Concern is growing in markets and even at the European Central Bank (ECB) that the services sector won’t be able to withstand a broader manufacturing slump. That would undermine jobs growth and domestic demand, the main pillars propping up confidence in the outlook for the eurozone economy.
Resilience in other areas such as transport and technology has helped to cushion the blow of a manufacturing sector beset by escalating trade tensions, weaker demand in China, and troubles in the car industry.
But services can’t remain immune for long, and worries are permeating the highest level of policy making. ECB President Mario Draghi last week called this contagion the “key issue” motivating officials to raise the prospect of interest rate cuts.
“The bright side is that domestic demand remains quite resilient to all these external factors,” said Nicola Nobile, an economist at Oxford Economics. “Can this last forever? Of course not. One of the two will have to converge.”
The risk is that fewer manufacturing orders means companies hire and invest less, dragging further on growth. Confidence could also suffer, making businesses and consumers more cautious, with a fallout on demand for bank lending.
For now, the source of the continent’s manufacturing slump is centred in Germany. Its Purchasing Managers Index has suggested contraction every month this year. France, Spain and Italy look in better shape, but growth is still barely better than stagnation.
The stakes are high because services account for about three quarters of eurozone output. A drop off in trade has already hit the air cargo market, with freight volumes down almost 5% in the past year. Deutsche Lufthansa is cutting some services this quarter and next.
In Spain, truckers have begun to notice a slight slowdown in demand in the past several months from clients in France and Germany, bucking four years of solid annual growth, said Juan Jose Gil, head of Fenadismer, an association that represents 32,000 small Spanish transport companies.
“Germany is Europe’s locomotive,” Gil said. “If Germany catches a cold, other countries get sick.”
The eurozone economy is already feeling some pain. Annual growth stayed at the weakest in more than four years in the first quarter. Expansion for all of 2019 is predicted to come in at 1.2%, less than half the pace predicted for the US.
Contagion might not materialise. Some point to Germany’s specific issues, such as exposure to global trade and, in particular, capital goods and cars. The US has made autos a key target of its tariffs, adding to structural issues such as the transition to electric vehicles.
“The people who see the glass half full would say the manufacturing slowdown is a pretty atypical one rooted in trade and uncertainty,” said William De Vijlder, chief economist at BNP Paribas. “It’s not a reflection of a collapse of domestic demand.”