Irish Employment growth slows in final quarter of 2015.

The latest Irish Quarterly Household Survey, covering the final three months of 2015, revealed a surprising slowdown in the pace of employment growth; the increase  was just 4,700 or just 0.2%. Moreover, male employment fell in the quarter, by some 4,000, and  male unemployment actually rose. Total employment had grown rapidly in the first half of the year, by over 30,000, so the annual rise in the final quarter was still a healthy 44,000 (2.3%)  but forecasts for employment growth in 2016 may be  trimmed a little .

The labour force rose strongly in the quarter, by 9,000, and increased by 18,000 over the full year. The participation rate (the proportion of those over 15 in the labour force) is picking up again, albeit modestly. Net emigration  slowed to under 14,000 in the year to April 2015 and appears to have fallen further in recent months, so supporting labour force growth.

As a result of this interaction between employment and the labour force the numbers unemployed  in the final quarter fell only marginally, by 1.700 to 196,000. This was 26,000 lower than a year earlier, but again most of that decline was in the first half of 2015.

The unemployment rate also declined in q4, to 9.1% , but  the fall was modest, from 9.2% in q3. The former was  above the  previously published  monthly estimates , prompting a revision, with the result that the unemployment rate in January is now put at 8.9% instead of the original 8.6%.

The quarterly employment figures can be volatile and have shown unexpectedly soft readings before ( for example in early 2014) which have not proven the start of a trend. On that basis it would be premature to read too much in to this data, although it should be noted that Ireland is operating well above capacity, according to Department of Finance forecasts, and hence above ‘full ‘ employment , implying a large structural unemployment issue. That assumption may be wrong ,of course, but if true means that the unemployment rate may not fall as rapidly from here as the consensus predicts.

Ireland’s Fiscal Space

The Irish General Election campaign is now underway and  the electorate will be bombarded with pledges and promises , including commitments on taxation and  plans on spending. Nothing new there, but this election will be the first fought against the constraints imposed by Euro rules on how much an Irish government will be allowed to spend, net of any tax changes. The outgoing Administration’s freedom of fiscal manoeuvre was also limited , of course, by the need to get the budget deficit  down to below 3%  but how that was achieved  was left to the government of the day. Ireland is now under the ‘Preventitive Arm’ of the Stability and Growth Pact and as such the ‘Fiscal Space’ – the amount available to raise spending or cut taxes- is circumscribed, and this restriction will likely feature prominently in the campaign, putting pressure on parties to spell out how this Space will be utilized.

The available Fiscal Space over the next  five years  is subject to defined rules but is not set in stone; the Department of Finance produced a figure  of  €10.9bn in the 2016 Budget, while the Fiscal advisory Council believes the effective Space is just over €3bn. Indeed, there are now reports that the European Commission may change the rules, allowing Ireland  perhaps an additional €1.5bn.

The  detail of the rules may be complex but  the basic idea  is simple enough- government budgets should be sustainable, so preventing any windfall tax gains in a boom being used to increase expenditure. Consequently, allowable expenditure is determined by the country’s potential growth rate , in turn  calculated as an average based on past growth and  that forecast over the next few years.  Ireland’s  potential growth rate in 2017 is deemed to be 2.8%, for example, rising to 3.4% by 2020, as the recessionary years fall out of the average calculation. The spending limit is in real terms and is translated into current money by using the EU’s forecast for price inflation (the GDP deflator, not the CPI)

General Government Expenditure in Ireland is planned at €74.1bn in 2016 , or €67bn with certain adjustments, including debt interest  and a portion of any additional capital spending, and this figure then becomes  the benchmark for the rule. The  inflation forecast is 1.2% so that would allow Ireland to increase spending by 4% (2.8% real and 1.2% inflation)  or  €2.7bn in 2017, absent any other constraints. There is an additional constraint ,however; Ireland is still running a structural budget deficit ( the actual deficit adjusted for the economic cycle) which is estimated at 2.5% of GDP in 2016 and so the 4% allowable  increase in spending,  calculated above, is lowered by what is known as a convergence margin (again set by the EU), in order to put downward pressure on the structural deficit. In 2017, for example, the convergence margin is currently set at 2%, so the allowable rise in real spending  is cut to 0.8% (2.8% minus 2%) and the permitted rise in nominal spending  reduced  to 2%. Our base is €67bn, implying a €1.3bn allowable rise and this is the Fiscal Space open to the Government, to be used as it sees fit- spending could rise by that amount, taxes could be cut or a combination of both. What cannot happen, under the rules, is a fiscal package costing  more than the €1.3bn.

A number of key parameters are determined by the EU and these may change , so  driving a change in the Fiscal Space in the medium term. Estimates of the potential growth rate for example, or forecasts of Irish inflation. Another key metric is the speed at which Ireland has to reduce its structural deficit, and indeed the final target- currently the target is to eliminate the structural deficit but that may change to a deficit of 0.5% of GDP. If the former, the convergence margin disappears from 2020, allowing a more rapid rise in spending  from that date,   but if the latter more Space than currently envisaged would open up.

These are all possible changes in the future so why is there a divergence in estimates of the Fiscal Space deemed  available under the current parameters?  One answer is the speed at which the budget deficit is reduced- the Department of Finance assumes 0.6% per annum, while the Advisory Council have a higher figure (0.75%), The key difference though relates to  spending assumptions. The  headline Finance figure  for the Fiscal Space  is €10.9bn over the five years 2017-2021 which reduces to €8.6bn when account is taken of existing  capital spending plans, public sector pay increases under the Lansdowne Road agreement and demographic pressures on Health and Education. These figures also assume indexation of the tax system but the spending estimates do not factor in any increases in line with inflation i.e. pensions ,social welfare and public sector pay fall in real terms. Finance argue that any decision on that is up to the incoming government, although presumably so is the decision to index the tax system or to continue with previously announced capital plans. IFAC, in contrast, have factored in rises in spending in line with inflation and this  is the prime reason why their Fiscal Space figure is  so much lower.

No doubt these nuances will be teased out and debated over the next four weeks but the novel feature of this election remains that an arcane economic concept- Fiscal Space- is likely to be a recurring theme.