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.

 

 

Spending rather than tax cuts: General Election fiscal proposals

Ireland goes to the polls on February 8th and the main political parties have outlined their fiscal proposals, although some in greater detail than others, at least to date. A universal feature is the pledge to devote substantially more resources to  additional government spending rather than tax cuts, with the promised ratio far higher than was the norm in recent years. The plans are also  predicated on what are in effect pretty conservative projections for economic growth, although of course with no presumption that Ireland will experience a recession, either Brexit related or following a global setback.

For context it is worth noting that 2019 ended with Irish current revenue exceeding current exchequer spending by  €7.9bn, or around €13bn if debt interest is excluded, with a capital deficit of €7.3bn. That implies that if current   revenue rises broadly in line with projected GDP, the current budget surplus will continue to increase, allowing the sitting government the option to raise spending, be it current or capital, and/or to cut taxes, whilst still running an overall budget surplus.

That is exactly the position outlined in early January by the outgoing Government, envisaging €16.6bn in available resources in the five years to 2025, a figure which all the parties have taken as their benchmark. That sum is also consistent with an annual fiscal surplus of just over 1% of  GDP, although it should be noted that what is relevant for EU fiscal rules is the Budget adjusted for the economic cycle (the structural balance) and on that criterion the structural deficit might well be  in deficit and indeed worse than the 0.5% of GDP curently set as Ireland’s  fiscal objective, given that the EU believes that the Irish economy is operating much higher above capacity than seen by the Department of Finance.

That said, it also notable that the forecasts envisage a sharp deceleration in growth, from 3.9% this year to under 3% and then 2.5% by 2025.This is supply rather than demand related; the Department of Finance believes the economy is at full employment and so employment growth is forecast to slow , constrained by the growth of the labour force, with no pool of unemployed workers from which to draw.

On the various fiscal plans, Fine Gael augment the €16.6bn figure modestly to €17.1bn via higher taxes on tobacco and vaping,with additional compliance also assumed to add revenue. From the new figure  €2.8bn is allocated to tax cuts, largely to fund increases in the standard tax band, with  €14.3bn in additional spending, a ratio of over 5 to 1. On spending, €5.6bn is pre-committed (€3bn current and €2.6bn capital)  and the biggest slice of the €8.7bn unallocated is set to go on Health (€3.1bn) . The plan also includes €2bn specifically earmarked for higher  public sector pay.

The Labour Party have also set out a detailed fiscal plan, which envisages bolstering the available resources by €2bn, to €18.6bn, by raising tax receipts via higher stamp duty on shares and commercial property alongside a higher bank levy. Some €3bn of this €18.6bn will be set aside for indexing the personal tax system, implying raising allowances and the standard tax band by around 2% a year, leaving €15.6bn, of which €5.6bn is deemed pre-committed with the remaining €10bn for additional expenditure (€8bn current and €2bn capital).

Fianna Fail have not (as yet) set out a detailed fiscal plan as above but from their manifesto is is clear they are taking the €16,6bn figure as given, although arguing that the €5.6bn deemed as pre-committed by the outgoing adminstration is too low, including an underestimation of demographic pressures. Consequently FF would set aside an additional €1.2bn to also  include unforeseen expenditure, leaving €9.8bn to be allocated overall. FF pledge a 4:1 ratio of spending to tax reductions, with €1.3bn of the unallocated figure  earmarked to fund personal tax cuts, including a lower USC rate and an increase in the standard tax band.

Of course these are all manifesto promises and not all will see the light of day, particularly as the opinion polls suggest that a coalition government is the most likely outcome. Events may also intrude, throwing any fiscal plans off course. Interesting to note, though, the big move by all parties towards higher spending and away from any notion of cutting income tax rates.

Sterling’s big impact on Irish car market

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.

Ireland’s plunging birth rate and rising unemployment challenges narrative on economy

The CSO has just published two significant data sets , one relating to  the latest demographics and the other to the labour market in the second quarter of the year. The former was broadly as expected,  but the latter came as something of a shock, challenging the recent narrative on the economy.

The Irish population has been growing strongly again after a softer period following the financial crash and that trend continued in the twelve months to April, with a 65,000 increase (1.3%) taking the total to a fresh high of 4.92m. In general, official estimates and projections have tended to underestimate population growth, in large part because of the signifcance and volatility  of migration in the Irish data. In this case  the scale of emigration was largely unchanged from the previous year, at 55,000, but  offset by  substantial immigration of some 89,000, again similar to 2018, to give a net migration figure of 34,000. The latter is now larger than the natural increase ( births – deaths) which has slowed significantly  of late, to 31,000 from 49,000 at the turn of the decade. Indeed, the Irish birth rate ( births per 1,000 population)  although still very high by EU standards is falling rapidly , to 12.4 from 16.6 a decade ago.

