Ireland now has jobless growth instead of growth-less jobs

The relationship between Ireland’s reported GDP and employment has been a puzzle of late. Output in the economy barely grew last year yet employment soared and this year has seen GDP growth pick up but employment effectively stagnate; growth-less jobs has given way to jobless growth. The unemployment rate is still falling, it has to be said, but the explanation for that is more to do with a decline in the labour force rather than any strength in labour demand. Average pay is also declining and so the picture painted by the recent labour market data is certainly at odds with the recovery narrative currently holding sway.

The main source of information on Irish employment is the Quarterly National Household Survey (QNHS), which means that sampling errors are always present. That aside, the data shows that employment bottomed in the third quarter of 2012, having fallen by a seasonally adjusted 327k (or 15%) and  then rose sharply in 2013, with the annual increase in the final quarter at 61k or over 3%. Not all industries participated and agriculture saw by far the biggest increase in employment, but on the face of it the pace of job creation was extraordinary, and one usually associated with a booming economy. Yet the recorded GDP data, which measures the output of the economy, initially showed a fall in 2013, and although subsequent revisions have been positive, the latest vintage still has real GDP growth last year of only 0.2%.Nonethelss the strength of job creation precipitated a substantial fall in the unemployment rate, to 12.2% at end 2013 from 14.2% a year earlier, despite a rise in the participation rate. The implied tightening of the labour market was not evident in terms of pay, however, as average weekly earnings fell by 0.7% last year.

The data revisions to the national accounts had left exports stronger than previously thought and a positive contribution from external trade was the main driver of the 2.7% rise in Irish GDP reported for the first quarter this year, offsetting another fall in domestic demand. The data left the annual growth rate in q1 at 4.1% and, as we expected, has prompted a substantial upward revision to the consensus growth projection for 2014 as a whole, with many private sector forecasts now  well over 3%. Many analysts are also anticipating a pick up in personal consumption, in part predicated on a strong employment figure, but the latest QNHS data, for q2, is very disappointing in terms of job creation; employment rose by 4.3k on a seasonally adjusted basis in the quarter bringing the increase in employment in the first half of the year to just 5.5k. Coverage of the figures tended to emphasise  the annual increase in employment of 37k but  the quarterly flow implies that  the annual rise will slow sharply by the end of the year .

The unemployment rate fell further in the quarter, to an average 11.5%, despite the weak employment figures, reflecting a fall in the labour force and a decline in the participation rate. The decline in the latter was particularly acute for those  over 16 and under 24, with more staying on at school or entering third-level. Emigration is a factor too, although the net figure fell  to 21k in  the year to April 2014, with an increased inflow of  61k partially offsetting a reduced outflow of 82k.

The surprisingly weak employment figures should also be set against the data on average earnings, showing an annual fall of 1.1% in the second quarter, which again would not indicate a tightening labour market overall, although some industries did see strong annual pay growth including construction (6%), the hospitality sector (5.3%) and manufacturing (4.2%). Some have pointed to the strength of income tax receipts as being inconsistent with the pay and jobs data, which is worth noting, although it should be remembered that the 2014 Budget did include measures to boost income tax by over €200mn as well as strong carryover effects from 2013.

As is often the case with Irish data we are left with a confusing picture- is the economy growing very strongly, as indicated by the GDP figures, or is it much weaker  as implied by the employment figures?. The latter does seem to suggest that domestic demand, and particularly the domestic service economy, where most jobs are located, remains in the doldrums. This does not preclude 3.5% GDP growth but it does mean that growth will again be driven by the multinantional export sector, which is not labour intensive.


Irish mortgage lending picking up but still far from healthy market

New  Irish mortgage lending for house purchase peaked in 2006 at some €28bn, with over 110k mortgages drawn down, and subsequently fell, collapsing completely from 2008 onwards before bottoming out in 2011 with a value figure of just €2.1bn and a volume total of 11k. The ending of mortgage tax relief in 2012 prompted borrowers to bring forward their draw down which helped to boost lending to €2.5bn  in that year but the corollary was a weaker figure in 2013, with the value of lending slipping to €2.4bn alongside a fall in volume from the 14k  seen the previous year. Lending has picked up substantially this year, however, and the annual total may well rise to around €3bn, with perhaps over 16k new mortgages for house purchase likely to be  drawn down.

The past year has certainly seen some positive changes in terms of both the supply of credit and the demand for mortgages. The number of active lenders fell away sharply in the downturn and is still low but credit standards are back to more normal levels , having tightened considerably at the onset of the recession ( credit standards always tend to be pro-cyclical). On the demand side affordability is back to the benign levels seen in the latter part of the  1990’s and employment is rising which has helped to support household incomes,  the main driver of mortgage demand. Price expectations ,too, play a part, and  few now doubt that the market has bottomed, at least in the main cities, particularly the capital.

