Irish High Steet spending: some volume growth, boosted by falling prices

The volume of Irish retail sales excluding the motor trade peaked in December 2007 and fell by almost 15% over the following four years , recovering marginally in 2012 before making a double bottom early last year ( using  a 3-month average to reduce some of the volatility in the CSO data). Since then the volume of spending has picked up somewhat, rising by 5.2% from the low,  with the annual increase in August at 3.7% .Still a long way from the peak, therefore, but at least there is some signs that consumers have returned to the High Street.Total retail sales are up 6.8% in volume terms, thanks to strong car sales, and overall consumer spending has  also shown some growth, albeit at a slower pace (spending was up an annual 1.8% in the second quarter) implying that spending on services has yet to show the same forward momentum.

The upturn in  High Street sales is widespread, with most areas seeing some increase in volumes over the past year. The most pronounced is in Furniture and Lighting, up an annual 20.7% , no doubt reflecting the pick up in housing transactions and completions, followed by Electrical goods with an 11.6% gain. The volume of spending on Footwear and Clothing is also recording strong growth( 5.4%)  as is Motor Fuel (4.4%), which is not surprising given the surge in car sales this year (an increase of 24% according to the retail data). Spending on Food tends to be less volatile than most other areas and that too has seen growth, with the volume of sales up 3.2%, although spending on beverages and tobacco is down.

Spending in volume terms is  also falling in some other areas, including Pharmaceuticals and Cosmetics (-0.8%), Newspapers and Books (-1.6%) while in Bars the figure is -2.7%. It is not clear that the  latter has yet bottomed, with the volume of sales down over 37% from the peak , while the fall in the volume of Newspaper and Book sales is even starker, at over 47%, although there has been some modest growth in the past few months.

Some good news then for at least some areas of the High Street, although a closer look at the data reveals that the growth in actual spending is not as pronounced, with price falls still evident in most sectors. The price of Electrical goods is down by over 5%, for example, so reducing the increase in the value of spending to 5.8% despite a volume increase of 11.8%, with Furniture and Lighting also seeing a pronounced price fall, this time of 3.6%. A few sectors have attempted to raise prices, including Newspapers and Bars but the total  price deflator for retail sales ex autos fell by 1.7%, so reducing the rise in the value of sales to 2% despite a volume increase of 3.7%. The pace of price decline has eased a little over recent months, from -2% earlier in the year, but it is clear that although conditions for High Street businesses are indeed improving, the volume figures give a more upbeat trend than  experienced by many retailers.


Irish GDP surges, impressing the Government but not consumers

Ireland’s quarterly GDP figures are volatile and often surprise, with the latest no exception; the economy grew by a seasonally adjusted 1.5% in q2, following a 2.8% expansion in the first quarter, the latter revised up marginally from the initial release. That surge in Irish output left the annual growth in real GDP in q2 at an extraordinary 7.7% and means that in the absence of revisions the average growth rate for 2014 as a whole would average 5% even if GDP was to remain flat in the second half of the year. The consensus growth forecast has moved steadily higher as the year  has unfolded , from an initial 2% to around 3%, but this latest data will no doubt prompt a further substantial upgrade- the Finance Minister has already mentioned 4.5% and that requires a fall over the second half of the year. Some commentators prefer GNP as a better measure of economic activity in Ireland (it adjusts for net  external flows of profits, interest and dividends) but that tells a similar story-indeed, the annual GNP  growth rate in q2 was 9%, although base effects in the second half may mean that the annual  GNP growth rate in 2014 will also be around 5%.

The monthly external trade data had implied a strong  merchandise export performance in q2 (the Patent Cliff impact on chemicals appears to be over, at least for now) but the national accounts included  even stronger figures,  which alongside a better performance from service exports resulted in a 13% annual increase in export volume. Import growth was also very strong, at 11.8%, but such is the dominance of exports (now 117% of GDP)  that annual GDP growth would have been 4% even if the other components made no contribution.

