French employment is growing rapidly. 92 800 jobs have been added during the 1st quarter 2019. It’s more than the most optimistic forecasts and this figure is close to those strong numbers seen in 2017 when growth was stronger than now. Labor market reforms have been efficient.
With the strong economic policy measures on purchasing power that have been taken by the government, French growth is more autonomous and able to cushion the negative shock from world trade.
French GDP growth decelerated slightly in the first quarter of 2019 even though the rounded figure stands at 0.3% (non-annualized) as in the previous two quarters. Despite the stimulus measures announced at the end of 2018, growth has not been boosted by the increase in households purchasing power. Achieving the government target at 1.4% for 2019 on average would require growth of 0.43% in each of the remaining three quarters. It’s ambitious.
The annual change in activity is 1.1% in the first quarter, well below the trend observed since the 2013 recovery at 1.4%. After the acceleration of 2017, resulting from the very buoyant global environment, the growth of the French economy can not deviate from the figure of its potential growth estimated generally between 1.2 and 1.3%. For the moment, the measures implemented by the government are not able to go beyond this and this is worrying in a context where the sharp rise in the price of gasoline is a threat to the purchasing power that would penalize consumers’ demand.
Contributions to quarterly GDP growth are easy to remember. Domestic demand contributed 0.3%, inventories increased GDP by 0.3%, while net exports slowed growth with a contribution of -0.3%.
The important point is the slight acceleration of household consumption whose contribution goes from 0 in Q4 2018 to 0.2% in the first quarter. This is barely above the average observed since the recovery (0.15%) while government measures explicitly targeted consumption. Government spending is growing at a slower pace, and this is the same for investment, whose contribution is decreasing marginally, notably because of the contraction of household investment. On the corporate side, the investment is a little stronger than in the last quarter of 2018 and that’s good news. However, this remains very limited (see the graph in appendix). This is insufficient to instil a solid dynamic into the cycle of the French economy.
The bad surprise comes from foreign trade whose pace is less robust than the monthly figures suggested until February. The contribution is frankly negative even if the contribution of imports is less negative than in Q4 2018. Exports stagnate and penalize growth. The French economy is also penalized by the world trade slowdown.
The accumulation of stocks has driven growth upward. Its pace in the second quarter will depend on the dynamics of demand. If this strengthens stocks will continue to fill. On the other hand, if the demand is lower, because the price of gasoline increases a little too fast, then companies could reduce these stocks which would penalize the profile of the activity.
The French GDP for the first quarter of 2019 will be published Tuesday morning at 0730. After a figure of 0.3% (non annualized figures according to the French tradition) over the last three months of 2018, the consensus is at 0.3%. My expectation is that 0.3% would rather be the bottom of a range between 0.3 and 0.5%. During the first three months of the year, there was a clear improvement in industrial production (+ 1.2% carryover for Q1 at the end of February against -0.4% in the last quarter of 2018). There is also a recovery in the pace of the business climate survey. In the last quarter of 2018, this index fell by 2.1 points compared to the previous quarter, whereas it stabilized over the first three months of the year. It should also be noted that household consumption is slightly positive when it contracted in the last quarter of 2018. Finally, foreign trade could have a neutral impact, with exports (in value) growing a little faster than imports but Given the deficit, the contribution will be close to neutrality. The big unknown is about business investment. Capital goods orders are shrinking rapidly, suggesting a lower capital expenditure despite the stabilization of business surveys. Looking at the industrial production and surveys, GDP is expected to pick up slightly in Q1 at 0.4%. If business investment is less dynamic than expected then it will converge to 0.3%. If all goes well (the services sector momentum is improving in the INSEE survey, if the investment is more robust than expected and consumption accelerates in March) then the figure of 0.5% could be reached.
The French President announced several measures during his press conference last Thursday. There are structural measures such as reducing the number of pupils per primary class to 24. It is an important choice to stop the deterioration observed, for France, in every international rankings on school. This is a first step, a necessary condition for reducing inequalities and improving equality of opportunity. The other structural measure relates to public service houses. A house should be set up in each administrative district (Post Office, Social Security, Unemployment administration, ..) The state must re-acquire the territories to make life easier for everyone. It is also a measure of reducing inequalities and it was an initial demand of November’s protesters (yellow vests). Comments on decentralization have not been sufficiently specified to be a structural measure. . The objective is to allow a better equilibrium of the French society and the capacity to face a world which changes thanks to the formation, which starts with new measures at the primary level (24 pupils).
