Irish growth surge begs questions about upcoming Budget

The Irish economy is now growing at a very rapid pace, both in real and nominal terms, and much faster than envisaged by consensus forecasts or by the Irish Government when framing the 2015  or indeed  the 2016 Budget.  Real GDP grew by 1.9% in the second quarter,  leaving the annual increase at 6.7%, while  first quarter growth was revised up to 2.1% and the annual change to 7.2%. That means that  growth averaged 7.0% over the first half of 2015  so forecasts for the year as a whole are likely to move up to at least  6% or higher. Moreover, nominal GDP is soaring, rising by an average  12.5% in the first half of the year, and GDP for 2015 may exceed €210bn,  implying a General Government debt ratio below 100%, from 107.6% last year.

The initial recovery in the Irish economy was driven by exports but of late domestic demand, which is more labour intensive, has moved to the fore. The external trade data  is still extremely strong,  albeit affected by recent Balance of Payments  (BoP) changes, and while exports  still greatly exceed imports in absolute terms,  import growth is now outpacing, so reducing or even eliminating the positive  contribution of trade to GDP. In q2 imports rose by 6.3%  so  exactly offsetting the impact of  a  5.4% increase in exports. Looking at the annual change in q2, export growth of 13.6% was dwarfed by a 16.9% rise in imports, resulting in a  negative (-0.4%) contribution to GDP.

Domestic demand was generally expected to pick up in 2015 but  the data has also  surprised, with the second quarter seeing a 4.8% rise, leaving the annual increase at an extraordinary 10.1%. Investment spending was the main driver, rising by over 19% in the quarter and by 34% over the year. Construction output is growing but the main factor was a surge in spending on machinery and equipment, although this is very volatile, particularly given the influence of aircraft orders. One puzzling feature in terms of the other components of demand is the performance of consumer spending, which has also picked up but at a slower pace than indicated by retail sales; consumption rose by just 0.4% in q2  and the annual increase slowed to 2.8% from 3.7% in q1.

Commentary on the national accounts often includes caveats about the GDP numbers, with some preferring GNP , the income of Irish residents, as a better measure. Yet growth is also extremely strong using that metric, averaging 6.7% over the first half of the year, although multinational profit outflows did pick up in q2 and the differential between the two measures may widen over the rest of the year.

Irish GDP is now  5.7 % above the previous peak but the unexpected strength of activity in 2015 raises a number of policy issues. On the face of it the economy is growing at a rapid clip and  employment is rising strongly , which would not signal the need for a further boost  to demand from fiscal policy in 2016, particularly as monetary policy is extraordinarily easy and the exchange rate has depreciated. The Government has already received advice from a variety of quarters urging little or no stimulus and the GDP  figures might serve to reinforce such views. Against that, CPI inflation is around zero, wages are only beginning to rise, credit is still contracting and Ireland ran a BoP surplus of  €4.3bn over the first half of the year, a picture hardly consistent with an overheating economy.

There is also an election due within six months, of course, but times have changed in that the Government is now constrained by EU fiscal rules, including one which limits the growth in real exchequer spending to the growth in potential GDP. The latter figure  is determined by the European Commission (EC), using a 10-year average ( including estimates of the current year and forecasts four year ahead) and as it currently stands it means virtually  zero growth in real spending in the 2016 Budget. This  real limit is translated into a cash figure by using the EC’s forecast for price rises across the economy ( the GDP deflator) which is currently  1.6%,  giving a permitted  expenditure figure of €1.3bn to allocate between spending increases and tax cuts.

Yet the GDP deflator is currently rising at an annual 5.2%, so the 1.6%  forecast for 2016 looks too low. Moreover, the potential growth rate  forecast also looks less credible, given the 2015 data. For example, Ireland’s potential growth rate for the year  was put at 2.8% , which implies that the economy may currently be operating 3-4% above capacity, given that the EC assumed  the economy was around full employment in 2014, which  is not consistent with the  observed wage and price behaviour.

There is now little more than a month to the 2016 Budget, so interesting times ahead, although whatever transpires, a buoyant economy can no longer translate into the tax and spending package we might have seen in the past.



Irish Budget could now add up to €1bn in stimulus to economy

In April, the Irish Government expected that another round of tax increases and spending reductions would be required to get the 2015 Budget deficit below the 3% target set by the EU, with €2bn seen as the adjustment figure. That would have taken the cumulative adjustment to €32bn since the initial retrenchment started in 2008 but in the event it now appears that such is the transformed economic outlook that the 2015 Budget ( to be delivered on Tuesday Oct 14) will now provide a stimulus to the economy, which may amount to up to €1bn, depending on how much leeway the Minister for Finance chooses relative to the 3% target.

A key factor behind this remarkable change in the budgetary position is the performance of the economy over the first half of 2014. That has prompted the Department of Finance to revise up its real growth forecast for this year and next; 4.7% growth is now envisaged in 2014, from an initial 2%, with the economy forecast to expand by 3.6% in 2015. Nominal GDP is also now seen as being much higher than originally  projected, with  a figure  of €193bn  forecast by the Department , an extraordinary  €19bn above that forecast six months ago. A stronger economy implies a lower cash deficit, via reduced welfare spending and higher tax receipts, with a higher nominal GDP figure also helping to lower the fiscal and debt ratios.

