Just a few months ago the euro zone’s leaders believed that, having weathered the storm, they were set fair at last. Buoyed by the promise of Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, to do “whatever it takes” to support the currency, confidence had seeped back into the continent. Growth seemed to be returning, albeit at a slow pace. Troubled peripheral countries were recovering, after bail-outs and painful measures to cut budget deficits and improve competitiveness. Unemployment, especially among the young, was still desperately high, but at least in most countries it was falling. And bond spreads had narrowed sharply, as financial markets stopped betting that the euro would fall apart.
It was an illusion. In recent weeks the countries of the euro zone have begun to take in water once again. Their collective GDP stagnated in the second quarter: Italy fell back into outright recession, French GDP was flat and even mighty Germany saw an unexpectedly large fall in output (see article). The third quarter looks pretty unhealthy, partly because the euro zone will suffer an extra drag from Western sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, inflation has fallen perilously low, to around 0.4%, far below the near-2% target of the European Central Bank, raising fears that the zone as a whole could fall prey to entrenched deflation. German bond yields are hovering below 1%, another harbinger of falling prices. The euro zone stands (or wobbles) in stark contrast with America and Britain, whose economies are enjoying sustained growth.
What started more than four years ago as a banking and sovereign-debt crisis has decayed into a growth crisis that is now enveloping the three biggest economies. Germany is teetering on the edge of recession. France is mired in stagnation. Italy’s GDP is barely above its level when the single currency came in 15 years ago. Since these three countries account for two-thirds of euro-zone GDP, growth in places like Spain and the Netherlands cannot make up for their torpor.