‘Severe economic slowdown’ awaits Europe as energy crunch bites

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a gloomy economic forecast for 2023 on September 26 – suggesting that Europe faces a very difficult economic climate if the current energy crisis worsens, with winter temperatures likely to be a decisive factor.

Across the globe, the OECD projects GDP to be $2.8 trillion lower than the Paris-based forum expected before Russia invaded Ukraine – a diminishing of expectations equivalent in size to the entire French economy.

“The global economy has lost momentum in the wake of Russia’s unprovoked, unjustifiable and illegal war of aggression against Ukraine,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said in a statement. “GDP growth has stalled in many economies and economic indicators point to an extended slowdown.”

This chimes with the projections of other international economic bodies – notably the International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva’s warning in July, even before Russia cut off gas flows through the Nord Stream pipeline, that disruption to gas supplies risked plunging European economies into recession.

Germany likely to ‘suffer most’

The eurozone faces the largest downward revision in the world – with overall growth expected at 0.3 percent as opposed to the 1.6 percent forecast in June. The OECD also anticipates Europe’s largest economy Germany suffering a recession in 2023, defined as at least two consecutive quarters of falling GDP. German output is expected to fall by 0.7 percent next year, compared to a previous forecast of 1.7 percent growth.

“It’s a realistic forecast, Germany probably will suffer most this winter from the energy shock,” said Gustavo Horenstein, an economist and fund manager at Dorval Asset Management. “A German recession is expected because of its dependence on Russian gas and the size of manufacturing – a sector sensitive to energy supply problems – as a proportion of its economy.”

The eurozone’s other biggest economies are expected to escape recession, with growth of 0.6 percent expected in France, 0.4 percent in Italy and 1.5 percent in Spain while for its part the French finance ministry plans for 1 percent growth for its 2023 budget calculations.

But the OECD’s forecasts could well be revised downwards depending on how the energy crisis develops this winter.

There is “substantial uncertainty about the economic outlook, with significant downside risks”, the OECD warned, notably the “possibility of gas shortages as winter progresses”. In the worst-case scenario, eurozone growth – currently forecast at 0.3 percent – could undershoot this projection by 1.25 percent, well into recession territory.

Whether or not this happens will “quite simply depend on the temperatures this winter”, Horenstein said. “If it’s very cold, energy supplies will run out faster. And the risk is that demand for gas and electricity for heating will be much higher than the supply.”

The OECD noted that EU gas stocks have been significantly boosted this year – between 80 and 90 percent in most member states. However, gas and electricity prices are already very high – and the OECD suggests there’s quite a risk that Europeans will face shortages, especially if there is a severe winter or non-Russian gas suppliers disappoint.

The OECD has drawn up different scenarios for European gas stocks over the period from October 2022 to April 2023. The best-case scenario envisages a 10 percent drop in gas consumption due to European countries implementing demand reduction plans. In this case, their reserves would be sufficient for the winter.

However, the situation looks bad in the other two scenarios the OECD modelled. If European countries carry on consuming gas like they did during the period from 2017 to 2021, it faces a severe risk of disrupted energy supplies in February 2023. And if the winter is particularly cold, gas reserves would drop below 30 percent as early as January.

‘Industry comes last’

As well as the weather, “the ability of manufacturing industry in particular and European economies in general to manage their energy consumption” is going to be a major factor determining how things turn out.

The steep rise in energy prices is already damaging the bottom line of many companies in energy-intensive sectors – forcing several companies such as French glass company Duralex to scale back operations.

“When it comes to dealing with energy problems, most governments give priority to households and public services like hospitals – and industry comes last,” Horenstein said. “So in the event of a recession, this is where the most damage will be done this winter in Europe.”

If the energy crisis worsens, the gas and electricity cuts could well hit first the manufacturing sector. This would have an acute impact on European economies, seeing as this sector represented 23 percent of EU GDP in 2021, according to the World Bank.

A further cause for recessionary fears is that central banks are firmly committed to raising interest rates to bring down inflation, which was running at 9.1 percent year-on-year in August. Indeed, the European Central Bank (ECB) increased rates by an unprecedented 75 basis points in early September – from 0 percent to 0.75 percent. The ECB warned more rate hikes are on their way.

But sharp increases in interest rates tend to sharply reduce growth prospects, as the price paid in the fight against inflation.

“Further monetary policy tightening will be needed in most major economies to ensure that inflation pressures are reduced durably,” the OECD wrote. “This will need to be calibrated carefully given the uncertainty about the speed at which higher interest rates will take effect and spillovers from tightening in the rest of the world.”

The Paris-based forum recommends governments use fiscal policy to ease the pain – but without making inflation worse by splurging: “Fiscal support can help cushion the impact of high energy costs on households and companies, but should be concentrated on aiding the most vulnerable and preserve incentives to reduce energy consumption. Fiscal actions to cushion living standards must avoid persistent stimulus at a time of high inflation. Means-tested transfers to households broadly meet this criteria.”

But however governments manage this crisis in the short term, it will “take years” for the European energy sector to recover, Horenstein said. He expressed optimism about the short term, underlining that “winter is going to be over, and the acute phase of the energy crisis will be over along with it”.

Nevertheless, Horenstein was more pessimistic about the medium-term outlook. “We will probably go through a difficult time with a severe economic slowdown. We face recessions and a fight against inflation, and probably won’t see any improvement until 2024.”

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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