Economic confidence has fallen again in the eurozone, official figures showed on Thursday, in another sign that the recovery is grinding to a halt in the wake of a debt crisis that has raised questions about the future of the euro currency.
The decline in confidence is likely to pile the pressure on the European Central Bank to reverse its course and start cutting interest rates, if not in October, then in November when Italy’s Mario Draghi will have replaced the current head Jean-Claude Trichet.
In its monthly survey of economic conditions around the 17 countries that use the euro, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission said confidence fell further in September following the previous month’s precipitous collapse. Its economic sentiment indicator stands at 95, against August’s 98.4, and is below the long-run average. The last time it was lower was in December 2009.
The Commission said the decrease reflected broad-based declines in sentiment, but that industry and services suffered the worst. Among the 17 countries that use the euro, the Commission said Germany was the only country where confidence was above the long-run average.
“September’s fall in the EC measure of business and consumer sentiment adds to evidence that the eurozone economy may be on the brink of recession,” said Ben May, European economist at Capital Economics.
May said the survey points to a slowdown in the annual rate of growth in the eurozone to around zero per cent, a sharp turnaround from earlier in the year when the single currency zone was posting stronger growth than even the US, as Germany in particular powered ahead on the back of a rebound in global trade volumes.
Following a run of bad economic data, the European Central Bank is facing mounting calls to cut its main interest rate from 1.5 per cent. As recently as July, the bank raised borrowing costs despite the debt crisis afflicting the eurozone.
For the wider 27-nation EU, which also includes non-euro members such as Britain and Sweden, economic sentiment declined, too. The EU indicator fell to 94 in September from the previous month’s 97.4.
Ratings agency Fitch warned on Thursday that France’s banks could see their credit worthiness downgraded because of fears over their exposure to eurozone members’ risky sovereign debt. The entire eurozone is under pressure over the debt crisis in its weaker members, but French lenders are seen as particularly overexposed to massive debts in Greece, Spain and Italy.
“Concerns about French banks are mostly centred on their exposure to southern European countries,” Fitch said in a statement.
“French banks have the most cross-border sovereign and non-sovereign exposure to Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain,” it said.
“While exposure to Greece, Ireland and Portugal is modest, inclusion of Spain and, in particular Italy, significantly increases the totals.” European policymakers are desperately trying to contain the Greek debt crisis, through an expanded bailout fund, in order to prevent the threat of default spreading to the much larger Spanish and Italian economies.
Fitch noted that the French government has been publicly resisting pressure to spend taxpayers’ cash in recapitalising at-risk banks, and warned that this may prove necessary.
Italy’s public deficit climbed to 3.2 per cent of the gross domestic product in the second quarter, compared to 2.5 per cent a year earlier, according to official figures released Thursday.
This brings it slightly over the European Union ceiling of 3.0 per cent of GDP for public deficits on budgets by the central state, welfare systems and local authorities.
In the first six months of the year, the public deficit had dropped by 0.1 per cent to 5.3 per cent, the National Institute of Statistics ISTAT said.