By Jason Simpkins
Powered by the biggest German expansion in 12 years, the European economy shrugged off the U.S. slowdown to post first-quarter growth numbers ahead of analyst estimates.
Germany and France – which together account for nearly half the Euro region's GDP – made the difference. The German economy, the continent's largest, expanded by 1.5% in the first quarter, compared with a growth rate of 0.3% in the final three months of 2007. France also turned in a respectable performance, advancing at a 0.6% clip.
Although the strong growth underscores the global economy's resilience in the face of a sputtering U.S. economy, and appears to justify the European's Central Bank's focus on taming inflation, analysts warn the celebration may not last.
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A key cause for concern: Despite their strong performance, both France and Germany showed signs of declining consumer demand, which is why analysts are skeptical that such stellar growth can continue.
"A Chinese proverb says that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness," Carsten Brzeski, an economist for Dutch finance group ING Groep NV (ADR: ING), told Reuters." However, at the current juncture, one should not be blinded by the German GDP numbers."
Indeed, earlier this month, data from Germany's Federal Statistics Office showed retail sales in March were down 0.1% from February, and down 6.3% from a year earlier. Food, drink, and tobacco sales led the decline, as consumers cut back in the face of soaring inflation. Consumer prices in April jumped 2.4%.
The story is the same for a multitude of other European nations. Eurozone inflation backtracked slightly in the month of April, sliding to 3.3% from a 16-year high of 3.6% in March, but remained well above the ECB's 2.0% ceiling.
"There are significant pressures facing consumers in Europe," Howard Archer, chief European economist at Global Insight Inc., told Forbes.com. "Higher inflation and soaring food prices are weighing down on consumer purchasing power in Europe. It is a depressing factor throughout the continent."
"Consumer confidence is weak in Europe and low spending is bound to hurt the overall economy," he added.
The European Central Bank (ECB) has remained hawkish on inflation, which it considers "the main problem that we have to face in the short term." The ECB has held its benchmark interest rate steady at 4.0% for nearly a year now, despite an aggressive string of rate cuts by the U.S. central bank that has left the benchmark Federal Funds Rate at 2.0%.
Still, rising worldwide commodities prices and a weak U.S. dollar continue to drive up inflation throughout the Euro region.
The European Commission (EC), the executive branch of the European Union, said last month that Eurozone growth would continue to erode throughout 2008 and 2009.
The EC predicted the combined growth rate for the 15 countries that use the euro would slow to 1.7% this year and 1.5% next year. It was second time in six months that the commission has reduced its growth estimate for the region. In November the group was projecting growth of 2.2%.
According to the EC, "the recent sharp rises in food and energy prices have depressed households' purchasing power and consumer spending in the last quarter of 2007 and are expected to continue to do so during most of 2008."
If the Eurozone does lose its momentum in the months ahead, the ECB could find itself in a precarious position, as abiding inflation might keep the bank from cutting rates to spur growth.
"There is definitely no room for the ECB to cut rates," Joerg Kraemer, chief economist at Commerzbank AG (OTC: CRZBY) in Frankfurt told Bloomberg News.
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