Massive excess supply pushing oil prices down.

Energy , which accounts for almost 10% of the Irish CPI and  a slightly higher share of the equivalent EA index, tends to be the most volatile inflation component. This reflects the nature of crude oil  demand , which is very unresponsive to price in the short run and so small changes in supply can have a large impact , although the full  knock-on effect on the market price of fuel is diluted somewhat by the incidence of tax, which is high in many European countries, including Ireland. This works to dampen the effect of a sharp rise in crude prices and to reduce the gain to consumers following a large fall, although the impact on the CPI can still be significant if the move in crude prices is large enough.

That has certainly been the case in 2015; Irish energy prices in July were 6.7% lower than  the previous year with a similar  fall across the EA, helping to reduce overall inflation rates. For example, the annual  EA inflation rate in August was just 0.2% instead of 1.1% if one excludes the energy impact.

The consensus view, and one shared by the ECB, envisaged inflation picking up in the latter months of 2015 as the impact of weaker  energy prices dropped out of the annual inflation rate but that now looks less likely following renewed falls in energy and other commodity prices; the price of Brent crude had appeared to be stabilising  at over $60 a barrel in the early summer but started to slide in July, with the decline gaining momentum through most of August, to a low of under $43 at one point, levels last seen during the global financial crash in late 2008. Brent has recovered a little ground of late but that plunge, which was even sharper in euro terms, should translate in to another round of lower fuel prices and hence overall inflation rates- our  own Irish Petrol Price Indicator points to €1.31 a litre from around €1.43 a month ago.

What has precipitated such a slide in the price of crude?  Global economic activity is less energy intensive than it was but the International Energy Agency (IEA) still envisages world oil demand rising by 1.6 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2015, a significant pick up from the 2014 outturn. Weaker than expected growth in China could reduce that estimate but it seems clear that demand is not the main issue. Supply  would therefore  seem to be the driver  of the price collapse, and that is indeed the case, with some estimates putting the excess available in the market in q2 at some 3mbd, an extraordinary figure by historical standards,  and  helping to push OECD oil inventories to record levels.

One factor at work is the continuing rise in non-OPEC supply, which is put at around 1.3mbd in 2015, largely reflecting higher US output, including that from shale. Iraqi supply has also risen substantially over the past year (to record levels) and one might expect Saudi Arabia, the traditional swing producer in OPEC, to reduce production and hence supply from the cartel in order to support price. That has not happened , implying the Kingdom  is adopting a new strategy, perhaps with the aim of  impacting the future development  of non-OPEC supply, particularly from shale. Whatever the rationale the result is that  the world is awash with oil at the moment and few analysts envisage a  significant rise in prices over the next few years. Supply shocks are always possible, of course, which would change the outlook, but in the short term at least consumers are likely to receive another boost to purchasing power via lower fuel costs.

Irish employment growth accelerates

The latest  Irish Household Survey, covering the second quarter of 2015, shows that the labour market continues to tighten and that job creation has accelerated again. Employment  ( on a seasonally adjusted basis) bottomed in the autumn of 2012 and picked up strongly in  the following year, averaging an increase of 15k a quarter, but then slowed sharply in the first half of 2014, with only 4k net jobs created. Employment growth  did pick up in the second six months, with a rise of 24k, and 2015 has seen a further acceleration: the numbers in work rose by over 15k in q1 and by 19k in q2, the latter the strongest quarterly increase since early 2007. Employment has therefore grown by some 57k over the past year, or 3%, and by 130k from the cycle low, although  still nearly 200k below the pre-crash high.

Virtually all sectors of the economy have generated additional jobs over the past year. The largest increase was in Construction ( 20k) , followed by Manufacturing (10k) with Financial services (6k) also showing notable growth. Education and Administration saw marginal falls, as did the Accommodation sector, perhaps surprisingly given the strength of tourism, although the decline followed a very strong rise in 2013.

The plunge in Irish employment from 2008-2012 also precipitated  a sharp decline in the labour force, fuelled by net emigration and a decline in the participation rate. That trend appears to be ending, with the rise in employment now prompting a rise in participation , particularly from those over 45, and a rebound in the labour force, which grew by 9k in the second quarter and by 14k on an annual basis.

