Mortgage Controls, the ECB and the Irish Housing market

Ireland’s monetary policy is set by the ECB and has had a very significant impact on household income and wealth in Ireland over recent years, as well as a profound effect on the housing market, particularly in relation to house prices and the ownership of the housing stock. Yet little attention is paid to it, in contrast to say Germany where it is heavily criticised and indeed the subject of legal challenge.  Similarly, the Central Bank introduced mortgage controls five years ago ,which again has had a material impact not only on housing but on credit growth, the distribution of wealth in Ireland and indeed on the political landscape, begetting policies designed to mitigate the consequences of these  monetary and macro prudential decisions.

Let’s start  with the controls. The average new mortgage for house purchase peaked in 2008 at €270,000 and then plunged alongside house prices before  bottoming in 2012 at €174,000. Since then it has risen steadily, reaching €233,000 last year, which when related to  rising incomes and the much lower cost of a mortgage indicates that affordability is much improved and in fact is still better than the long run average.

Mortgage controls are designed to limit  household leverage, imposing a LTI limit of 3.5 ( with some exceptions) and the Central Bank acknowledged in 2015 that  one might expect this to dampen house price inflation, credit growth and also negatively impact housing supply. We do not know how the market would have developed in the absence of such controls but the Central Bank  made a stab at answering  in their recent Financial Stability Review , estimating that prices in the period to the first quarter of 2019 would have been around 20% higher, or 4% per annum, with PDH lending substantially higher, by some 40%.The Bank does not show an estimate for housing supply but if prices had been higher completions would presumaly have been stronger, although what is also clear  is that the longer term relationship between house prices and supply has shifted since the crash, in that house building  has been much weaker in response to the actual price changes observed than experienced in the past.

If housing demand exceeds supply prices and/ or rents will increase, with that split being affected by, inter alia, the growth in income for  would be buyers, the cost and availability of credit and the type of buyer in the market. So if mortgage lending would have been higher in the absence of controls  then  some would-be buyers are forced to rent or live at home if that is an option. This has thrown up the odd situation  where the average rent nationally in 2019 was around €1200 per month, while the average monthly payment on a new  FTB 25-year mortgage  was  €1076 i.e. the rental payment could sustain a mortgage of  €254,000 instead of the actual FTB average last year of  €227,000. Landlords are therefore taking on higher credit risk than banks, and the average LTI for  FTBs  is actually only 3.1, which may be too low in an economy where the cost of housebuilding is high and where the  average rental payment  would service a mortgage with an LTI of 3.5 . It also  looks very conservative compared to the UK, where the LTI  cap is  4.5, with a 15% exception on a rolling twelve month basis rather than a calendar year.Rental growth in the UK has also been much weaker than in Ireland.

The type of buyer has also changed. The introduction of mortgage controls  coincided (?) with the ECB’s decision to buy bonds under QE, which alongside negative rates has pushed  Government bond yields into negative territory, including Irish debt out to 10 years. That renders Irish residential rentals yields ( which appear to be above 5%) unusually attractive and so we have had an influx of institutional buyers into the market, which was not a feature of previous cycles. Since the end of 2014  institutional buyers have purchased a quarter of new housing according to the CSO data, rising to 33% last year alone, which is then rented, with housebuilders also now more inclined to pre-sell developments to institutional buyers rather than risk waiting to sell to individuals.

QE is designed to boost investment in assets other than bonds and so will push up house prices, but  at the same time the Central Bank controls have constrained   access to mortgages for households. That not only has implications for owner occupation but also wealth: gross Irish household wealth rose to €947bn in the third quarter of 2019, of which €545bn was in the form of housing, or €412bn net of debt.Wealth in Ireland is therefore disproportionately held in property and so the combination of controls and QE has and will have  broader implications for wealth in Ireland  and its distribution over time.

As to the future, QE is open-ended at present and the market is not priced for a return to positive ECB  rates for years so the yield on bonds is unlikely to rise sharply, thereby maintaining the demand for rental yield. Similarly the Central Bank appears happy with the mortgage controls as they are, albeit showing some concern about the profitability of Irish banks (too low, that is), and if change occurs it may be to move towards a debt service metric- the impact of a fixed  LTI limit on mortgage payments  when rates are 3% would be be very different if rates were 5%.

