Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

LONDON — The eurozone’s battered economy is probably recovering, but the gulf between its two biggest members is widening, according to a survey on Tuesday that showed business optimism in the bloc at an eight-month high.

Markit’s eurozone composite purchasing managers’ index (PMI), which is based on business activity across thousands of companies, and is a good gauge of economic growth, rose last month to a 10-month high of 48.6 from 47.2 in December — an improvement on the preliminary reading of 48.2.

While still below the 50 mark that divides growth and contraction, where it has been since February last year, it has risen for the third straight month.

Private industry makes up nearly two-thirds of the eurozone’s economy.

But the data showed a continued divergence between the eurozone’s powerhouse economy Germany and that of neighbouring France, which will worry policy makers.

The German PMI chalked up its biggest one-month rise since August 2009, soaring to its highest since June 2011, while the reading for the bloc’s second-biggest economy France plummeted to its lowest in nearly four years. The French services PMI was even below readings from perennial laggards Spain and Italy.

"That’s a really worrying sign. It’s going to cause more tensions between Germany and France ... on various aspects of eurozone management," said Jennifer McKeown, an economist at consultancy Capital Economics.

"France will continue to call for more supportive policy, not just for the periphery, but the eurozone as a whole. Germany is taking a much more hardline stance." The eurozone PMI for services firms rose to a 10-month high of 48.6 from 47.8, above a flash estimate of 48.3.

Across the channel in Britain, activity among the country’s services firms, which account for more than three-quarters of gross domestic product, rose.

"The UK services PMI has bounced back into growth territory, dampening fears over an unprecedented triple-dip recession being called," said James Knightley at ING.

After only one quarter of expansion, Britain’s economy contracted again at the end of last year. That put it on the brink of its third recession in four years.

Growth in the US services business is expected have fallen slightly last month following relative weakness in the private services component of January’s payrolls report. The data are due at 3pm GMT.

On the up

The eurozone economy probably contracted 0.4% at the end of last year, notching up its third negative quarter, and is likely to stagnate in the current period, according to a Reuters poll published last month.

The European Central Bank said after its policy setting meeting last month, when it left interest rates on hold at 0.75%, that there were already signs of stabilisation, but official data on Tuesday showed retail sales fell by the largest margin in eight months in December.

None of the 75 economists polled by Reuters last week see any shift when the ECB meets on Thursday, however, and median forecasts suggested no change in rates until July 2014 at least — the end of the forecast horizon.

Tuesday’s PMI survey showed services firms in the eurozone were more optimistic about the future than at any point since last May.

The business expectations index leapt to 56.4 from 52.5, the biggest one-month rise since August 2009, just as the eurozone emerged from its previous recession.

"New business in the sector improved, and business expectations are also becoming increasingly optimistic. The employment component showed a less encouraging development though," said Evelyn Herrmann at BNP Paribas.

Firms reduced their workforces again last month and at the fastest pace in over three years, with the composite employment index falling to 46.1 from December’s 47.3.

Unemployment hit a record 11.7% of the working population in December, but inflation fell to a two-year low of 2% in January.

Eurozone factories had their best month in nearly a year last month as burgeoning German output offered support, data released last week showed.

Reuters