V, U or L

The Covid -19 pandemic has taken many lives and threatens many more, prompting an unprecedented policy response across the globe , generally intended to slow the spread of the virus and ‘flatten out the curve’ by reducing the risk of a short term spike in hospitalisations overwhelming the health system. Many economies, although not all,  are in various forms of lockdown and the economic impact will be severe, to an extent impossible to quantify with any degree of certainty, although in some cases data is now emerging which allows economists to make a stab at the impact.

Crucially though, a question which cannot be answered at this stage is how long the hit to economic activity will last. Stock markets have plummeted but the scale of the fall to date implies that investors are betting on a V shaped  recession i.e. a very sharp fall in activity for a couple of quarters, followed by a rapid recovery at least approaching  pre-crisis levels.That also seems to be the consensus view in terms of US analysts, with Goldman Sachs, for example, projecting a 1.5% fall in GDP in the first quarter, followed by a 6% decline in q2 and then a 3% rise in q3 and q4 . That leaves the average fall in  US GDP in 2020 at -3.8%, with a projected rise in the unemployment rate to around 9% from the current 3.6%.

The same  V pattern appears to be underpinning  expectations in the Euro Area (EA), although again the fall in annual GDP is huge. Germany. for example, appears to be  predicating its fiscal response to the crisis on a 5% fall in GDP. The March PMI for the EA (31.4) does provide sime guidance, with the average for the first quarter implying a 0.7% decline in  q1 GDP, followed by  around 2.7% in q2 if the PMI figure averages around 30  over the next few months. A 0.5% decline in q3 followed by a 1.5% bounce in q4 would leave the average fall in  EA GDP in 2020  at 2.5%.

In Ireland’ case the PMI indices do not correlate highly with recorded GDP but in any case we do not have a March reading anyway  so  we have little to go on in estimating the economic impact of the virus on the economy. Assuming a V shaped recession, however, with  heroic assumptions on the scale of very steep falls in non-food domestic spending till June,  yields a €10bn (9% )drop in consumption and a €15bn (8%) drop in modified domestic demand in 2020, assumimg a modest recovery in the latter part of the year.A similar  percentage fall in private sector employment would  push the average unemployment rate up to 12%. The impact on overall GDP largely depends on exports, however, including contract manufacturing, which amounts to some €70bn, with most originating in China. A collapse in that figure could throw up an enormous fall in recorded GDP but again if we assume that V shape for exports as a whole the overall fall in  fall in GDP is around 5%, which would be less than half the slump recorded during the financial crash because it would be short and sharp rather than over two years.

How long the recessions will last depends on the path of the virus and how quickly activity returns to ‘normal’ which are unknowns of course. So a U shaped cycle is certainly possible, with any material recovery in spending and output pushed out from two to say four quarters. That would clearly render the above estimates  very optimistic and pose big choices for governments in terms of fiscal supports designed to be short-lived.

Finally, there is also the prospect that the virus takes much longer to pass through the population and that the return to ‘normal’ patterns of social and economic activity does not occur for  a prolonged period, giving an L shaped cycle i.e. any upturn takes well  over a year to eighteen months to materialise. Clearly that would result in much steeper falls in  equity markets than seen to date, much larger increases in unemployment, massive credit issues and much larger fiscal hits to governments. Of course we have seen unprecedented levels of policy response on the monetary side, designed to pump liquidity into the system and limit the scale of any rise in long term borrowing cost for governments. Media headlines have also highlighted huge fiscal ‘stimulus’ packages but to date most of this relates to State guarantees for bank loans, which may carry fiscal  implications down the line but is effectively monetary in seeking to supply credit to the business sector. Nonetheless, we have also seen governments now also turning to more direct measures , including enhanced unemployment assistance and in some cases, including Ireland, wage support. As yet these massive increases in fiscal deficits are seen to be financed by borrowing rather than money creation, albeit with the resumption of QE in many cases meaning that  the private sector will not be alone in buying the debt.

Irish GDP grew by 5.5% in 2019 but consumer spending surprisingly weak.

Irish real GDP grew by 5.5% in 2019, a slowdown from the 8.2% recorded the previous year. The nominal value of GDP rose by 7.2% and now stands at €347bn, which is double the level seen in 2012, a surge which has precipitated a huge fall in the Government debt ratio, which probably ended 2019 at 58.6% and hence  below the 60% limit as set out in the EU’s Stability and Growth pact.

The growth outcome was actually  below consensus expectations ( the Central Bank expected 6.1% and the Department of Finance 6.3%) despite a strong 1.8% increase in the final quarter and this was in part due to downward revisons to growth in the earlier part of the year. This included consumer spending, which is now seen to have risen by only 2.8% in 2019 , with the annual change slowing sharply to only 2.0% in the final quarter. Given booming employment and  stronger wage growth the implication is that precautionary savings rose, as also indicated by the growth in household bank deposits. In contrast, Government consumption was revised up and grew by 5.6%, or double that of personal consumption, a rare combination.

In terms of the other components of domestc demand , building and construction grew by 6.8% in 2019, with housebuilding up 18%, but the pace of expansion is slowing, as might be expected given the small starting base of completions. Spending on housing improvements surprisingly fell but spending on non-residential building continued to grow, by 9%. The prevailing uncertainty about Brexit last year also impacted spending by domestic firms on machinery and equipment, which fell by 15%, with the result that what the CSO deem modified capital formation (total investment excluding the impact of multinationals on various components) rose by just 1.3%, which with the sluggish increase in consumer spending meant that modified domestic demand grew by just 3%  from 4.7% in 2018.

That concept is a CSO  construct and the actual GDP  figure as recognised internationally includes all spending on investment, including aircraft leasing and that undertaken by multinationals on R&D (captured as Intangibles), which can be both enormous and extremely volatile relative to the small scale of the underlying Irish economy. In 2019 Intangibles alone rose by over €70bn, or  270% with the result that overall capital formation increased by an extraordinary 94% having fallen by 21% the previous year.On the face of then, Capital Formation now accounts for over 40% of Irish GDP, with consumer spending less than a third, an unusual if not unique configuration.

That Intangibles figure is broadly neutral for GDP  however, as virtually all of it  is captured as a service import , so total imports rose very strongly in 2019, by 35%. Exports continued to perform strongly , rising by over 11%, so massively outperforming the growth in global trade, but the result was a large Balance of Payments deficit of €33bn or 9.5% of GDP. Normally a large deficit like that would imply problems, in that  the  economy is consuming more than it is producing but in Ireland’s case is a useless indicator.

The  economy finished the year strongly according to the GDP data, despite the weak consumer, with the quarterly increase of 1.8% bringing the annual change in q4 to 6.2%. This therfore provides a strong positive carryover into 2020 but there are fresh risks alongside the ongoing possibility of a no-deal Brexit. One is political (it is still unclear if a governmnet will be formed or that an election will be required) but the most pressing now is the economic impact of  COVID-19. That may be domestic ( reduced consumer spending and a supply side hit to output across all sectors) , external ( a global recession ) and/or company specific. The latter tends to be overlooked, but the impact of contract manufacturing on Irish exports is substantial; total merchandise exports in 2019 amounted to €227bn, against €144bn actually shipped from Ireland, with the difference largely deemed to be accounted for by production in China. On that basis the first quarter export figure could be a shock.