The latest  new lending figures from the Irish Banking Federation (IBF) show that 4337 mortgages for house purchase were drawn down in the second quarter, an increase of 52% on the same period last year and compared with 3126 in the first quarter. Buy-to-let mortgages account for less than 5% of the total compared with a quarter at the peak of the boom, although the rental yield is now higher than the mortgage rate which was certainly not the case in 2006 and 2007. First -time buyers now dominate, accounting for  well over half the total (from a third at the peak) with the balance made up by those moving house, a segment that has taken a much more stable proportion of lending.

The average new mortgage for house purchase is also rising, as one might expect given the rise in house prices nationally, increasing by over 5% at an annual rate in the second quarter, to just over €178k. As a result the total value of mortgage lending for house purchase in q2 was €773m or 60% up on the previous year, following a figure of €539m in the first quarter.

These annual growth figures are clearly very impressive but when put in context the housing market is still far from what might be considered  liquid and healthy. Total transactions amounted to over 8700 in the second quarter, for example, according to the Property Price Register , so the mortgage data implies that less than half of transactions are being funded by bank credit, which remains unusually low. In addition, mortgage repayments are still outpacing new lending so net mortgage lending is still contracting; net lending fell by a total of €1.5bn in the first six months of 2014, which implies repayments of €2.8bn given that new lending (as per the IBF data) was €1.3bn.

What level of mortgage lending would take place in a healthy market?. One approach is to assume that a 3%-4%  annual turnover in housing transactions is normal, implying transactions of 60k-80k (there are approximately 2m houses in Ireland)  compared with around 30k last year, Again, perhaps 80%-85% might be normally funded via a mortgage so that gives a mortgage volume figure in the region of say 50k-60k per annum. The 2014 outturn may well be around 16k so we are still a long way away from an equilibrium, although lending is clearly now finally  moving in the right direction.

Trend in Irish household income rising but savings ratio also increasing

The initially reported contraction in Irish GDP last year has now been revised away which alongside strong growth in the first quarter of 2014 has prompted forecasters to revise up their projections for the full year, with exports and investment spending seen as the main drivers. Consumer spending continues to disappoint, however, having fallen in q1 and the final quarter of 2013, so again dashing hopes of a recovery in that key component of domestic demand. The consensus still expects some growth in consumption this year, nonetheless, but the scale of any forecast  rise is being trimmed back. Consumption largely depends on the trend in disposable income but  the proportion of any given  income spent and saved  can and does vary over time. On that basis the recent trend in disposable income is encouraging but  the  trend in the savings ratio has also started to rise again, reversing the  downward path evident since 2010, adding a further degree of uncertainty to the economic outlook.

Household spending is not uniform through the year and so the savings ratio also exhibits pronounced quarterly swings, falling sharply in the final quarter of the year, for example, and rising steeply in the first quarter. The CSO seasonally adjust for such moves and the adjusted figures for household disposable income and savings tend to be the focus of attention. Volatility is still high, however; disposable income fell by 4.8% in the first quarter of 2014, latest figures show,  after a 3.8% rise in the final three months of 2013, but the change in consumption was  much less pronounced (too modest quarterly declines) so the savings ratio fell sharply, from 15.4% to 11.7%.The implication is that households had to spend a higher proportion of their income in q1 to support spending in the face of a sharp fall in income.

The trend in these variables is more significant, however, and a 4-quarter total shows a different  picture. The latest CSO figures now show that the declining trend in household disposable income bottomed in the first quarter of 2013 and the past year has seen an upturn in income, no doubt supported by the recovery in employment which is offsetting stagnant wages; the 4-quarter income  figure in q1 was €90bn, the highest since late 2010 and compared with a cycle low of €87bn. A modest increase, leaving incomes well below the cycle peak of €102bn, but a welcome change in trend from the relentless falls seen since 2008.

The onset of the recession at that time and accompanying surge in employment prompted a substantial change in household behaviour. The trend in the savings ratio ( defined here as a 4-quarter moving average)  rose sharply, from under 7% in 2007 to over 16% by the end of 2009.Most forecasters  then expected the ratio to decline, particularly when the labour market stared to improve, and that duly unfolded, with a fall to around 10% by the end of 2012. That trend decline has come to a halt, however, with a pronounced upward drift of late, to 12.8% in q1 2014,, the highest since 2010.Households are still deleveraging, of course, and that is no doubt an influence, but household wealth is also rising again and the interest rate paid on savings products is unusually low, which might argue for a fall in the ratio.

I have noted elsewhere that the savings  and income data are subject to substantial revisions  , so the past year’s data may look different in time, but for the moment the trend in  disposable income is positive although it appears households remain cautious about spending, despite other data showing  that consumer confidence has recovered to pre-recession levels.