A demand shock could change everything ( rents fell by over 20% from 2008 to 2010) as indeed could a supply shock. That might be positive (an upside surprise in terms of house completions) but also negative – an extension of rental controls or a rent freeze would reduce the value of the housing stock and it would be a very unusual economic development if that encouraged more completions.

Spending rather than tax cuts: General Election fiscal proposals

Ireland goes to the polls on February 8th and the main political parties have outlined their fiscal proposals, although some in greater detail than others, at least to date. A universal feature is the pledge to devote substantially more resources to  additional government spending rather than tax cuts, with the promised ratio far higher than was the norm in recent years. The plans are also  predicated on what are in effect pretty conservative projections for economic growth, although of course with no presumption that Ireland will experience a recession, either Brexit related or following a global setback.

For context it is worth noting that 2019 ended with Irish current revenue exceeding current exchequer spending by  €7.9bn, or around €13bn if debt interest is excluded, with a capital deficit of €7.3bn. That implies that if current   revenue rises broadly in line with projected GDP, the current budget surplus will continue to increase, allowing the sitting government the option to raise spending, be it current or capital, and/or to cut taxes, whilst still running an overall budget surplus.

That is exactly the position outlined in early January by the outgoing Government, envisaging €16.6bn in available resources in the five years to 2025, a figure which all the parties have taken as their benchmark. That sum is also consistent with an annual fiscal surplus of just over 1% of  GDP, although it should be noted that what is relevant for EU fiscal rules is the Budget adjusted for the economic cycle (the structural balance) and on that criterion the structural deficit might well be  in deficit and indeed worse than the 0.5% of GDP curently set as Ireland’s  fiscal objective, given that the EU believes that the Irish economy is operating much higher above capacity than seen by the Department of Finance.

That said, it also notable that the forecasts envisage a sharp deceleration in growth, from 3.9% this year to under 3% and then 2.5% by 2025.This is supply rather than demand related; the Department of Finance believes the economy is at full employment and so employment growth is forecast to slow , constrained by the growth of the labour force, with no pool of unemployed workers from which to draw.

On the various fiscal plans, Fine Gael augment the €16.6bn figure modestly to €17.1bn via higher taxes on tobacco and vaping,with additional compliance also assumed to add revenue. From the new figure  €2.8bn is allocated to tax cuts, largely to fund increases in the standard tax band, with  €14.3bn in additional spending, a ratio of over 5 to 1. On spending, €5.6bn is pre-committed (€3bn current and €2.6bn capital)  and the biggest slice of the €8.7bn unallocated is set to go on Health (€3.1bn) . The plan also includes €2bn specifically earmarked for higher  public sector pay.

The Labour Party have also set out a detailed fiscal plan, which envisages bolstering the available resources by €2bn, to €18.6bn, by raising tax receipts via higher stamp duty on shares and commercial property alongside a higher bank levy. Some €3bn of this €18.6bn will be set aside for indexing the personal tax system, implying raising allowances and the standard tax band by around 2% a year, leaving €15.6bn, of which €5.6bn is deemed pre-committed with the remaining €10bn for additional expenditure (€8bn current and €2bn capital).

Fianna Fail have not (as yet) set out a detailed fiscal plan as above but from their manifesto is is clear they are taking the €16,6bn figure as given, although arguing that the €5.6bn deemed as pre-committed by the outgoing adminstration is too low, including an underestimation of demographic pressures. Consequently FF would set aside an additional €1.2bn to also  include unforeseen expenditure, leaving €9.8bn to be allocated overall. FF pledge a 4:1 ratio of spending to tax reductions, with €1.3bn of the unallocated figure  earmarked to fund personal tax cuts, including a lower USC rate and an increase in the standard tax band.

Of course these are all manifesto promises and not all will see the light of day, particularly as the opinion polls suggest that a coalition government is the most likely outcome. Events may also intrude, throwing any fiscal plans off course. Interesting to note, though, the big move by all parties towards higher spending and away from any notion of cutting income tax rates.

Sterling’s big impact on Irish car market

The CSO data on private cars licensed shows 2019 was another difficult year for Irish motor dealers, with new cars  sold down 6.5% to 113,000. This was the third consecutive annual decline from the 2016 high of 142,000 and a long way from the pre-crash figure of over 180,000.

