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IMF: Euro region at a high risk of stagnation

Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), attends a news conference in Frankfurt, Germany, on Thursday. Draghi promised last summer to do “whatever it takes” to keep the euro zone together. (Ralph Orlowski/Bloomberg)

A year after the European Central Bank doused the risk of a euro-zone breakup, bank lending continues to collapse, unemployment is still increasing, and signs of recovery remain “elusive,” the International Monetary Fund reported Thursday in a sobering new analysis of the currency union.

The IMF, which has loaned massive amounts of its own money to bail out euro-zone nations and keep the monetary union intact, portrayed the group of countries as at a “high risk of stagnation,” with few short-term options for turning their economies around.

The combined debt of households, companies and governments has barely budged from recent peak levels, constraining them from borrowing to buy or invest. Banks, stung by losses on government bonds in places like Greece, have retreated behind national borders and remain hesitant to lend to one another or take risks in other nations. Political momentum for reform has slowed, with major projects like a banking union half-finished.

ECB head Mario Draghi promised last summer to do “whatever it takes” to keep the euro zone together. With the risk of a larger collapse averted, it was hoped that politicians, banks and entrepreneurs could fix some of the region’s other problems — from misaligned wages and prices to a financial market that is fragmented along national lines.

Some of that has happened, said IMF euro-zone mission chief Mahmood Pradhan. But it has moved far more slowly than expected and has left the region vulnerable if the world economy slows further. “Relative to a year ago, it looks weaker,” Pradhan said.

“This is a depression,” Carl Weinberg, chief economist at the High Frequency Economics consulting firm, wrote after data showed another monthly drop in euro-zone bank lending — the 18th monthly drop in the past 21 months. “The contraction of credit is a death sentence.”

The weak performance in the euro region is a global concern. At its worst, the crisis threatened to pull down banks worldwide and perhaps tip the global economy back into recession. That danger has largely passed.

What has replaced it, however, is the recognition that one of the world’s major industrial regions — an economy comparable to that of the United States — may be facing years or more of slow or no growth. That has been showing up in depressed exports from China and the United States and has led the IMF to explicitly warn of the possible fallout from rising social and political tension.

Perhaps most telling, the analysis released Thursday shows euro-zone unemployment rising for at least another year, to 12.4 percent regionwide in 2014 — with rates double that in stressed nations such as Greece and Spain.

On the whole, the euro-zone gross domestic product is expected to expand slightly by the end of this year. But just barely. The IMF expects euro region gross domestic product to increase 0.3 percentage points in the final quarter of the year compared with 2012. For 2014 as a whole, growth of 0.9 percent is forecast.

That is not only weak, it also masks the continued wide divergence in outcomes among the euro countries, with some nations likely to remain in recession and some growing at a faster pace. The gap in performance — between Germany’s globally competitive export sector and the stalled economies of southern Europe — is one of the region’s chief problems.

Because the remedies are so long term — changes in local laws, international treaties, banking rules and investment patterns — the IMF said it may take newly aggressive action from the ECB to get the region out of its current doldrums.

Specifically, the IMF suggested that the ECB find ways to encourage lending to small businesses — agreeing, for example, to buy securities that bundle those loans together, similar to the asset purchases that central banks in the United States and United Kingdom have used to bolster parts of their economy.



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