Nonetheless, the robust pace of overall population growth allied to the boom in economic activity has resulted in  the emergence of massive capacity constraints across many areas of the economy, most nobaly housing but also in education, health care, public transport and the  infrastructure  around the main cities. The current make-up of that population growth ( a falling birth rate offset by  high net immigration ) makes it particularly difficult to plan for the future, however, as a period of weaker growth in Ireland might have a very significant impact on migration flows and hence total population.

The boom in the economy had propelled employment  to record highs and prompted much discussion about the level of full employment, as the unemployment rate had fallen to a cyle low of 4.5% in June. In that context the other main CSO release, the quartely Labour Force Survey, was a shocker. Headline employment fell marginally in q2  from the previous quarter but normally rises for seasonal reasons and so the adjusted figure saw a 21,000 decline, spread over half of the fourteen industry sectors categorised by the CSO. The labour force continued to rise  in the quarter so the numbers unemployed rose, as did the unemployment rate, to 5.2% from 5.1%. A marginal change in that context but it did result in a much more significant revision to the previously published monthly estimates, as unemployment in July is now 18,000 higher than previously thought and has been rising for the past four months, taking the unemployment rate to 5.3% instead of 4.6%.

Coverage of the data tended to emphasis the annual growth in headline employment, which is still impressive at 40,000 or 2.0%, although this is the slowest annual growth rate since early 2013. The seasonal  adjusted fall in q2 also followed a strong rise of 49,000 in q1 giving a net positive figure over the first half of the year of 28,000, so one might put all this down to a quirk in the data ( which is based on a household survey) particularly as the numbers claiming unemployment  benefit are still falling, albeit at a much reduced pace.

However, confidence surveys have weakened of late and some of the hard data has pointed to slower domestic activity, notably retail sales which fell by a cumulative 6.5% in the three months to July. One obvious culprit behind this caution is Brexit, which may also be impacting the demand side of  the  housing market. Indeed one other surprising feature of the Labour Force data was that construction employment has flatlined for the past nine months, which may be due to a scarcity of labour but also to caution from builders and developers as well.

All in all, food for thought- has unemployment bottomed in this cycle or is this just a short term hiccup which a Brexit resolution  might help to cure? On population, the Irish birth rate may still be the highest in Europe but is heading rapidly towards the EU average which is under 10.

Are estimates of Irish housing demand far too high?

The consensus view on Irish housing is that demand exceeds supply by a considerable margin and that the gap is closing, which many conclude is the key factor in the clear deceleration in residential property price inflation seen over the past year. Yet the increase in supply is not that pronounced and it may well be that demand is not as  substantial as generally believed, particularly into the medium term..

The latest figures on housing completions from the CSO, covering the second quarter of the year, show a half- year total of 9,100  which implies the full year figure will be above the 18,000 recorded in 2018,  albeit pointing to a outturn below 21,000. Supply is therefore still rising but at a sluggish pace, and certainly still a long way from the 30,000-35,000 widely seen as a good estimate of the annual demand over the medium term.

That figure is largely based on projections for household formation but there is an obvious circularity in that households are defined as occupying a house or an apartment. In other words  housing supply creates household formation so  the latter is not an independent estimate of demand. For example, the number of  households in Ireland rose by just 48,000 in the five years to the 2016 census, or by less than 10,000 per annum, but the numbers living in those households increased by 166,000, indicating a rise in the average household size. Housing demand projections  generally assume that the size of households will fall over the medium term.

So household formation averaging 30,000 or more a year implicitly assumes  housing supply around that figure , and lower supply would mean lower household formation. A look at the latest population projections by the CSO also gives food for thought. On the assumption of unchanged fertility and an annual net migrant inflow of 30,000 per year the population between 25 and 44 increases by just 8,000 in total by 2025, with the numbers between 30 and 40 years old declining sharply. If migration was much lower, at 10,000 per annum, and fertility declined, the CSO projection shows a 100,000 fall in the 25-44 age group which is the cohort one generally associates with house purchase and household formation.

If supply is the main determinant of demand  the recent data on planning permissions, showing a fall in the annual figure to below 29,000, casts doubt on whether supply will exceed 30,000 a year and , if so , household formation will be much lower than the received wisdom. The average number per household may in fact continue to rise .

 

Strong growth in first quarter following large upward revision to 2018 GDP

The Irish economy, as measued by real GDP, is now deemed to have grown by 8.2% in 2018, as against the initial 6.7% estimate. Growth in 2017 was also revised up, by around 1% to 8.1%, according to the latest National Accounts. The most interesting change came in the personal consumption component, which had seemed puzzlingly soft given the buoyancy of household income. It now transpires that consumption last year was  €107bn, or €3bn higher than the initial estimate, and real  consumption growth over the past three  years is now put at 12% instead of 8.8%, Government consumption growth, in contrast, was revised down and is now 2% lower than initially recorded over the past three years, albeit still at a robust 11.9%.

