Irish economy contracts in Q1 but annual growth increases to 9.1%

The Irish economy contacted in the first quarter of 2018 according to preliminary data from the CSO. Real GDP declined by 0.6% , largely due to a sharp  5.8% fall in exports, including both goods and services. Trade data  indicated that exports leaving Ireland had risen substantially so the weaker figure was due to a fall in contract manufacturing (offshore exports credited to Irish based firms).  Final domestic demand was broadly flat, with modest increases in investment (0.6%) and government spending (0.4%) offsetting a 0.3% contraction in consumer spending. Surprisingly, perhaps, construction spending actually fell, by 0.4%, but this was offset by a 9% rise in spending on machinery and equipment. The big negative contribution from exports was in contrast to a very large stock build which added over 3 percentage points to GDP growth.

Looking at the annual change, real GDP growth in q1 was 9.1%, largely driven by the external sector ( export growth of 6.1% against a 1.1% fall in imports) and the strong stock build. The weakness in imports partly reflected a fall in investment spending of 3.8%, with growth in construction and machinery and equipment offset by a plunge in R&D expenditure, which largely relates to multinationals and deemed a service import.

The CSO release incorporated revisons to past data, including  reductions in the level of GDP; the 2017 figure is now  some €2bn lower at €294bn. Real growth last year is also now lower, at 7.2% versus an initial 7.8%. Last year’s quarterly figures have also changed, although the previously published pattern- weak growth in the first half of the year followed by a surge in the second half- is still intact. That  still implies that the anual growth rate will slow as the rest of the year unfolds, which of course is required if the consensus growth figure of around 5.5% is achieved.

The revisions also impacted Modified National Income, the concept developed by the CSO to adjust GDP for the effect of multinationals on profits, R&D expenditure and aircraft leasing. The 2016 figure is now put at €176bn, from an initial €189bn, with the 2017 estimate at €181bn, or less than 62% of published GDP. The CSO believes that this modified figure is a better indicator of Irish income although in 2017 it grew by just 3% and that is in nominal terms, which sits uneasily with other indicators such as  the growth in employment , tax receipts and household incomes .

Full Employment in Ireland-are we there yet?

The Irish unemployment rate fell to a fresh cycle low of 5.1% in June, from 5.6% in March and 6.6% a year earlier. The monthly estimate is subject to revision but on the face of it implies that  employment growth has accelerated from an already strong pace and that Ireland is approaching full employment. The  speed of the decline has  certainly surprised most analysts; the Department of Finance   anticipated unemployment bottoming out next year at 5.3% from an average 5.8% in 2018. In fact, Government budgetary projections are predicated on the view that the economy is already operating above is potential, although one rarely hears that articulated by Ministers.

Full employment does not mean a zero unemployment rate; there will always be churn in the labour market (frictional unemployment) and some workers may not have the skills, education or aptitude to take up the available jobs (structural unemployment). The scale of the latter, in particualr, is hard to gauge so estimates of what unemployment rate is consistent with full employment often vary and can change over time; the unemployment rate has surprised to the downside of late in both the US and the UK, for example. Ireland has also experienced  lower unemployment in the past, with a rate under 4% in the early noughties and a sub 5% reading  in the years before the 2008 crash.

That perhaps argues that the unemployment rate could certainly fall further, and particularly as the participation rate ( that proportion of the population over 15 in the labour force) is still much lower than it was a decade ago, averaging 62% over the past year as against well over 66% in 2007. A return to the latter level would equate to an additional 170,000 joining the labour force, equivalent to three years  employment growth given the current pace of job gains.

That kind of a move in the participation rate seems highly unlikely, however, given the modest level of net immigration currently seen relative to the pre-crash period. Nonetheless, the pool of available labour is bigger than captured in the labour force data, as the figures also record those who are seeking work , but not immediately, as well as those available for work but not yet seeking it. The CSO defines these two groups as the Potential Additional Labour Force (PALF) and this figure is sizeable, amounting to 120,000 in the first quarter. The unemployment rate adjusted for the PALF is therefore much higher, at 10%, although it is problematical to compare this with the historical experience as there was a step jump following the switch to a new survey methodology in the latter part of 2017.

Employment is now marginally above the pre-crash peak  and if labour is getting scarcer one might expect to see an acceleration in wage growth as firms bid for workers. That has not been evident, however, at least as yet. Average weekly earnings in the private sector rose by an annual  1.8% in the first quarter of 2018 following a 1.7% rise in 2017, but that followed  a 2.3% increase in 2016. Low consumer price inflation may be a factor but wage inflation is surprisingly soft in some areas where there is perceived to be a scarcity premium, notably construction, with average earnings growth of 1.1 % in the first quarter and only  0.3% last year.