There was also a battery of short-term measures on the reduction of the income tax (5 billion as of January 2020 for 15 million French), the renewal of the non-taxed bonus, the re-indexation of small pensions (less than 2000 € ) in 2020 and for every pension in 2021. These amounts are significant and will take effect from January 2020 as stated by Gerald Darmanin (finance minister) on the reduction of taxes.
We can make three remarks 1 – The government is paving the way for moderate but stable growth for 2019 and 2020. The measures announced last December (mainly higher income for people at the bottom of the income scale) will be a support for growth in 2019. The measures announced last Thursday will take over in 2020. 2 – The government wants to immunize the French economy from external shocks by supporting the internal demand and especially household consumption. The downturn in world trade and uncertainties are all sources of slowdown in activity. By supporting domestic demand, the government allows for a more flexible way to cushion these shocks, thus reducing the volatility of French growth. The new measures for 2020 are smaller than those announced for 2019 suggesting that the government does not expect a extended crisis. This hypothesis is important for the business investment momentum. A higher expected demand will reflect in higher corporate investment. What is unfortunate is that this economic response is only carried by France in Europe while the shock is perceived by all (see here) 3 – The question of financing all these measures remains fuzzy. Macron spoke about lower expenditures, elimination of corporate tax loopholes and the necessity to work longer. These three means must finance all the measures but there are absolutely no details on how it will work. It could also be through an larger public deficit but this was not discussed by the president. It is unfortunate that the “grand débat” has not allowed a deep discussion on public expenditures . The initial stance of the November protesters was that taxes were too high. The reduction of taxes necessarily requires a reduction in spending. The choices to be made are complex, but we could have expected the “grand débat” to make collective choices on this point. This has not been the case and it is a shame because it will have to be done.
INSEE, the French statistical institute published its new forecasts for the first half of this year. (Its forecasts are just for a semester to avoid being in conflict with the government expectations). Activity would increase by 0.4% in the first and second quarters (non annualized rate). INSEE slightly revised up its second-quarter figure. The carryover growth for 2019 would thus be 1.1% at the end of the first half. To reach the new government forecast at 1.4% (indicated by Bruno Le Maire while the budget for 2019 had a forecast at 1.7%), quarterly growth has to be at 0.4% for each quarter. The current trend for the first semester would therefore be extended to the whole year. This figure, 1.4%, is also the one recently published by the Banque de France.
The articulation of the INSEE forecast is based on two elements.
The first is the rebound in domestic demand in the first months of 2019. On this point, all experts agree. The measures that have been taken on purchasing power should be support for household consumption. The pace of growth of this one would thus pass from an average figure per quarter of 0.125% in 2018 to 0.5% in the first quarter and 0.4% in the second. (Measures to boost the purchasing power have been taken after yellow vests’ protests. The amount of these measure is around Eur 11bn)
The second element of the framework drawn by INSEE is the momentum associated with the international environment. The Institute considers that the slowdown seen at the end of 2018 is just temporary and that the situation will rapidly improve to regain a more robust outlook. The demand’s profile to France from the rest of the world is unchanged from the INSEE’s December economic outlook. And this is a fairly solid figure, rising 0.7% in the first quarter and 0.9% in the second, while the average figure for 2018 was 0.5% per quarter.
If the strong slowdown of the last quarter, which conditioned the strong downward revision of the OECD forecasts (from 1.8% to 1% for the Euro zone) and the ECB (from 1.7% to 1%), is reversed then the outlook may be robust in coming months. Such a conjecture implies a rather robust pace for exports as world trade regains a stronger track. It also implies a rebound in business investment, as expected demand would recover. In that case, a strong recovery can be expected as companies’ financial situation will improve dramatically in 2019 (Lower taxes which was a policy proposed by Hollande in 2013 will be replace in the future by lower charges on wages. But in 2019 both measures are available as the new measure will be put in place and the former has a one year lag. This is a opportunity for firms. They will take advantage of that if expected demand improves dramatically).