In the event they all contributed. Investment rose by 18.5% on the year, adding 2.5 percentage points to GDP growth, following strong gains in construction output and spending on machinery and equipment. Government spending  also rose , and by a puzzling 7.9% in volume terms, which sits uneasily with the idea of spending cuts and fiscal austerity and may reflect problems with the price deflator. The third component of domestic  demand, personal consumption, also rose, but by a modest 1.8%, and even that was flattered by base effects from last year as the quarterly increase in q2  this year was just 0.3% following a meagre 0.2% rise in q1. It is clear from other data sources that Irish households are still  paying down debt at a steady clip and it is impossible to say when this deleveraging will end. Employment growth has also slowed sharply in 2014 and in the absence of a marked change in household  behaviour personal consumption growth in 2014 is likely to be nearer to 1% than the 2% many expected.

Such is the volatility  and unpredictability of exports and investment that real GDP  growth in 2014  could be over 6% or nearer 4%, but we currently expect  5%.Export prices are falling, as is the deflator of government spending, and for that reason the rise in nominal GDP this year may be less than that recorded for real GDP – we expect 4%.That would give a nominal GDP figure  in 2014 of €182bn but still substantially above the €171bn forecast in the 2014 Budget. Tax receipts are also  running well ahead of target and so we now expect the General Government deficit for the year to emerge at 3.4% of GDP compared with the 4.9% originally forecast by the Government. The implication is that a fiscal adjustment of the order of €2bn in 2015, as originally envisaged and still advocated by the Fiscal Advisory Council (although the Council’s latest paper did  not take account of the q2 GDP figures), would probably push the deficit well below 2% of GDP and therefore comfortably under  the 3% target set by the Excessive Deficit procedure. The  strength of tax receipts had moved the Government towards a much smaller adjustment in any case  but the latest GDP figures appear to have convinced them to abandon austerity and at worse go for a neutral budget, with tax cuts funded by higher taxes elsewhere, mainly the Water Charge.

Early repayment of Ireland’s IMF debt

The Irish Government is exploring he possibility of  early repayment of the monies borrowed from the IMF and below we examine the issue.

How much does Ireland owe the IMF?

Ireland  arranged to borrow €22.5bn from the IMF as part of the bailout deal agreed with the Troika, although the fund actually lends in Special Drawing Rights (SDR’s) , the IMF’s unit of account, which is constructed as a basket of four currencies (the US dollar,  euro, Yen and Sterling) with the dollar having the largest weight followed by the single currency. Ireland drew down SDR19.47bn from early 2011 through to late 2013 and the loans have maturities ranging from 4.5 years to 10 years, with an average maturity of 7.3 years. The SDR ‘s value against the euro changes daily and at the time of writing buys €1.16 so Ireland currently owes 22,6bn in euro terms, although the loan has to be repaid in SDR’s. In that sense Ireland can be said to have borrowed from the IMF in four currencies.

What is the interest rate on the loans?

Ireland has borrowed from the IMF under the Extended Fund Facility and the rate charged is floating, depending on the 3-month SDR rate ( itself a weighted basket of rates in the four constituent currencies) and a surcharge. The SDR rate is currently only 0.05% (the euro and yen rates are actually negative) so the premium is much more significant. That depends on how much one borrows relative to ones contribution to the fund , or quota, which is determined by GDP, population and other economic criteria. Ireland’s quota is SDR1.258bn and a country can borrow up to 3 times that (or SDR3.77bn in this case ) at a 1% surcharge. Anything beyond that carries a 3% surcharge , rising to 4% if the loan term extends beyond three years

So how much is Ireland paying?

If we assume the loan term will average 7.5 years Ireland would pay 1.05% per annum on the first SDR3.77bn and on the remaining SDR15.7bn 3.05% over the first three years and 4.05% on the final 4.5 years. This gives an average blended rate of 3.15%. In fact the loan  also carried a one-off 0.5% charge so averaging that out over the term  and adding it to the cost gives an annual rate of 3.21%. This is an SDR rate of course and Ireland raises taxes in euros, so the NTMA will use the swap market to convert euros in to the appropriate basket of currencies. Consequently the NTMA quotes an average euro rate for the loan based on a 7.5 year maturity swap, and that was put at just under 5% in March of this year, implying an annual interest payment in euros of over €1bn on the IMF loan. Ireland’s total interest bill on all outstanding debt  this year is just over €8bn.

How much is Ireland paying in the market?

