Unemployment risks creating new divide in Europe

Updated 09 January 2013
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Unemployment risks creating new divide in Europe

BRUSSELS: Record unemployment and fraying social welfare systems in southern Europe risk creating a new divide in the continent, the EU warned yesterday, when figures showed joblessness across the 17 EU countries that use the euro hit a new high.
Euro zone unemployment rose to 11.8 percent in November, the highest since the euro currency was founded in 1999, according to the statistical agency Eurostat. The rate was up from 11.7 percent in October and 10.6 percent a year earlier.
In the wider 27-nation European Union, the world's largest economic bloc with 500 million people, unemployment broke the 26 million mark for the first time.
But the trend is not uniform. Unemployment is increasing mainly in those countries, mostly in southern Europe, where market concerns over excessive public debt have pushed governments to make the toughest savings, pushing the economies into recession.
States have raised taxes and slashed spending — including by cutting wages and pensions, measures that hit the labor force in the pocket and reduce demand in the economy.
Laszlo Andor, the EU's Employment Commissioner, warned the uneven impact of the crisis could create a rift.
"A new divide is emerging between countries that seem trapped in a downward spiral of falling output, fast rising unemployment and eroding disposable incomes and those that have so far shown good or at least some resilience," said a statement from Andor's office.
Last year "has been another very bad year for Europe in terms of unemployment and the deteriorating social situation," said Andor. "It is unlikely that Europe will see much socio-economic improvement in 2013."
The single biggest increase in unemployment over the past year took place in Greece, where joblessness soared to 26 percent in September, up 7.1 percentage points over September 2011's 18.9 percent. The highest overall rate in the EU was in Spain, where 26.6 percent of the workforce was jobless in November, up 3.6 percentage points over last year.
By contrast, Austria posted the lowest unemployment rate in the EU, at 4.5 percent. The rate in Luxembourg was 5.1 percent, and the rate in Germany was 5.4 percent.
Beyond Europe, unemployment in the US has been edging down this year and was at 7.8 percent as of November. In Japan it was only 4.1 percent.
"It is clear that the economic implosion of several (EU) member states continues at a troubling pace," said Graeme Leach, chief economist at the London-based Institute of Directors. He said the stark statistics were "compounded by the political and human impact of terrifying levels of youth unemployment in Spain, Greece and Italy."
The problem of joblessness is made worse by the fact that southern EU nations are increasingly chipping away at their social safety system to make do.
"Most national welfare systems have lost much of their ability to protect household incomes against the effects of the crisis," said Andor.
The figures illustrate the daunting tasks confronting the European Union. While the threat of a collapse of the euro zone due to too much government debt may have receded, the national economies — many of which are in recession — will struggle to recover as long as joblessness continues to rise, creating poverty and fueling social discontent.
Beyond savings cuts, governments have also made reforms — particularly of labor practices and education — to promote employment. But they take time, both to enact and to feed through an economy.
As unemployment across the euro zone continues to rise, many analysts are concerned whether the political will to continue to cut budgets can be sustained.
"We expect the unemployment rate at the euro zone level to continue to rise from 11.8 percent in the latest figures to 12.5 percent by early 2014, as euro zone businesses and households remain wary, and governments continue to cut back," said Tom Rogers of Ernst & Young Eurozone Forecast.
One bright spot in yesterday's EU statistical releases were new figures showing economic sentiment in the euro zone had improved in December. The so-called economic sentiment indicator rose by 1.3 points to 87 as confidence improved among consumers and almost all business sectors.
Analysts said it was likely a result of improvements in financial markets, but warned that with unemployment still high, a recovery in the economy was months away.


