Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Britain edges to recession, IMF warns of Great Depression

Britain edges to recession, IMF warns of Great Depression

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Britain edged ever closer to a recession on Tuesday and the IMF's top economist warned of a second Great Depression, as stock markets awaited fresh US growth data in the hope of some Christmas cheer.

Britain's economy shrank by 0.6 percent in the three months to September compared with the previous quarter, against a previous estimate of 0.5-percent contraction given last month, the Office for National Statistics said.

Britain will officially be in recession if the economy contracts again in the fourth quarter after already screeching to a halt in the second quarter during which this key European Union economy recorded zero growth.

News of weakening growth sent the British pound sliding under 1.06 euros, nearing a record low of 1.0463 reached last week, as dealers bet on more interest rate cuts from the Bank of England and forecast parity with the euro.

The dollar also dipped against the euro and the yen in morning trading.

"Contraction of 0.6 percent in the third quarter was even sharper than previously anticipated, highlighting the serious downturn in the economy," said Howard Archer, an economist at the IHS Global Insight consultancy in London.

The IMF's top economist, Olivier Blanchard, meanwhile said governments around the world should boost domestic demand in order to avoid a Great Depression similar to the downturn that shook the world in the 1930s.

"Consumer and business confidence indexes have never fallen so far since they began. The coming months will be very bad," Blanchard said in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde.

"It is imperative to stifle this loss of confidence, to restart household consumption, if we want to prevent this recession developing into a Great Depression," he added.

New data out in France offered some respite from the gloom, however, showing that household consumption of manufactured goods -- a key growth indicator -- rallied 0.3 percent last month after slumping in October.

"It is a first small Christmas present for the French economy," said Alexander Law, an economist at the Xerfi research centre in Paris.

But in Italy, retail sales figures went down 0.3 percent in October.

Denmark's economy contracted 0.4 percent in the third quarter and the Dutch economy showed zero growth, official data showed. Finland's unemployment rate rose to 6.0 percent in November from 5.8 percent a month earlier.

The European Central Bank issued some heartening pre-Christmas data showing that the eurozone's current account deficit narrowed to 6.4 billion euros (9.0 billion dollars) in October from 8.8 billion euros in September.

European stocks were slightly up in midday trading ahead of the release of US third-quarter growth data, with the FTSE index in London up 0.46 percent, the Frankfurt Dax up 0.37 percent but the CAC 40 in Paris dipping 0.04 percent.

"UK and US GDP readings will be closely watched and with expectations low for both, any positive surprises could help provide some festive cheer," said Jimmy Yates, a dealer at CMC Markets in London.

Asian stocks closed mostly down, with the Hong Kong stock market shedding 2.8 percent and Shanghai sinking 4.55 percent as a smaller-than-expected Chinese interest rate cut failed to boost market moods.

Oil prices also fell further to below 40 dollars a barrel in Asian trade, with New York's main futures contract, light sweet crude for delivery in February, shedding 60 cents to 39.31 dollars a barrel.

The contract had fallen to 39.91 dollars in New York on Monday.

Energy analysts were also keeping a close eye on a meeting of key world gas exporters in Moscow amid fears of a "gas OPEC" similar to the Vienna-based oil cartel that could raise natural gas prices.

In a keynote speech, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told the conference that the "era of cheap gas" for consumers was coming to an end because of the expense of developing new fields.

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