Bond yields have collapsed across the euro zone on the expectation that short term rates will stay low for a very long time and, probably, in anticipation of bond purchases by the ECB. Irish yields have fallen precipitously too, with a government bond maturing in 10 years currently trading at 1.85%, with shorter maturities at much lower  yield levels. It would therefore appears that Ireland could borrow much more cheaply in the market than the current cost of the IMF loan  and it would make sense to borrow at a longer maturity given the low level of current yields..  The Minister for Finance has mentioned a figure of €18bn for repayment and yields would presumably rise if Ireland announced a much heavier issuance schedule  than currently planned ( only €10bn was slated for this year in total) but even at ,say 3.0% for a 20 year bond , the saving would be around €360mn a year , not counting any additional costs involved in breaking the swaps.

What’s the problem then?

There are two issues. One is that the other members of  the Troika need to sign off on early repayment, which brings in EU Governments  and in some cases parliaments. The second is the Promissory note deal, which involved the Irish government issuing  €25bn in long term bonds to the Irish Central bank . The ECB was never happy with the transaction, believing it to be ‘monetary financing’, and insisted that the Central bank sell the debt into the market over time. The schedule for the latter is light, with sales of €0.5bn a year out to 2018 before rising to €1bn a year, but Draghi now appears to be linking any ECB support for early IMF debt repayment with a more rapid sale by the Central bank.

Does the Prom deal matter that much?

The Irish Government  borrowed the €25bn from the Central Bank , which in turn borrowed from the ECB, and  the Government pays  a floating rate coupon of 6-month euribor ( currently 0.2%) plus 262 basis points on the bonds , implying an annual interest payment of €700mn. That  means a  large profit for the Central bank as its borrowing cost is now virtually zero, and most of this profit is transferred to  the exchequer. If ,say, the Central bank sold €5bn into private sector hands that circular flow of income would be broken, costing the exchequer, with interest payments now leaking out into the investors who bought the bonds from the Central bank while the latter would use the proceeds  of the sale to repay the ECB.

So the ECB’s call is key?

The ECB’s view is therefore very significant, as a much more rapid sale of bonds by the Central bank, in return for a nod on the IMF repayment,  would reduce the benefit of  the latter, by driving up Irish yields and  via a reduction in Central bank and therefore exchequer income. It is an irony though, and one that may well be pointed out by the Irish authorities, that Draghi is now  keen for the  ECB  to  eventually embark on full scale bond purchases across the euro area, which some might view as ‘monetary financing’ too, although no doubt Frankfurt will argue that the cases are different.


Irish household wealth is rising but debt repayment ongoing

Mario Draghi may be doing his best to encourage European consumers to borrow and spend but the evidence in Ireland still points to ongoing deleveraging, despite rising household wealth. The debt burden is now falling steadily, however, in contrast to the situation over recent years, but is still extremely high by international standards and it is anyone’s guess when the deleveraging process will come to a close.

The Irish Central bank publishes financial accounts data which tracks each sector’s assets and liabilities and the figures for the first quarter have just been released. Loans to households fell by €1.9bn in q1, bringing the total decline since the peak in mid-2008 to over €39bn. That deleveraging has dwarfed any new lending, which explains why the outstanding amount of personal credit is still falling despite a pick up in new loans. The absolute debt figure is now back to the level last seen in mid-2006.

Of more significance is the debt burden, which is generally expressed relative to disposable income. On that metric the burden peaked at 218% in late 2009 but did not fall materially for some time after that despite deleveraging because household income, the denominator, was also falling, reflecting rising unemployment, falling wages and an increase in the tax burden. Income finally stabilized  in 2012, ( although it is still volatile even on the four quarter total used by the Central Bank ) and has started to inch higher, so the debt ratio has started to fall at a steady clip, declining to 182% in the first quarter of 2014 from 185% in the previous quarter and 198% a year earlier. The household debt burden is now also back at 2006 levels, although a long way above the 133% recorded a decade ago.

Households are reducing their liabilities but their financial assets are climbing, and indeed have been rising for the past five years, largely reflecting growth in the value of assets held in pension and insurance funds. Household’s financial assets amounted to €339bn in q1, leaving net financial worth of €165bn, a record, and some €100bn above that recorded at the nadir of the financial crash.

Most Irish household wealth is in the form of housing, however, and when that is added we arrive at a  total net worth figure of €509bn. The housing component actually fell in the quarter ( national house prices declined in q1) and wealth  is still some €200bn below the peak but it has recovered by €50bn over the past year.

