Europe’s unemployment has soared to 10.8 percent, the highest rate in more than 14 years as companies from Spain to Italy eliminated jobs to weather the region’s crisis, according to the European Union’s (EU) statistics office. That’s the highest since June 1997, before the Euro was introduced. European companies are cutting costs and eliminating jobs after draconian austerity measures slashed consumer demand and pushed economies from Greece to Ireland into recession.
According to Eurostat, the number of unemployed totaled 17.1 million, nearly 1.5 million higher than in 2011. The figures stand in marked contrast to the United States, which has seen solid increases in employment over the past few months. “It looks odds-on that Eurozone GDP contracted again in the first quarter of 2012….thereby moving into recession,” said Howard Archer, chief European economist at IHS Global Insight. “And the prospects for the second quarter of 2012 currently hardly look rosy.”
The North-South divide is evident, with the nations reporting the lowest unemployment rates being Austria with 4.2 percent; the Netherlands at 4.9 percent; Luxembourg at 5.2 percent; and Germany at 5.7 percent. Unemployment is highest among young people, with 20 percent of those under 25 looking for work in the Eurozone, primarily in the southern nations. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, defended the debt-fighting strategy, insisting that reforms undertaken by governments are crucial and will ultimately bear fruit. “We must combat the crisis in all its fronts,” Amadeu Altafaj, the commission’s economic affairs spokesman, said, stressing that growth policies are part of the strategy.
According to Markit, a financing information company, Germany and France, the Eurozone’s two powerhouse economies, saw manufacturing activity levels deteriorate. France fared the worst with activity at a 33-month low of 46.7 on a scale where anything below 50 indicates a contracting economy. Only Austria and Ireland saw their output increase.
Spain, whose government recently announced new austerity measures, had the Eurozone’s highest unemployment rate at 23.6 percent; youth unemployment — those under 25 years of age — was 50.5 percent. Greece, Portugal and Ireland — the three countries that have received bailouts — had unemployment rates of 21 percent, 15 percent and 14.7 percent respectively.
With unemployment rising at a time of austerity, consumers have stopped spending and that holds back the Eurozone economy despite signs of life elsewhere. “Soaring unemployment is clearly adding to the pressure on household incomes from aggressive fiscal tightening in the region’s periphery,” said Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics. She fears that the situation will worsen and that even in Germany, where unemployment held steady at 5.7 percent, “survey measures of hiring point to a downturn to come.”
The numbers are likely to worsen even more. “We expect it to go higher, to reach 11 percent by the end of the year,” said Raphael Brun-Aguerre, an economist at JP Morgan in London. “You have public sector job cuts, income going down, weak consumption. The economic growth outlook is negative and is going to worsen unemployment.”
Writing for the Value Walk website, Matt Rego says that “By the looks of it, Europe could be heading for a recession very soon. If the GDP contracts this 1st quarter of 2012, they will most likely be in a double dip. Those are some pretty scary numbers and forecasts because they would send economic aftershocks around the world. If Europe goes into a double dip and U.S. corporate margins do peak, we could be looking at trouble. If you are a ‘super bull’ right now, I would reconsider because we are walking the line for both factors coming true and there really is nothing we can do, the damage is done. Could we have seen all of the year’s gains in the beginning of this year? Probably not but this European recession scare would certainly trigger a correction in the U.S. markets. Bottom line, get some protection for your portfolio. Buy stocks that aren’t influenced by economic times and buy protection for stocks that would react harshly to a double dip.”