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FILE PHOTO: A worker wears a protective mask at the Volkswagen assembly line in Wolfsburg, Germany, on April 27, 2020.

POOL New/Reuters

The eurozone economy contracted at a record rate in the first three months of the year and inflation slowed sharply as much economic activity in March came to a halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic, data showed on Thursday.

Economists expect even worse numbers for the second quarter.

According to a preliminary flash estimate from the European Union’s statistics office Eurostat, economic output in the 19 countries sharing the euro currency in January-March was 3.8 per cent smaller than in the previous three months - the sharpest quarterly decline since the time series started in 1995.

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Economists polled by Reuters had expected a 3.5 per cent contraction after a 0.1 per cent quarterly growth in the last three months of 2019.

Year-on-year the gross domestic product contraction was 3.3 per cent in the first quarter. However, coronavirus-related lockdowns were only in place for two to three weeks of the quarter.

“This points to an much bigger fall in activity in Q2, when the full lockdowns will be in effect for almost half the time and will then be only partially lifted,” said Andrew Kenningham, economist at Capital Economics.

Economists noted that in several countries that reported first quarter GDP numbers, the depth of the recession was linked to the severity of national lockdowns. France’s GDP fell 5.8 per cent, Spain’s by 5.2 per cent, Belgium’s by 3.9 per cent and Austria’s by 2.5 per cent.

“France and Spain have been among the most strict in terms of lockdowns and hence their economies have suffered more. This would suggest that a country like Germany has experienced a smaller-than-average contraction,” said Bert Colijn, economist at ING.

’DEFLATIONARY LOCKDOWN’

Eurostat also said consumer prices in the euro zone grew 0.3 per cent month-on-month in April for a 0.4 per cent year-on-year increase, slowing from 0.7 per cent year-on-year in March.

But the slowdown of inflation was smaller than expected by economists, who on average forecast a deceleration to 0.1 per cent year-on-year in Aril, according to a Reuters poll.

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The biggest drag on the overall index cam from energy prices, which dropped 9.6 per cent year-on-year.

Without the volatile energy and unprocessed food components - what the European Central Bank calls core inflation - prices grew 0.7 per cent on the month for a 1.1 per cent year-on-year increase. In March this measures was an increase of 1.2 per cent.

An even narrower measure of inflation that also excludes alcohol and tobacco prices and is followed by many market economists showed prices going up 0.8 per cent on the month in April and 0.9 per cent year-on-year, against a 1.0 per cent annual increase in March.

“Let there be no mistake: the lockdown is deflationary,” ING’s Colijn said. “Given that unemployment will almost certainly be higher coming out of the lockdown, price pressures are expected to remain weak for some time to come,” he said.

Eurostat said euro zone unemployment, a lagging indicator that reflects changes in the economy with a delay, ticked up to 7.4 per cent of the workforce in March from 7.3 per cent in February.

Economists said they expected that number to increase in the coming months, despite a European Union scheme to help subsidize wages across the 27-nation bloc so that employers cut working hours rather than jobs.

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European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs Paolo Gentiloni said the GDP data showed Europe was experiencing an economic shock without precedent in modern times.

“This is why we need a recovery plan that is sufficiently large, targeted at the hardest-hit economies and sectors, and deployable in the coming months,” he said, referring to a plan to help finance an economic recovery in the bloc.

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