(Bloomberg) -- European officials aren’t letting a first-quarter slowdown undermine their confidence in the economy, but an upcoming round of numbers may test their view that the winter blues will pass.
Descriptions by various European Central Bank policy makers have ranged from solid to robust and strong when asked about the recent performance. Even after Germany, the euro area’s economic engine, reported Tuesday that its rate of growth dropped by half, Governing Council member Jan Smets said the region has “strong momentum.” For outgoing ECB Vice President Vitor Constancio, the slowdown isn’t “such an unexpected or serious matter.”
Early indications from the second quarter hint at a rebound after the three months through March were hit by cold weather, strikes, capacity constraints and even a flu outbreak. That still needs to be confirmed in the coming weeks, when key numbers reveal whether businesses and households are coming out of hibernation.
While Europe’s policy makers are putting on a brave face, reactions from the corporate world have been more mixed, with some pointing to pressure from the stronger euro, up 13 percent since the start of 2017. Also, oil prices are the highest in almost four years, though analysis by Bloomberg Economics suggests that $100 a barrel won’t be as big a drag as it was in 2011.
|May 23||Euro-area composite PMI||Lowest since January 2017|
|May 24||German 1Q GDP (breakdown)||Weakest since 3Q 2016|
|May 25||Ifo index||Lowest since March 2017|
|May 30||Euro-area economic confidence||Lowest since August 2017|
|May 31||Euro-area inflation||Two-month low|
|June 14||ECB Governing Council policy meeting|
All those releases build up to the ECB’s next policy meeting, when it will have new forecasts that may guide any formal discussion of when to scale back asset purchases. The soundings from officials are that they’re still moving in that direction, though they’ve acknowledged the global risks.
“They have to look through the first-quarter weakness and attribute it to a lot of temporary factors and look more to a global economic environment that’s supportive of growth,” said Kristina Hooper, Invesco chief global market strategist. But they’ll still have to acknowledge that there’s “a heck of a lot of uncertainty out there which suggests caution.”
ECB President Mario Draghi will get another chance to offer his view of the economy when he speaks in Frankfurt on Wednesday. Late last month, he said that growth is “solid and broad-based,” while adding some indicators may suggest a “more durable softening in demand.”
Inflation was 1.2 percent in April, while the core rate was 0.7 percent, according to a final reading from Eurostat published Wednesday. That’s well below what the ECB would like.
What Our Economists Say
“The euro area slowed in 1Q but there are good reasons to think it will bounce back: Spain and Italy held up well -- it was the big economies with bad weather that suffered. And the labor markets had a good 1Q in both Germany and France -- there’s no sign of the job shedding you might see if the slowdown were expected to last.
The data flow will soon sweeten and the the clouds hanging over Mario Draghi and his colleagues will lift. Asset purchases are still likely to end this year, despite the bad start.”
--Jamie Murray, Bloomberg Economics. More analysis at NH BI
The latest questions over the outlook for the economy flared up on Tuesday, as numbers showed that growth in Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal all slowed more than forecast in the three months through March, while euro-area expansion slipped to 0.4 percent from 0.7 percent.
“Growth in the euro zone and Germany is somewhat weaker than originally expected,” German lender Commerzbank said in its interim earnings report. “The firm euro, slightly less lively global demand, rising interest rates and not least the risk of a trade war between the U.S. and China that emerged toward the end of the first quarter all had an impact.”
Continental AG, the German maker of car parts, is among the companies to highlight the euro’s level, saying said last week that its advance is taking a toll on profit. Volkswagen AG has also flagged the exchange rate as a risk to earnings.
But the IMF used a report on Europe to say the region is in a period of strong growth. It also noted medium-term risks that could disrupt global as well as euro-area expansion, including rising trade protectionism, a correction in overvalued markets and a deeper slowdown in China.
For Berenberg Chief Economist Holger Schmieding, Germany -- long the region’s growth engine -- has merely had a “dent.” While year-on-year rates have come off since reaching almost 3 percent last summer, that was an “extraordinary” pace.
“In terms of underlying strength, it has not peaked,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “We are seeing a bit of a soft patch.”
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