German Business Sentiment Up Sharply Despite Debt Crisis Worries
BERLIN (Alexandra Hudson) - German business sentiment rose sharply in December, defying expectations for a decline and underscoring the resilience of Europe's dominant economy in the face of a sovereign debt crisis that has hammered euro zone growth.
The Munich-based Ifo think tank said Tuesday that its business climate index, based on a monthly survey of some 7,000 companies, rose to 107.2 in December from 106.6 in November, posting its biggest monthly rise since February.
It was the second rise in a row after an equally surprising gain in November. Economists surveyed by Reuters had forecast a drop to 106.1.
Analysts welcomed the rise but took care not to overplay its significance, particularly in the wake of recent downbeat German export and manufacturing data, and amid continuing downward revisions to 2012 economic growth forecasts.
"The small rise in the December's Ifo index is a welcome surprise but hardly transforms the outlook for the economy," said economist Jonathan Loynes at Capital Economics.
"All of the indices are still sharply down on their summer readings... Overall, there is some encouragement here that the German economy is not currently plunging into recession, but the picture is one of very weak growth at best," he added.
News of the data helped the under-pressure euro to a gain of 0.6 percent to $1.3080. It also fuelled a climb in European stocks, following a slide of 4.3 percent over the last fortnight.
"The German economy seems to be successfully countering the downturn in Western Europe. This bodes well for Christmas," Ifo President Hans-Werner Sinn said in a statement.
SLOWDOWN, BUT NO SLUMP?
The survey's coordinator, Klaus Abberger, noted the business climate in retailing and domestic construction had improved.
"At the moment I don't think we (Germany) will fall into recession again," he said.
The business expectations sub-index proved particularly strong, rising to 98.4 from a previous 97.3, the biggest gain since July 2010, and well in excess of a forecast for 97.0.
The figures dovetailed with data from the GfK institute released earlier Tuesday showing consumer morale held steady going into January, bucking expectations for a fall, as income expectations and views of the economy improved.
Domestic demand helped the German economy grow a healthy 0.5 percent in the third quarter, but investor morale has since soured as a convincing solution to the euro zone debt crisis remains elusive, fuelling expectations of a slowdown going into the new year and depriving the euro zone of its key growth motor.
Three think tanks cut their 2012 forecasts for German GDP on Tuesday, with the IMK becoming the first major institute to predict a recession for Europe's bulwark economy.
"The main reason for the drastic economic slowdown remains now, as before, the unresolved confidence crisis in the euro zone and the high-profile austerity programs in ever more euro zone and European Union countries," the IMK institute said.
Concerns over Germany's ability to weather the crisis were underlined earlier this month, when a survey showed German manufacturing contracted for a third straight month in December and exports posted their biggest fall in October in half a year.
Analyst Rainer Sartoris at HSBC Trinkaus called the Ifo index "a forgiving end to the year."
"The numbers show confidence that the German economy will not collapse. The first and second quarters of 2012 will be weak but we expect the German economy to pick up in the course of the year."
(Reporting by Berlin bureau; Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by John Stonestreet)
Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.
Investors in global stock markets lost $6.3 trillion in wealth in 2011 largely because of fears of a eurozone breakup, according to The Financial Times. The value of global stock markets fell 12 percent to $45.7 trillion.
From the FT:
The S&P 500 is flat this year while the FTSE 100 has only dropped 5.5 per cent. But the Eurofirst 300 gauge of blue-chip European companies has lost 11 per cent, led by the French and Italian exchanges. The MSCI Emerging Markets index has shed a fifth of its value despite strong growth in China and other emerging markets.
Asian equity markets were hit particularly hard with Japan’s Nikkei index losing 17.3 per cent this year, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index 20 per cent and the Shanghai Composite 22 per cent.
Up to 100 Italian newspapers will be forced to close after the Italian government slashes subsidies to newspapers in the name of shoring up its finances, according to The Financial Times.
The subsidy cut amounts to a 69 percent cut in funding for newspapers, according to the FT. It was ordered by the government of the previous prime minister, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, and approved by the new government of Mario Monti. Though the newspaper industry is in decline, some say that these local and sometimes partisan newspapers give voice to stories that the mainstream media ignores, according to the FT.
