Europe’s Stagnating Economy Falls Further Behind the U.S.
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Europe’s Stagnating Economy Falls Further Behind the U.S.

Thanks to robust growth and its relative insulation from geopolitical crisis, the U.S. economy has left Europe behind

By PAUL HANNON and Yuka Hayashi
Wed, Jan 31, 2024 8:38amGrey Clock 4 min

Europe’s economy stagnated in the final three months of last year, expanding a divide between a booming U.S. economy and a European continent that is increasingly left behind.

The fresh economic data showed higher borrowing costs had compounded the earlier impact of higher energy prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

By contrast, the U.S. economy has been expanding robustly and enjoyed its strongest performance relative to the eurozone since 2013—with the exception of the Covid-19 pandemic.

One factor that is threatening to weigh further on the European economy is its proximity to geopolitical flashpoints. Russia’s war on Ukraine sent energy prices rocketing in 2022, hitting European manufacturers. The U.S., as an energy producer, was comparatively unaffected, and its natural-gas industry even benefited when it became Europe’s energy supplier of last resort after Russia throttled gas deliveries to the region.

Now the crisis in the Middle East, which has gummed up cargo traffic through the Red Sea, is adding costs to European importers and disrupting European supply chains. There too, the U.S. hasn’t suffered as much since it has alternative routes for goods coming from Asia.

Europe’s Stoxx 600 index rose 12.64% last year, a little over half the performance of the S&P 500, which rose 24.23% over the same period.

The European Union’s statistics agency Tuesday said gross domestic product in the eurozone was unchanged in the final three months of last year. That followed a decline in the three months through September. During 2023 as a whole, Eurostat recorded growth of just 0.5%, while the U.S. economy expanded by 2.5%.

Still, the divergence between the giant economic blocs is more a story of surprising U.S. strength than unanticipated weakness in the eurozone. The U.S. grew much faster than economists had expected it would at the start of 2023, while the eurozone was about as badly hit by high energy prices and rising interest rates as had been expected. Economists forecast the growth gap will narrow somewhat in the course of the year.

Europe’s policymakers don’t expect the stagnation in output to extend deep into 2024. Instead, they see a pickup in activity as wages rise faster than prices, reversing the declines in real incomes that followed the war in Ukraine and a rise in energy and food bills.

“We have the conditions for recovery that are coming into place,” said European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde Thursday. “I’m not suggesting that it’s going to pick up radically, but it’s coming into place from what we see.”

Helping Europe is the fact that energy prices are falling from post-invasion highs faster than policymakers had expected. That should help boost household spending on other goods and services and lower costs for Europe’s hard-pressed factories.

With inflation easing, the ECB is expected to lower its key interest rate later this year, which would also jolt growth by easing the pressure on household spending and business investment.

Yet the eurozone faces fresh threats too, mainly from the conflict that began with the attack on Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7. Disruptions to shipping in the Red Sea have pushed freight costs sharply higher and led to delays for European manufacturers that rely on Asian suppliers for parts. A further escalation of the conflict could reverse the decline in energy costs and stall the anticipated recovery.

The International Monetary Fund now expects the eurozone to grow by 0.9% this year, a downgrade from its previous 1.2% growth estimate, according to the Fund’s quarterly World Economic Outlook report published on Tuesday. By contrast, it sees the U.S. growing by 2.1% against its earlier 1.5% forecast.

Strong U.S. growth and an estimated 4.6% increase in China’s GDP according to the IMF should more than offset Europe’s disappointing performance and translate into a soft landing for the world economy this year. The IMF now sees the world economy growing at 3.1% this year, the same rate as last year and faster than the 2.9% growth projected in October.

“We find that the global economy continues to display remarkable resilience,” Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, IMF Chief Economist, told reporters, pointing to the speed at which inflation had receded as a positive surprise.

He warned, however, that geopolitical distortions could reignite price increases. Core inflation—which excludes volatile energy and food prices—isn’t quite back to the pre pandemic trend, particularly for services sector prices, he said.

IMF economists also cautioned that financial markets have been overly optimistic in anticipating early rate cuts by central banks. They project policy interest rates to remain at current levels for the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England until the second half of 2024, before gradually declining as inflation moves closer to targets. Some investors and analysts expect a Federal Reserve rate cut in the first half of this year.

Back in Europe, Tuesday’s GDP data showed Germany was the weakest of Europe’s large economies at the end of last year, with output falling in the final quarter. However, revised figures showed it avoided a contraction in the three months through September.

“The economy remains stuck in the twilight zone between recession and stagnation,” said Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING Bank.

While Italy’s economy expanded slightly, the French economy flatlined for the second straight quarter. Ireland, which had been a major source of growth for the eurozone over the previous decade, saw its GDP fall by 1.9% in 2023 as a pandemic-driven boom in its key pharmaceutical industry ended.