At first glance this weakness appears inconsistent with the  surge in  household income, which has probably risen by a cumulative 20% over the last three years, while interest rates are at very low levels. One answer lies in the number of imported used cars, which in contrast has risen strongly, increasing by 9.5% in 2019 and a cumulative 132% since 2015. Indeed, last year’s total of 109,000 is only marginally below the new car figure.

Factors specific to the Irish and UK car markets can be important in the import decision and one clear factor of late is the plunge in diesel sales in the UK, leading to lower prices  there relative to petrol and hybrid models. The sale of new diesel car sales in Ireland also fell last year but imports of diesel actually rose, far outstripping domestic sales, and accounted for 72% of all imported cars, against a 47% share of the new car market.

What is striking though, looking at the total import figures, is the very close correlation (0.92) between the euro/sterling rate and  the share of car imports in the  overall market. The latter fell sharply between 2013 and 2015 for example, to 28% from over 40%, against a backdrop of a steep slide in the euro, from 85 pence sterling to 73 pence. The UK currency subsequently fell sharply following the Brexit referendum, with the euro averaging around 88 pence over the last few years, which obviously makes importing anything from the UK cheaper, including cars.

Sterling has rallied in recent months and all else equal a weaker euro/sterling rate will translate into a fall in imported cars as a share of the market. However, a no-deal Brexit is still possible by end-2020 and the UK economy has slowed significantly of late, with the market now expecting a rate cut by the BoE, which is putting renewed downward pressure on sterling. So it is not certain that the euro sterling rate will fall, although that is the consensus view in the market. Car imports will also be affected by changes  announced in the Irish 2020 Budget, introducing a new VRT levy based on nitrogen oxide emissions, applicable to both new and imported cars. This may well dampen the import demand for older diesel cars so the close link to the sterling exchange rate may become less pronounced, albeit still evident.

Why has Irish house price inflation slowed?

Irish residential property price inflation has slowed appreciably this year. According to the CSO the annual change in the average residential property  in September was just 1.1%,  against 8.5% a year earlier. Prices in Dublin are now falling, by an annual 1.3%, and although still rising elsewhere in the country  the pace of appreciation has slowed to 3.6% from double digit gains a year earlier. Indeed in parts of the capital the falls are steep, with house prices in Dun Laoghaire /Rathdown 6.8% lower than a year ago, indicating that it is the more expensive areas that are seeing the largest falls.

What is driving the change? There are various approaches to modelling house prices and some straightforward metrics one can use to gauge whether residential property looks ‘cheap’ or ‘dear’, although there are data issues, including measuring the average price of a house- the CSO data is only available from 2010, for example, although the Department of the Environment has quarterly estimates going back much further, albeit solely based on mortgage lending.

One common metric is the house price to rent ratio, and on our model, using data back to 1990, the ratio is around the long run average and is actually falling currently, as rental growth in 2019 of 5.5% is outpacing house price inflation. House prices do look  more expensive relative to incomes, although interest rates are historically low with the result that the cost of an average new mortgage relative to income  is below the long run average i.e. affordability is supportive rather than excessive.

An alternative approach is to model house prices relative to ‘fundamentals’ , with the most common being mortgage rates,  disposable income, the housing stock and demographic changes. The Central Bank uses one such model (among a suite)  and  as pointed out in the Bank’s latest  Financial Stability Review it is currently pointing to prices  well below where  fundamentals suggest they should be. Moreover, the model  is predicting 12% price growth this year, so the recent slowdown is not readily explainable.

Our own fundamental model leads to a similar conclusion. Mortgage rates have edged lower over the past five years but the major positive  demand driver for house prices in the model is the very strong growth seen in  household disposable income , with both employment and wages rising at a strong pace, a trend still apparent. An increase in the supply of houses should act as a brake and that is indeed often cited as a factor behind the slowdown but we find this not to be the case. The housing stock per head of population  has the most significant impact and although completions are rising ,and may exceed 20,000 this year, that adds only 1% to the housing stock against  annual population growth of 1.3%. Indeed the housing stock per head has been falling since 2010, and so is acting to push prices up rather than dampen price growth.

So if such fundamental models imply prices should be higher there must be something else at work which is not captured in the regressions. Credit growth is one obvious factor, and we have seen  a change there  as the Central Bank has put limits on new mortgage lending since 2015. The Bank  believes that new PDH lending would be much higher in the absence of  such controls, as would house prices, although Irish banks are now  required to hold much more capital  so one might argue that lending would not have risen as quickly as in the past given the additional cost to the banks of  every new loan. The Central Bank actually voiced concern about the profitability of Irish banks in the Stability Review, which sits uneasily with the narrative commonly observed in many parts  of the media.