Staffers at the communist daily Liberazione, which has 5,000 readers, are staging an occupation of the newsroom this weekend to prevent the owners from shutting down the paper after its possible last issue is released on Saturday, the FT reports.
Investors were unmoved by the steep fall in Italy's short-term borrowing costs on Wednesday, as Italy's long-term borrowing costs stayed elevated and European stocks fell.
The interest rate on Italy's six-month government bonds fell by half to 3.25 percent at an auction on Wednesday: a vote of confidence in Italy's ability to pay off its debts for half a year.
But investors remained skeptical about Europe's long-term economic prospects. The DAX in Germany plunged 1.04 percent on Wednesday, the CAC in France fell 0.38 percent, and Italy's FTSE Italia All-Share neither gained nor lost ground. The interest rate on Italy's ten-year government bonds remained unsustainable at 6.80 percent.
The European Commission admitted in a report in mid-December that its medicine for the sovereign debt crisis may be poison for Europe's long-term economic outlook.
The report said, according to The Wall Street Journal, that the imminent economic slowdown in Europe, caused in part by a contraction in government spending, will worsen job prospects for young people, and "young people remain the hardest hit by the crisis and its aftermath." The report added that "income shocks may prove permanent."
The youth unemployment rate in the European Union is disastrously high at 20 percent, with a high of 48 percent in Spain, according to the WSJ.
The European sovereign debt crisis is turning into a banking crisis.
After breaking a record just a day earlier, the amount of overnight deposits parked at the European Central Bank's overnight deposit facility reached another record high on Tuesday: $591 billion, a 10 percent increase from $538 billion the day before, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The deposits attract an interest rate of just 0.25 percent and could translate into a loss for banks, highlighting the rising level of banks' distrust in any risky lending as banks seek to shore up capital to meet new regulatory requirements.
Italy suffered from the worst Christmas shopping season in ten years, according to the Italian consumer group Codacons, Bloomberg News reported.
Italians spent $62.75, or 48 euros, less per person during the holidays this year than the average of the past five years, according to Codacons.
Shoe and clothing stores suffered the most, with sales in that sector plunging 30 percent compared to previous years, according to Codacons.
As the Italian government seeks to rein in its debt by slashing spending and collecting more in taxes, Italians are cutting back in their spending, which will continue to hurt the economy. Italy's latest austerity plan will cost every Italian family about $1,476, or 1,129 euros, according to the Italian consumer group Federconsumatori, Bloomberg News reported.
The FTSE Italia All-Share, Italy's main stock index, fell 0.85 percent on Tuesday.
Banks parked a record high number of deposits in the European Central Bank's overnight deposit facility, which is considered to be a safe haven, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Banks deposited $538 billion, or 412 billion euros, overnight at the ECB on Monday, up 19 percent from $453 billion, or 347 billion euros, on the Thursday before Christmas, according to ECB data cited by the WSJ.
The high level of overnight deposits reflects the rising level of distrust in inter-bank lending, in conjunction with continued liquidity in the eurozone markets as the ECB lends more to banks, the WSJ noted.
The number of people without jobs in France reached a 12-year high in November, placing pressure on French President Nicolas Sarkozy's reelection campaign, according to Reuters.
France's labor ministry reported that the number of registered jobseekers in France rose to 2.85 million, 1.1 percent more than in October and 5.2 percent more than during the same period last year, according to Reuters.
The unemployment rate in France rose in the third quarter to 9.3 percent from 9.1 percent in the second quarter, according to France's national statistics office, Reuters reported.
The stock prices of European retailers rose after reports of shoppers flooding stores both in Europe and the United States on Monday, the day after Christmas, according to The Financial Times.
The stock price of German retailer Metro rose 1 percent on Tuesday, France's Carrefour rose 0.6 percent, and Swiss watchmakers Swatch and Richemont rose 0.7 percent, according to the FT.
The DAX stock index in Germany rose 0.23 percent, while the CAC 40 in France fell just 0.03 percent.
In the face of growing youth unemployment across Europe, the European Commission has launched what it calls the Youth Opportunities Initiative, a program aimed at getting more of the continent's young people into the workforce.
Per a press release from the European Commission, the program will allocate 4 million euro toward getting young people into employment, education or training within four months of leaving school.
