Growth rates for the EU and the euro area beat expectations in 2017 to reach a 10-year high at 2.4%. Growth is set to remain strong in 2018 and ease only slightly in 2019, with growth of 2.3% and 2.0% respectively in both the EU and the euro area.
Private consumption remains strong, while exports and investment have increased. Unemployment continues to fall and is now around pre-crisis levels. However, the economy is more exposed to external risk factors, which have strengthened and become more negative.
Robust growth is facilitating a further reduction in government deficit and debt levels and an improvement in labour market conditions. The aggregate deficit for the euro area is now less than 1% of GDP and is forecast to fall under 3% in all euro area Member States this year.
Valdis Dombrovskis, Vice-President for the Euro and Social Dialogue, also in charge of Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union, said:”The economic expansion in Europe is set to continue at a solid pace this year and next, supporting further job creation. However, we also see increased risks on the horizon. This is why we should use the current good times to make our economies more resilient. This means building fiscal buffers, reforming our economies to foster productivity and investment, and making our growth model more inclusive. It also means strengthening the foundations of our Economic and Monetary Union.”
Pierre Moscovici, Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs, said: “Europe continues to enjoy robust growth, which has helped drive unemployment to a ten-year low. Investment is rising and public finances are improving, with the deficit in the euro area set to drop to just 0.7% of GDP this year. The biggest risk to this rosy outlook is protectionism, which must not become the new normal: that would only hurt those of our citizens we most need to protect.”
Growth to remain strong, but pace to ease slightly
In 2017, real GDP growth reached 2.4% in the EU and in the euro area as the economy moved into higher gear. Growth was supported by high consumer and business confidence, stronger global growth, low financing costs, healthier private sector balance sheets and brighter labour market conditions. While short-term indicators suggest a cooling of activity in early 2018, this looks likely to be partly temporary.
The pace of growth is expected to remain robust on the back of sustained consumption and strong exports and investment. Both the EU and the euro area are forecast to grow by 2.3% this year. Growth in both areas is projected to ease to 2.0% in 2019 as bottlenecks become more apparent in some countries and sectors, monetary policy is adjusted to circumstances and global trade growth calms somewhat.
With employment at a record high, some labour markets are getting tight
Unemployment continues to fall and is now around pre-crisis levels. In the EU, unemployment is set to continue to decline, from 7.6% in 2017 to 7.1% in 2018 and 6.7% in 2019. Unemployment in the euro area is forecast to fall from 9.1% in 2017 to 8.4% in 2018 and 7.9% in 2019.
The number of people in work in the euro area is now at its highest since the introduction of the euro, but some labour-market slack remains in the euro area. While in certain Member States unemployment is still high, in others, job vacancies are already getting harder to fill.
Inflation to rise slowly, as underlying pressures strengthen
Consumer price inflation weakened in the first quarter of this year, but is expected to pick up slightly in the coming quarters, partly due to oil prices that have recently increased. Underlying price pressures are also building as a result of tighter labour markets and faster wage growth in many Member States. Overall, inflation in the euro area is forecast to remain the same in 2018 as in 2017 at 1.5% and then rise to 1.6% in 2019. In the EU, the same pattern is expected, but with inflation forecast to continue at 1.7% this year before rising to 1.8% in 2019.
Public finances improving, with no deficits over 3% of GDP
The aggregate euro area government budget deficit and public debt both fell as percentages of GDP in 2017, helped by strong economic growth and low interest rates. With Member States’ budgets benefitting from the effects of improving labour market conditions, including through lower social benefit payments, 2018 is set to be the first year since the start of the Economic and Monetary Union in which all governments manage budget deficits of less than 3% of GDP, as referred to in the Treaty.
The aggregate general government deficit of the euro area is now forecast to fall to 0.7% of GDP in 2018 and 0.6% in 2019. In the EU, the aggregate deficit is forecast to be at 0.8% in 2018 and 2019. The euro area’s debt-to-GDP ratio is forecast to fall to 84.1% in 2019, with declines projected for almost all Member States.