GDP in 2018 is now put at €324bn, some €6bn higher than the initial estimate, which means that the General Government debt ratio is now about one percentage point lower at 63.6%. The CSO also produced the first estimate of modified national incomein 2018, which some prefer to use as the debt denominator, and this came in at €197bn giving a ratio of  104.4%, down from 109.5% in 2017.

Turning to 2019, recent higher frequency data , notably employment and industrial production,  had implied strong GDP growth in the first quarter  and that duly emerged, at 2.4%. Exports and personal consumption both grew by around 1%, with government consumption expanding by 0.5%. A strong stock build was also evident but these positives were offset by a 25% plunge in  capital formation,  reflecting similar falls in both spending on machinery and equipment and Intangibles. The latter is largely due to multinational activity and is also captured in the national accounts as a service import, so is GDP neutral (imports fell by 2.8%) but of more significance was the underlying decline in machinery and equipment spending when adjusted for aircraft leasing, meaning that modifed capital formation ( designed to better capture domestic investment) actually fell by 2.4%.

The first quarter advance  boosted the annual growth rate  of GDP to  6.3% and the  consensus for the full year is under 4% (our own estimate is 5%). However, analysts may in general hold fire on any material changes to forecasts given the evident weakness  over recent months in the UK and EA economies, alongside softer growth in the US. Brexit remains the biggest specific risk, of course, and the fall in domestic business investment may well reflect the uncertainty about  the shape  and timing of an eventual resolution.

Irish economy grew by 6.7% in 2018 but slowed sharply in final quarter.

The Irish economy, as measured by real GDP, grew by 6.7% in 2018 following a 7.2% rise the previous year. The outcome was marginally ahead of our 6.5% estimate but below consensus, with many expecting a figure around 7.5%. Nominal GDP grew by  8.3% and is now €318bn , or €150bn (88%) above the pre-crash level, which flatters ratios using GDP as the deflator, such as the debt ratio, which fell to below 65% in 2018 from a peak of 120% in 2012.

That surge in GDP  largely reflects the growth of investment and exports, and it is striking that personal consumption now only accounts for one-third of Irish GDP, indicating that it has far less influence on economic growth than the norm elsewhere. Consumption, as recorded in the national accounts, has also been surprisingly modest given the strong rise in household income seen in recent years;  the former grew by  4.4% last year or 3% excluding price changes, which implies a significant increase in the savings ratio given that household disposable income probably rose  by at least 5.5%.

In fact government consumption has outpaced personal consumption for the past three years, with a very strong real rise of 6.4% in 2018 bringing the  volume increase since 2015 to  14.5%.Clearly the government has taken the opportunity afforded by better than expected tax receipts, largely from corporation tax, to increase current  as well as capital spending at a robust pace.

Building and construction has been expanding strongly since 2013 and the rise in 2018 was 15.9%, similar to the previous year, with housebuilding up 26%, although the pace of growth is slowing, as one might expect given the low base for house completions post-crash and subsequent high growth rates in percentage terms.

Spending on machinery and equipment tends to be volatile in general but in Ireland’s case is strongly affected by the purchase of aircraft, with the latter particularly strong last year, contributing to a 37% increase. The other component of capital spending is Intangibles, covering R&D, and this fell, by over 10%, albeit recovering strongly in the second half of the year. The net result was that total capital formation rose by 10% in 2018 after slumping by over 30% the previous year.

Virtually all of the Intangibles spending is also recorded as a service import and total imports grew by 7% in real terms last year, albeit outpaced by an 8.9% increase in exports. giving a positive contribution from the external sector. Indeed, the current account surplus on the balance of payments rose to €29bn  or 9.1% of GDP from €25bn in 2017.

Looking at the quarterly data, a marked deceleration through the year is apparent,  with the annual growth rate slowing from 9.6% in the first quarter to 3% in q4,  the latter implying a softer carry-over into 2019 than many had expected.The slowdown was particularly evident in consumer spending and construction. In fact the quarterly change in GDP in Q4 was just 0.1% and modified domestic demand (which seeks to strip out multinational investment spending) actually fell marginally.  It is also noteworthy that unemployment actually ticked  higher in the final months of 2018 and that house prices fell in three consecutive months to January. Brexit uncertainty is no doubt a factor but it may be that the economy is approaching  or even at full employment and hence supply contrained as well as suffering from a short period of softer demand.

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.