At the moment, the EU has a youth unemployment rate of about 21 percent, meaning that 5 million young people are out of work. According to the European Commission, a total of 7.5 million people age 15 to 24 are not employed, attending school or involved in work training.
The lack of opportunities for Europe's young people has inspired protests and riots in some countries and mass migrations in others. The problem is expected to grow worse if Europe tips into a recession, or if the EU's many heavily indebted countries impose austerity measures to rein in deficits.
-- Alexander Eichler
Italy -- whose debts currently exceed 1.8 trillion euro, or more than 120 percent of the size of its economy -- appears to be considering an auction of six digital frequencies, according to Bloomberg.
Earlier this week, the Italian government walked back plans to assign the frequencies for free. It now seems to be weighing a proposal to auction the frequencies to the highest bidder. Such a sale could net the government about 2.4 billion euro, according to a professor at University of Rome La Sapienza.
"It doesn’t make any sense to give away for free scarce resources such as frequencies, especially in light of the financial troubles Italy’s in,” said Dino Bortolotto, head of the telecommunications company Assoprovider, as quoted in Bloomberg.
-- Alexander Eichler
Mindful of the stigma associated with bank bailouts, some European governments are using workaround methods to generate quick cash for their countries' financial institutions.
Nations including Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain are moving assets around to help ease the debt burden on their major banks, according to the Wall Street Journal. The hope is that by eschewing any measure that can be characterized as a full-on bailout, the countries can avoid spooking investors with the appearance of vulnerability.
One such method, in use in Italy, involves the government selling its unwanted property to banks, then leasing the property back. Banks can bundle the properties as asset-backed securities and use them as collateral to get loans from the European Central Bank.
Analysts have warned that these solutions are only a temporary fix and that more comprehensive action will be needed to guarantee the safety of European banks, the WSJ reports.
-- Alexander Eichler
The euro dipped below the $1.30 mark Monday afternoon as markets closed out a day of disappointing news and developments of uncertain import.
At the end of trading Monday, the euro stood at $1.2997, a 0.4 percent decline on the day and close to an 11-month low versus the dollar, according to Bloomberg.
There were a number of reasons investors may have been wary during Monday's trading, including a rescue package deal for the International Monetary Fund that fell short of expectations, and tumbles for Asian currencies like the won and the yen as the international community assessed the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Monday also saw a sell-off for Bank of America stock that left the company trading at just $4.99 at the closing bell. Overall, the Dow ended the day 100 points down.
On Tuesday, Spain will auction a series of three- and six-month securities. In the past week, Spain has raised about €11 billions, in debt auctions an unexpectedly good performance aided by falling interest rates.
Several nations agreed Monday to provide €150 billion ($195 billion) to the International Monetary Fund, a rescue package that incorporates commitments from eurozone and non-eurozone countries alike, yet may not be far-reaching enough to reassure nervous investors.
The €150 billion will consist of contributions from 13 eurozone nations, as well as four countries -- Poland, Denmark, Sweden and the Czech Repoublic -- that are not part of the currency union, Bloomberg reports.
Notably absent is the United Kingdom, whose refusal to pledge money to the IMF means that the architects of the deal will fall short of their €200 billion goal. The U.K. will "define its contribution early in the new year," according to a statement from EU finance ministers.
Also not participating in the deal are Greece, Ireland and Portugal, three heavily indebted eurozone countries that have received international bailout funds.
With recession looking more and more likely in Europe, the problem of high youth unemployment is unlikely to diminish any time soon, according to a report issued Friday by the European Commission.
Europe's economy is widely expected to shrink in the coming months, which bodes ill for the prospect of a labor market recovery. Youth unemployment in the European Union is at 20 percent, according to The Wall Street Journal, and runs significantly higher for some individual countries. In Spain, for example, 48 percent of young people are unemployed.
Compounding the problem is the ubiquity of low-paying temporary job contracts in Germany, France, Sweden and other countries, according to the WSJ. Many young people are employed under temporary contract arrangements, but these positions offer relatively little chance of moving into a full-time job, and can create a lasting wage gap between temporary and permanent employees.
-- Alexander Eichler
Mariano Rajoy, who will be sworn in as prime minister of Spain on Wednesday, has lain out some of the measures his government intends to take to address Spain's looming budget deficit.
Rajoy told members of Parliament Monday that his government will pass a provisional 2012 budget by the end of December, according to the Financial Times.