House prices rose again in q2 so that alongside the pick up in house building ( up an annual 37% in h1) will have boosted wealth  in recent months. The data on bank lending implies that debt repayment has remained a feature as well so the net household wealth figure will probably record a further rise in q2. Rising wealth is generally seen as positive for consumer spending but we have never seen the pace of deleveraging evident in Ireland of late (households have been net lenders rather than borrowers for over five years now) and we do not know how long that will continue to dampen personal consumption.

Ireland now has jobless growth instead of growth-less jobs

The relationship between Ireland’s reported GDP and employment has been a puzzle of late. Output in the economy barely grew last year yet employment soared and this year has seen GDP growth pick up but employment effectively stagnate; growth-less jobs has given way to jobless growth. The unemployment rate is still falling, it has to be said, but the explanation for that is more to do with a decline in the labour force rather than any strength in labour demand. Average pay is also declining and so the picture painted by the recent labour market data is certainly at odds with the recovery narrative currently holding sway.

The main source of information on Irish employment is the Quarterly National Household Survey (QNHS), which means that sampling errors are always present. That aside, the data shows that employment bottomed in the third quarter of 2012, having fallen by a seasonally adjusted 327k (or 15%) and  then rose sharply in 2013, with the annual increase in the final quarter at 61k or over 3%. Not all industries participated and agriculture saw by far the biggest increase in employment, but on the face of it the pace of job creation was extraordinary, and one usually associated with a booming economy. Yet the recorded GDP data, which measures the output of the economy, initially showed a fall in 2013, and although subsequent revisions have been positive, the latest vintage still has real GDP growth last year of only 0.2%.Nonethelss the strength of job creation precipitated a substantial fall in the unemployment rate, to 12.2% at end 2013 from 14.2% a year earlier, despite a rise in the participation rate. The implied tightening of the labour market was not evident in terms of pay, however, as average weekly earnings fell by 0.7% last year.

The data revisions to the national accounts had left exports stronger than previously thought and a positive contribution from external trade was the main driver of the 2.7% rise in Irish GDP reported for the first quarter this year, offsetting another fall in domestic demand. The data left the annual growth rate in q1 at 4.1% and, as we expected, has prompted a substantial upward revision to the consensus growth projection for 2014 as a whole, with many private sector forecasts now  well over 3%. Many analysts are also anticipating a pick up in personal consumption, in part predicated on a strong employment figure, but the latest QNHS data, for q2, is very disappointing in terms of job creation; employment rose by 4.3k on a seasonally adjusted basis in the quarter bringing the increase in employment in the first half of the year to just 5.5k. Coverage of the figures tended to emphasise  the annual increase in employment of 37k but  the quarterly flow implies that  the annual rise will slow sharply by the end of the year .

The unemployment rate fell further in the quarter, to an average 11.5%, despite the weak employment figures, reflecting a fall in the labour force and a decline in the participation rate. The decline in the latter was particularly acute for those  over 16 and under 24, with more staying on at school or entering third-level. Emigration is a factor too, although the net figure fell  to 21k in  the year to April 2014, with an increased inflow of  61k partially offsetting a reduced outflow of 82k.

The surprisingly weak employment figures should also be set against the data on average earnings, showing an annual fall of 1.1% in the second quarter, which again would not indicate a tightening labour market overall, although some industries did see strong annual pay growth including construction (6%), the hospitality sector (5.3%) and manufacturing (4.2%). Some have pointed to the strength of income tax receipts as being inconsistent with the pay and jobs data, which is worth noting, although it should be remembered that the 2014 Budget did include measures to boost income tax by over €200mn as well as strong carryover effects from 2013.

As is often the case with Irish data we are left with a confusing picture- is the economy growing very strongly, as indicated by the GDP figures, or is it much weaker  as implied by the employment figures?. The latter does seem to suggest that domestic demand, and particularly the domestic service economy, where most jobs are located, remains in the doldrums. This does not preclude 3.5% GDP growth but it does mean that growth will again be driven by the multinantional export sector, which is not labour intensive.


Irish mortgage lending picking up but still far from healthy market

New  Irish mortgage lending for house purchase peaked in 2006 at some €28bn, with over 110k mortgages drawn down, and subsequently fell, collapsing completely from 2008 onwards before bottoming out in 2011 with a value figure of just €2.1bn and a volume total of 11k. The ending of mortgage tax relief in 2012 prompted borrowers to bring forward their draw down which helped to boost lending to €2.5bn  in that year but the corollary was a weaker figure in 2013, with the value of lending slipping to €2.4bn alongside a fall in volume from the 14k  seen the previous year. Lending has picked up substantially this year, however, and the annual total may well rise to around €3bn, with perhaps over 16k new mortgages for house purchase likely to be  drawn down.

