The Irish economy grew by 7.8% last year in real terms according to the initial CSO estimate, bringing the cumulative increase over the past three years to 45%. Nominal GDP in 2017 grew by 7.5%, to €296bn, and is now over €100bn larger than it was in 2014. Those kinds of numbers are clearly extraordinary and indicate some serious distortions, as consumer spending is now less than a third of real spending in the economy ,against an EU norm of over 50%, while the surplus on the Balance of Payments in 2017 was recorded at €37bn or 12.5% of GDP, and 19% of GDP in the final quarter alone.
Indeed, consumer spending was surprisingly weak in 2017 given what we know about household incomes; employment rose by 61,000 or 2.9%, and average pay increased by 2% yet personal consumption grew by only 3.2% in nominal terms and by 1.9% in real terms, implying a significant rise in the savings ratio. The latter is also out of kilter with surveys of consumer confidence, which have hovered around record highs.
Building and Construction is growing strongly, rising by over 16% last year, spurred by a 33% increase in housebuilding. Spending on machinery and equipment fell however, by 11%, and by slightly more when account is taken of aircraft leasing, but overall capital formation was again dominated by multinational spending on Intangibles ( R&D, patents) which fell by 41% following a 111% rise in 2016. As a result overall investment fell by 22% and final domestic demand declined by 8%.
The plunge in recorded R&D spending is broadly GDP neutral as service imports also fell , contributing to an decline in total imports of 6.2% in volume terms. On the export side contract manufacturing was again a major influence, with merchandise exports in the national accounts recorded at €194bn, as against €122bn actually manufactured in Ireland. Service exports rose by over 14% , and exports as a whole rose by 6.9% in volume terms.
So on the face of it the external secor made a positive contribution to 2017 GDP growth of some 15%, so dwarfing the big negative from domestic demand, with an additional 1% coming from a strong stock build.
On a quarterly basis, the seasonally adjusted data reveals a very strong second half to the year, with real GDP expanding by 3.2% in the final quarter following 4.8% in q3, although again personal consumption is seen as surprisingly soft, increasing by just 0.3% in q4. That skewed pattern also left the annual increase in GDP in the final quarter at 8.4%, which in a normal economy would indicate that growth in 2018 would likely be extremely strong given that base, but in Ireland’s case one can’t be as sure, such is the extreme volatility from quarter to quarter.