Personal Wealth Management / Market Analysis

What the Eurozone’s ‘Flat’ Q4 Obscures

Pockets of strength outnumbered weak patches.

Eurozone GDP was flat in Q4, according to the preliminary reading, and as usual, most coverage focused on that factoid and read far too much into it. Headlines claimed the bloc is stagnating, the ECB needs to loosen monetary policy, manufacturers are too exposed to Red Sea shipping problems—all the predictable pessimism. In our view, reality is more nuanced, and there is a simple way investors can cut through the fog to see it: Tune down eurozone GDP itself.

Yes, the eurozone is a large, important chunk of the global economy. But all eurozone GDP tells you is how 20 nations on the other side of the Atlantic netted out in a given quarter. These nations may share monetary policy and regulations, but each has its own fundamental backdrop, industry makeup and unique local conditions affecting how things go. Looking only at the bloc’s headline growth can obscure these trends. And when eurozone GDP is flat, its GDP can be even more of a distraction, since logic dictates not every member-state was flat—indicating that national results are probably a hodgepodge of good and bad. This hodgepodge is arguably more telling, in our view.

So let us look at the hodgepodge and start with the weakest link: Germany. Its Q4 GDP shrank -0.3% q/q, but Q3 was revised up to flat, leaving economists globally grappling with whether to call this a recession.[i] Our take: This shows the inherent flaws with using two sequential GDP contractions to define recession. Germany’s trajectory over the past five quarters is now a -0.4% q/q contraction in Q4 2022, 0.1% growth in Q1, flat in Q2 and Q3 and now down -0.3%.[ii] To us, there is a decent argument here for seeing the country down from its high for five quarters straight, noting it hit a new low in the most recent reading, and calling it a recession. We are also willing to entertain arguments the other way, but we think this is a sideshow from an investment standpoint. The economic decline began well over a year ago, on the heels of 2022’s bear market—which hit German stocks quite hard. Given stocks’ long history of pre-pricing recessions, we think it is fair to say the bear market spent some time discounting a high likelihood of German economic trouble as chatter about natural gas shortages hampering heavy industry ramped up. Since then, German stocks have recovered even as the economy floundered. They hit new highs in euros in December and again last week. Seems to us stocks are saying the end is closer than the beginning.

French stocks are also at new highs in euros, which might surprise considering France’s flat Q4 GDP reading was the fourth 0.0% q/q in the past five quarters, with only Q2’s 0.7% growth bucking the trend.[iii] Expectations for Q1 presently aren’t great as economists begin attempting to tally the economic costs of farmers’ escalating protests over EU farm regulations’ high costs and effect on competition. That is a topic for another day, but the key for now is that here, too, markets are well aware. They have seen the tractor blockades on various highways, and they have seen the flash purchasing managers’ indexes (PMIs) showing contraction this month. But they have also seen contracting PMIs diverge from flat GDP for several months now, and they have seen France’s robust history of protests bringing only a limited, temporary economic impact. If the market is sending such a powerful signal that better times lie ahead, we think investors are wise to heed that rather than get caught up in what is going on right now and in the recent past. Stocks look forward, roughly 3 – 30 months out, in our experience.

Lastly, and perhaps more interestingly, long-derided southern Europe did the heavy lifting in Q4. Yes, in a shocking role reversal, the countries once considered the eurozone periphery—Italy, Spain and Portugal—outgrew the “core” at 0.2% q/q, 0.6% and 0.8%, respectively. The fun thing here is that the old monetary policy debate always held that Germany needs and wants high rates while southern Europe would benefit from low rates, and this split makes the eurozone and its common monetary policy untenable in the long run. Yet here we are, with the south doing quite well despite high rates. Now people argue Germany needs that break. Maybe, just maybe, everyone is focusing too much on the ECB here and ignoring that rates are only one variable affecting economic results? We will concede that high rates probably contributed to Germany’s construction decline, which played a role in Q4’s contraction, but that is a region-wide headwind that other nations still managed to outgrow. Painting with broad brushstrokes won’t create a clear picture.

So, pockets of weakness and pockets of strength—aka, typical eurozone. Thus far, among the countries reporting, there are more strong than weak. Maybe that changes, but with stocks looking past the eurozone’s well-known issues, we think the smart move for investors is to do the same. It takes big, new, deeply negative surprises to sink stocks anew, and what we have here is the same old cud markets have chewed for over two years now. Stocks moved on. Do yourself a favor and follow their lead.

[i] Source: Eurostat, as of 1/30/2024.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

If you would like to contact the editors responsible for this article, please message MarketMinder directly.

*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.

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