European economy buckling, Japan falters

LONDON - European business confidence is rapidly unravelling and Japanese exports shrank last month, data showed on Thursday, giving evidence that the credit crisis has shifted from battering bank balance sheets to the world economy.

By (Reuters)

Published: Thu 24 Jul 2008, 6:17 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 12:56 PM

Key measures of business activity and company sentiment across Europe fell more than expected -- in Germany, France and Italy as well as a closely-watched survey of the 15-nation euro zone.

This could not come at a worse time for the European Central Bank, which raised interest rates earlier this month by a quarter percentage point to 4.25 percent to combat inflation that is double its upper limit and set to rise further.

The Ifo institute's gauge of German business sentiment, based on a survey of about 7,000 companies, suffered its biggest fall since soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. It dropped to 97.5 in July from 101.2 in June, and was weaker than the 100.0 economists had expected.

Tighter credit conditions and a soaring euro have dragged private sector euro zone services business deeper into contraction, marking the worst performance in five years, according to another survey of 5,000 companies in the euro zone.

The RBS/Markit Eurozone Flash Services Purchasing Managers' index fell to 48.3 in July from 49.1, below expectations of a 48.8 reading and the 50.0 mark dividing growth and contraction.

"If the ECB had the information that has come out it might not have announced a rate hike in July," said Gilles Moec, economist at Bank of America in London. "It confirms that the central bank must tread carefully."

The Ifo data knocked the euro off its lofty perch against the dollar and snapped a six-session losing streak for safe-haven euro zone government bonds, as many people in the market abandoned fears of another ECB rate rise soon.

Japanese recession?

If there were not enough gloom for Europe, British retail sales had their biggest monthly fall on record, plunging 3.9 percent and wiping out an almost equally large surge in sales the month before.

Recession risks are rising in Britain, where the housing market is plunging. A Reuters poll of economists on Wednesday put the probability of recession at a significant 40 percent, double where it was at the start of the year.

Spanish unemployment rose to 10.4 percent in the second quarter, much more than expected, as a reeling construction industry eliminated jobs.

In Scandinavia, Danish consumer confidence plunged much more than consensus forecasts to a 16-year low while Swedish unemployment staged an unexpectedly large spike to 8.1 percent in June from 5.9 percent.

Data on Thursday from the world's second largest economy were also disappointing.

Japanese exports, which are heavily dependent on U.S. demand, shrank in June for the first time in nearly five years and the risk of recession crept up the agenda of global policymakers grappling with surging inflation.

Exports to the United States and the European Union both fell, as did exports to other countries in Asia. That news comes against a backdrop of growing concerns that domestic spending will not be able to carry the torch for the Japanese economy.

Bank of Japan policymaker Atsushi Mizuno, considered by economists to be one of the toughest on inflation, said there was a chance that Japan could slip into a recession although he did not expect a deep one.

The central bank would need to cut its economic growth forecasts if emerging economies slow more, he said, admitting that he had not anticipated the extent of the rise in commodity prices.

Oil prices have been in full retreat over the past week and fell below $125 a barrel on Thursday, partly on worries that global demand is waning.

"If the slowdown in the United States and Europe continues, that will affect Asian economies. Demand from emerging economies alone will not be enough to lead export growth," said Maiko Noguchi, senior economist with Daiwa Securities SMBC in Tokyo.

Earlier on Thursday the Reserve Bank of New Zealand cut its benchmark interest rate to 8.0 percent from 8.25 percent even though inflation is running at the fastest in two years, and said more cuts could be coming.

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