Irish labour data another indicator of capacity issues.

Ireland’s GDP, the international standard for measuring economic activity, may cause puzzlement to many and amusement to a few but it is difficult to argue with the labour market data as provided in the Quarterly Household Survey, and that continues to point to a buoyant economy. Indeed, it supports our view that Ireland is currently facing capacity constraints on many fronts,  stemming from years of under investment coupled with very strong growth in the population – the latter has risen by half a million over the last decade and double that in less than twenty years, a fact perhaps obscured by the emphasis in some quarters on emigration alone.

Employment bottomed in the autumn of 2012 on a seasonally adjusted basis  and has since risen by 212,000 . The numbers in work grew by an annual 65,000 in the fourth quarter of 2016, or by 3.3% , with the gains spread across all economic sectors. The Labour force is also growing again, albeit modestly, rising by an annual 25.000, with the result that unemployment fell by an annual  40,000 in Q4, taking the total to under 150,000  for the first time since mid-2008.

The unemployment rate peaked at 15.1%  a full five years ago, and  has been falling since , with the pace of decline accelerating of late,  from 7.9% in August to 6.9% in December, while January has now been revised to 6.8%. It is difficult to say what unemployment rate is consistent with full employment ( the rate fell below 5% during the last boom) but it is now likely that some sectors are experiencing labour shortages. Experience in other countries with low unemployment rates ( notably the US and the UK)  suggests that we may not see a generalised accleration in wage growth , although sectoral differences are already apparent.

The tightening labour market is another indicator of the constraints existing in the economy, as evidenced by the shortage of housing, overcrowded hospitals and clogged roads. Yet official policy appears to remain focused on attracting FDI at all times, irrespective of whether the economy can absorb such flows.

Savers Have Feelings Too

It is a curious fact that following any rate change by the ECB the headlines in Ireland always focus on the impact for mortgage holders. Curious , because there will also be an impact on deposit rates and there are far more savers than borrowers. Indeed, that is now also true for the the sums of money involved; Irish household deposits in the Irish banking sector amounted to €97bn in December, against €88bn in loans to Irish households, a divergence that began to open up from last July.

About three -quarters of these deposits are defined as ‘overnight deposits’ and the interest rate is just 0.12%. This  is a gross figure, and the DIRT rate payable is currently 39% , reduced from 41%, so savers only receive 0.07% i.e. next to nothing. Rates are historically low across the developed world,  of course, but the Government is adding to the squeeze on savers, leaving aside the DIRT issue; the Bank Levy,  which raises €150m a year from Irish banks, is based on the amount of DIRT collected by each institution, and as such provides a disincentive for banks to pay for deposits, particularly as the overall loan to deposit ratio for Irish headquartered banks has been below 100% for some months now. Banks can also access four-year cash from the ECB at a zero interest rate, so have even less reason to seek out deposits. A Levy based on bank profits might have a less distortionate effect on the savings market.

At its core the banking system merely transfers money from savers to borrowers, with the margin received for this intermediation dependent on the degree of competition in the market. That relationship  is often forgotten , with so much emphasis on borrowers, an emphasis not readily observable in other countries.

Irish Household deleveraging may be over

The last few years have seen some recovery in new mortgage lending in Ireland, although  it has not been strong enough to offset debt repayments, with the result that the outstanding stock of household debt has been falling now for almost seven years. That may be about to change, however, reflecting stronger growth in new lending.

New loans for house purchase have been on an upward trend over recent years, albeit from a very low base, but  actually fell by an annual 9% in the first quarter of 2016 , to well under 5,000,  no doubt impacted by the Central Bank’s mortgage controls, before returning to growth again  in the following months, with the final quarter showing a 12% annual rise, to 7,600. This brought the full year  figure to 24,891, or 5.2% above the 2015 total. To put this in context, the cycle low was around 11,000 in 2011, with the cycle high in 2006  at over 110,000.

The average new mortgage for house purchase also rose in 2016, by 6.8% to just under €200,000 , bringing the value of new lending  for house purchase to €5bn. First Time Buyers accounted for just over half that total, with most of the remainder down to Movers, as Buy to Let lending is still extermely low, at just €159m. On the non-purchase side,Top-up loans are also around €160m, albeit rising strongly in percentage terms, as is remortgaging, which increased by 80% to over €500m. The latter figure is less than a tenth of  the sums recorded at the peak of the boom but the pick up implies a stronger degree of competition in the mortgage market.

In sum, then, total mortgage lending ( including top-ups and remortgaging)   amounted to €5.7bn in 2016, or €900m more than the previous year and the strongest reading since 2009. Moreover, the pace of growth is accelerating, with the fourth quarter of 2016 at €1.8bn, a 26% annual increase. We expect this pattern to continue. with  new lending set  to rise to €7.2bn in 2017, driven by double digit growth in house prices, a rise in new housing supply and greater leverage as a result of the Central Bank’s decison to ease mortgage controls.

New lending on that scale may well be enough to offset ongoing mortgage debt repayments, particularly as the final three months of 2016 showed flat net  lending , although the annual change was still negative, at -1.4%. Non-mortgage lending to households has already turned positive again, reflecting PCP funding of new cars, so on a further recovery in new mortgage lending  Ireland  in 2017 could experience the first growth in net  household debt since 2009.