The past year has certainly seen some positive changes in terms of both the supply of credit and the demand for mortgages. The number of active lenders fell away sharply in the downturn and is still low but credit standards are back to more normal levels , having tightened considerably at the onset of the recession ( credit standards always tend to be pro-cyclical). On the demand side affordability is back to the benign levels seen in the latter part of the  1990’s and employment is rising which has helped to support household incomes,  the main driver of mortgage demand. Price expectations ,too, play a part, and  few now doubt that the market has bottomed, at least in the main cities, particularly the capital.

The latest  new lending figures from the Irish Banking Federation (IBF) show that 4337 mortgages for house purchase were drawn down in the second quarter, an increase of 52% on the same period last year and compared with 3126 in the first quarter. Buy-to-let mortgages account for less than 5% of the total compared with a quarter at the peak of the boom, although the rental yield is now higher than the mortgage rate which was certainly not the case in 2006 and 2007. First -time buyers now dominate, accounting for  well over half the total (from a third at the peak) with the balance made up by those moving house, a segment that has taken a much more stable proportion of lending.

The average new mortgage for house purchase is also rising, as one might expect given the rise in house prices nationally, increasing by over 5% at an annual rate in the second quarter, to just over €178k. As a result the total value of mortgage lending for house purchase in q2 was €773m or 60% up on the previous year, following a figure of €539m in the first quarter.

These annual growth figures are clearly very impressive but when put in context the housing market is still far from what might be considered  liquid and healthy. Total transactions amounted to over 8700 in the second quarter, for example, according to the Property Price Register , so the mortgage data implies that less than half of transactions are being funded by bank credit, which remains unusually low. In addition, mortgage repayments are still outpacing new lending so net mortgage lending is still contracting; net lending fell by a total of €1.5bn in the first six months of 2014, which implies repayments of €2.8bn given that new lending (as per the IBF data) was €1.3bn.

What level of mortgage lending would take place in a healthy market?. One approach is to assume that a 3%-4%  annual turnover in housing transactions is normal, implying transactions of 60k-80k (there are approximately 2m houses in Ireland)  compared with around 30k last year, Again, perhaps 80%-85% might be normally funded via a mortgage so that gives a mortgage volume figure in the region of say 50k-60k per annum. The 2014 outturn may well be around 16k so we are still a long way away from an equilibrium, although lending is clearly now finally  moving in the right direction.

Trend in Irish household income rising but savings ratio also increasing

The initially reported contraction in Irish GDP last year has now been revised away which alongside strong growth in the first quarter of 2014 has prompted forecasters to revise up their projections for the full year, with exports and investment spending seen as the main drivers. Consumer spending continues to disappoint, however, having fallen in q1 and the final quarter of 2013, so again dashing hopes of a recovery in that key component of domestic demand. The consensus still expects some growth in consumption this year, nonetheless, but the scale of any forecast  rise is being trimmed back. Consumption largely depends on the trend in disposable income but  the proportion of any given  income spent and saved  can and does vary over time. On that basis the recent trend in disposable income is encouraging but  the  trend in the savings ratio has also started to rise again, reversing the  downward path evident since 2010, adding a further degree of uncertainty to the economic outlook.

Household spending is not uniform through the year and so the savings ratio also exhibits pronounced quarterly swings, falling sharply in the final quarter of the year, for example, and rising steeply in the first quarter. The CSO seasonally adjust for such moves and the adjusted figures for household disposable income and savings tend to be the focus of attention. Volatility is still high, however; disposable income fell by 4.8% in the first quarter of 2014, latest figures show,  after a 3.8% rise in the final three months of 2013, but the change in consumption was  much less pronounced (too modest quarterly declines) so the savings ratio fell sharply, from 15.4% to 11.7%.The implication is that households had to spend a higher proportion of their income in q1 to support spending in the face of a sharp fall in income.