Risks to the outlook have increased and become more negative
Overall, the risks to the forecast have risen and are now tilted to the downside. In Europe, recent indicators have reduced the likelihood that growth in Europe might turn out stronger than expected in the near term. Externally, the financial market volatility experienced in recent months is likely to become a more permanent feature in the future, which will add to uncertainty. Pro-cyclical fiscal stimulus in the US is expected to boost short-term growth, but to raise the risk of overheating and the possibility that US interest rates rise faster than currently assumed. Also, an escalation of trade protectionism presents an unambiguously negative risk to the global economic outlook. These risks are interrelated. Due to its openness, the euro area would be particularly vulnerable to their materialisation.
For the United Kingdom, a purely technical assumption for 2019
To allow for a comparison over time, the projections for the EU for 2019 contained in the forecast consist of projections for all 28 Member States, including the United Kingdom.
Given the ongoing negotiations on the terms of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU, the Commission’s projections for the time after Brexit are based on a purely technical assumption of status quo in terms of trading relations between the EU27 and the UK. This is for forecasting purposes only and has no bearing on the talks underway in the context of the Article 50 process.
This forecast is based on a set of technical assumptions concerning exchange rates, interest rates and commodity prices with a cut-off date of 23 April. For all other incoming data, including assumptions about government policies, this forecast takes into consideration information up until and including 23 April. Unless policies are credibly announced and specified in adequate detail, the projections assume no policy changes.
This year, the European Commission has reverted to publishing two comprehensive forecasts (spring and autumn) and two interim forecasts (winter and summer) each year, instead of the three comprehensive forecasts in winter, spring and autumn that it has produced each year since 2012. The interim forecasts cover annual and quarterly GDP and inflation for the current year and following years for all Member States and the euro area, as well as EU aggregates. This change is a return to the Commission’s previous pattern of forecasts and brings the Commission’s forecast schedule back into line with those of other institutions (e.g. the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
COVID-19 crisis highlights widening regional disparities in healthcare and the economy
The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on people and economies has highlighted widening regional disparities in access to healthcare and economic growth and persistent disparities in digitalisation over the past decade, according to a new OECD report.
Regions and Cities at a Glance 2020 says that at the onset of the pandemic, some regions were less well prepared to face the health emergency. With 10 beds for every 1000 inhabitants, regions close to metropolitan areas have almost twice as many beds as remote regions. Over the last decades, most regions in OECD countries have seen a significant reduction in the number of hospital beds available per inhabitant, with an average decline of 6% since 2000 and of 22% in remote areas.
The health impact of COVID-19 has been particularly hard in some areas within countries. For example, in some regions of Colombia, Italy and Spain, the number of deaths between February and June 2020 was at least 50% higher than the average over the same period in the 2 previous years.
Morbidity rates that make some places more vulnerable to health crises than others also vary widely. In some regions in Mexico, Chile and the United States, close to 40% or more of the population is obese, posing a higher risk in terms of fatal diseases. For example, due to higher obesity levels, in Mississippi the average likelihood to suffer severe symptoms if infected with COVID-19 is roughly 23% higher than in Colorado.
People living in large cities and capitals were also more able to quickly shift to remote working. Many rural areas still suffer from a lack of access to high-speed broadband, a lower share of jobs amenable to remote working and a less well-educated workforce. One in three households in rural areas does not have access to high-speed broadband, on average. Overall, only 7 out of 26 countries have succeeded in ensuring access to high-speed connection to more than 80% of households in rural regions. And in some regions in Italy, Portugal and Turkey, 25% or more of the population does not use the Internet or does not have a computer.
Some regions were also struggling economically before the crisis. After a period of decline in the early 2000s, gaps in GDP per capita across small regions in the OECD area have increased, reflecting a long-standing process of concentration of population and economic activities in metropolitan areas.
The evolution of regional economic disparities remains very heterogeneous across countries. Contrary to the OECD-wide trend, one-half of OECD countries experienced an increase in the gap between their richest and poorest regions. Trends in regional productivity follow similar patterns. Since 2008, only one-third of OECD countries have experienced an increase in productivity in all regions.
With more than 100 indicators, Regions and Cities at a Glance 2020 combines official statistics with new, modelled indicators based on less conventional data sources, analysing trends in health, well-being, economic growth, employment and the environment, as well as regions and cities’ preparedness to face global crises and adapt to megatrends.
Cash flow the biggest problem facing business during COVID-19 crisis
A new report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses shows that their greatest challenges have been insufficient cash flow to maintain staff and operations, supplier disruptions and access to raw materials.