Power-sucking Bitcoin ‘mines’ spark backlash

Updated 54 min 44 sec ago
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Power-sucking Bitcoin ‘mines’ spark backlash

  • Local US authorities pushing back against bitcoin miners as power prices rise
  • Firms insist they bring revenue, investment and talent to mining locations

NEW YORK: Bitcoin “miners” who use rows of computers whirring at the same time to produce virtual currencies began taking root along New York’s northern border a couple of years ago to tap into some of the nation’s cheapest hydroelectric power, offering an air of Silicon Valley sophistication to this often-snowy region.
But as the once-high-flying bitcoin market has waned, so too has the enthusiasm for bitcoin miners. Mining operations with stacks of servers suck up so much electricity that they are in some cases causing power rates to spike for ordinary customers. And some officials question whether it’s all worth it for the relatively few jobs created.
“We don’t want someone coming in, taking our resources, not creating the jobs they professed to create and then disappear,” said Tim Currier, mayor of Massena, a village just south of the Canadian border, where bitcoin operator Coinmint recently announced plans to use the old aluminum plant site for a mining operation that would require 400 megawatts — roughly enough to power 300,000 homes at once.
In Plattsburgh, where two cryptocurrency operations have been blamed for spiking electricity rates, the prospect of more cryptocurrency miners plugging in spooked officials enough in March to enact an 18-month moratorium on new operations. The small border village of Rouses Point also is holding off on approving new server farms and Lake Placid is considering a moratorium.
For local officials, the power struggle has been a crash course in the esoteric bitcoin mining business in which miners earn bitcoins by making complex calculations that verify transactions on the digital currency’s public ledger.
Since it often uses hundreds of computers that throw off tremendous heat and burn a lot of power, it has tended to gravitate toward cooler places with cheap electricity, such as geothermal-rich Iceland or along the Columbia River region of Washington state.
The stretch of New York near the Canadian border similarly fits the bill. Cheap hydropower from a dam spanning the St. Lawrence River is doled out by a state authority to local businesses that promise to create jobs. Additionally, some municipalities such as Massena and Plattsburgh receive cheap electricity from a separate hydropower project near Niagara Falls.

 

In Plattsburgh, electricity is so cheap most residents use it instead of oil or wood to heat their homes. The couple of commercial cryptocurrency mines here can get an industrial rate of about 3 cents per kilowatt hour — less than half the national average.
But Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read said its largest operator, Coinmint, which has two plants employing 20 or fewer people, can consume about 10 percent of Plattsburgh’s 104 megawatt cheap electricity quota. When the city exceeded its allocation like it did this winter, customers ended up paying $10 to $30 more a month for the extra electricity. For a major employer like Mold-Rite Plastics plant, it cost them at least $15,000 in February.
State regulators have since given municipal utilities the ability to charge higher rates to cryptocurrency miners. At least one bitcoin miner in Plattsburgh says he’s working with the city on solutions to the power worries.
Ryan Brienza, founder and CEO of the hosting company Zafra, said those could include mining on behalf of the city for an hour a day or harnessing the heat from mining computers to warm up large spaces.
While the direct number of jobs associated with mines can be small, Brienza said they can bring revenue, investments and talent to the city while employing local contractors.
“It can start snowballing,” Brienza said.
Coinmint’s plans for a new plant in Massena, for example, come with a promise of 150 jobs. That’s welcome in an area that in the past decade has suffered though the loss of aluminum-making jobs and the closure of a General Motors powertrain plant.
“J-O-Bs. Yup. What we need up here,” said Steve O’Shaughnessy, Massena town supervisor.
Coinmint had asked for a cheap power allocation from the New York Power Authority for Massena for part of its energy needs, but that request was deferred.
The power authority has separately enacted its own moratorium on allocating hydropower to cryptocurrency operations — mirroring municipalities that have effectively pushed the “pause” button on a rush of miners coming in.
Coinmint representatives said this month they hope to begin the Massena operation in the second part of this year. The company stressed that mines can be a good fit for this job-hungry area.
“They’re also going to get substantially more efficient over time,” said Coinmint spokesman Kyle Carlton. “So to the extent that Plattsburgh or Massena or anybody else can get in on that and establish themselves on the ground floor, I think that’s going to help those cities to be successful.”

Decoder

Bitcoin mining is the process used to verify transactions and add them to the currency's public ledger (blockchain). It involves compiling pending transactions and turning them into a computationally difficult, mathematical puzzle. The first computer to solve the puzzle claims a transaction fee and a newly-released bitcoin.