It has been apparent for some time that this year’s deficit would be much lower than initially forecast and the Government’s ‘Estimates of Receipts and Expenditure’, published last night, predicts a 2014 General Government deficit (GGD) of  €6.9bn, which is €1.2bn below that envisaged in April. The deficit ratio is also much lower, at 3.7% of GDP instead of 4.8%. In fact that outturn, if it materializes, would be a little worse than some had expected; revenue is projected to come in €1.8bn ahead of the April forecast, including a €1bn overshoot in tax receipts, but spending is now forecast to be €800mn above the initial target, including over €500mn in voted expenditure, perhaps indicating that the current Health overspend will not be corrected.

Voted  current spending is projected to fall in 2015, by €1.3bn from the 2014 outturn, but again this hides a significant change in plan, as next year’s figure is almost €1bn above that envisaged last April . As a consequence the GGD  in 2015 is only €0.5bn below that projected in April, coming in at €4.7bn. This is 2.4% of forecast GDP and hence well below the 3% target, although had the initial spending plans been adhered to the deficit would be substantially  below 2%.

The figures are on an unchanged policy basis and so the Minister has significant leeway now to raise spending and give some tax relief, with the scale of any largess dependent on his final target. In addition, he may announce some ‘savings’, so increasing the scope for a potential stimulus, including lower debt interest on foot of some repayment of the IMF loan, refinanced at cheaper market rates. That might amount to say €300mn. so reducing the pre-Budget deficit further, to €4.4bn. Consequently a final target of say, , €5.4bn,, or 2.8% of GDP, would imply a spending and tax package of around €1bn, not counting any tax buoyancy on foot of the stimulus  or positive impact on GDP.

The global economic outlook looks cloudier than it did a few months ago , with the euro area particularly weak, which adds a greater degree of uncertainty than usual to any fiscal forecast. The Minister may  err on the side of caution and go for a lower forecast deficit but the difference now is that he has far more options than envisaged earlier in the year and certainly far more than in recent budgets. A deficit of 2.8% would also mean a strong primary surplus (the budget balance less interest payments).

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.

Irish Household incomes and pay

The plunge in support for the sitting Government in the local and European elections has been attributed to a number of factors but a general theme is the view that Irish households are not seeing any improvement in their incomes, despite the much talked about economic recovery. Irish GDP has indeed picked up somewhat but the increase has been very modest, at just over 2% from the low in late 2009 , and extremely uneven, with any quarterly gains often followed by contractions, as per the most recent figures for the final quarter of 2013.The labour market has been an unambiguous positive, with surprisingly strong job creation through last year, but the available data from the CSO  shows that household incomes still fell in 2013, for the fifth year in succession, and that trend is clearly dominating  many people’s perception as to the general health of the economy.

Gross household disposable income in Ireland grew very rapidly in the first half of the noughties, sometimes at a double digit annual pace, and peaked in 2008 at just under €102bn. Wage income is the major driver of total household incomes (the product of average pay and the numbers in employment) and during the boom both components were rising at around 5% per annum, with other gains from rents, profits and rising transfers from the State.  The scale of the fall since then has been extraordinary;gross income is now back under €87bn, a level last seen in mid-2006, following a cumulative 15% fall over the past five years. The plunge in employment has been a key factor, but the other components also fell , offsetting higher transfers, and the tax burden has also risen, although it is worth noting that two thirds of the total €30bn fiscal adjustment occurred between 2009 and 2011.The hit to nominal incomes has been cushioned to some degree by low inflation (in fact negative at times) but the CPI is currently around the same level as in 2008 so that 15% decline translates into a similar fall in real incomes.

The pace of income decline is slowing however, with the initial data showing only a 0.5% fall in 2013, and the latest figures on pay point to some potential improvement. Weekly earnings did fall in the first quarter of 2014 but the  annual decline was a very modest 0.4% and included a 0.7% increase in private sector earnings. The quarterly data can be very volatile but the private sector did record marginal pay increases in both 2012 and 2013 , albeit with a very broad distribution, including strong gains in the  professional and scientific area and in information and communication, with more modest rises in retail alongside further falls in  other industries. The pay increases seen in the first quarter were broadly based,  nonetheless, with 7 of the 10 private sector industry groups recording wage gains, including a double digit annual increase in construction, over 4% in industry and over 5% in the hospitality sector. Pay in the public sector is still falling however and so a significant rise in overall earnings is unlikely this year, but the downward trend may at least be coming to an end.

Any rise in average pay will of course boost household incomes, as will a further increase in employment, although  job creation slowed to a halt in the first quarter and the rise in 2014 is now likely to be lower than most forecasts had envisaged.Rents, too, are rising again, offering further support to household incomes, but disposable incomes will be affected by a rise in tax receipts .Overall, then,the big falls in household incomes are hopefully  behind us but it is difficult to see a period of strong increases in incomes in the near term particularly if employment growth slows further.