The recovery in the Irish economy is also impacting migrant flows. The number of emigrants is still high , at 80k  in the year to April  from 81k the previous year, but immigration picked up, rising to 69k from 61k. As a result  net emigration slowed further, to under 12k from 21k in 2014 and a peak of 34k in 2012. The number of Irish nationals leaving fell to 35k from 41k, and to a net 23k (i.e. adjusting for Irish nationals returning). Only 10k of total emigrants classed themselves as unemployed with the majority having jobs, implying the decision to leave may have more to do with the rewards of employment in Ireland or quality of life issues. Yet  Ireland continues to attract migrants, with most now coming from outside the EU and leaving a job abroad.

The pick up in the labour force in q2 also resulted in a slowdown in the pace at which unemployment fell, to 7k , leaving a total of 207k. That decline was greater than indicated by the monthly data, which has been revised, as has the unemployment rate , which averaged 9.6% in the quarter from a peak of 15.1% in 2012. The unemployment rate for July is now put at 9.5%. This is below what the EU deem to be full employment in Ireland, which seems unlikely but if true, would imply some upward pressure on wages, which  are staring to rise, albeit modestly in the aggregate. The unemployment rate in Dublin is lower still, at 8.8%, which again would point to the prospect of some wage pressure in the capital.

Overall, a clear picture of strong job growth, falling net migration and a tightening labour market and one consistent with the pace of growth in domestic demand recorded in the national accounts.

Irish Consumer spending accelerating despite deleveraging

Following the  recent revisions to the Irish National Accounts it appears that  the recovery has been stronger and less volatile than previously reported, leaving real GDP in the first quarter of 2015 3.9% above the pre-crash high. Forecasts for economic growth this year are also moving up, including  revisions to estimates for consumer spending, but the latter may still be too low in our view as we expect real personal consumption to rise by 4.2%. This compares with the Department of Finance’s 2.4%, the Central Bank’s 2.3% and 2.0% from the ESRI, although all  these were made before the release of the  official Q1 data.

Forecasters have generally become cautious about consumer spending in the wake of previous projections which had proved optimistic, in part because of the uncertainty about the pace of debt repayment by Irish households.  Debt peaked in late 2008 and has fallen  by almost €50bn  to stand at €154.6bn in the first quarter of 2015. This is still high by international standards , at an estimated 166% of disposable income, but is a far cry from 211%, the debt burden at the peak of the cycle.

So debt reduction rather than debt accumulation has been a key feature of Irish household behaviour over the past seven years, which has acted to dampen consumer spending. A corollary is that the gross savings ratio has risen sharply. from 7%  of disposable income in 2007 to a peak of 16.7% in 2009  and  a 12%-13.5% range  in recent years.

The published data on consumer spending has also appeared at variance with that on retail sales, with the latter implying stronger spending than actually recorded in the national accounts. One factor here is the impact of tourism, which affects retail sales but is excluded from Irish consumption. Another issue is the price deflator used to adjust nominal spending to derive real personal consumption. That deflator has been much higher than either the deflator for retail sales or from the CPI, and probably reflects the inclusion of imputed rent in the personal consumption measure, as private sector rents have been rising at an annual 8%-10% for the past few years.

Yet recent developments still point to a strong pick up in consumer outlays. First, spending over the past few years has been revised up, and has risen consistently  for the past eight quarters, with an acceleration evident in the second half of last year. Second, spending grew by 1.2% in the first quarter of 2015 and at a 3.8% annual rate. Third, retail sales have been much stronger this year, boosted by a surge in car sales ( up some 31% in the first half of 2015) . Fourth, sales excluding cars, a better proxy for overall consumption, have also grown at a robust pace, with the annual increase accelerating to 6.6% in the second quarter from 5% in q1. This implies a stronger annual increase for personal consumption in q2, even allowing for the rental price effect.

A number of other factors also support the case for stronger consumption. Household income is now growing, expanding by 3.2% in 2014 following a 1.1% advance the previous year, and is likely to continue to grow at a faster pace this year , given the ongoing rise in employment and signs that wages are starting to pick up. Consumer prices are still falling, which also will help and household wealth is recovering, having risen by €154bn or 35% over the past two years. It is impossible to gauge when household deleveraging will end, but on the recent evidence the impact of debt reduction on personal consumption is being more than offset by a number of other developments, all  supporting stronger personal consumption .