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Europe’s Hidden Stimulus

LONDON – When the European Council next meets, on February 7, it should look at private investment as a means to kick-start Europe’s stagnant economy. With the usual drivers of GDP growth constrained across Europe, the one economic sector able to spend is the non-financial corporate sector.

Indeed, publicly traded European companies had excess cash holdings of €750 billion ($1 trillion) in 2011, close to a 20-year high. Unlocking that cash would give Europe a much larger stimulus package than any government can provide. In 2011, for example, private investment in Europe totaled more than €2 trillion, compared to government investment of less than €300 billion.

And yet, while trends among European economies have varied, private investment was, overall, the hardest-hit component of GDP during the crisis, plunging by more than €350 billion – ten times greater than the fall in private consumption and four times more than the decline in real GDP – between 2007 and 2011. The magnitude of the private-investment downturn was, in fact, unprecedented – and lies at the heart of Europe’s economic malaise.

Likewise, by historical standards, the private-investment recovery is running late. In more than 40 past episodes in which GDP fell and private investment declined by 10%, recovery took an average of five years. Europe is four years removed from the onset of recession, but private investment in 2011 was still lower than its 2007 level in 26 of the European Union’s 27 member states.