With businesses already undergoing significant competitive pressure prior to the crisis, government restrictions, health challenges and the economic fall-out brought by COVID-19 further set back many enterprises.
Interrupted cash flow was the greatest problem, the survey found. More than 85 per cent reported the pandemic had a high or medium financial impact on their operations. Only a third said they had sufficient funding for recovery. Micro and small enterprises (those with 99 employees or fewer) were worst affected.
The survey, carried out by Employers and Business Membership Organizations (EBMOs), involved more than 4,500 enterprises in 45 countries worldwide. EBMOs gathered data from their enterprise members between March and June 2020. The businesses were asked about operational continuity, financial health, and their workforce.
At that time, 78 per cent of those surveyed reported that they had changed their operations to protect them from COVID-19, but three-quarters were able to continue operating in some form despite measures arising from government restrictions. Eighty-five per cent had already implemented measures to protect staff from the virus.
Nearly 80 per cent said they planned to retain their staff – larger companies were more likely to say this. However, around a quarter reported that they anticipated losing more than 40 per cent of their staff.
Looking into the future, preparing for unforeseen circumstances and mitigating risks associated with a disruption of business operations is needed. Fewer than half the enterprises surveyed had a business continuity plan (BCP) when the pandemic hit, with micro and small businesses the least likely to have made such preparations. Additionally, only 26 per cent of the enterprises who responded said they were fully insured and 54 per cent had no coverage at all. Medium-sized enterprises, (those with 100 to 250 employees), were most likely to have full or partial coverage.
Strengthening government support measures for enterprises are also vital for their recovery. Four out of ten enterprises said they had no funding to support business recovery while two-thirds said funding was insufficient. Of the sectors analysed, the tourism and hospitality sector, followed by retail and sales, were most likely to report funding issues.
The report production was facilitated by EBMOs who collected and shared the survey data with the Bureau for Employers’ Activities (ACT/EMP) at the International Labour Organization. ACT/EMP is a specialized unit within the ILO Secretariat that maintains close and direct relations with employers’ constituents.
Lithuania: COVID-19 crisis reinforces the need for reforms to drive growth and reduce inequality
Effective containment measures, a well-functioning health system and swift public support to firms and households have helped Lithuania to weather the COVID-19 crisis to date. That said, the pandemic still carries significant economic risks, and the recent upsurge in infections is very concerning. Once a recovery is under way, Lithuania should aim to reform public companies, strengthen public finances, and ensure that growth benefits all people and regions, according to a new OECD report.
The OECD’s latest Economic Survey of Lithuania says that prior to COVID-19, good economic management and an investment-friendly business climate were helping to lift average Lithuanian incomes closer to advanced country levels. While the recession provoked by the virus has been milder than elsewhere – with GDP projected to drop by 2% in 2020 before rebounding by 2.7% in 2021 – Lithuania’s small and open economy will be vulnerable to any prolonged disruption to world trade. Increasing public investment and improving governance at state-owned enterprises could help lift growth and productivity. Other reforms should focus on improving the effectiveness of spending and taxation. Over the longer term, Lithuania should establish a clear debt reduction path and a long-term debt target.
“Lithuania’s sound economic management of recent years, and its swift response to both the health and economic aspects of the pandemic, are helping the country to weather the COVID-19 crisis,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “It is now key to build on these achievements and restart the reform engine to ensure robust, sustainable and inclusive growth for the future.”
The pandemic has exposed high levels of income inequality in Lithuania, where relative poverty is high among the unemployed, the less educated, single parents and older people due to a tax-benefit system that is insufficiently redistributive. The Survey recommends Lithuania to continue providing temporary support to people and businesses hit by COVID-19, as well as to increase regular social support while retaining incentives to work.
In terms of support to the economy, the Survey notes that while Lithuania’s government spending has increased considerably over the past two years, it remains below the OECD average. Public investment also remains low. Given the importance of modernising infrastructure and stimulating crisis-hit demand, the Survey recommends maintaining or increasing current levels of investment and improving investment quality by carrying out rigorous cost-benefit analysis for individual projects. Increasing investment in rural areas, and giving local government more say in tax policy and spending, could help reduce regional disparities and promote inclusive growth.
The Survey also recommends phasing out environmentally damaging fossil fuel subsidies and increasing environmental taxation, which would benefit public finances while helping the shift to a lower-carbon economy.
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