The trend in these variables is more significant, however, and a 4-quarter total shows a different  picture. The latest CSO figures now show that the declining trend in household disposable income bottomed in the first quarter of 2013 and the past year has seen an upturn in income, no doubt supported by the recovery in employment which is offsetting stagnant wages; the 4-quarter income  figure in q1 was €90bn, the highest since late 2010 and compared with a cycle low of €87bn. A modest increase, leaving incomes well below the cycle peak of €102bn, but a welcome change in trend from the relentless falls seen since 2008.

The onset of the recession at that time and accompanying surge in employment prompted a substantial change in household behaviour. The trend in the savings ratio ( defined here as a 4-quarter moving average)  rose sharply, from under 7% in 2007 to over 16% by the end of 2009.Most forecasters  then expected the ratio to decline, particularly when the labour market stared to improve, and that duly unfolded, with a fall to around 10% by the end of 2012. That trend decline has come to a halt, however, with a pronounced upward drift of late, to 12.8% in q1 2014,, the highest since 2010.Households are still deleveraging, of course, and that is no doubt an influence, but household wealth is also rising again and the interest rate paid on savings products is unusually low, which might argue for a fall in the ratio.

I have noted elsewhere that the savings  and income data are subject to substantial revisions  , so the past year’s data may look different in time, but for the moment the trend in  disposable income is positive although it appears households remain cautious about spending, despite other data showing  that consumer confidence has recovered to pre-recession levels.


Buoyant UK economy double boost for Ireland, but rates there may rise soon

The UK economy is growing at a pace which is not only rapid but also well ahead of that generally expected at the turn of the year, prompting a scramble from analysts to revise up economic projections and a reassessment by the market on the likely timing of the first interest rate increase, which is now seen early next year or even before the end of 2014.The unexpected strength of economic activity has also left the Bank of England’s monetary policy strategy is disarray, as it had sought to guide rate expectations with reference to the unemployment rate , with a pledge to keep rates unchanged until the former fell below 7%, which to the Bank did not seem likely till 2016. The unemployment rate is now 6.5% and the Bank  has changed stance, rendering its initial foray into forward guidance somewhat of a embarrassment. None of the nine members of the MPC, which sets the BoE’s policy rate, has yet to vote for a rate increase but it may not be long before we see some advocating tighter monetary policy, particularly as house prices are also rising at a heady clip.

The UK economy experienced a severe recession from early 2008 ,as did most developed economies, although the loss of output was smaller than that recorded in Ireland (7.2% against over 12%) and the duration shorter (5 quarters versus Ireland’s 8). The  UK recovery was also much slower than seen in the past, with falling construction and industrial production offsetting an early rebound in services. All sectors are now growing again and GDP in the UK has risen for 5 consecutive quarters, with the last four seeing remarkably steady growth of 0.7% to 0.8%. That left the annual rise in GDP at 3% in the first quarter and the level of output just  below the previous peak so if q2 growth emerges as expected (around 0.8%) real GDP will have marked a fresh high ( Ireland, by comparison,  is still some 5% adrift of the 2007 peak). Moreover, the UK data has yet to be revised to incorporate the new 2010 standard for national accounts, which will no doubt lead to upward revisions to the level of GDP.

The strong pace of growth has had a significant impact on the labour market; employment rose by almost 1 million, or 3.1%, in the past twelve months, taking the employment rate to a record high, while the unemployment rate has tumbled to 6.5%. That support for household incomes has helped to boost consumer spending (which has risen for 10 consecutive quarters) while business investment has also picked up sharply and is growing at a double digit pace. The external sector is not contributing to growth but otherwise one might say the economy  is booming, although few in the UK would use that phrase. One key reason for that is the absence of any significant growth in pay (indeed annual wage inflation was just 0.4% in May) which has prompted cries of a ‘cost of living crisis’ as inflation, although lower of late, has consistently exceeded the 2% official target. Household incomes as a whole have risen ( given the rise in employment) but real incomes have been squeezed and the increase in consumption has been financed through a fall in the savings ratio, which is now under 5% from a 8% in 2012.

Fiscal policy has also been a drag on the economy in general (although not in 2014) with steeper cuts in government spending earmarked for the next few years, while credit growth , although picking up, remains limp by normal standards. Those factors may have an impact on the BoE’s thinking but it is currently wrestling with the issue of how much spare capacity there is in the economy. Most in the MPC  believe it is still around 1% but there is disagreement , with the persistence of weak productivity adding to the uncertainty about the economy’s  potential growth rate. Moreover, asset prices in general have risen and house prices nationally are increasing at a double digit pace and have scaled new heights, with London clearly in boom territory. Central banks now generally believe that they can prick housing bubbles with macro-prudential tools and the UK authorities have already sought to affect mortgage lending but other  argue that a higher cost of borrowing is the most foolproof safeguard.