It is also worth noting that although total employment is again  around the pre-crash peak  the composition  is more evenly distributed across sectors. Then, 10.5% of jobs were in construction alone but that proportion in 2018 is only 6%, with the total employed some 100,000 below the peak. Employment in industry too is 20,000 below the pre-crash level  and also lower in retail (36,000) and financial services (4,000) Indeed, although some private sector areas have seen job gains, notably Hotels and Restaurants (30,000 ) and Professional and Scientific (12,000), most of the increase has occurred in areas dominatd by the public sector, including Education (30,000) and Health (40,000).

Ultimately, the clearest sign that the economy has reached full employment is when the unemployment rate stops falling and that is only observed ex-post. However, the current distribution of employment, the absence of aggregate pay pressure and the relatively low participation rate all point to the likelihood of unemployment falling further in the absence of a demand shock. The latter is always a risk, of course, be it from Brexit or from a broader global slowdown.

New supply data implies housebuilding consensus may be too optimistic.

Annual house price inflation accelerated  to 13% in April, the strongest pace for three years, bringing the increase from the cycle low to 76%, albeit still leaving prices nationally some 20% below the previous peak. Credit does not appear to have played a significant role in this recovery, at least to date ( net mortgage lending has only recently stopped falling and new lending appears to account for only half of transactions) and analysts have emphasisied more fundamental factors on the demand and supply side of the housing market.

In that model  housing demand has exceeded supply for some time now with the implication that prices will continue to rise ( absent a shock to employment or a steep rise in interest rates) until housing supply has picked up to a level which brings balance to the market. Supply, as in new housing completions, is picking up from historically low levels and in time is generally expected to approach and then meet estimates of annual housing demand. For example, the ESRI expect completions to exceed 23,000 this year and to reach 37,000 by 2020.

That expectation was based on completions data from ESB connections which put the annual figure at over 19,000 last year, although some thought that overstated the actual flow of new properties. Fortunately, the CSO has now started to publish completion figures on a quarterly basis, based on a range of sources , and they imply that completions may be much lower than generally expected over the next few years. The new figures, dating back to the first quarter of 2011, show completions of  57,000 over the past seven years, against an ESB total of over 90,000, a difference of 33,000. Last year’s total is now put at under 14,500, or 5,000 less than the ESB figure, and for this year the CSO figure  for q1 is 3,500. The latter may have been adversely affected by the weather but a full year figure of 17,000 or so seems much more likely than  anything approaching 25,000.

The implication is that the housing stock has been growing at a slower pace than previously thought  and that the stock  per head of population , a key variable in many demand/supply models, is still falling ( it started to decline in 2011) and will continue to decline for the next few years. Indeed, new population projections by the CSO highlight that demographic pressures will remain a feature of the Irish market; the population is projected to grow by over 300,000 by 2021 on a high net migration scenario or by 1.3% per annum, against a housing stock still growing by  well under 1%.

 

 

The impact of a change in interest rates on Irish mortgage holders

The Irish Central Bank publishes data on retail interest rates on  a monthly basis and the rate on new mortgage lending receives much media attention, given that  it is significantly above the euro average (3.21% in March against 1.81%). Far less attention is paid to the average rate on existing mortgages  ( 2.6% against 2.23%) although that is the relevant figure when one is  considering the vulnerability of Irish debtors to a rise in interest rates, given the preponderance of floating rate debt.

New borrowers are turning to fixed rate loans in much greater numbers, with over half of new mortgages at fixed rates in the first quarter of 2018, but that is low relative to the euro average ( over 80%)  and has little impact on the stock of outstanding debt, which is still heavily weighted to floating rates. For example, some €60bn of the mortgage debt owed to Irish banks in the first quarter was at a floating rate , or 81%, against under €14bn at a fixed rate.

That also means that most  mortgage holders have seen a massive fall in monthly payments over the past decade, as the average mortgage rate was 5.3% in mid 2008. The scale of deleveraging since then has also helped to reduce the total   simple interest paid monthly on outstanding mortgage debt  to Irish lenders, which is currently under €2bn a year against €6.3bn ten years ago. Of course, the corollary is that interest paid on deposits has also fallen substantially, highlighting that any interest rate change is a transfer between saver and borrower.

