Europe’s households are still not spending

  • Retail
  • Friday, 12 Jun 2020

Cautious people: A file picture showing customers in a coffee shop in Athens. Surveys show little sign that people are ready to splurge just yet amid spiralling unemployment and the threat of a second wave of infections. — Reuters

BERLIN: Europe’s economy risks losing out on a massive dose of stimulus from its consumers.

Households have stashed away hundreds of billions of euros in their bank accounts under lockdown.

And even though shops in many countries have reopened, surveys show little sign that people are ready to splurge just yet amid spiralling unemployment and the threat of a second wave of infections.

That raises the risk that Europe’s recovery will be anemic, with underwhelming impetus from domestic demand.

“Some of the latest savings are going to be spent, and we are already seeing some pockets of it, ” said Gilles Moec, chief economist at AXA in London, citing a strong recovery in restaurant bookings in countries such as Germany. “Are we going to go back to original saving ratios? No, I’m actually quite worried here.”

Household deposits in the eurozone’s four largest economies jumped more than €100bil (US$114bil) in March and April, three times as much as the average pace of growth over the past decade.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than half of the European economy, is crucial for the recovery. It was responsible for some two thirds of the first-quarter contraction.

France, Italy and Spain, where the coronavirus has claimed more than 90,000 lives, have seen steep increases in the annual growth rate of household deposits. Germany, which was more successful in containing the disease, didn’t see any unusual spikes.

UK savers added a record amount to their bank accounts in March and April.

Much like anywhere else in Europe, they’re likely to be hesitant to release most of the money as long as the virus isn’t contained. More than 40,000 are dead in Britain as a result of Covid-19.

Bloomberg Economics predicts British household savings will increase sharply in the second quarter.

“But it’s how much saving drops in subsequent quarters that will be key to the pace of the recovery, ” said BE’s Dan Hanson. “It’s possible that concerns about future job and income prospects prompt households to remain cautious and maintain a higher saving buffer.”

While higher savings during crises aren’t an unusual phenomenon – the euro area’s savings rate spiked in 2009 before retreating – this time could be different.

The European Commission has warned that consumers might continue to stash away a larger-than-usual share of their income for some time.

European Central Bank chief economist Philip Lane argued last month that it was “plausible that the precautionary motive will remain significant so long as virus-related uncertainty persists.”

This caution and the fact that a vaccine might not be available until the middle of next year is reflected in the ECB’s most recent economic forecasts. They show that private consumption in the euro area should rebound in the second quarter as restrictions are lifted, but will only surpass its pre-pandemic level in 2022.

The economy is expected to shrink 8.7% in 2020 before growing 5.2% and 3.3% respectively in the subsequent two years.

Unemployment will be a big factor determining future spending. While some countries have seen record layoffs, government-sponsored furlough schemes have suppressed a larger spike in the euro-area jobless rate.

That could change in the coming months. Some major European companies including German airline Lufthansa or French carmaker Renault have already announced sweeping job cuts in response to slumping demand.

Sales-tax cuts, payouts for families with children and subsidies for purchases of cleaner cars are among the incentives governments are banking on to encourage consumers to spend the money they have kept.

Releasing “savings would add this extra fuel as the recovery gathers steam, ” said Dirk Schumacher, an economist at Natixis here.

“It will have to kick in for the recovery to sustain momentum.” — Bloomberg

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