Amid noise generated by Greek debt discussions, eurozone economy has been gaining momentum

Energy Associated Press

With all the noise and uncertainty surrounding Greece over the past couple of weeks, it's been easy to overlook the growing signs of economic recovery in Europe.

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A raft of indicators have pointed to a pick-up in activity that puts the 19-country eurozone economy in a position to outperform expectations this year — provided it doesn't stumble into a messy Greek exit from the euro or relations deteriorate between the West and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.

Fourth quarter figures on Friday aren't expected to show a big improvement yet, with most economists predicting mild growth of 0.2 percent for the second quarter running.

Moving forward though, most expect the pace of growth to accelerate for a number of reasons, including the sharp falls in the price of oil and the euro.

Ben May, economist at Oxford Economics, says 2015 will be the year that the recovery finally gets going. "Recent news from the eurozone supports the view that domestic healing continues," he said.

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THE EVIDENCE

For years, the eurozone has been in intensive care, sliding into two recessions as it struggled with an acute debt crisis that raised questions over the survival of the euro. Since ECB President Mario Draghi said in July 2012 that the bank would do "whatever it takes" to save the euro, tensions in financial markets have eased.

Despite that, the eurozone, which emerged from its last recession in the spring of 2013, has faltered, with even Germany slowing down. But recently, there's been evidence of a turnaround.

— Retail sales across the eurozone have risen for three straight months, meaning the sector will contribute to growth in the last quarter of 2014.

— Though high at 11.4 percent, unemployment has edged down over the past year and surveys are pointing to a pick-up in hiring. That's been particularly noticeable in Spain, which along with Greece witnessed a huge increase in joblessness, particularly among the young.

— Germany's closely watched Ifo survey of business confidence rose to a six-month high in January, auguring well for Europe's biggest economy.

— Financial information company Markit said its purchasing managers' index, a gauge of business activity, spiked to a six-month high for the eurozone in January. It was particularly positive over developments in Spain and Ireland.

— There are signs of life in the auto market, which grew in 2014 for the first time since 2007. Ford revealed plans to increase production 40 percent at its plant in Valencia, Spain.

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THE REASONS

A number of causes have been cited for the apparent improvement.

— Foremost is the sharp fall in the price of oil since last summer. The Brent international benchmark for crude is around 50 percent lower than in June. Weaker oil prices are like an immediate tax cut for consumers. Those 20 euros saved filling up the family car are 20 euros that can be spent on something else.

— Another source of stimulus has been the euro's descent to near 11-year lows against the dollar — to the cheer of the region's exporters — in the wake of the ECB's decision to buy government bonds. Though 60 percent of trade in the eurozone takes place between countries in the currency zone, the remaining 40 percent will benefit by becoming more cost-competitive in international markets.

— The ECB stimulus itself should be a boon once it starts in March. The ECB is preparing a 1 trillion euro stimulus, mainly through the purchase of government bonds, to push inflation up from dangerous lows. The stimulus should keep a lid on borrowing rates, benefiting businesses and households. It can also increase wealth by potentially boosting the value of some financial assets, such as stocks and housing. That can help drive consumption in the future, too.

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THE RISKS

If the last five or six years are any guide, the recovery won't be smooth.

— The Greek crisis is perhaps the biggest uncertainty at present. Though the prevailing view is that the new Greek government will reach a compromise with its bailout creditors in the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund, no one is 100 percent sure. "Grexit" — or Greece's exit from the euro — remains a possibility. How that would affect the eurozone is anyone's guess, though the uncertainty is likely to hurt investor confidence. Many policymakers think the eurozone is better-protected than it was three years ago to deal with the fallout of a Greek exit, but again, no one can be sure. All eyes are on Wednesday's emergency meeting of the 19 euro finance ministers in Brussels.

— Another hot topic is the conflict in Ukraine. The European Union's 28 leaders will discuss the crisis Thursday, with some urging an extension of sanctions on Russia. Moscow has yet to deploy its key retaliatory weapon against the West — stopping oil and gas sales to Europe — for fear of damaging the Russian economy further. If it were to limit such sales, all talk of recovery in the eurozone would be extinguished.

"An energy embargo, even if it were temporary, would send the eurozone into its third recession since 2008," economists at Wells Fargo Bank said in a report to investors.