Another factor not captured in models is the type of buyer, and in Ireland’s case there has been a significant increase in ‘sale for rent’, with builders agreeing a block price for a development with an institutional  buyer attracted by the high yields on offer. The average price per unit sold is below what would have been achieved if each had been sold separately, acting to depress prices.

Sentiment and expectations  also play a role and not readily captured in a model.  Brexit and its potential negative impact on the Irish economy is an obvious factor here and consumer confidence surveys have certainly shown a significant fall this year. That uncertainty may be relieved to some extent if the UK actually  announces its withdrawal in January but then the issue switches to the type of trade relationship post- Brexit, so potentially prolonging the negative impact on sentiment.

If that were the case house prices could continue to ‘underperform’  the fundamentals  regardless of how the economy perfoms. Risks also abound in terms of employment and income while the current consensus view on housing supply may well be too optimistic, as softer house prices will dampen completions and hence continue to depress the housing stock per capita.

 

 

Mortgage affordability still improving despite stronger lending

Data released by the BPFI  shows that new lending growth has picked up in recent months, with 9,500 mortgages for house purchase drawn down in the third quarter, up from 8,000 in q2 and under 7,000 in the first quarter. Lending tends to be seasonal and is normally stronger in q3 but the annual growth rate has also accelerated, to 8.7% from 8.2% in q2. The value of loans drawn down for house purchase also picked up, exceeding €2.2bn ,  the strongest quarterly new lending figure for eleven years.

The average  new mortgage for house purchase is now €235,800 and that too is growing at a stronger pace than earlier in the year, up 3.6% in q3, but still lagging reported growth in household disposable income, which is some 6.5%, driven by rising employment and a pick up in wage inflation. As noted in a previous blog this implies that mortgage affordability continues to improve, aided by the fall in fixed rates over the past year as this now accounts for some 75% of new mortgage lending.

Lending for house purchase accounts for only 80% of all mortgage lending, with the remainder reflecting switching and top-ups. The latter is still tiny, at €70m in q3, while switching amounted to €330m in the quarter albeit slowing  from the growth rates seen over the past few years. Total lending in q3 therefore amounted to €2.6bn, again the strongest quarterly figure since 2008.

Central bank mortgage controls didn’t exist a decade ago of course and they are having a significant impact on credit creation, preventing the rise in loan to income seen in the noughties.The controls have also been  impacting lending through the year , with banks exceeding the amount allowed in excess of the 3.5 LTI limit in the first half of the year, prompting a pull-back in later months in order to meet the annual constraint. This year, however, that is not the case, with Central bank data for the first half of the year indicating that only 16% of FTB lending was in excess of 3.5 LTI, against 23% a year earlier ( the annual limit is 20%).

This implies there is unlikely to be a sharp reduction in approvals as seen in the second half of last year, and the figures available to September indicates the trend is still firm. Consequently, we expect mortgage lending for 2019 as a whole to reach €9.6bn, from €8.7bn last year, with 35,000 mortgages drawn down for house purchase

The ECB has managed to tighten monetary policy.

The ECB had flagged that its September meeting would deliver further monetary easing but it is testimony to the difficulty in managing market expectations that the net result is that policy is now actually tighter . That may change,of course, depending on how events unfold over the coming months but as it stands market rates have risen, as has the currency and short term bond yields, and excess liquidity in the market  has  actually declined.

Perhaps the most striking change announced by President Draghi was on forward guidance, with the pledge to keep rates at the current level or lower now no longer time dependent but open ended till the inflation target is achieved.The Bank had also spent most of the past five years denying that negative rates were having a materially adverse effect on the banking system but changed tack, with the introduction of a tiering system on deposit rates. Banks are required to maintain a given level of required reserves , currently €132bn, and these are remunerated at zero percent, the main refi rate. Excess liquidity, which stands at almost €1,800bn , is paid at the deposit rate, which at -0.4% cost banks over €7bn a year. The change now means that banks can hold almost €800bn at the zero rate, but still leaving around €1,100bn in excess,  now remunerated at -0.5% i.e. a cost of €5.5bn.