Most analysts now believe we are at the bottom of the interest rate cycle in the euro area and the ECB will start to raise rates at some point, probably in 2019, although the precise timing is open to debate given the absence of any clear upward momentum in core inflation. How would a rate move affect mortgage holders, if and when it comes?

The average  interest rate on existing mortgages which are not fixed is 2.3%, which is biased downward by the proportion of tracker rates ( still over 40% of the total, although falling)  where the average rate is just 1.07%. These are linked to the ECB’s main refinancing rate (curently zero) and would not change if the ECB raised its deposit rate ( the most likely first move) although that would push up money market rates and hence standard variable rates ( and lead to higher fixed rates for new borrowers). An increase in the refinancing rate would however be required before all existing floating rates rose .

Although there are only some €75bn of mortgages on the books of Irish lenders the outstanding stock is just over €100bn given securitisation and sales, which implies about €81bn or so would be impacted by a rate change is we assume the same ratio of floating to fixed.The precise effect for each borrower would depend on the maturity of the outstanding debt but if we assume an average 15 years ( most existing mortgages were taken out in the early to mid noughties)  a 1% rise would increase payments by  just under €0.5bn a year, substantially more than the tax reductions in the 2018 Budget ( €335m).

Of course higher rates would also have an impact on interest rates on deposits accounts , although the precise effect would depend on whether bank margins also changed. However, although total household deposits are also up around €100bn,  some 80% are  overnight  and earning next to nothing  leaving total interest paid by Irish banks on household deposists at just €160m a year.

Rate changes generally have a bigger effect on borrowers than savers anyway and so the implication is that  Irish household  spending would still be significantly affected by a rise in interest rates  despite the recent increase in fixed rate borrowing and the deleveraging seen over the past decade.

 

Hitting the (Capital) Buffers

International regulation of financial institutions changed considerably in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. Banks are now required to meet certain ratios in terms of liquid assets as well as holding more capital in the form of equity in order to better absorb unexpected losses. Some institutions are also deemed to be systemically important, be it by virtue of global size or their significance in the domestic economy, and therefore required to hold additional equity in order to ameliorate the ‘too big to fail’ issue.

Banking tends to be very pro-cyclical and regulators have introduced an additional capital requirement which is adjustable over the economic cycle. This counter-cyclical buffer (CCyB) can be increased in an economc upswing when credit growth is strong, in order to act as additional support when credit losses start to appear, and released in a downturn in order to prevent a rapid contraction in bank lending.In the euro area the local regulator, in our case the Central Bank, is  designated to determine the size and timing of the buffer, which can range from zero up to 2.5% and is set quarterly ( a bank would then have twelve months to meet the CCyB)

What determines whether the buffer is triggered? In effect the Central Bank  has ‘guided discretion’ with emphasis placed on the stock of existing credit to GDP ratio relative to its long term trend (the’Credit Gap’). In Ireland’s case the ratio exceeded 400% at the peak  but has fallen sharply of late, down to 260% at the end of 2017, reflecting deleveraging by the private sector and the surge in nominal GDP. Consequently the ratio is low relative to the trend and as such would argue for a zero capital buffer, which has indeed been the case since it was first introduced in 2016.

Indeed, the  negative credit gap in Ireland is very large ( the current ratio is 75% below trend) which implies it would take years before it closes even with a resumption of positive credit growth, and therefore years before that measure would trigger a rise in the counter cyclical buffer, However, the Central Bank has recently drawn attention to the rise in new lending  and noted in its most recent review of the buffer (in March) that ‘it could … be the case that the Bank sets a positive CCyB rate prior to the credit gap measures indicating the need to do so‘.

In that context it was interesting that the Bank has just published research here   on the ratio of new mortgage lending to household disposable income. That ratio exceeded 30% at the peak of the boom and then collapsed to a low of 2.5% in 2011 before recovering in recent years and  is currently at 6.7%. Is this too high? The average ratio going back to 1998 is over 13 so that would not indicate a problem but of course the average includes periods where credit standards were very loose. The research piece attempts to answer the problem by estimating a model based ratio, driven by structural factors such as long term interest rates, demographics and an index designed to measure the effectiveness of the financial and regulatory system( the latter two prove to be the key drivers).

