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Eurozone recovery fueling jobs but wages and prices lag

LONDON (AP) — The buoyant economic recovery across the 19-country eurozone has pushed unemployment down to its lowest level in nearly nine years but has yet to translate to a sustained pick-up in wages and prices, official figures indicated Thursday.

Eurostat, the European Union's statistics agency, said the jobless rate fell to 8.8 percent in October, from 8.9 percent the previous month. That's the lowest since January 2009, when the region, like the world economy, was reeling from the global financial crisis and the ensuing deep recession.

Across the region, there were 14.34 million people out of work, down 1.5 million in the past year. That's clear evidence that the economic recovery, which has gathered momentum during 2017, has invigorated the jobs market, especially in some of those countries that saw the biggest spikes in unemployment after the financial crisis. That's especially true in Spain, which for much of the past few years lumbered under the weight of an unemployment rate of around 25 percent. Now, following strong growth, unemployment has fallen to 16.7 percent.

Though the eurozone is growing strongly, inflation is still a way short of the European Central Bank's goal of just below 2 percent, a level it considers healthiest for the economy.

Eurostat said its headline measure of consumer price inflation rose to 1.5 percent in November, largely because of higher energy prices. While up from October's 1.4 percent, it was below expectations in markets for a rise to 1.6 percent and indicates that underlying inflation pressures largely related to wages remain modest despite falling unemployment. The core rate of inflation, which strips out volatile items like food, energy, alcohol and tobacco, was stuck at 0.9 percent in November — again below expectations of a rise to 1 percent.

ECB President Mario Draghi has said there are a number of reasons why wages are not rising strongly, including the possibility that after years of low interest rates and weak inflation, wage negotiators may have been focused more on keeping jobs than on securing higher pay. He said these kinds of factors are likely to be "transitory" and that the recent "remarkable" increases in employment should start to show in a rise in nominal wages. With spare capacity in the economy diminishing, the hope is that a pick-up in wages that can support consumer demand and give inflation a boost.

Over the past few years, the ECB has enacted a series of stimulus measures, including cutting its main interest rate to zero, in the hope of getting inflation back up to target. Recently it eased up on its bond-buying stimulus program, which aims to keep market interest rates low, amid mounting evidence of economic growth.

Economists are not predicting any further changes soon, with Thursday's figures adding to that perception.

"Today's figures are unlikely to prompt the bank to accelerate the process of monetary normalization," said Pablo Shah, an economist at the Centre for Economics and Business Research.