Some relief then for banks ,albeit one that was below market expectations, but the ECB also eased the terms on its latest long term loans package for EA banks (TLTRO III), which is now for up to three years at a rate equal to the main refi rate over the period, which is likely to be zero. Indeed, as with the other TLTRO’s, banks that grow their eligible lending by over 2.5% by end-March 2021 will pay the deposit rate, currently -0.5%. From an Irish perspective it should be noted that eligible loans exclude mortgages, which are the dominant lending for domestic banks.

The ECB also announced that QE will recommence  in November at  €20bn per month, with no set end-date, although it is likely the 33% limit would be hit in many countries after a year or so. The market reaction to all this may change when QE kicks in and when we have seen a number of TLTRO’s but to date policy is tighter than before the meeting; 3-month euribor for December is trading at -0.42%, from -0.54%, while the figure for December 2020 is -0.5% from -0.62%. The outlook for fixed rate mortgages has also changed as  5 year swap rates have also moved higher, to -0.35% from around -0.5% a few weeks ago.

The euro exchage rate, as measured by the effective or trade weighted index, has also appreciated, which one doubts was a policy aim, while short term bond yields have actually risen;  the German 2-year was -0.81% and is now -0.70% with the Irish equivalent rising to -0.49% from -0.64%. Banks are the main buyers of this debt and it is less attractive because they can now hold more reserves at a zero rate.

It’s early days, but the first TLTRO 111 actually reduced liquidity. Banks had borrowed €740bn under the previous scheme which with early repayment had fallen to €692bn, with another €32bn due for repayment next week. The take up of today’s first TLTRO III was only €3.4bn , implying a net drain of €29bn. Banks have had little time to prepare and no doubt the take up will improve but it is still a remarkable result.

The market had clearly priced in a lot from the ECB but one doubts that the Governing Council will be pleased by the result, an effective  monetary tightening. For prospective  Irish mortgage borrowers the result is also likely to mean less downward pressure on rates.

Irish growth averages 6.6% in first half of 2019

The Irish economy grew by 0.7% in the second quarter, following an upwardly revised 2.7% in q1  (from 2.4%) . The figures left  the annual change in q2 at 5.8% from 7.4%, indicating average growth of  6.6% in the first half of the year. Absent revisions, this implies that GDP would have to contract  over the final two quarters to achieve the current 4.4% consensus for full year growth.

As is often the case with the National Accounts the globalised nature of Irish GDP threw up another weird and wonderful figure for investment in intellectual property, with the import of business services ( which captures that component) rising by over €36bn in the quarter and by €38bn over the previous year, As a consequence total imports jumped by 43% in q2, bringing the annual increase to 61%. This surge is  neutral for GDP however, in that imports are either consumed or invested and in this case contributed to a 182% increase in capital formation in the quarter, no doubt largely due to spending on Intangibles. In fact the CSO did not give a figure for spending on that component  for ‘confidentiality reasons’ implying one or two large firms were responsible.

We do know that spending on building and construction rose by 5.6% in annual terms in q2 and that the pace of expansion there is slowing- indeed spending was broadly flat in the quarter itself when adjusted for the normal seasonal upswing. Spending by domestic firms on machinery and equipment has also slowed but picked up some momentum in q2, rising by 3.6% in the quarter.

Robust government spending has been a feature of the economy of late and that is evident in 2019, with annual growth in government consumption averaging 4.1% over the first half of the year. This is outpacing consumer spending of 2.8%, and the latter is also  lagging  household income growth, implying a rising savings ratio; the past year has seen a remarkable increase in household deposits, despite virtually zero rates of return.

A large run down in inventories was also a feature of the q2 data, and the main driver of  overall GDP growth was again the export sector, witha 2.8% increase in the quarter bringing the annual rise to over 10%. This includes offshore contract manufacturing and the latter has been on a softer trend over the past year, perhaps indicating that trade tensions are having an impact. None the less  the aggregate figure is still remarkably strong.

The  high frequency data  has pointed to some slowing in the pace of activity of late; unemployment has risen in recent months, retail sales have fallen, credit growth has eased and confidence surveys have plumged. This is likely to be largely Brexit related and as such a prolongation of the uncertainty regarding the outcome is a main negative for the outlook, at least in terms of domestic demand. However domestic spending is now small in relation to GDP ( consumer spending accounts for less than a third for example) , albeit important for employment, so it will be the  export picture that will determine what happens to the overall growth rate.