In fact the model throws up a current figure close to the existing ratio, and although the growth of new lending is slowing it still exceeds income growth, with the implication that the ratio will continue to rise, albeit at a slower pace. So this new emphasis by the Bank on the flow of new lending as opposed to the stock of existing  private sector debt  may in time be used to justify a rise in the CCyB even though the standard Credit Gap would argue against.

Irish housing transactions fall in q1 with cash buyers still dominating

The CSO’s Residential Property Price index for March showed prices still accelerating nationally, with the annual change at  12.7% from a downwardly revised 12.5% in February and 12.1% at the end of 2017. Property price inflation in the capital slowed, to 12.1% from 12.6% the previous month, but picked up strongly over the rest of the country, to 13.4% from 12.3% . Prices  were particularly strong in the mid-West (Clare, Limerick and Tipperary), rising by an annual 16.4% but fell for the second consecutive month in the Border counties, reducing the annual gain to 8.8%. Within Dublin, house prices in the city rose by an annual 14.2%, with South Dublin lagging, showing  a rise of 9.6%.

The housing market is generally perceived as characterised by chronic excess demand although the exact amount of new supply (house completions) is subject to some doubt. The number of housing transactions is available though, through the CSO, and the figure for the first quarter is actually down on the previous year, at 13,967 versus 14,500. The decline in turnover was particularly acute in Dublin, with transactions down 10% to 4,500.

The number of mortgages drawn down for house purchase in q1 , at 6,400 , was up by some 10% on the previous year, but that still implies that over half the transactions in the quarter (54%) were financed by non-mortgage buyers, a persistent feature of the market. First time buyers account for more than half of loans but are clearly competing against investors, both corporate and individuals, as well as each other, for the limited supply available.

Moreover, the approvals data, a leading indicator of drawdowns, indicates that lending is actually slowing, and quite sharply; approvals in q1 were  down on the previous year, by 4%, and by 13.7% in March alone. We have noted before that the Central Bank’s latest modifications to their mortgage controls, which took effect this year, was an effective tightening, as only 20% of FTB loans can exceed the 3.5 LTI limit , as opposed to an actual 25% last year. Indeed, new  mortgage lending was offset by redemptions and repayments in the three months to March. In other words net lending was negative and with new lending slowing and accounting for less than half the transactions in the market it is hard to argue that prices are being fuelled by credit. Rental yields in excess of 5% is obviously attracting buyers in a QE driven environment of zero short rates and  10 year bond yields of under 1%.

Irish net mortgage lending falls again in Q1 and approvals also decline.

In the autumn of last year the flow of new mortgage lending  in Ireland started to offset repayments and redemptions for the first time since early 2010 and the annual rate of change turned (marginally) positive in January. Net bank lending to the non-financial corporate sector also began to pick up, although again the annual rate of growth was barely above zero, albeit adding to the view that the credit cycle was turning. The latest figures, to end-March, cast  doubt on that however, as net mortgage lending rose in the month but contracted by €28m in the first quarter. This still left the annual growth rate in positive territory , albeit at an unchanged 0.2%, but the annual change in corporate lending turned down again, at -0.3%, following a €365m decline over the first three months. Consumer credit, boosted by car purchases, had been growing strongly but has also softened, declining for four straight months in cash terms  reducing the annual  rate of growth to 2.4% in March.

New mortgage lending is still growing, of course, amounting to €1.7bn in Q1, with €1.4bn  of that used for house purchase, but the pace of growth in the latter is slowing. particularly in terms of the number of mortgages drawn down. That figure was 6,400 in the first quarter, which represents a 9.6% increase on the previous year , compard to a 14.7% rise in the previous quarter and 26% growth a year earlier. The latter pace is clearly unsustainable and some easing was to be expected but the approvals data paints a more disconcerting picture; approvals for house purchase in March fell by an annual 13.6% bringing the annual decline in q1 to 4%.

The shortage of houses for sale is no doubt impacting ( transactions fell marginally in the first two months of 2018 compared to a year earlier) while the Central Bank limits on lending may also be a factor, particularly the Loan to Income restriction which is particularly relevant for First Time Buyers.  The average mortgage for house purchase rose by 22% in the three years to end-2017, against just a 4.4% rise in average pay, with house prices rising by 31% over the same period.

There is clearly an affordability issue developing, exacerbated by the spending power of non-mortgage buyers,  who see housing as an attractive asset class in a QE world of expensive equities and historically low government bond yields. The weak credit environment is also an ongoing issue for the Irish headquartered banks; total loans continue to fall, declining to under €176bn in March,  a fresh cycle low, and exceeding deposits by some €8bn. The Central Bank has expressed some concern about the pace of new lending in recent months but the issue facing the economy and the banking sytem in terms of net credit is very different.

