Has Irish Unemployment hit its cycle low?

During the Celtic Tiger years the Irish unemployment rate was consistently below 5% and most forecasters envisage a return to  that position in 2019. The monthly data had put the January figure at 5.3% and although the pace of decline had slowed it seemed reasonable to assume that the strength of job creation would be sufficient to  again  push the unemployment rate below 5%, before hitting full employment.

That view  is now open to question, following the release of the latest Labour Force Survey, covering the final quarter of 2018. Figures for employment, the labour force and the numbers unemployed are derived from that survey, based on a sample of households, and it is often the case that the published monthly unemployment estimates are then revised. That is again the case; the q4 average unemployment rate  is now put at 5.7% from the previous 5.4%, with the January figure  also revised up to 5.7%.

In fact  it now transpires  that the unemployment rate is unchanged at 5.7% for the past six months, with the actual numbers unemployed some 10,000 higher in January than previously thought. Indeed, seasonally adjusted unemployment, now at 137.000, has been ticking up for the past five months, so the prospect of a sub-5% unemployment rate  suddenly looks optimistic rather than realistic.

Why is the unemployment rate becalmed? A decline requires  employment growth to outpace that of the labour force which has been the case since early 2012. For example, the annual change in employment in q4 was 50,000 or 2.3%, against a 35,000 (1.5%) increase in the labour force, resulting in a fall in the unadjusted unemployment rate to 5.4% from 6.1% a year earlier.

The pace of employment growth slowed in the second half of last year, however;  the seasonally adjusted increase was only 8,300 in the final quarter, following a 9,500 increase in q3. Labour force growth over that period was 20,000 , so giving rise to the modest tick up in  the numbers unemployed and an unchanged unemployment rate.

Where to from here? A key driver of any change in the labour force is the participation rate ( the proportion of those  over-15 in the workforce).The Irish participation rate ticked up in response to brighter employment prospects but has been broadly unchanged now for some time, at around 62%. If that  continues the labour force will grow at the same pace as the over-15 population, currently at 1.5%, implying an annual rise of around 35,000. Unfortunately, employment growth, having slowed in the second half of 2018, is now  down to that 1.5% pace.

Brexit related uncertainty may be a factor on the employment side but it could well be that the  decline in Irish unemployment is  already at or near its cyclical low.

Ireland now a nation of savers, not borrowers

Much has changed in Ireland over the past decade and one of the most striking in economic terms is the  tranformation in Irish households from borrowers to savers although much of the coverage in the media  still concentrates on credit and the cost of new loans and so does not reflect this new reality. Ireland has morphed into Germany and we are now closer to Berlin than Boston.

Irish household borrowing peaked over ten years ago, in mid 2008, at €204bn, and most of this debt had been used to purchase residential property , which of course at the time had soared in value over a long period, leaving households with net worth of over €700bn. By 2012 the latter figure had collapsed to under €450bn, largely reflecting the 50% fall in house prices, but debt was also declining, given little or no new borrowing and the ongoing repayment of mortgages.

Indeed, household debt is still falling, at least on the figures to the third quarter of 2018 as published by the Central Bank, to €137bn , a reduction of €67bn from the peak.  Household income is growing strongly again and so the debt/ income ratio, a standard measure of the debt burden , is now down at 126% , a level last seen in 2003. Rising house prices and  the recovery in equity markets in recent years has boosted wealth, leaving net worth well above the previous peak, at €769bn.

Interest rates are historically low ( the average rate on new  mortgage loans is around 3%)  and wealth is at record levels so one might imagine that households would be reducing savings and increasing debt but that is not the case. New mortgage lending  has certainly picked up, reaching €8.7bn in 2018 as a whole, but that was largely offset by redemptions, leaving the net change in mortgage credit  on the balance sheet of Irish  banks at only €1.1bn. A rise nonetheless, but that is not inconsistent with the overall data on household debt, as that relates to the third quarter and includes money owed on mortgages no longer on the balance sheet of the original lender.

Central Bank controls now limit the degree of leverage allowed in the mortgage market and the relatively limited supply of new housing is also a contraint  so we are unlikely to see an explosion in household borrowing, even in an environment with less economic uncertainty. However, the savings side of the balance sheet is also witnessing a profound change, with a huge increase in the amount of wealth held in cash and deposits; the q3 figure was € 143bn , a €15bn increase in the past three years. So Irish households now hold more in cash and deposits than they owe in outstanding loans (€137bn), quite a change,  and this  has also had a major effect on Irish headquarterd banks, as they are now in effect Credit Unions, with loans amounting to only 93% of total deposits.

The returns on these deposits are also extraordinarily low of course, amounting to an average of 0.29% for outstanding deposits (the euro average is 0.3%) and a meagre 0.04% on new term deposits ( euro average 0.3%). Monetary policy is based on the notion that the economy responds to a change in interest rates, and that a substantial decline in rates will boost credit growth and encourage savers to spend and borrow. That certainly has not been the case in Ireland and so it is not clear what the impact of higher rates will be on what is now a net savings economy, if and when that day arrives. As it stands that  day seems far off, with the market not priced for an ECB rate rise till around June 2020, although that can and will change with the flow of economic events.