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.

What next for the ECB?

The ECB faces some tricky policy decisions  and judging by the minutes of the last meeting the Governing Council has no clear view on how to proceed. The euro zone economy has surprised to the upside this year, bank credit across the zone is  growing again, the redenomination risk in sovereign bond markets has long gone and the unemployment rate has fallen to 9.1% from  a peak of over 12% , all of which  might  argue for a change to policies born in a crisis environment or adopted when deflation was perceived as a real danger.

Yet the ECB”s (self-imposed) goal remains elusive- inflation is not ‘close to but below 2%’ and according to the current staff forecast that will remain the case for some time, with an average of 1.5% projected for 2019. Indeed, according to the minutes, some council members questioned whether the staff had used an appropriate pass-through rate from the euro’s recent appreciation and hence wondered if the inflation forecast was actually too high.

The minutes also revealed ‘discomfort widely expressed’ about the length of time inflation had been and was expected to remain below target, and that ‘a very substantial degree of monetary policy accommodation was still needed for inflation to converge sustainably to levels in line with the Governing Council’s aim’, which would imply that we are unlikely to see a substantial policy shift in the near trem. Indeed, ‘any reassessment of the monetary policy stance should proceed in a very gradual and cautious manner‘.

So what are the options?. Policy as it stands includes the purchase of €60bn assets a month until the end of December this year ‘or beyond, if necessary‘. The minutes would indicate an abrupt halt in  a few months is out of the question but there are logistical issues in a number of countries, given  the current 33% issuer limit on sovereign bonds. Consequently, the market is anticipating some form of ‘tapering’, and the minutes discussed the merits of continuing to buy for  a longer period but at a slower monthly pace against a higher monthly volume over a shorter time frame.

The former is perhaps more likely, as it better ties in with another strand of policy, a commitment to keep interest rates at current levels  for an extended period and ‘well past the horizon of the net asset purchases’. This explicit linking of forward guidance on rates to QE argues for extending the latter for a longer period if the ECB wants to influence rate expectations and that might indeed have an additional impact, this time on the exchange rate. We know the Bank is concerned about the currency’s appreciation, and if one rules out explicitly talking it down one lever left is to convince markets that rates will stay lower for longer.

The ECB will also no doubt emphasise that it intends to keep reinvesting the proceeds of maturing assets but the net asset decision will be key, and lower for longer may well be the mantra that decides the latter.


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.




Are Inflation targets too high?

Inflation targeting by policy makers emerged in the early 1990’s and is now part of the standard toolkit for most central banks, with operational independence from government also the norm. The idea is straightforward; if the central bank commits to hitting a specific inflation rate, that rate will impact expectations and eventually will help to anchor price changes. Too high a figure means that purchasing power is eroded at an unacceptably fast pace, while too low risks periods of deflation.

The latter view persuaded central banks to eschew a zero inflation target, and the figure of 2% is very common, although of course it means that prices rise by 22% over a decade and by 50% in a generation.  Hardly stable prices then, although one should remember that such targets  were often set some time ago and at a period when inflation was generally above that figure.In contrast, many central banks have been wrestling with the opposite problem for some time i.e. inflation is persistently below target.

In the US, for example, core inflation ( the CPI excluding food and energy) has been below 2% for almost a decade, while in the euro area the last time core inflation exceeded 2% was back in 2003. This points to structural factors at play, rather than purely cyclical drivers.

Standard inflation models , however, generally posit a cyclical  link between economic activity and inflation, with periods of stronger growth resulting in an acceleration in inflation. The link is often based on the Phillips curve, the idea that falling unemployment will boost wage growth and hence lead to price rises. Consequently, most central banks expected inflation to pick up given falling unemployment, particularly as rates for the latter are now very low by historical standards in some countries, including the US and the UK. Yet wages have not picked up as expected ( the Phillips curve has flattened), reflected a range of factors, many of them structural, including globalisation and free trade, a shift in employment composition to lower productivity jobs, the rise in self employment,  fear of job losses and the decline in trade unions .

There may be other factors directly impacting inflation, such as the greater ease of price discovery in a digital age and the growth of disruptive technology, ( examples might be Amazon and Uber) which are replacing traditional models of distribution. Technology change is general is also shifting the aggregate supply curve rightward, so putting downward pressure on prices.

Yet the Fed and the ECB are still wedded to a 2% inflation target, despite missing it to the downside for a long period. Fed chair Yellen did acknowledge recently  that inflation was not behaving as expected ( calling the recent inflation performance ‘a mystery’) but the FOMC and the ECB are both of the view that cyclical factors will eventually win out, pulling inflation up to target.They may be ultimately proven right, although the recovery is now pretty long in the tooth, particularly in the US, and the Fed has revised down its view of long run potential growth ( now sub 2%) although not of long run inflation, still at 2%.