If the global shock is persistent then the pace of exports will be less sustained and the investment will be gloomier. The improvement of financial conditions are only permissive conditions but not decisive when the expected demand is mediocre. The pace of employment will also be conditioned by the persistence or not of the shock.
If one assumes a more persistent shock from the rest of the world then the figures are less robust beyond the jump of the first quarter and without being catastrophic growth would tend to 1.1- 1.2% on average for 2019. And this does not suggest necessarily a re-acceleration of growth in 2020 as suggested by the Banque de France.
The key element will therefore be the overall momentum beyond the short-term effects of government measures. The Fed, the OECD and the ECB are wondering about the pace that this global dynamic can have. The Fed no longer wants to make commitments (on the pace of interest rates and on the reduction of its balance sheet) in order to be able to respond to a possible global shock without having hands tied. But France resists this mood.
In the first months of 2019, the economic situation will largely depend on domestic demand and therefore the measures taken by the government on purchasing power. An immediate consequence is that the government will not be able to engage in a policy of reducing public spending which is a precondition for a credible reduction in taxation. An expenditure reduction policy would annihilate support measures. The public deficit will therefore remain high, probably at best around 3.5% in 2019.
The French GDP growth was 1.1% (at annual rate) during the fourth quarter of last year. The same number than during the third quarter. Social unrest has had no impact on the headline figure. Nevertheless, details show that the private sector domestic demand stalled (0.2%) during the last quarter after a strong 2.4% growth in the third quarter. Households’ consumption was 0 and investment contribution was at 0.2% versus 0.9% in Q3. On companies’ side, investment contribution decreased on the same scale (0.2% after 0.9%). Residential investment was down with a negative contribution (-0.1%). The good surprise was on exports’ side with a strong increase at 9.8% vs 0.7% in the third quarter. Therefore and despite a rapid imports’growth, the external demand contribution was positive at 0.9% after 1.1% in Q3. Inventories have had a marginal negative contribution.
For 2018, the average growth was at 1.5% after 2.3% in 2017 but the end of 2017 was the peak of the cycle and the economy is now converging to its potential. In 2019, with 1.2% per quarter which is close to the 2018 average, growth will be at 1.1%. We have a forecast at this level. It way below the government forecast at 1.7%. We can’t expect a strong reversal in the GDP momentum that could justify such a forecast. In 2019 consumption will be pushed up by all the measures on purchasing power that has been announced by the President Macron in December. But as long as social unrest remains companies will not boost their investment. The improvement seen on exports will not last. World trade is slowing down rapidly and France will follow this trend. In other words, the French economy has a limited growth momentum (just 0.9% from Q4 2017 to Q4 2018). With social unrest and uncertainty on external trade, the French economy will continue this trend close to 1% in 2019.
Careful observation of the French economy provides some insight into the swift escalation in social unrest since November. The initial question of purchasing power sparked off the movement in November. At the start of the financial crisis, purchasing power was not too severely hit initially due to the hefty impact of automatic stabilizers, i.e. economic mechanisms that help even out the effects of shocks over time via redistribution. This system had worked fairly well in the past, keeping GDP fluctuations down during economic downturns. This is one of the key aspects of the French redistributive model. With a continued weaker macroeconomic situation than in the past, the economy adapted. Three major changes can help shed some light on the social strife that has been dragging down the French economy.
The first problem is that French economic trend growth is now more sluggish than before the 2008/2009 crisis, and this has an impact on purchasing power trends. We can analyze this situation using the chart below, providing an overview of purchasing power trends on the one hand (demand) and productivity data on the other (supply). The purple line shows the trend in purchasing power per consumption unit and the blue line plots productivity (GDP per hour worked). We can see that these two indicators ran parallel before the 2007 crisis, then diverged until 2012/2013 before converging again, although with weaker trend growth than before the crisis. Under normal circumstances, these two indicators should move at a similar pace, and a long-lasting divergence is not feasible i.e. wages cannot be disconnected from income creation via the production process