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.

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.

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.

Modest rise in Irish pay in 2017, led by public sector

Pay growth has been modest by historical standards across many developed economies in recent years, despite tightening labour markets, and Ireland is no exception- average weekly earnings  only started to rise again in 2014, and average  annual increases of around 1% have been the norm. Unemployment peaked in early 2012  at 16%, and has been falling steadily since, declining to 6.2% at the end of 2017, so one might expect that firms would have to increase pay to attract and retain labour.

Average weekly earnings did pick up through 2017, according to the latest CSO data, rising by by annual 2.5% in the final quarter of the year, which brought the annual average increase to 2%. The growth in private sector earnings last year was lower, at 1.8%, and was outpaced by the 2.6% average rise in the public sector. Pay in the latter is on average 41% higher than in the private sector, but has generally lagged since 2008, when the differential was 46%.

Average pay masks large differentials across the various sectors in the economy and the the recovery has been kinder to some workers than to others; the earnings of workers in Information and Communication, Scientific and Professional services and Adminstration and Support have all  significantly outstripped the average growth in pay, while the Financial sector has recently recorded strong pay growth after steep falls during the recession. Surprisingly, perhaps, pay in construction is not as buoyant as one might imagine, with average earnings barely increasing in 2017 and still below the 2008 level.

Consumer prices rose by only 0.4% last year so a 2% pay rise translated into a 1.6% increase in real earnings. Nominal pay growth is generally expected to accelerate in 2018, given the further erosion of slack in the labour market, although, as seen elsewhere, the traditional relationship between unemployment and pay growth, the Phillips Curve, has become much flatter,

 

Irish real GDP now 50% above pre-crash peak

The volatility in Ireland’s quarterly national accounts has always been a feature and has increased of late, given the scale of the multinational influence on the headline data. The third quarter was no exception; real GDP rose by 4.2%, with the annual change at 10.5%,  leaving the average annual growth rate year to date at 7.4%.  Negative base effects would normally imply a marked deceleration in the final quarter ( the economy grew by 5.8% in q4 last year) and on that basis average growth for 2017 as a whole may well be around 6.5%, although given past experience anything is possible.

The  growth surge in q3 occurred despite a 13% plunge in domestic demand. Consumer spending rose at the strongest pace for some time (1.9%) and government consumption expanded by 0.7% but capital formation fell by 36%, with modest growth in construction ( 2%) dwarfed by a 22% fall in spending on machinery and equipment and a 60% decline in outlays on Intangibles. The latter largely comprises spending by multinationals on R&D and is particularly volatile (a 58% increase in the previous quarter) but is offset in the national accounts by service imports. That largely explains why  total imports  fell by 11% in q3, against a 4% increase in exports. Consequently net exports contributed a massive 16 percentage points to q3 GDP growth, which alongside a big stock build offset the negative contribution from investment.

Total merchandise exports exceeded €49bn in the quarter, against under €28bn recorded in the Irish trade data, highlighted the scale of contract or offshore  manufacturing. That export strength and the fall in imports contributed to a massive €14.5bn Balance of Payments surplus in the quarter, over 18% of GDP, with the surplus year to date at over €22bn.

On the headline data, Ireland’s real GDP in q3 is  now 50% above the pre-crash peak ( recorded in the final quarter of 2007) with exports having doubled. Consumer spending is only modestly higher, however, by 4%, while government consumption is still marginally below that previous high. It used to be argued that GNP provided a better guide to national income in Ireland but that too is 47% above the pre-recession level, with re-domicilled multinationals now impacting the amount of profit outflows. To give a better idea of underlying activity  on a quarterly basis the CSO have developed  a modified domestic demand metric, which seeks to exclude multinational R&D flows and the impact of aircraft leasing. On that measure domestic capital spending actually rose, by 5%, as did domestic demand, by 3%.

Annual growth in modified  final domestic demand  was 5.0% in q3, bringing the average over the first three quarters to 4.9%. which is much closer to the consensus GDP growth forecast for the year as well as being similar to the pace of expansion implied by the employment data. Yet, GDP is the standard measure of economic activity  and  barring a massive fall in q4  Ireland is likely to record a much stronger  growth figure  in 2017 than anyone envisaged.

Irish Central Bank tightens mortgage controls

The Central Bank introduced macroprudential controls on Irish mortgage lending in early 2015 with a focus on Loan to Value (LTV) and Loan to Income (LTI). The controls are subject to annual review and were initially amended  in January 2017 with  another set of ‘refinements’ just announced , to take effect from 2018.The latter includes quite a significant modification to the way the LTI control operates and in our view represents a tightening of credit controls, although one does not get that impression from the Central Bank release.