Does it matter if inflation was to stay in a 1%-1.5% range. It’s obviously better than 2%  for many people in an era of weak wage growth but it does raise a policy issue- if ‘equilibrium inflation’ is now below 2% due to structural changes, then policy will be too loose if it is set to hit 2%. The liquidity currently flooding the world has indeed driven up prices, but equities and property rather than the price of goods and services.


Irish GDP grows at average annual 5.5% in H1.

The available labour data shows that Irish employment continued to grow very strongly in the first quarter of the year (by an annual 3.5%) and the decline in the unemployment rate since implies that  pattern is still intact. One would expect GDP growth to be stronger, given normal productivity growth, and although the Irish quarterly GDP figures are extremely volatile, the picture from the National Accounts  is  broadly consistent with the employment data; annual GDP growth in q2 was 5.8%, following a 5.2% rise in q1, to give an average for the first half of the year of 5.5%.The figure for the full year is likely to be lower, given the surge in reported GDP in the latter part of 2016, and we expect around 4%.

On a quarterly basis GDP expanded by 1.4% following a revised 3.5% contraction in q1. The latter reflected a plunge in investment spending, mainly related to mulinational R&D , and that reversed in q2, duly accounting for most of the rise in GDP. Consumer spending actually fell, by 1.1%, and on the published national accounts consumer spending is now only 34% of GDP and only marginally ahead of capital spending- in most developed economies the former is well above 50%.

The CSO now publishes a separate figure , Modified Domestic Demand, to give a better picture of underlying spending and output in the Irish economy, as it strips out multinational flows into R&D and aircraft leasing . On that metric real demand grew by an annual 4.2% in q2 following a 5.8% rise in q1, so the average increase over H1 is  still a very healthy 5.2%, indicating that the underlying economic performance remains strong. One puzzle is  limp  consumer spending, averaging growth of  just 1.8%, which is modest given the strength of employment growth alongside 2% growth in pay. and zero inflation. Domestic investment spending is expanding at a robust pace, in contrast, with annual growth averaging 15% over the first half of the year, albeit hiding a mixed performance, with buoyant construction offsetting a  fall in domestic spending on machinery and equipment.

Overall, it would seem that the Irish economy continues to expand at a robust pace, if one discounts the extraordinary short-term volatility and adjusts for the distortions caused by the sheer scale of the multinational flows.

QE is fuelling Irish House Prices

Irish residential property prices have risen 60% since the lows of early 2013 but  this cycle is investor rather than credit driven. Gross mortgage lending for house purchase has picked but the average new loan has risen by just 28% over the past four years, implying a fall the average loan to value ratio, while data on transactions (recently revised up by the CSO) indicates that mortgage loans  still appear to be accounting for less than half of turnover in the market. New lending is also now constrained by the Central Bank’s mortgage controls.Moreover, net mortgage lending ( i.e new lending minus repayments) has been falling now for over seven years, although there are recent signs that it may finally be bottoming out.

Nothing here then to indicate that credit is playing a strong role in driving prices and it is curious that little attention has been paid to the impact of the ECB’s monetary policy  on the housing market, and, more specifically, its  non-standard measures including the asset purchase programme. The latter, QE, is designed to boost bond prices and hence lower yields so that ‘ investors may choose to take the funds they receive in exchange for assets sold to the ECB and invest them in other assets. By increasing demand for assets more broadly, this mechanism … pushes prices up and yields down, even for assets that are not directly targeted by the APP’.

QE is generally perceived as having a significant impact on equity markets and it would be odd if it did not therefore impact other  asset markets, including property, and we  can readily  see this at play in the Irish data on transactions. In 2011, investors (here defined as Buy to Let individuals  plus non-household buyers) accounted for 16% of residential transactions rising to 24% by 2012 and averaging a third of the market or more since 2014.

The yield on ‘risk-free’ assets , such as Government bonds, plays a big role in investment decisions and so the plunge in Irish Bond yields has been  a very significant backdrop for the Irish residential and indeed commercial property market : 10-year Irish yields peaked at double digit rates in mid 2011 but really started to fall sharply following Draghi’s ‘whatever it takes’ speech in 2012, and fell below 1% , where they still reside, following the commencement of QE in early 2015.

In contrast, the gross yield on residential property ( average rent/ house price) has not declined significantly in our rental model, and is still at 4.8%, having peaked at 5.4% in 2013. The rental yield fell to  a low of 2.75% during the last cycle, and is still well above the post EMU average (4.25%) and of course extraordinarily high relative to the ‘risk free’ rate available on Irish bonds, let alone Bunds.