Under Rajoy's plan, public sector hiring is expected to drop off sharply, and all forms of public spending except pensions will be vulnerable to cuts, the FT reports. The proposed budget aims to reduce Spain's deficit by €16.5 billion, according to BBC News.
Spain has an unemployment rate of nearly 23 percent, the highest of any developed economy. Rajoy told Parliament that measures to reform the labor market would be devised by the end of March.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, had harsh words for eurozone leaders Monday, according to the Financial Times.
Speaking at a conference in Beijing, Strauss-Kahn said that European debt crisis was in fact "a growth crisis," and that "[b]ehind the growth crisis is a leadership crisis."
Strauss-Kahn cited German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy as two leaders who were not cooperating as effectively as they could, saying he doubted whether they "clearly understand each other."
Monday marked Strauss-Kahn's first formal address since being charged with the sexual assault of a hotel housekeeper in May, an accusation that was ultimately dropped.
-- Alexander Eichler
The U.S. dollar -- not gold -- now is the ultimate safe haven.
While gold prices fell to their lowest level since September, the U.S. dollar index rose to its highest level since January as investors fled risky investments after the unsuccessful European Union summit last week, according to The Financial Times.
"Gold evidently failed to uphold its primary role as a safe haven asset," Ross Norman of Sharps Pixley, a retail bullion brokerage, told the FT.
The European Central Bank has given banks a weapon that could serve as a backdoor bailout for troubled European governments: cheap money. But banks are likely to use the money to pay down their own debts rather than save European governments from higher borrowing costs and the threat of default, according to Thomson Reuters' International Financing Review.
From the article:
Burned by Greek losses, and under the scrutiny of shareholders, banks have slashed their exposure to weaker European sovereigns over recent months. Senior bankers say they will cut further, despite pressure to use newly available, longer-term ECB loans to buy government debt as part of an officially-sanctioned carry trade.
"I can't think for a moment why anyone would want to [buy eurozone government debt]," said the head of capital markets at one European bank that is also reducing its exposure to eurozone sovereign bonds. "Everyone is trying to protect capital. It's counter-intuitive. It would be digging a deeper hole for yourself."
Credit rating firm Moody's Investors Service downgraded Belgium's credit rating two notches on Friday: from Aa1 to Aa3.
Moody's attributed the downgrade to the increased risk that the Belgian government took on by bailing out the bank Dexia, "increasing medium-term risks to economic growth" due to budget cuts in the eurozone, and higher borrowing costs for eurozone countries such as Belgium.
The interest rate on ten-year Belgian government bonds was 4.32 percent as of Friday afternoon.
The German airline Lufthansa, Europe's largest airline by market value, plans to detail a cost-cutting plan early next year as Europeans turn to cheap airlines and built-in expenses such as the cost of fuel rise, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Christoph Franz, Lufthansa's chief executive, said that the company's operating profit this year will be "well below the figure we require in order to secure our company and our jobs in the future," according to the WSJ.
Air France also plans to announce cost-cutting measures in mid-January, according to the WSJ.
Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate for president of France, said on Friday that if elected, he would seek a eurozone rescue from the only institution that he believes can save Europe, according to The Wall Street Journal: the European Central Bank.
Hollande, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's main election opponent, said that the ECB is the only institution with the funding and credibility to be able to provide a full backstop for troubled European governments, according to the WSJ.
"Everyone knows that without a powerful intervention by the ECB, it will be impossible to restore calm on markets," he said.
Knowing that Germany would resist any change to the treaty preventing the ECB from buying bonds directly from governments, Hollande said that he would like to work within the current legal framework, according to the WSJ. "I would rather have a change in practice than a change in the treaty," he said.
Standard and Poor's released a report Friday saying that five of Europe's strongest economies may experience an even sharper contraction than other countries.
S&P wrote that the eurozone's five "net exporter" countries -- Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, and Finland -- will suffer at least as much as other eurozone countries from the imminent European recession, and that they may suffer even more since they are so dependent on external consumer demand. Consumption comprises 73 to 80 percent of those economies, according to S&P.
S&P wrote that the Netherlands is the most vulnerable "net exporter" country, followed by the Netherlands.
