Analysts said an early look at economic surveys revealed that the European Central Bank's confidence-boosting injection of funds into the banking system had petered out and the euro zone was heading for a longer and deeper recession than expected.
The ECB has injected €350 billion (£285 billion) into the European banking system since December and played a part in constructing an €800bn firewall of guarantees and insurances to protect against Italy and Spain suffering a run on their debt. However, these two key measures are widely considered to be insufficient to boost confidence and revive the struggling economies of the worst-hit countries. Several European leaders have criticized the ECB for its failure to mimic the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, which have created electronic money under their quantitative easing programs.
All the main parties in France, including President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP, have shifted the blame for the euro-zone's woes to the lack of decisive action from the central bank.
National Front leader Marine le Pen was particularly critical of the ECB and blamed the poor economic outlook on excessive austerity measures imposed by European institutions.
Figures from the combined purchasing managers' index (PMI) survey by Markit appeared to support these fears after they registered a weaker than expected composite PMI of 47.4 for the euro zone in April, consistent with a quarter-on-quarter contraction in GDP of about 0.3%. A figure of below 50 on the index denotes a contraction. The manufacturing index fell particularly sharply to 46 from 47.7, the weakest reading since mid-2009.
Services output remained stronger than manufacturing, but suffered a quicker slowdown. It fell to 47.9 from an earlier 49.2, the softest reading of activity since November last year.
Official statistics from Eurostat showing a rise in sovereign debts also added to the grim picture. Ireland's debts rose by 13.1% last year. Italy ended 2011 with the second highest debt at 120.1% of GDP, after Greece at 165.3%. Spain's rose to 68.5% from 61.2%. Germany was the only country to cut its lending, with its debt shrinking to 81.2% from 83%.
Across the 27-country E.U., the average 2011 deficit was 4.5% of GDP, down from 6.5% in 2010. Among the E.U. states that do not use the euro, the U.K. had the highest deficit, which reached 8.4% of GDP in the year ended March 31, equivalent to about 64% of GDP.
Only five euro-zone nations – Estonia, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Slovakia and Finland – had debt within the euro-zone's limit of 60% of GDP.
The head of the influential German Ifo thinktank raised the pressure on Greece and other countries. "I personally believe there's no chance for Greece to become competitive (while) in the euro zone," Hans-Werner Sinn, president of Ifo, said in a luncheon speech in New York. "If Greece is kept in the euro zone, there will be ongoing mass unemployment."
He also cited risks for other indebted euro-zone countries. "Cutting wages and prices to the extent necessary in some southern European countries is impossible, whatever politicians say," said Sinn.
The region's overall budget deficit declined to 4.1% of GDP from 6.2% as nations from Greece to Spain and France implemented austerity measures aimed at stopping the spread of the debt crisis and convincing investors that Europe can shore up its public finances.
Jim Leaviss, head of the fund manager M&G's main bond fund, warned that the developments across the euro zone could pose problems for the U.K. He said the slowdown in output on the continent and a rise in the value of sterling could act as a double whammy, threatening the U.K.'s export drive. A higher value on sterling will push up the price of U.K. goods abroad, while shrinking markets in Italy and Spain will cut demand for British exports.
Leaviss said he calculated that a rise in the trade-weighted value of sterling since last year of 7.25% was equivalent to a significant monetary tightening by the Bank of England of 1.8%. Until now the BoE's quantitative easing program has offset any pressures on sterling's value. But the bank's interest rate-setting committee signaled last week that its QE program would be halted indefinitely.
The only positive response to the rise in sterling will be a drop in inflation, he said, as imports to the U.K. become cheaper. "The strong pound will help send inflation below 3% during the course of the year, but at the expense of economic growth and a re-balancing of the economy towards manufacturing," he said.
Intellpuke: You can read this article by Guardian Economics Correspondent Phillip Inman in context here: www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/apr/23/eurozone-fears-stock-markets-tumbling