Stronger growth in the UK have proved a double boost for the Irish economy. Some 16% of  total Irish merchandise exports go to  the UK (the share of services is higher at around 19%)   but it is  a much more significant market for Irish indigenous firms, taking over 36% of food exports , for example. and so growth there is a boon for Irish firms. In addition, the prospect of higher rates has led to an appreciation in sterling, with the euro rate falling to 79 pence, again a welcome support for Irish firms selling into the UK market, although to put that in historical context that  would be parity in terms of the punt/ sterling, hardly a rate seen as very advantageous for Ireland. Nevertheless, sterling’s relative strength is positive for Ireland and the UK currency may have further to rise given the differing outlooks for monetary  policy in the UK and the euro area.

€10.7bn boost to Irish GDP improves Budget outlook

I recently questioned the timing of calls for a strict €2bn fiscal adjustment in the 2015 Budget (‘Irish Fiscal Adjustment-too soon to know‘, in part based on the simple observation that the first quarter GDP data had yet to be published, with the additional caveat that the CSO figures would incorporate substantial revisions to previous data, reflecting the adoption of a new international standard of accounts. The figures have duly emerged and were a major surprise, both in terms of past revisions and in relation to growth in the first quarter of the year.

The level of Irish GDP  has been revised back to 1995 and is now substantially higher than previously published; the 2013  figure was initially estimated at  €164.1bn but is now put at €174.8bn, in large part due to the inclusion of R&D spending as investment (some illegal activities are also now estimated). The revision might be seen as just a statistical quirk in the arcane world of national accounts but it has an important implication- Ireland’s debt and deficit ratios are now lower than previously thought. The debt ratio in 2013, for example, was over 123% but is now 116.1% thanks to the higher GDP denominator. The annual deficits are also affected but the impact is less dramatic ; the 2013 deficit falls to 6.7% from the initial 7.2%.

The revisions to GDP did not have a huge impact on real growth rates, although last year’s marginal contraction in the economy (0.3%) is now seen as a modest gain of 0.2%. Growth did pick up sharply in the first quarter of 2014, with real GDP expanding by 2.7%, thanks to a strong contribution from net exports and to a substantial rise in inventories. GDP had fallen sharply in the first quarter of 2013 so that also dropped out of the annual comparison, leaving real GDP 4.1% above the level a year earlier. Consequently, the consensus growth figure for 2014 as a whole ( currently around 2%) is likely to be revised up , probably to well over 3%.

In fact the data revisions also incorporated reclassifications to external trade, with the result that exports and imports are  also now higher than previously published. The broader picture of an export-led recovery has not changed as a result however, with domestic demand still contracting over six consecutive years from 2008 to 2013. Indeed, the positive news on first quarter growth must be balanced against another  decline in domestic spending with all three components recording falls. Consumer spending is up marginally on an annual basis, albeit by only 0.2%, and at this juncture the 1.8% rise forecast by the Department of Finance looks unachievable, with deleveraging proving a stubborn offset to the positive impact of employment growth on household incomes.

Export prices are falling, as is the deflator of government spending, so the annual rise in nominal GDP in q1 was not as strong as the volume increase. emerging at 2.8%. Nonetheless it seems reasonable to assume a 3% or so rise in nominal GDP for 2014 as a whole which would yield a figure around €180bn, or a full €12bn higher than recently assumed by the Department of Finance, and result in a deficit ratio of 4.4% instead of the 4.8% currently projected, assuming the actual deficit emerges on target.

For 2015, the Department forecast a 3.6% rise in nominal GDP , to over €174bn, but on the same growth rate the implied level of GDP is  now over €186bn, given the higher starting point..As things stand the 2015 deficit is projected at €5.1bn, predicated on a €2bn adjustment, but that would now deliver a deficit ratio of 2.7% of GDP and as such well inside the 3% limit imposed under the excessive deficit procedure.Of course the deficit may diverge from expectations over the second half of the year and GDP may disappoint (including revisions!) but at this point the news today from the CSO is clearly positive for the economy and the Budget outlook, with the implication that a €2bn adjustment may not be required if a 3% deficit remains the target.