 

 

Every Irish Budget since 2008 has been Contractionary

The Irish Budget gets much media attention and the process itself is now more transparent than in the past, although the net impact on demand in the economy is generally small and certainly far less important than developments in employment and wages. Indeed, given the scale of mortgage debt in the economy and the prevalence of variable mortgage rates ( declining as a share of the market now but still dominant in terms of outstanding debt) monetary policy has had a far bigger impact, particularly in recent years, and it is surprising that the actions of the ECB and our own Central Bank does not receive more scrutiny from the Oireachtas.

The stance of fiscal policy ( i.e. is the Budget adding to demand in the economy or reducing it) does get attention from the economic community and a standard criticism of fiscal policy in Ireland is that it is pro-cyclical , meaning that the Government tends to boost demand in an already strong economy by  cutting taxes and/or raising expenditute. What is therefore surprising is that an examination of the evidence shows that every Irish budget since 2008 can be said to have been contractionary, at least as delivered by the Minister ( the outcomes are often quite different)

The change in the actual budget is not a good measure of the fiscal stance as the General Government balance is itself  impacted by the economy; tax receipts will  rise in a boom, for example, and fall in a recession, with the reverse operating in terms of government transfers such as unemployment benefit.

These forces act as ‘automatic stabilisers’  in that a downturn will increase a government deficit, thus offsetting, at least in part. the decline in private sector spending , a process which the current Minister of Finance has suggested Ireland would allow in the wake of a significant weakening in activity following Brexit (should it happen). A better measure of the fiscal stance, therefore, is to adjust for the economic cycle, an inexact science to say the least but one that is published in the Budget every year by the Department of Finance. A final tweak is to adjust for interest payments on the debt, which are not at the discretion of the  Government ( and are falling rapidly in Ireland’s case ) to arrive at the structural primary balance, which is the preferred measure of the fiscal stance by many economists, including those at the IMF. For example, the 2019  Irish Budget projected a primary surplus of 1.4% of GDP  or 0.8% when adjusted for the economic cycle.

Using that metric, we can see that the 2008 Budget was the last that could be called expansionary , with a planned structural primary surplus of 0.7% of GDP against an expected 2007 surplus of 1.6%. The following budgets saw massive spending and tax cuts, of course but it is surprising and contrary to the perceived narrative that this contractionary process is still at work. For exampe the 2016 Budget saw a projected shift in the adjusted primary balance from zero to a surplus of 0.5% of GDP. In 2017, the projected surplus rose again, from 0.5% to 1.1%, followed in 2018 by a projected 1.3% from an estimated outturn of 0.9%. In 2019 the change in stance was marginal, it has to be said, but nonetheless the projected adjusted primary surplus still rose, to 0.8% from 0.7%, with much larget surpluses projected over the coming years.

These may never materialise , of course, and as noted the implied stance at the delivery of any budget can look very different at the end of the year in question. Moreover, the  above takes no account of what the budgetary position might have been had the suthorities not made the discretionary choices they did, and again it is a common charge in Ireland that  governments have tended to spend  most of  any tax windfalls. One can  therefore debate whether  fiscal policy could and should have been tighter but it is the case that in terms of the actual policy stance as  delivered by the Minister it is over a decade since we have seen an expansionary budget.

 

Ireland’s plunging birth rate and rising unemployment challenges narrative on economy

The CSO has just published two significant data sets , one relating to  the latest demographics and the other to the labour market in the second quarter of the year. The former was broadly as expected,  but the latter came as something of a shock, challenging the recent narrative on the economy.

The Irish population has been growing strongly again after a softer period following the financial crash and that trend continued in the twelve months to April, with a 65,000 increase (1.3%) taking the total to a fresh high of 4.92m. In general, official estimates and projections have tended to underestimate population growth, in large part because of the signifcance and volatility  of migration in the Irish data. In this case  the scale of emigration was largely unchanged from the previous year, at 55,000, but  offset by  substantial immigration of some 89,000, again similar to 2018, to give a net migration figure of 34,000. The latter is now larger than the natural increase ( births – deaths) which has slowed significantly  of late, to 31,000 from 49,000 at the turn of the decade. Indeed, the Irish birth rate ( births per 1,000 population)  although still very high by EU standards is falling rapidly , to 12.4 from 16.6 a decade ago.

