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Shaun Richards
What are the economic prospects for France?
1 month ago




This weekend sees the first stage of the French Presidential elections which seem to be uncertain even for these times. A big issue will be economic prospects which will be my subject of today. But before I do let me send my best wishes to the victims of the terrorist attack which took place in Paris last night. If we move back to the economic situation we can say that the background in terms of the Euro area looks the best it has been for a while. From French Statistics.

In Q1 2017 the Eurozone economy is expected to grow at a similar pace as registered at the end of 2016 (+0.4%), then slightly faster in Q2 (+0.5%) before returning to +0.4% in Q3 2017. The main force behind the expansion in aggregate activity should be private consumption which benefits from the increase in disposable income and favourable labour market conditions and despite the upturn in inflation which is eroding household purchasing power. Moreover investment is forecast to strengthen, driven by improved expectations about near term outlook. Also investment in construction should accelerate. Finally, the positive international environment will likely reinforce external demand growth and exports.

As you can see according to them Goldilocks porridge seems pretty much exactly the right temperature as everything is expected to rise.

What about France itself?

 Some perspective

If we look back 2016 was an erratic year where quarterly economic growth was 0.6%,-0.1%,0.2% and then 0.4%. So whilst it began and ended well there was a near recession in the middle. Overall the growth at 1.1% was in fact less than the 1.2% of 2015 and it does pose a question as that is the level of economic growth which has caused such problems in both Italy and Portugal. Indeed if we look back we see that as 2011 opened quarterly economic output was 509 billion Euros whereas in the last quarter of 2016 it had only risen by 4,4% to 531.6 billion Euros ( 2010 prices).

This lack of economic growth has contributed to what is the major economic problem in France right now.

In Q4 2016, the average ILO unemployment rate in metropolitan France and overseas departments stood at 10.0% of active population, after 10.1% in Q3 2016……Among unemployed, 1.2 million were seeking a job for at least one year. The long-term unemployed rate stood at 4.2% of active population in Q4 2016. It decreased by 0.1 percentage points compared to Q3 2016 and Q4 2015.

The fact so long after the credit crunch hit the unemployment rate is still in double-digits albeit only just echoes here. Also there is the issue of underemployment.

In Q4 2016, 6.2% of the employed persons were underemployed, a ratio decreasing by 0.1 percentage points quarter on quarter, and by 0.4 percentage points over a year. Underemployment mainly concerns people who have a part-time job and wish to work more.

Oh and if we return to the unemployment rate actually 10% is only a reduction because the previous quarter was revised higher. We could improve like that forever and remain at the same level!

The next consequence of slow/low economic growth can be found in the public finances.

At the end of 2016, the Maastricht debt accounted for €2,147.2 billion. It rose by €49.2 billion in 2016 after € +60.2 billion in 2015. It reached 96.0% of GDP at the end of 2016, after 95.6% at the end of 2015.

In essence this has risen from 65% pre credit crunch and the combination of an annual fiscal deficit and slow growth has seen it rise. France seems to have settled on an annual fiscal deficit of around the Maastricht criteria of 3% of GDP so to get the relative debt level down you can see how quickly it would need to grow.

What about prospects?

This morning’s business survey from Markit has been very positive.

The Markit Flash France Composite Output Index, based on around 85% of normal monthly survey replies, registered 57.4, compared to March’s reading of 56.8. The latest figure was indicative of the sharpest rate of growth in almost six years.

The idea that elections and indeed referenda weaken economies via uncertainty may need to be contained in Ivory Towers going forwards.

The numbers provide further evidence that the French private sector remains resilient to political uncertainty around the upcoming presidential election. Indeed, business optimism hit a multi-year high in April, with a number of respondents anticipating favourable business conditions following its conclusion.

Even better there was hope of improvement for the labour market.

Moreover, the rate of job creation quickened to a 68-month peak. Both manufacturers and service providers continued to take on additional staff, with the pace of growth sharper at the former.

However a little caution is required as we were told by this survey that there was manufacturing growth in February as the index was 52.2 but the official data told us this.

In February 2017, output diminished for the third month in a row in the manufacturing industry (−0.6% after −0.9% in January). It decreased sharply in the whole industry (−1.6% after −0.2%). Manufacturing output decreased slightly over the past three months (−0.3%)…..Over a year, manufacturing output also edged down (−0.5%)

Bank of France

In a reversal of the usual relationship the French central bank is more downbeat than the private business surveys as you can see below.

In March, industrial production rose at a less sustained pace than in February.

Whilst it describes the services sector as dynamic I note that its index for manufacturing fell from 104 in February to 103 in March leading to the overall picture described below.

According to the monthly index of business activity (MIBA), GDP is expected to increase by 0,3% in the first quarter of 2017. The slight revision (-0,1 point) of last month estimate does not change the overall perspective for the year.

The cost of housing

This is very different to the situation across La Manche ( the Channel) and a world apart from the Canadian position I looked at yesterday.

In Q4 2016, house prices slightly decreased compared to the previous quarter (−0.3%, not seasonally adjusted data) after two quarters of increase. This slight downturn was due to secondhand dwellings (−0.4%). However, the prices of new dwellings grew again (+0.7%).

Indeed some more perspective is provided by the fact that an annual rate of growth of 1.9% is presented as a rise!

Year on year, house prices accelerated further in Q4 2016 (+1.9% after +1.4% in Q3 and +0.7% in Q2). New dwelling prices grew faster (+2.9% y-o-y) than second-hand dwelling prices (+1.8%).

Not much seems to be happening to rents either.

In Q1 2017, the Housing Rent Reference Index stood at 125.90. Year on year, it increased by 0.51%, its strongest growth since Q2 2014.

Just for perspective the index was 124.25 when 2013 began so there is little inflation here.

Comment

There is much that is favourable for the French economy right now. For example the European Central Bank continues with very expansionary monetary policy with an official interest-rate of -0.4% and 60 billion Euros a month of QE bond purchases. The Euro as an exchange-rate is below the level at which it started although only by 6%. So France finds that it gets a boost from very low debt costs as the recent rise in them only leaves the ten-year yield at 0.83%.

So 2017 should be a good one although there is the issue of why other countries have out-performed France. We only have to look south to see a Spain where economic growth has been strong. A couple of years of that would help considerably. But as I type that I am reminded of some of the comments to yesterday’s article especially the one saying house prices in Barcelona are on the march again. To get economic growth these days do we need booming house prices? This leads into my argument that we are calling what is really partly inflation as growth. The catch is that the numbers tell people they are better off but then they find housing ever more expensive and increasingly frequently unaffordable. As we stand France does better here but is that at the cost of higher unemployment?