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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

French Business Confidence and Consumer Spending Rise In May

French business confidence rose for the second month in May as record low interest rates and falling inflation appeared to be encouraging French consumers to start shopping again.. The Insee sentiment index - based on a survey among 4,000 manufacturers rose to 72 from 71 in April.

Consumer confidence also rose to a 13-month high, according to a separate gauge of consumer sentiment published today - it was up at minus 40, from minus 41 in April. The level is still, however, not far off historic lows.

French consumer spending increased in April as government incentives boosted car sales and slowing inflation helped cushion France's worst recession since World War II. Spending on manufactured goods rose 0.7 percent from March, when it climbed a revised 0.6 percent, according to the national statistics office Insee. The government offered a 1,000-euro car-scrapping incentive in December for buyers who junk old vehicles. Car sales climbed 3.7 percent last month, today’s report showed.

France's inflation rate fell to the lowest in at least 13 years in April. However, the number of jobseekers surged to 2.45 million in March, the highest in almost three months, and the government predicts a further increase as employers fire workers to survive the economic slump. France’s economy entered a recession in the third quarter and shrank 1.5 percent and 1.2 percent in the following two quarters, prompting the government last week to predict gross domestic product will fall 3 percent this year.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Eurozone May PMI Improves

Well the eurozone outlook is certainly deteriorating less rapidly at this point, as attested to in the May flash PMIs - which show the pace of economic contraction slowing markedly. Purchasing managers’ indices for the 16-country euro area jumped rose significantly this month, and hit their highest level for eight months. It is important to bear in mind that the index still registered contracting economic activity, but the rate of decline fell for a third consecutive month. Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, which compiles the purchasing managers’ indices, said the latest readings were consistent with second quarter GDP falling about 0.5 per cent quarter on quarter, or by a 2% annual rate, well down from the 2.5% quarter on quarter reading (or 10% annual rate) registered in the first three months. Still, we are still in the realm of contraction, and Organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and European Central Bank forecast a return to growth only in 2010.

The eurozone economies, especially the export-led German economy, proved particularly vulnerable to the collapse in global demand after the failure of Lehman Brothers investment bank. Hopes of a recovery are based on signs that companies have run down inventories and will need to step up production to meet orders. And this, it is true, will give a short-term uplift to output (which is what we are seeing), but for this to translate into renewed expansion, the demand for inventory renewal has to provoke an increase in investment to fuel what is perceived as a future increase in demand, and it is far from clear that we are seeing this at this stage.

We do not have detailed data for Q1 GDP for the eurozone economies yet, but if we look at the evidence from Japan, investment activity slumped massively in the first three months, and there is no reason why the situation should be very different in Europe. Business investment was down a record 10.4 percent year on year in the first three months, and a massive 35.5% over the last quarter.

However, eurozone economic activity will continue to come under pressure in the months to come as the impact of the sharp contraction in activity feeds through into the labour market. And companies are likely to keep cutting spending because the decline in external demand has left factories operating well below capacity level, and semi-idle workforces can only be retained for so long. Markit said that the pace of job losses had eased this month – but only slightly compared with the record pace reported in April.

May’s eurozone “composite” index, covering manufacturing and services, stood at 43.9 in May, up from 41.1 in April, the highest since September.

The flash reading only gives details for two of the euro area's big four. The rate of decline in Germany's private sector eased to its slowest in seven months in May, and the composite index rose to 44.4 from 40.1 in April, suggesting the contraction in the second quarter will be much slower than the 3.8% slump (15.2% annualised) in the first. Markit estimated that we may be looking at something like a 0.6 decline (-2.4% annualised). The outcome may be a bit worse than this, but still a significant improvement seem certain.

The German manufacturing PMI index rose to 39.1 from 35.4 in April, while the services sector index rose to 46.0 from 43.8. The manufacturing index was dragged down by major job losses in the sector, and according to Markit "Manufacturing employment in Germany is falling at a far, far faster rate still than services...Manufacturing has really been hammered even though there was some easing in the rate of job losses in May."

The French services PMI was up at 47.6 in May from 46.5 in April, while the manufacturing sector also rose to an above expected level of 43.1 from 40.1.

At the same time it would be very premature to draw the conclusion that we are out of the woods yet. The euro hit 1:40 to the dollar on Friday, and with this level it is hard to see how German exports are going to stage a recovery with currencies like the Swedish Krona and the UK pound down something like 20% over the last year, and German companies now having to look beyond the eurzone to find customers.