The CSO data on private cars licensed shows 2019 was another difficult year for Irish motor dealers, with new cars sold down 6.5% to 113,000. This was the third consecutive annual decline from the 2016 high of 142,000 and a long way from the pre-crash figure of over 180,000.
At first glance this weakness appears inconsistent with the surge in household income, which has probably risen by a cumulative 20% over the last three years, while interest rates are at very low levels. One answer lies in the number of imported used cars, which in contrast has risen strongly, increasing by 9.5% in 2019 and a cumulative 132% since 2015. Indeed, last year’s total of 109,000 is only marginally below the new car figure.
Factors specific to the Irish and UK car markets can be important in the import decision and one clear factor of late is the plunge in diesel sales in the UK, leading to lower prices there relative to petrol and hybrid models. The sale of new diesel car sales in Ireland also fell last year but imports of diesel actually rose, far outstripping domestic sales, and accounted for 72% of all imported cars, against a 47% share of the new car market.
What is striking though, looking at the total import figures, is the very close correlation (0.92) between the euro/sterling rate and the share of car imports in the overall market. The latter fell sharply between 2013 and 2015 for example, to 28% from over 40%, against a backdrop of a steep slide in the euro, from 85 pence sterling to 73 pence. The UK currency subsequently fell sharply following the Brexit referendum, with the euro averaging around 88 pence over the last few years, which obviously makes importing anything from the UK cheaper, including cars.
Sterling has rallied in recent months and all else equal a weaker euro/sterling rate will translate into a fall in imported cars as a share of the market. However, a no-deal Brexit is still possible by end-2020 and the UK economy has slowed significantly of late, with the market now expecting a rate cut by the BoE, which is putting renewed downward pressure on sterling. So it is not certain that the euro sterling rate will fall, although that is the consensus view in the market. Car imports will also be affected by changes announced in the Irish 2020 Budget, introducing a new VRT levy based on nitrogen oxide emissions, applicable to both new and imported cars. This may well dampen the import demand for older diesel cars so the close link to the sterling exchange rate may become less pronounced, albeit still evident.