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Friday, February 22, 2008

February EU Commission Interim Forecast

The European Commission released a new interim forecast for the EU economies yesterday. Of particular note was the fact that the forecast significantly reduces the growth forecasts at the same time as sharply raising its inflation estimate The Commission said it was concerned that expectations of steadily rising prices were becoming entrenched in the 15-nation area.

My own opinion is that the current forecasts are far more realistic than than those issued in last November's autumn review. The outlook for growth in the eurozone as a whole for 2008 has been cut to 1.8 per cent from an earlier 2.2 per cent, but of more significance perhaps are the individual country estimates. Italy, which has been the eurozone’s slowest growing economy for the past 15 years, once again comes in at the bottom of the pile, with the Commission halving its growth forecast for this year to a mere 0.7 per cent. This follows a downward revision of the Italy growth forecast by the Bank of Italy (in the middle of January) to 1%, and a revision (earlier this month) by Confindustria, Italy's largest employers' lobby, who slashed their forecast also to 0.7%. Back at the start of January I said the following on this blog:


I personally will be very surprised if we still see calendar year 2008 anything like as high as 1.8%, but more to the point even 1.3% may be rather on the high side if we get a significant deterioration in the external environment, especially in Eastern Europe on which Italy is fairly dependent, and where the Italian banking sector has significant exposure. So that puts me much nearer to Pillona's "basement bargain" number of 0.5% than to any of the others. One of the reasons for my pessimism relates to my assessment of Italy's current trend growth rate, and to the level of fiscal and monetary tightening which may be operating on the economy even as it slows.


I wouldn't say it exactly makes me happy to be being proved right here, but we do need some more realistic perspective on Italy's current growth potential from those responsible for forecasts and policy, and some more realistic appraisal of the problems Italy faces (ie of population ageing) to try and understand why things are this way, rather than assuming it is all to do with some sort of congenital weakness on the part of the Italians themselves.

The Commission lowered its country forecasts for Germany (to 1.6 per cent, from 2.1 per cent), and France (to 1.7 per cent, from 2.0 per cent), for the UK (to 1.7 per cent, from 2.2 per cent), and for Spain (to 2.7 per cent, from 3.0 per cent). Of these the French one looks to be the most realistic. The German forecast obviously contains strong downside risk, while the Spanish one seems to be talking about "another country" from the one I live in, when we come to look at the rate of the slowdown in the real economy (retail sales, industrial output, services etc), and add to this the growing tensions in the banking and financial sectors. I would stick my neck out and go for sub 1% growth in Spain this year, and feel reasonably comfortable with this.

Economy and Finance Commissioner Joaquim Almunia stressed the Commission’s view, which has been expressed many times since the financial market turbulence began last August, that the European economy would weather the storm because of its "sound fundamentals" – stable public finances, no huge current account deficits, relatively low unemployment and stronger international competitiveness. The strange thing is that he actually comes from Spain, a country which, it is true, has sound public finances at this point, but does have a huge (or whopping) current account deficit, which since last autumn it is having trouble financing since the monthly inflow of funds has dropped by around half, high (and growing) unemployment (around 10%) and poor producyivity growth (one of the worst in the EU) and hence comparatively weak international competitiveness. For these and many other reasons I suggest the 2.7% number is absolutely "pie in the sky", and may have a lot more to do with the fact that Spain is going to have elections in the middle of next month, with Mr Almunia's own party (PSOE) attempting to secure re-election.

On the inflation side the Commission raised its estimate for 2008 for the 27-nation EU to 2.9 per cent from the earlier 2.4 per cent, a revision which won't make the task of the ECB any easier when it comes to trying to use monetary policy to address the growth slowdown issues.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Italy Consumer Confidence February 2008

Italian consumer confidence remained near its lowest level over two years in February as rising energy prices, accelerating inflation and a certain degree of political uncertainty weighed on consumer optimism.

The Rome-based Isae Institute's consumer confidence index, based on a survey of 2,000 families, rose ever so slightly to 103 from 102.2 last month. If we exclude last months even lower reading this is still the lowest since August 2005.



A measure of optimism about the general economic situation rose to 82.6 from 80.9, though pessimism about personal finances worsened to minus 5 from minus 2, and concern about rising prices was at a four-year high, the report said. Isae said.

Italian consumer prices rose an annual 3.1 percent in January, the highest in at least 11 years and industrial production declined for a fourth month in December. Italian retail sales dropped last month at the steepest pace in four years.

Italy's economy, the fourth biggest in Europe, may grow as little as 1 percent this year, the Bank of Italy predicted Jan. 15. That compares with a July forecast of 1.7 percent. The government's next official predictions will come out in March.

One other factor in the confidence situation is evidently the election campaign which is now underway, following the collapse of Prime Minister Romano Prodi's government on Jan. 24 after 20 months in power. Both leading candidates, two-time premier Silvio Berlusconi and former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, are promising tax cuts as their "remedy" to revive growth. This position is barely credible, since given the economic slowdown and the likely increase in Italy's already massive public debt that this will lead to, it is difficult to see where - if anywhere - there is room at the moment for tax cuts, unless, of course, you countrebalance this with a major cut in health or pensions expenditure, but then, perhaps this is the part you shoul really be explaining to the voters first.