Ireland’s fiscal adjustment-too soon to know

Ireland’s 2015 Budget is four months away but the debate about the scale of fiscal adjustment required has intensified, with contributions from the IMF, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, the Minister for Finance and  other assorted politicians. Some argue for the €2bn figure  set out some time ago while others claim that  a lower figure will suffice. In truth it is far too early to be definitive as there is a high degree of uncertainty , both about the fiscal outlook and prospects for the Irish economy, and given this lack of clarity it is puzzling that so many can take a dogmatic position.

Ireland’s total fiscal adjustment since 2008 amounts to some €30bn, and was required to keep the fiscal deficit on a declining path with a target for the latter of under 3% of GDP by the end of 2015. So the adjustment in any given Budget, be it cuts to government spending or measures to raise additional revenue, is a residual with the size determined by the forecast deficit ratio in the absence of any new policy measures. Note that the target is not the actual deficit itself but the deficit relative to GDP, so there are two areas of uncertainty, one relating to the performance of the economy and the other to the evolution of exchequer spending and receipts, although the latter is of course strongly influenced by the pace of economic activity. Inevitably, the actual deficit and the level of GDP will diverge from that forecast, making any projected adjustment less meaningful, particularly into the medium term. Yet in recent years the forecast Irish fiscal adjustment figure has become  a target in itself, rather than the residual. Some claim that sticking to an announced adjustment enhances credibility, which seems to be the IMF view, although it is not clear why a figure projected a few years earlier must be adhered to even if circumstances have changed, and given that such adjustments will dampen economic activity.There is also a temptation for the government to ‘spin’ the Budget presentation in order to be seen to ‘achieve’ the  previously announced adjustment.

Take the 2013 Budget. The  adjustment figure ahead of time was seen as €3.5bn and according to the  pre-Budget Estimates  the 2013 fiscal deficit would be €15bn, or 8.9% of forecast GDP , on unchanged policy.The deficit target was set at 7.5% of GDP, with an actual deficit of  €12.7bn, and the government duly proclaimed an adjustment of €3.5bn, even though the measures announced on Budget day amounted to €2.8bn, with the remainder mainly due to ‘carryover’ effects from previous spending and revenue decisions. In the event the deficit came in almost €1bn below forecast, at €11.8bn, thanks to a significant overestimation of debt interest  and higher non-tax receipts than projected, including profit from the Central Bank. However, real GDP actually contracted in 2013 instead of growing as expected and nominal GDP emerged €3.6bn lower than forecast, so the deficit ratio came in only marginally below target, at 7.2% of GDP, despite the much better than projected outturn in the deficit itself.

The 2014 Budget projected a deficit of €9.8bn in the absence of any adjustments, or 5.8% of forecast GDP. Consequently, policy measures were required to hit the deficit target , announced at 4.8% of GDP, with an adjustment figure of around €3.0bn widely discussed. Indeed, that was the figure announced by the Minister ( actually €3.1bn ) although the measures introduced on the day amounted to just €1.9bn, with the residual due to the familiar ‘carryovers’ and  previously unidentified ‘resources’ on the expenditure side , including ‘savings’ and lower debt interest. So the €3bn ‘adjustment’ was anything but, although the announced measures are forecast to reduce the deficit to €8.2bn, or 4.8% of GDP.

Five months into the year  the authorities are confident that the deficit figure will be achieved and  tax receipts are running 2.9% ahead of profile, which may persuade the Department of Finance to revise up their tax projections for 2015, hence implying a lower deficit figure before any adjustments. It is early days yet, however, as we do not  even know how Ireland’s GDP performed in the first quarter- retail sales have picked up at the headline level but the value of merchandise exports actually fell on an annual basis in q1 thanks to a decline in price, which will dampen nominal GDP. Uncertainty over the latter is also compounded by the change to a new standard for national accounts (ESA 2010) which will count R&D as capital spending for the first time,  and this along with other minor changes may boost the level of Irish GDP  by 2% or more and so impact the deficit ratio, albeit marginally.

So it is by no means clear at this stage what adjustment will be required to meet a 3% deficit target next year, be it  lower or indeed a higher figure. Austerity fatigue has set in across many European countries and the IMF call to maintain a previously forecast adjustment can be seen in that light, but any adjustment involves serious economic and social costs and  is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.