term stagnation.

To the numbers. We begin with private consumption, which is the driving force of all economic activity. It is not only a national-accounts category, but an indicator of how free and prosperous private citizens are to satisfy their own needs on their own terms. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic freedom that private consumption is the dominant absorption category.

Once consumer spending starts ticking up solidly, we can safely say there is a recovery under way. However, little is happening on the consumption front: over the past eight quarters (ending with Q3 2014) the private-consumption growth rate for the EU has been 0.3 percent per year. While the increase was stronger in 2014 than in 2013, only half of the EU member states experienced a growth in consumer spending of two percent or more in the last year. The three largest euro-zone countries, Germany, France and Italy, were all at 1.2 percent or less.

One bright spot in the consumption data: Greece, Spain and Portugal, the three member states that have been hit the hardest by statist austerity, now have an annual consumption growth rate well above 2.5 percent. Portugal has been above two percent for three quarters in a row; a closer look at these three countries is merited.

Overall, though, the statist-austerity policies during the Great Recession have caused a structural shift in the European economy that may be hard to reverse. From having been a consumer-based economy with strong exports, the EU has now basically been transformed into an exports-driven economy. On average, gross exports is larger as share of GDP than private consumption.

In theory, one could argue that this is a sign of free-market trade where people and businesses choose to buy what they want and need from abroad instead. I would be inclined to agree – but only in theory. In practice, if households and businesses freely made their choices on a global market, then rising exports would correlate with rising imports and, most importantly, rising private consumption. However, that is not the case in Europe. On average for the 28 EU member states,

  • Exports has increased from an unweighted average of 59 percent of GDP in 2007 to an unweighted average of 70 percent in 2014;
  • Net exports has also increases, from zero in 2007 (indicating trade balance) to six percent of GDP in 2014 (indicating a massive trade surplus).

If the rising exports had been a sign of increased participation in global trade on free-market terms, then either of two things would have happened: consumption would have increased as share of GDP or imports would have increased on par with exports. In reality, neither has happened, which leads to one of two conclusions:

  1. There has been a massive increase in corporate investments, which if true would indicate growing confidence in the future among Europe’s businesses; or
  2. Exports is the only category of the economy that is allowed to grow because it is not subject to the tight spending restrictions imposed by austerity.

Gross fixed capital formation, or “investments” as it is often casually referred to, was an unweighted average of 26 percent in the EU member states in 2007. Seven years later it had fallen to 21 percent. This is clearly a vote of no confidence from corporate Europe. Therefore, only one explanation remains: the discrepancy between on the one hand the rise in gross and net exports and, on the other hand, stagnant private consumption and a declining investment share, is the result of a fiscal policy driven by statist austerity.

The purpose of fiscal policy in Europe since at least the beginning of the Great Recession has been to balance the government budget at any cost. If this statist austerity leads to a painful decline in household consumption or corporate investments, then so be it. As shown by the numbers reported here, years of statist austerity have depressed corporate activity. In fixed prices, gross fixed capital formation in the EU has not increased since 2011:

  • In the third quarter of 2011 businesses invested for 607.8 billion euros;
  • In the third quarter of 2014 they invested for 602 billion euros.

The bottom line here is that the only form of economic activity that brings any kind of growth to the European economy is – you guessed it – exports. But it is not just any exports. It is exports outside of the EU. How do we know that? Because of the following two tables. First, the average annual private-consumption growth rate, reported quarterly, for the past eight quarters (ending Q3 2014):

Private consumption growth
Lithuania 4.4% France 0.2%
Latvia 4.3% Denmark 0.0%
Estonia 4.0% Ireland -0.2%
Romania 2.2% Bulgaria -0.2%
Sweden 2.1% Austria -0.3%
Malta 2.0% Finland -0.4%
United Kingdom 1.7% Portugal -0.5%
Poland 1.7% Spain -0.8%
Luxembourg 1.6% Netherlands -1.1%
Germany 0.8% Greece -1.4%
Hungary 0.6% Croatia -1.5%
Belgium 0.5% Italy -1.8%
Czech Republic 0.4% Slovenia -2.1%
Slovakia 0.3% Cyprus -3.5%

With private consumption growing at less than one percent in 19 out of 28 countries, households in the EU do not form a good market for foreign exporters.

Things a not really better in the category of business investments:

Gross fixed capital formation
Ireland 7.5% Latvia -0.2%
Hungary 7.4% Slovakia -0.9%
Lithuania 6.4% France -1.1%
Malta 5.1% Czech Republic -1.5%
United Kingdom 4.5% Netherlands -1.7%
Poland 3.3% Spain -2.1%
Slovenia 2.0% Croatia -2.5%
Sweden 1.7% Luxembourg -2.5%
Estonia 1.7% Portugal -3.7%
Denmark 1.4% Italy -4.5%
Germany 0.9% Finland -5.2%
Bulgaria 0.5% Romania -6.0%
Belgium -0.1% Greece -7.3%
Austria -0.1% Cyprus -14.3%

What this means, in plain English, is that the European economy still is not pulling itself out of its recession.

But is it not possible that things have changed recently? After all, the time series analyzed here end with the third quarter of 2014. There is always that possibility, but one indication that the answer is negative is the latest report on euro-zone inflation. From EU Business:

Eurozone consumer prices fell by a record 0.6 percent in January, EU data showed Friday, confirming deflation could be taking hold and putting pressure on a historic bond-buying plan by the ECB to deliver. The drop from minus 0.2 percent in December appears to back the European Central Bank’s decision last week to launch a bond-buying spree to drive up prices. Plummeting world oil prices were largely to blame for the fall in the 19-country eurozone, already beset by weak economic growth and high unemployment, the EU’s data agency Eurostat said.

If the EU governments let declining oil prices trickle down to consumers – and avoid raising taxes in response – there could be a positive reaction in private consumption. However, lower gasoline and home heating costs will not be enough to turn around the European economy.

More on that later, though. For now, the conclusion is that Europe is going nowhere.