Ireland, which implemented austerity measures earlier than other European countries, saw its economy shrink 1.9 percent between July and September, according to figures from Ireland's national statistics office cited by The Financial Times.
Ireland thus was the worst-performing economy in the eurozone: a steep turnaround from the previous three months, when the Irish economy performed second best, according to the FT. The Irish economy shrank largely because of a steep decline in corporate investment and consumer demand, the FT wrote.
The euro fell in value on Friday after Fitch Ratings issued a warning that it may downgrade several countries in the eurozone, according to Bloomberg News.
Fitch Ratings revised its outlook to negative on Friday on the credit ratings of Spain, Italy, Belgium, Slovenia, Ireland, and Cyprus. After the announcement, the value of the euro fell to $1.3019 at 1:49 p.m. ET, after gaining earlier in the day, according to Bloomberg News. The value of the euro has fallen 2.7 percent this week: the largest such decline since early September.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition party, the centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP), gave Merkel a limited vote of confidence in her handling of the eurozone crisis.
Though the FDP did not reach a quorum in the vote, they backed the decision to create a permanent eurozone bailout fund: the European Stability Mechanism, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Nonetheless, the sizable minority in the FDP that is skeptical about the euro probably will prevent Germany from pursuing larger bailout efforts, according to the WSJ.
The sovereign debt crisis ironically could boost economic growth in Europe through one avenue, however short-term: exports.
Investors are selling euros as they lose confidence in the future of the eurozone, which is driving down the value of the euro and making European exports more competitive around the world.
The value of the euro has plunged 13 percent since its peak in May to $1.30, which economists say could raise economic growth in the eurozone by at least 0.5 percent as long as the fall in the value of the euro sticks, according to The Wall Street Journal.
But the fall in the value of the euro also could keep struggling European countries dependent on exports that no longer will stay competitive over the long term. For example, Portugal's textile industry accounts for 10 percent of the country's exports, according to the WSJ and the head of Portugal's textile association told the WSJ that the weaker euro "will help Portuguese textiles exports, especially for countries outside the European Union."
But this is not a sustainable strategy, said Stijn van Nieuwerburgh, associate finance professor at New York University's Stern School of Business.
"The future of Portugal does not lie in textiles," van Nieuwerburgh told The Huffington Post, noting that the textile industry in emerging economies has boomed. "It will have to lie in something else -- in R&D [research and development] -- and it's going to have to undergo structural reform, and that's just a very painful and slow process."
Two of Europe's strongest economies now seem to be in a competition to see which one will shrink the least.
"It is true that the economic situation in Britain is very worrying today and one prefers to be French than British at the moment on the economic level," French finance minister Francois Baroin said on Friday, according to The Financial Times.
The French statistics agency Insee recently forecast that the French economy will have shrunk 0.2 percent between October and December of this year, and that it will shrink another 0.1 percent during the first three months of 2012, according to the FT. It also forecast that the unemployment rate in France, which is currently 9.7 percent, would rise to 10 percent by the middle of 2012.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecast in late November that the British economy would fall back into recession during the winter because of government spending cuts and the eurozone crisis, according to The Guardian.
Mario Monti has survived his first vote of confidence over austerity, Reuters reports (via CNBC). His predecessor, SIlvio Berlusconi, barged his way through more than 50. Markets have not reacted to much today and have been flat, although the CAC-40 has started to drop a bit.
The plan, contested by Italy's unions and the opposition Northern League, has been in effect since Monti's government approved it on December 4. But it needed full parliamentary approval within 60 days to remain in force.
The upper house, where Monti is a life senator, is expected to approve the package definitively next week, most likely in another confidence vote.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has said in a speech that the EU must look for more sustainable, long term solutions to its sovereign debt crisis, and politicians must overlook the short term needs for "rigour" in order to achieve the goal of stability, Reuters reports.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said Europe's response to the debt crisis "should be wrapped in a long-term sustainable approach, not just to feed short-term hunger for rigour in some countries."
"To help European construction evolve in a way that unites, not divides, we cannot afford that the crisis in the euro zone brings us ... the risk of conflicts between the virtuous North and an allegedly vicious South," he told a conference in Rome.
The speech could be interpreted as a thinly veiled attack on Germany, which has routinely blocked market-friendly approaches, such as European Central Bank (ECB) intervention or discussions of collectively-issued eurobonds.