The scale of investor interest in Irish property is therefore not surprising given the yield on offer and  is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Higher bond yields would make a difference, no doubt, and in that context the future of QE plays a part; the ECB will soon decide whether to scale back its asset purchases or indeed cease any additional buying. Yet it is likely to reinvest the proceeds of maturing bonds for a while at least, therefore maintaining the stock of QE, so absent an inflation shock bond yields may well stay low by historical standards. If so investor interest in Irish property will continue to be a big driver of the market.

Irish Mortgage Lending crimped by supply and competition from non-debt buyers.

The latest data from the BPFI on  Irish new mortgage lending shows that 6,781 loans  for house purchase were drawn down in the second quarter, with the annual increase at 17.6%, providing further evidence that the year as a whole is likely to see a substantial increase on the 2016 total of some 25,000. Yet the annual pace is slowing, following a 26% increase in q1, and on our seasonally adjusted model  lending actually fell on the quarter. What is more striking though is the unusually large divergence between mortgage approvals and actual drawdowns ; approvals for house purchase in the second quarter amounted to 10,250. Looking at the picture over the first six months, approvals stood at 18,576 against a drawdown total of 12,634 , which is a wide gap even allowing for the usual lags between approval and purchase.

Buyers with approval may delay purchase if they are nervous about the market but survey’s suggest that price expectations have risen of late so that would normally bring forward the timing of transactions. The alternative explanation is that buyers with approval are being squeezed by the limited supply of property for sale and the prevalence of would-be purchasers not reliant on debt finance. The ECB’s QE is compressing yields on financial assets, making residential property a more attractive alternative. Judging by the CSO figures on transactions (executions) in the first quarter, mortgage loans are still  only accounting for around 50% of the total ( the q2  transaction data have  yet to be published).

The BPFI data also reveals that the average mortgage for house purchase is now just under €214,000. 8.1% above the previous year and at levels last seen in early 2010. In cash terms mortgage lending for house purchase  in the quarter amounted to €1.45bn and overall lending rose to €1.65bn when top-ups and re-mortgaging is included, bringing the total for the half-year to some €3bn. Our forecast for the full year is currently €7.2bn but we are likely to revise that down, given the  slowing momentum in the numbers drawdown.

Nonetheless, new mortgage lending is growing and it now appears is finally close to offsetting repayments, with the latest Central Bank data on net lending showing  that the  monthly decline in that series is now extremely small. Irish household deleveraging started  in mid-2008 and one doubts if few or any thought it would last this long.

The Fed versus the Market

Central Banks set short term interest rates and can influence longer term rates  but the market is in control of the latter and determines financial conditions in general. At times, financial conditions can move in the opposite direction to the stance of monetary policy, and we have a good example of that playing out now in the US.

The Federal Reserve has tightened policy and has signalled  this process will continue; the Fed Funds rate target is currently 1% higher than it was eighteen months ago, following four rate increases,  and the FOMC expects conditions to evolve that will ‘ warrant gradual increases‘ over time. Furthermore, the Fed’s Balance sheet will start to shrink ‘relatively soon’, as the Central Bank stops reinvesting some of the bonds purchased under QE. Yet the market is currently giving a 60% probability to rates being unchanged by year end, and broader financial conditions are now looser than they were when the Fed started to tighten.

Indeed, financial conditions in the US have rarely been easier, according to The Chicago Fed’s Financial Conditions Index. This uses over 100 financial variables (including the exchange rate, equity market volatility, credit spreads and the yield curve) to derive a weekly snapshot of risk, liquidity and leverage in the US. It is clear that the Fed is therefore at odds with the market; the former believes it is time to tighen policy, albeit gradually, while the latter acts as if the economy does not need such medicine.Moreover, some FOMC members have voiced concern that loose financial conditions carry risks for financial stability and increase the chances of a sharp correction in asset prices.

Why is the market shrugging? Unemployment is very low and  is around what many think  of as full employment, but inflation remains stubbornly below the Fed’s 2% target, and has eased in recent months. The economy is growing but at a modest pace ( 0.9% over the first half of 2017) and the market may well believe that inflation will stay low for structural reasons, contrary to the Fed view of a gradual pick up to target.

Does this  divergence matter? After all, official rates may be higher but policy  remains accommodative  ( the real Fed Funds rate is still negative) and it may well be that financial conditions may indeed move if rates do rise steadily from here, as indicated by Fed projections. If not, the Fed may have to raise rates more aggressively if it wants to secure a tightening in financial conditions overall. An inflation shock would change things but for the moment at least  markets  simply do not believe that the Central Bank needs to tighten as much as the Fed itself thinks. One of them is wrong.