Nonetheless, the robust pace of overall population growth allied to the boom in economic activity has resulted in  the emergence of massive capacity constraints across many areas of the economy, most nobaly housing but also in education, health care, public transport and the  infrastructure  around the main cities. The current make-up of that population growth ( a falling birth rate offset by  high net immigration ) makes it particularly difficult to plan for the future, however, as a period of weaker growth in Ireland might have a very significant impact on migration flows and hence total population.

The boom in the economy had propelled employment  to record highs and prompted much discussion about the level of full employment, as the unemployment rate had fallen to a cyle low of 4.5% in June. In that context the other main CSO release, the quartely Labour Force Survey, was a shocker. Headline employment fell marginally in q2  from the previous quarter but normally rises for seasonal reasons and so the adjusted figure saw a 21,000 decline, spread over half of the fourteen industry sectors categorised by the CSO. The labour force continued to rise  in the quarter so the numbers unemployed rose, as did the unemployment rate, to 5.2% from 5.1%. A marginal change in that context but it did result in a much more significant revision to the previously published monthly estimates, as unemployment in July is now 18,000 higher than previously thought and has been rising for the past four months, taking the unemployment rate to 5.3% instead of 4.6%.

Coverage of the data tended to emphasis the annual growth in headline employment, which is still impressive at 40,000 or 2.0%, although this is the slowest annual growth rate since early 2013. The seasonal  adjusted fall in q2 also followed a strong rise of 49,000 in q1 giving a net positive figure over the first half of the year of 28,000, so one might put all this down to a quirk in the data ( which is based on a household survey) particularly as the numbers claiming unemployment  benefit are still falling, albeit at a much reduced pace.

However, confidence surveys have weakened of late and some of the hard data has pointed to slower domestic activity, notably retail sales which fell by a cumulative 6.5% in the three months to July. One obvious culprit behind this caution is Brexit, which may also be impacting the demand side of  the  housing market. Indeed one other surprising feature of the Labour Force data was that construction employment has flatlined for the past nine months, which may be due to a scarcity of labour but also to caution from builders and developers as well.

All in all, food for thought- has unemployment bottomed in this cycle or is this just a short term hiccup which a Brexit resolution  might help to cure? On population, the Irish birth rate may still be the highest in Europe but is heading rapidly towards the EU average which is under 10.

Are estimates of Irish housing demand far too high?

The consensus view on Irish housing is that demand exceeds supply by a considerable margin and that the gap is closing, which many conclude is the key factor in the clear deceleration in residential property price inflation seen over the past year. Yet the increase in supply is not that pronounced and it may well be that demand is not as  substantial as generally believed, particularly into the medium term..

The latest figures on housing completions from the CSO, covering the second quarter of the year, show a half- year total of 9,100  which implies the full year figure will be above the 18,000 recorded in 2018,  albeit pointing to a outturn below 21,000. Supply is therefore still rising but at a sluggish pace, and certainly still a long way from the 30,000-35,000 widely seen as a good estimate of the annual demand over the medium term.

That figure is largely based on projections for household formation but there is an obvious circularity in that households are defined as occupying a house or an apartment. In other words  housing supply creates household formation so  the latter is not an independent estimate of demand. For example, the number of  households in Ireland rose by just 48,000 in the five years to the 2016 census, or by less than 10,000 per annum, but the numbers living in those households increased by 166,000, indicating a rise in the average household size. Housing demand projections  generally assume that the size of households will fall over the medium term.

So household formation averaging 30,000 or more a year implicitly assumes  housing supply around that figure , and lower supply would mean lower household formation. A look at the latest population projections by the CSO also gives food for thought. On the assumption of unchanged fertility and an annual net migrant inflow of 30,000 per year the population between 25 and 44 increases by just 8,000 in total by 2025, with the numbers between 30 and 40 years old declining sharply. If migration was much lower, at 10,000 per annum, and fertility declined, the CSO projection shows a 100,000 fall in the 25-44 age group which is the cohort one generally associates with house purchase and household formation.

If supply is the main determinant of demand  the recent data on planning permissions, showing a fall in the annual figure to below 29,000, casts doubt on whether supply will exceed 30,000 a year and , if so , household formation will be much lower than the received wisdom. The average number per household may in fact continue to rise .