2018 Budget now seen as pro-cyclical and breaking EU fiscal rule.

One of the standard criticisms of Irish economic policy is that tax and spending changes in the Budget tend to be pro-cyclical  i.e. the government of the day is often adding spending power to an already buoyant economy. This may be due to mistakes in estimating economic activity or simply reflecting what the electorate appears to want- higher spending and/or lower taxes. There are EU imposed constraints now, of course, designed to limit how much the government can inject into the economy , but these rules apply to the budget as adjusted for the economic cycle, as opposed to the headline balance, and that can throw up some odd situations for Ireland, given the volatility in our GDP.

It now appears 2018 will provide a good example of an Irish Budget which was deemed in line with the EU rules but now appears in breach. When presented, in October last year, the economy was  thought to be operating  well above capacity by the EU but the expected growth rate of 3.6% in 2018 was seen as  below the economy’s potential growth rate ( 4.5%) so reducing the output gap somewhat, albeit still leaving it in postive territory. So although the actual fiscal deficit was forecast at 0.2% of GDP  the cyclically adjusted (or structural)  deficit was actually higher, at 0.5%, given the (EU) view that the budget was being flattered by a buoyant economy. However, this was still deemed to be acceptable as the structural deficit  as forecast was seen to be falling from an estimated 1.1% of GDP in 2017, hence meeting the EU rule as well as being net contractionary in terms of its impact on demand in the economy.

Today’s release of the annual Stability Programme Update (SPU) by the Department of Finance shows a very different picture. Growth in 2018 in now forecast at 5.6% ( over 2 percentage points higher than in the Budget) and also 0.9% above the estimated potential growth. As a consequence the economy in 2018 is now seen to be operating 1.2% above potential ( the 2017 output gap was also revised) and although the headline deficit forecast is unchanged at 0.2% of GDP, the structural deficit is now much higher, at 0.9%. Moreover, last year’s structural deficit is now put at only  0.4% of GDP so on the face of it Ireland’s strucural deficit is actually rising by 0.5% of GDP instead of falling by a similar amount, as per the preventive arm of the Stability and Growth Pact. This is not only  a breach of EU rules but also indicates that the Budget is adding net spending to an economy already operating above capacity.

Any breach of EU fiscal rules is unlikely to mean much as there does not appear to be the political will in Brussels to rigorously enforce them. The Department, and others, would also argue that the output gap measure used above is wrong and that alternative measures still show the economy  still with some, if rapidly diminishing , spare capacity. Indeed, Finance expects the unemployment rate to continue to fall before bottoming out at 5.3% in 2020, which is not consistent with  the headline output gap measure. Regardless of the precise measure used, it does seem that the economy is operating at or close to capacity and so the old arguments about pro-cyclical policy are likely to resurface ahead of the 2019 Budget, albeit with little impact on the final outcome.

 

Criticism of Irish National Accounts overdone.

The recent release of Ireland’s national accounts for 2017, showing a (preliminary) increase in real GDP of 7.8%,  precipitated another round of complaints about the relevance of such data, including  ESRI comments calling for a ‘parallel’ set of accounts to be published, stripping out the impact of   the ‘large transactions of a select number of firms’.

In fact the CSO already publish a number of adjustments, following  the clamour accompanying the release of the 2015 accounts, which were  the first compiled under the new EU standard, ESA 2010,  prompting some to talk of ‘leprechaun economics’.  A modifed capital formation figure is produced in the quarterly accounts which strips out two components- aircraft leasing expendidure is excluded from total spending on machinery and equipment and R&D spending on intellectual property service imports is excluded from total spending on Intangibles. The latter is GDP neutral anyway (investment  boosts GDP but if imported will have an offsetting negative impact)  but Intangibles has contributed to a huge increase in the investment share of GDP, as well as being extraordinarily volatile on a quarterly and indeed annual basis. This adds to the difficulty of forecasting Irish GDP but, nonetheless,  is the internationally accepted norm in that such intellectual property  used to be viewed as a cost of production but is now (rightly ) deemed to be an asset , be it dometically generated or transferred from abroad.

