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Factory output expanded at a record pace in April, helped by investment spending associated with the export effort, and overseas demand for European capital equipment, and the trend appears to be continuing. The major beneficiary has been Germany, but other northern member countries are also involved.
However the situation is much less encouraging in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, because they are less competitive in export markets, and are being forced to introduce austerity measures to reduce their fiscal deficits.
Domestic demand across the entire euro-zone remains weak, and so, despite the export performance of some member countries, it seems unlikely that the overall growth rate for the zone this year will reach 2%. The European Central Bank remains reasonably optimistic about prospects; but fortunately it has not moved towards an “exit strategy” that might involve reversing the measures that were introduced to counter the recession.
Short-term interest rates have been left unchanged and close to zero, the programme to provide unlimited three-month loans to the banking system is continuing, and the bank is also still intervening in the markets to buy the bonds of weaker member countries that had been sold heavily because of fears about debt defaults. The bank is therefore continuing to provide support for the system; but it is not really doing enough to offset the concerns about the debt crisis.
Greece remains in the eye of the storm; but there have been increasing concerns about the situation in Spain; and the situation has been made worse by the latest warning from the Fitch Ratings agency that it may take further massive asset purchases by the European Central Bank to prevent the sovereign debt crisis in the area escalating out of control.
Shaw Capital Management August 2010: Financial Markets Focusing Europe – There are fears that Spain will need to follow Greece in requesting help from other member countries and the IMF to enable it to avoid a default, and that Portugal, and perhaps even Italy, may also need to be rescued.
The pressures on the euro will therefore be intense; and whilst there may well be further support from the Swiss National Bank and others, the future of the single currency system clearly remains very uncertain. The latest modest rally in the euro must therefore be treated with great care.
Sterling has recovered from the weakness that developed in May, and is ending the month higher. The economic background in the UK has not provided any real support, and the Bank of England is clearly intending to maintain short-term interest rates at very low levels; but there has been some movement of funds out of the euro into sterling, and the new coalition government in the UK has introduced measures to reduce the massive fiscal deficit that have been well received in the markets and led to an improvement in sentiment.
There is clearly a risk that these latest measures in the Budget will depress the level of activity still further, and fail to solve the fiscal problems; but for the moment it seems that the new government is being given the benefit of the doubt.
The evidence on the performance of the economy ahead of the Budget announcement was still pointing to a very slow recovery in activity.
The manufacturing sector is reasonably buoyant, with exports expanding rapidly; and retail sales also increased more quickly than expected.
But unemployment rose again to 2.47 million, and the latest survey from the CBI indicated that the value and volume of business in the services sector fell, and that further weakness was expected in the second half of the year.
However the situation has obviously been changed significantly by the latest Budget measures, and the latest estimates from the newly-formed Office for Budget Responsibility are that growth will now only be 1.2% this year, rising to 2.3% next year, and improving slightly in succeeding years.
The Bank of England has welcomed the decision by the new government to introduce measures to address the problems created by the huge fiscal deficit. The governor, Mervyn King, argued recently that they would “eliminate some of the downside risks…and are desirable to remove the risk of an adverse market reaction.”