Ireland now a nation of savers, not borrowers

Much has changed in Ireland over the past decade and one of the most striking in economic terms is the  tranformation in Irish households from borrowers to savers although much of the coverage in the media  still concentrates on credit and the cost of new loans and so does not reflect this new reality. Ireland has morphed into Germany and we are now closer to Berlin than Boston.

Irish household borrowing peaked over ten years ago, in mid 2008, at €204bn, and most of this debt had been used to purchase residential property , which of course at the time had soared in value over a long period, leaving households with net worth of over €700bn. By 2012 the latter figure had collapsed to under €450bn, largely reflecting the 50% fall in house prices, but debt was also declining, given little or no new borrowing and the ongoing repayment of mortgages.

Indeed, household debt is still falling, at least on the figures to the third quarter of 2018 as published by the Central Bank, to €137bn , a reduction of €67bn from the peak.  Household income is growing strongly again and so the debt/ income ratio, a standard measure of the debt burden , is now down at 126% , a level last seen in 2003. Rising house prices and  the recovery in equity markets in recent years has boosted wealth, leaving net worth well above the previous peak, at €769bn.

Interest rates are historically low ( the average rate on new  mortgage loans is around 3%)  and wealth is at record levels so one might imagine that households would be reducing savings and increasing debt but that is not the case. New mortgage lending  has certainly picked up, reaching €8.7bn in 2018 as a whole, but that was largely offset by redemptions, leaving the net change in mortgage credit  on the balance sheet of Irish  banks at only €1.1bn. A rise nonetheless, but that is not inconsistent with the overall data on household debt, as that relates to the third quarter and includes money owed on mortgages no longer on the balance sheet of the original lender.

Central Bank controls now limit the degree of leverage allowed in the mortgage market and the relatively limited supply of new housing is also a contraint  so we are unlikely to see an explosion in household borrowing, even in an environment with less economic uncertainty. However, the savings side of the balance sheet is also witnessing a profound change, with a huge increase in the amount of wealth held in cash and deposits; the q3 figure was € 143bn , a €15bn increase in the past three years. So Irish households now hold more in cash and deposits than they owe in outstanding loans (€137bn), quite a change,  and this  has also had a major effect on Irish headquarterd banks, as they are now in effect Credit Unions, with loans amounting to only 93% of total deposits.

The returns on these deposits are also extraordinarily low of course, amounting to an average of 0.29% for outstanding deposits (the euro average is 0.3%) and a meagre 0.04% on new term deposits ( euro average 0.3%). Monetary policy is based on the notion that the economy responds to a change in interest rates, and that a substantial decline in rates will boost credit growth and encourage savers to spend and borrow. That certainly has not been the case in Ireland and so it is not clear what the impact of higher rates will be on what is now a net savings economy, if and when that day arrives. As it stands that  day seems far off, with the market not priced for an ECB rate rise till around June 2020, although that can and will change with the flow of economic events.

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.

Irish Household debt, Deleveraging and Wealth

Consumer spending in Ireland accounts for around half of GDP and in 2013 probably amounted to some €83bn or €11bn below the peak year of 2008. Consumption is largely driven by  real household income  which has fallen sharply in recent years, but household wealth also plays a role and so the housing collapse has also had an impact, with households deleveraging in order to rebuild net wealth. Annual consumption appears to have fallen again in 2013 but picked up through the year after a very weak first quarter and the  latest retail sales data showed a strong end to the year in term of High street spending, with sales excluding cars rising by 2.8% in volume terms over November  and December. The consensus view sees that upturn translate into a rise in real consumption this year (the Budget is predicated on a 1.8% increase), largely driven by a recovery in household income, and the latest data from the Central Bank is also  potentially supportive in terms of the trend in household wealth although deleveraging is still very much in evidence, adding downside risks.

Household wealth comprises financial assets and housing, with the latter dominating in Ireland. Net wealth (i.e. the value of assets minus debt) peaked at well over €700bn in 2008  and then plunged to less than €450bn largely as a result of the collapse in house prices. Indeed, the net financial worth of the household sector bottomed in late 2009 and has been on a rising trend since, increasing to €148bn in the third quarter of 2013 ( on a 4-quarter moving average, the measure preferred by the Central bank), which is a new high. Around a half of gross financial wealth is in the form of equity reserves in pension  and insurance funds and the recovery in stock markets  has had a big influence as the amount held by households in cash and bank deposits has not greatly changed of late. The pick up in house prices is also significant as it has boosted housing wealth with the result that total net wealth is now some €50bn higher than it was a year ago, rising to €490bn in the third quarter.

The improvement in the net worth position also reflects a significant decline in household debt. That peaked in the final quarter of 2008 at €204bn (total liabilities were and still are around €10bn higher but the Central bank concentrates on loans owed to financial institutions) and has fallen by €35bn since then, to €169bn in the third quarter of 2013. Deleveraging on that scale has also resulted in a fall in the debt burden (debt relative to disposable income) but the decline in the latter has been slower reflecting falls in the denominator, with the latest reading at 196% of income from a peak of 214%, recorded as recently as the second quarter of 2011. The debt ratio is still very high by international standards and  although the rise in net wealth is a positive for the economy and will have some influence on the future pace of deleveraging no one really knows when the latter will come to an end and that adds to the degrees of uncertainty surrounding any consumption forecast.