Eurozone's four-month stretch of falling consumer prices ends in April

LONDON – Well that didn’t last long.

The drop in consumer prices in the eurozone has come to an end after four months, easing concerns about a long-term decline that can choke the economy.

Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, said Thursday that consumer prices were unchanged in the year through April, up from the 0.1 per cent fall recorded the previous month.

The flat reading was in line with market forecasts and reinforces expectations that the impact of lower oil prices is moderating. In the year to April, energy costs were 5.8 per cent lower, against the 9.3 per cent fall recorded in January.

Energy costs were the main reason why consumer prices in the eurozone fell between December and March. Fears that a long-lasting period of falling prices could weigh on the eurozone economy were largely behind the European Central Bank’s recently launched 1.1 trillion-euro ($1.2 trillion) monetary stimulus. More money in the economy has the potential to stoke inflationary pressures as does the consequent fall in the euro, which raises the price of imports.

At first glance, a drop in prices sounds nice — particularly for consumers getting goods for cheaper.

And that appears to have happened over the past few months as consumers gained in their pocket from the fall in oil prices. Money saved filling up a car was money that could be used elsewhere. Most economic figures over the past few months have shown an uptick in eurozone economic activity, though concerns over Greece appear to be having an effect again.

The problem confronting ECB policymakers was not about the short-term fall in prices. Its concern centred on the possibility that prices might fall consistently over time. Such a longer-term, called deflation, encourages people to put off spending and can prove difficult to reverse because it requires altering people’s expectations. It can lead to years of economic stagnation, as in Japan over the past two decades, or at worst, into something more pernicious, such as the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Though deflationary pressures appear to have eased somewhat, the ECB still has a long way to go before inflation is where it wants to be. Its aim is to have prices rising at a tad below 2 per cent annually.

The core rate, which strips out volatile items such as food, tobacco and energy, is also low at 0.6 per cent, suggesting that pricing pressures in the economy remain subdued.

As a result, most economists think the ECB is likely to keep its stimulus for a while yet. ECB President Mario Draghi has given few indications that its scheduled Sept. 2016 end-date is flexible.

“This should give the ECB a chance to catch its breath after a bumpy start to the year,” said Danae Kyriakopoulou, senior economist at the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

Elsewhere, Eurostat also said unemployment across the eurozone was unchanged in March at 11.3 per cent. The reading masked the fact that the number of jobless fell by 36,000 to 18.1 million. Over recent months, unemployment has been falling as the economy has grown stronger, particularly in Spain, which has seen some of the highest unemployment rates in the region for years.

Tom Rogers, senior economic adviser to the EY Eurozone Forecast, said the unchanged unemployment rate was “somewhat disappointing” but held out the hope that there will be improvements in the months to come.

“We remain confident that consumer spending and business investment will continue to recover, pushing unemployment down through the year and generating stronger price growth,” he said.