In a rare bright spot, Spain finished the year with another strong quarter and matched the U.S. growth rate over 2023 as a whole, thanks to a surge in international tourism as the last of the Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.



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Is the Stock Market Near Its Top?

Don’t let the hum of the bull tune out signs warning that a bear may be lurking.

By ANDY KESSLER
Mon, Jul 15, 2024 3 min

The third season of the terrific show “The Bear” blends family dysfunction with the ups and downs of high-end restaurants. With markets chasing new highs—get out those Dow 40000 hats—this column is about a different kind of dysfunctional beast. Is the market bear dead, or is it about to sneak up on us?

A U.S. equity strategist told me the story of a Japanese portfolio manager who sat in his office in July 1987 asking for stock ideas. The strategist’s model was based on a proprietary survey of investor sentiment, though it never really worked. Nonetheless, he read off a list of dozens of stocks. The portfolio manager then asked if he would kindly put in an order for 20,000 shares of each. The Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked at 2722 in late August and crashed 22.6% on Oct. 19.

A friend was a portfolio manager of a massive growth-stock fund in 1999. He told me he bought shares of Yahoo, Cisco, F5 Networks, Infosys and others every day because money flowed into his fund every day. The tech-heavy Nasdaq index peaked on March 10, 2000. As money began to flow out, he had to sell every day. By year’s end, Nasdaq had fallen by more than half.

I met Cathie Wood as she was filing papers for her “disruptive innovation” funds—to “change the way the world works.” Her ARK Innovation exchange-traded fund, ARKK, launched in October 2014 and charges 0.75% management fees. In 2020 it was up 153% as stimulus money flew in, driving more buying. ARKK peaked in February 2021 with $28 billion in assets. Since then, its net asset value is down 70%, even amid a roaring bull market, especially in tech. Morningstar recently calculated that Ms. Wood’s Ark Invest funds have destroyed more than $14 billion in wealth. One of my favorite Wall Street sayings is, “Don’t mistake a bull market for brains.”

In almost every bull run, stock momentum lures in investors at the worst moment, I call them momos, ensuring they get burned when the buying stops. Since 2009, excepting a few brief sell-offs, cash has been trash. That made some sense during the era of zero interest rates. But now with higher inflation and short rates above 5%? Confusing. Maybe investors are already anticipating another Donald Trump antiregulation pro-growth presidency, forgetting that he is married to a growth-killing pro-tariff agenda. Is the bear dead, or does it have a long fuse?

Predicting stock markets is a fool’s errand. My Series 7 test for General Securities Representative Qualification lapsed long ago, so you won’t get investment advice from me. But there are warning signs.

Have we run out of buyers? Sometimes there are triggers that scare them away: oil shocks, viruses, bank failures. But sometimes they simply collapse from exhaustion. More than 40% of households reportedly own stocks—a higher percentage than in 2000. It was 20% in 2010. Some market indicators also point to asset managers being fully invested. Who’s left to buy?

Market breadth is concerning. The 1973 market peak was driven by stretched valuations of the Nifty Fifty, which included IBM , Coca-Cola and GE but also Polaroid and Xerox . Fifty? Now it’s the Magnificent Seven: Alphabet , Amazon , Apple , Meta , Microsoft , Nvidia and Tesla . Seven? Artificial-intelligence hype, way ahead of even the rosiest of realities, drove Nvidia to make up almost a third of the S&P 500’s first half gains. Another quarter came from Amazon, Meta, Microsoft and Eli Lilly . Maybe fat bulls need Mounjaro.

Stock values feel divorced from reality. The so-called Warren Buffett indicator—the ratio between total stock-market value and gross domestic product—was 138% in March 2000. It’s now 196%. Certainly not a buy signal. And Bitcoin, my go-to bubblicious bat signal, is down about 20% since March. A dead canary?

“Don’t worry, be happy,” the bulls sing. Inflation is slain, and the Fed will cut rates. But investors won’t like the reason for those cuts. We’re already seeing earnings disasters—Nike, Walgreens , Lululemon , Delta and Wells Fargo . If the economy slows, earnings glitches and stock implosions become contagious. Plus, banks’ exposure to commercial real estate is scary, with buildings being dumped at huge haircuts almost weekly. This is now infecting rental buildings, and there are signs of a private housing glut. Inventory in Denver is up nearly 37%. Sure, markets climb a “wall of worry,” and bull markets tend to last longer than people expect, but sometimes the nightmares are real. Recessions are like honey to bears.

Even writing about the bear is bullish. Bull runs end when everyone is a believer. Still, another favorite saying of mine is, “No one’s ever lost money taking a profit.” Someday, cash will be king again. I prefer to buy stocks when everyone hates them.

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