In a two-faced euro zone, financial conditions ease as joblessness rises


BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - NOVEMBER 17: A sculpture stands in front of a flag of the European Union at one of the buildings of the European Commission on November 17, 2011 in Brussels, Belgium. Eurozone member countries are continuing to struggle with a debt crisis afflicting a widening circle of nations as the rest of the world fears economic repurcussions. (Sean Gallup/GETTY IMAGES)

Money is returning to the euro zone. Jobs aren’t.

That’s the conflicting message of a pair of reports on Friday that show why Europe is less of a threat to the world financial system than it was last year but is still no less of a drag on the global economy.

The money returning to the currency union is in the form of short-term investments by U.S. money market funds — often an important supply of dollars and short-term funding for European banks.

When the big U.S. funds fled Europe in 2011, they intensified the problems faced by euro-zone banks and heightened the sense that a crack-up of the euro zone was not just possible but even likely.

Fitch Ratings reported Friday that the top 10 U.S. money-market funds — the large pools of cash used as play-it-safe investments and money management tools — have nearly doubled their euro-zone holdings since hitting a low last summer.

Euro-zone banks now account for 14.5 percent of top fund holdings, or nearly $100 billion, according to Fitch’s research. The 10 firms analyzed by Fitch represent about 45 percent of the roughly $1.5 trillion U.S. money-market pool.

The turnaround in money-market investments in Europe is part of a general easing of the region’s financial crisis. Though the confused results of a recent Italian election were a reminder that problems could worsen again if governments are unable to deliver on promised steps to control debt and revive economic growth, the region has stepped back from what seemed a looming breakup.

What hasn’t yet turned around is the real economy, which remains in a recession. The Eurostat statistical agency reported on Friday that unemployment in the 17-nation currency zone rose again in January, to 11.9 percent, compared with 11.8 percent in December and 10.8 percent a year ago.

Joblessness in the larger 27-nation European Union also rose a comparable amount, to 10.8 percent compared with 10.7 percent in December.

The figures mask a vast discrepancy among countries, from the low of 4.9 percent unemployment enjoyed in Austria to 26 percent in Spain and 27 percent in beleaguered Greece.

Officially, the region is in recession, meaning a major pillar of the world economy is contracting — making for more sluggish growth all around.

Euro-zone officials and other forecasters expect growth to resume later this year. But recent estimates have also warned of a possibly more protracted downturn and of little expectation that unemployment will fall fast.

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