Currently, 20% of Principal Dwelling House (PDH) lending can exceed the 3.5 LTI limit. Data released by the Central Bank  shows that  PDH lending for the first half of 2017 amounted to €2,770m and that €487m exceeded the limit, or 17.6%, indicating that the limit is being observed, at least for that six month period  (  it  actually applies over a  full year).  Yet the data reveals a marked divergence between FTB’s and other buyers; over 24% of lending to the former was in excess of the 3.5 LTI limit, while for the latter the figure was only 10%.

Clearly the LTI limit is a much bigger issue for FTB’s in an environment of scarce  supply, strong house price inflation and where around half of house sales are going to non-mortgage buyers . As the controls currently stand there is no specific constraint on the amount of  FTB lending in excess of the LTI limit , as long as the overall lending figure is within the 20% exemption.

The Central Bank has responded by amending the LTI exemption. From January the overall 20% limit no longer operates, with  a 20% exemption  limit allocated to FTB lending and 10% to other lending. Had these applied over the first half of the year FTB lending would have been €61bn lower, with no material impact on other lending.

Just over half of PDH lending is currently to FTB’s so the implication is that there is now a 15% overall exemption limit in practice, given a 20% allocation to FTB’s and only 10% to other buyers. The Central Bank argues that FTB lending is less risky than to second or subsequent buyers ( although credit agancies seem to have a different view) , so justifying differential LTV’s and now LTI exemptions, but the changes would appear to mask an effective tightening in overall lending standards. The Bank notes that ‘the refinement is not expected to have a significant impact on the functioning of the market’  but it clearly will limit overall exemptions relative to the  current postion.

Irish Misery Index on rise after all-time low

Irish consumer sentiment, as captured by the KBC/ESRI monthly index, reached a record high early in 2016 before slipping back later that year.It has picked up again in recent months and is now close to the previous peak. Households would therefore seem to feel good about the economy and their own financial situation and an alternative measure, the Misery Index, tells a similar story.

That is simply the sum of the unemployment rate and the inflation rate, two readily available monthly indicators that are likely to have a strong impact on the average household. The index fell to around 6 in 2004, reflecting an unemployment rate of 4.5%, and soared to a high of 18 in 2011 amid a collapse in employment.

The steady fall in unemployment in recent years has been the main driver of the decline in the index, which fell to an all-time low in June of 5.7%, with inflation at -0.4% and unemployment at 6.1%.The latter has fallen further, to 6.0%, but inflation has turned modestly positive so the index is now rising again, albeit still at 6.3%.

The Misery index has probably bottomed in this cycle, however, given the likely trend from here in inflation and unemployment. The latter may find it difficult to fall much further as the recent data implies we are at or near full employment; it has taken five months for the unemployment rate to fall from 6.2% to 6.0%.

Inflation may well see the sharpest change. Falling energy  prices and lower mortgage rates were big factors in dampening the CPI over the past three years but energy costs  have now started to rise again on an annual basis and mortgage costs are now unchanged on a year earlier.  The euro’s appreciation against  Sterling has proved a significant  counterweight over the past year, reducing the price of imported goods, notably food, but that will not be repeated absent another lurch down in the UK exchange rate.

Consequently, we may well have already seem the low of the cycle in the Misery index, although the increase may well be at a modest pace.

Population and migration data highlight pressure on resources.

Estimating the Irish population in the years between census counts is tricky. The birth rate is known, as is the death rate, but migration flows are notoriously difficult to measure, so estimates are often revised when the census data is available. That is the case following the 2016 census, with net migration now much lower than previously thought, which also means that the prevailing post-crash narrative has to be revised, along with an acceptance that the economy faces overheating and capacity issues,rather than large scale underutilisation of resources.

That narrative  envisaged very large emigrant flows dwarfing immigration, with a net outflow between 2011 and 2016 of just under 100,000. That figure has been revised down, to 31,000, with net immigration turning positive again in 2015. Immigration estimates for the period have been revised up, by a net 27,000, but the biggest change is on the emigration side, with a downward revision of 40,000.

So fewer people left than generally believed and more entered than initially thought. What about the trend post-census? The CSO estimate that net immigration rose to 20,000 in the year to April 2017, up from 16,000 in 2016, which alongside a natural population increase of 33,000 brought the total numbers in Ireland to 4.79 million. This represents a 1.1% annual increase, following a similar rise the previous year, and on that basis the population will hit 5 million  in another four years, which is  much earlier than the standard official projections.

Pressure on resources has been evident for a number of years now, and these migration and population figures bring some hard evidence on the need for a big increase in Ireland’s economic capacity, in health, education, transport, infrastructure and housing. On the latter, population growth implies the need for a net increase in the housing stock of 22,000 a year, implying a  completions requirement of  32,000 a year ( given obsolesence), just to maintain a constant population/ housing ratio, let alone account for a trend fall in the numbers per household. We are unlikely to hit that annual  figure for another three or four years, implying a very substantial backlog and hence  the need for an overshoot in the annual requirement.