The CSO  has also introduced a  modified Gross National Income (GNI) figure , GNI*, albeit only published with the full annual accounts, and one wonders if this was embraced too readily. This concept is unique to Ireland and  makes a number of adjustments to the  headline GNI figure, largely reflecting the depreciation of intellectual property assets and aircraft  as well as excluding the profits of  firms re-domiciled in Ireland.Yet it is unclear what the final figure is supposed to mean and the adjustments are arbitrary, (why aircraft leasing, for eample, which has a long history in Ireland, and are firms domiciled here or not?) as well as confusing in that the term  ‘gross’ is still used, even though  some depreciation is  excluded.  Indeed, if depreciation is the issue why not simply use Net National Income (NNI), which adjusts for total depreciation across all sectors, and  has always been published on an annual basis. Moreover, the correlation between NNI and GNI* on the  annual data going back to 1995 is extremely high , at 0.99.

GDP is the internationally accepted norm, of course, and closer to home  most people would view the debate as arcane. Other readilly available indicators exist that are of  use in capturing real developments in the economy depending on the question asked. The surge in employment in recent years  and the plunge in unemployment is real enough for many households, as is the increase in household incomes. Similarly we can track consumer spending in the national accounts. Some argue that the GDP figure , when used as a denominator, gives a misleading indicator of Ireland’s debt burden, but again there are other metrics which one can use, including debt to tax revenue. Another perceived problem is in relation to forecasting for the Budget, but that is done on a bottom up basis anyway by the Department of Finance  i.e. income tax receipts reflect employment and pay assumptions and VAT  forecasts depend on consumer spending projections.

The change to a new methodology in collating the national accounts had a huge impact on Ireland’s recorded GDP, but this was a step adjustment and need not lead to  a host of ad-hoc exclusions, while any volatility going forward reflects the scale of multinationals relative to the indigenous economy and hence a fact of modern Irish life. Real growth in the latter part of the 1990’s averaged over 9% per annum, driven by multinationals, so the average over the last two years ( 6.5%) is not that unusual. It is also curious that the the Irish authorities spend an inordinate amount of time defending the multinational presence in Ireland as real,  yet also devote time and effort in producing arbitrarily  adjusted GDP figures to strip out part of that multinational impact.

7.8% Irish GDP growth in 2017 but consumer spending up only 1.9%.

The Irish economy grew by 7.8% last year in real terms according to the initial CSO estimate, bringing the cumulative increase over the past three years to 45%. Nominal GDP in 2017 grew by 7.5%, to €296bn, and is now over €100bn larger than it was in 2014. Those kinds of numbers are clearly extraordinary and indicate some serious distortions, as consumer spending is now less than a third of real spending in the economy ,against an EU norm of over 50%, while the surplus on the Balance of Payments in 2017 was recorded  at €37bn or 12.5% of GDP, and 19% of GDP in the final quarter alone.

Indeed, consumer spending was surprisingly weak in 2017 given what we know about household incomes; employment  rose by 61,000 or 2.9%, and average pay increased by 2%  yet personal consumption grew by  only 3.2% in nominal terms and  by 1.9% in real terms, implying a significant rise in the savings ratio. The latter is also out of kilter with surveys of consumer confidence, which have hovered around record highs.

Building and Construction is growing strongly, rising by  over 16% last year, spurred by a 33% increase in housebuilding. Spending on machinery and equipment fell however, by 11%, and by slightly more when account is taken of aircraft leasing, but overall capital formation was again dominated by multinational spending on Intangibles ( R&D, patents) which fell by 41%  following a 111% rise in 2016. As a result overall investment fell by 22% and final domestic demand declined by 8%.

The plunge in recorded R&D spending is broadly GDP neutral as service imports also fell , contributing to an  decline in  total imports of 6.2% in volume terms. On the export side contract manufacturing was again a major influence, with merchandise exports in the national accounts recorded at €194bn, as against €122bn actually manufactured in Ireland. Service exports rose by over 14% , and exports as a whole rose by 6.9% in volume terms.

So on the face of it the external secor made a positive contribution to 2017 GDP growth of some 15%, so dwarfing the big negative from domestic demand, with an additional 1% coming from a strong stock build.

On a quarterly basis, the seasonally adjusted data reveals a very strong second half to the year, with real GDP expanding by 3.2% in the final quarter following  4.8% in q3, although again personal consumption is seen as surprisingly soft, increasing by just 0.3% in q4. That skewed pattern also left the annual increase in GDP in the final quarter at 8.4%, which in a normal economy would indicate that growth in 2018 would likely be extremely strong given that base, but in Ireland’s case one can’t be as sure, such is the extreme volatility from quarter to quarter.