Irish economy contracts sharply in Q1 but annual growth still 6.1%

According to the CSO the Irish economy, as measured by real seasonally adjusted GDP, contracted by 2.6% in the first quarter of 2017. This still left the annual increase in GDP at 6.1%, however, following substantial revisions to the quarterly pattern in 2016, with growth of 3% in q3 and a bumper 5.8% in q4. The impact on  annual growth  for 2016 was only marginal ( now 5.1% from 5.2%) but the CSO revised up nominal GDP over recent years by significant amounts; the 2016 figure is now €275bn, a full €10bn above the previous estimate and a massive €100bn above GDP in 2012.

This is the denominator used to measure the various debt and deficit ratios incorporated into the Euro zone’s  fiscal rules, and means that Ireland’s debt ratio last year is now 72.8% as opposed to over 75%, with every likelihood of a 70% reading in 2017. Yet many have argued that a better measure of domestic economic activity is required, given the extraordinary influence on the national accounts of the mulitinational sector. Personal consumption is now only 35% of GDP, for example, and is only €9bn higher than Investment spending, 32% of GDP. To that end the CSO, for the first time, have published a modified national income figure. This takes GNP ( which is lower than GDP as it adjusts  for net  cross border income outflows such as profits and interest payments) and deducts the profits of domicilled multinationals as well as adjusting for R&D spending on imports. This gave a figure of €189bn in 2016, compared with a €275bn GDP reading, and a debt ratio of 106%. However, it is clear that the economy has still being growing strongly in nominal terms on the new measure , by 9.4% last year and by 42% since 2012.

Investment spending tends to be the most volatile component of GDP and this was indeed the case in the first quarter, declining by 38% and hence accounting for  the contraction in GDP. Building and Construction rose ( by 5.8%) but this was swamped by a 22% decline in machinery and equipment investment and a 56% plunge in intangibles ( the term for spending on R&D, patents, etc). Virtually all of the latter is imported so service imports also fell sharply ( by over 10%), with total imports down by over 12%. Exports were broadly flat and government consumption barely grew ( 0.3%) leaving consumer spending as the only GDP component showing any positive momemtum, rising by 1.2%. This is still soft relative to retail sales, implying much weaker spending on services, at least as estimated by the CSO. and this divergence has been a feature over recent years.

Where does this leave this year’s annual forecast for GDP growth? The Department of Finance  expect 4.3%  but  the base effects for the second half of the year are now much more negative, albeit against an  annual figure in q1 above 6%. Our own existing forecast is less than 4% and we will produce an update in the next week or so.

Government has €200m to fund tax cuts in 2018 Budget

The Irish Government has just published the Summer Economic Statement which sets out updated economic  and fiscal forecasts, with emphasis on the 2018 Budget, scheduled for delivery in October.  Economic growth this year is still expected to be 4.3%, slowing marginally to 3.7% next year,  while the main change in the fiscal outlook over the medium term is higher capital spending, which means that Ireland continues to run a modest deficit until 2020. The new Minister for Finance also reiterated that a ‘rainy day’ fund  would be initiated in 2019, although now at €500mn per annum instead of the €1bn indicated by his predecessor.

Most interest will no doubt centre on the outlook for the upcoming Budget and the resources or Fiscal Space available to the Government to fund new spending or tax reductions. Under the existing euro fiscal rules an Expenditure benchmark is set and it now appears that Ireland will breach  the 2017 limit by some €500mn or 0.2% of GDP, so the Government now intends to undershoot the 2018 benchmark, albeit modestly.

The latter is determined by the European Commission and dictates that Ireland must limit  spending  next year to  €71.2bn from €69.6bn in 2017, a rise of 2.4% ( the benchmark excludes certain items, notably debt interest and some capital spending).  That gives a Fiscal space of €1.6bn or €2.1bn given that Ireland does not index its tax system (i.e higher prices and wages would increase tax revenue by around €500mn). Some  €800mn of that will be eaten up by demographic pressures on spending and prior commitments on pay, leaving a net figure of €1.3bn, which the Government has chosen to limit to €1.2bn.

That would translate into €1.5bn in cash terms ( because not all of any additional capital spending is included in the  Benchmark) and the Statement indicates that €1.1bn of this will take the form of additional spending ( €0.6bn current and €0.5bn capital ) leaving €400mn for tax reductions. Further, the carry over effects of last year”s cuts will use up almost €200mn of this , leaving just €200mn on budget day to fund  net tax cuts ( leaving aside any refund of water charges)

Of course it is always open for the authorities to free up additional resources by cutting  some existing spending programmes or indeed  raising indirect taxes if it wants to pay for a reduction in income tax or USC. To that end it is noteworthy that the Department of Finance has drawn attention to the cost of the cut in VAT introduced in 2011 to support the tourism and hospitality sector ( from 13.5% to 9%) . The cost of accomodation has risen by over 20% since that move, and reports suggest that the lower rate is costing the Exchequer around €0.5bn. On the available arithmetic the Government will not be able to fund any meaningful direct tax cuts unless it finds money elsewhere.