The “green shoots” theory of economic recovery took a series of of body blows overnight that forced over-confident investors to duck for cover. Sharemarkets fell sharply, the US dollar edged higher, the Australian dollar lower and US bond rates fell as investors returned to cash.

The whacks came from worse-than-expected US retail sales figures for April showing an unexpected fall after back-to-back rises in February and March encouraged a surge of optimism. There was confirmation from the Bank of England that the UK economy is struggling and won’t grow as fast as Gordon Brown expects and confusing figures from the Chinese economy which is apparently still growing. But European industrial output remains mired in red ink, despite hopes of an improvement in March.

The US closed its wallets again in April, no matter what spin is applied to figures last week from the major chains for same-store sales. The truth is that 0.4% fall in total sales (0.95%) when cars and spare parts are excluded), confounded the markets which were looking for an excuse to rise again at the start of trading on Wall Street after some negativity in Europe.

That came after a surprise fall in European industrial output, which was contrary to the direction of surveys of manufacturing had been taking in the past two months. At the same time the Bank of England forecast any recovery in the UK would take longer and be much weaker than previously estimated, with inflation returning during the rebound.

In a speech in Washington, US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said the American financial system was starting to recover amid increased lending, but his upbeat message was lost in the barrage of bad news.

In Belgium, the KBC Bank asked the Government for another bailout, which would be the third after some 6 billion euros were injected into the bank in two separate rescues. But the crippled Fortis bank, which had to be rescued last October as the markets froze in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse, has returned to profit. In Holland though, ING Bank had another quarterly loss, but it was smaller than December’s, while Germany’s huge Allianz insurance group saw quarterly profits drop 97% on big losses from a now-sold bank.

US business inventories again dropped in March, easing 1.0% from February and 4.8% from April last year. Business sales fell 1.6% from February 2009 and 15.6% from March 2008.

The back-to-back gains of January and February had helped spark the green shoots talk too, taking a whack in April, while the business inventories and sales figures contained no joy.

Eurozone industrial output plummeted by more than 20% in March, pointing to a sharp contraction in first-quarter economic output and 18% for the wider European Union. The fall in March from February in the Eurozone was 2%, 1.9% in the wider 27 national EU.

The Financial Times captured the impact with these quotes:

“There are no green shoots here; everything is either a quarter or a fifth down on the year,” said Stuart Bennett, European economist at Calyon. “This sure is a horrible number,” added Kenneth Broux, economist at Lloyds TSB Corporate Markets.

In London there was no joy from the Bank of England nor in the offices of Governor Mervyn King.

King told a news conference that “the economy requires a period of healing. That will take time.”

The Bank of England cut its growth forecasts and raised its estimate for future inflation in an assessment of the prospects for UK economy more gloomy than the one in the previous monetary policy statement three months ago.

Chinese industrial production figures rose in April, but less than in March: retail sales rose marginally and Government spending soared. But bank lending was cut. China bought more and more commodities in April, after a similar splurge on March, but exports remain depressed and the steel industry saw output fall a surprise 4% in April.

And finally, a reminder from the black hole still alive and sitting in the centre of the whole mess: the US housing sector is still depressed. prices are still falling and in April foreclosures hit a new record. According to RealtyTrac, one in every 374 U.S. households received a foreclosure filing last month. The firm said that was highest monthly foreclosure rate so far recorded. In April foreclosures were up 32% from April 2008.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey