Irish consumers cut spending

The US economy contracted for a second successive quarter in q2, so fulfilling one of the most common definitions of recession, although consumer spending there is still growing and the economy is around full employment. Growth in the euro zone, in contrast, has surprised to the upside in the first half of the year, contrary to expectations , in part due to a big rebound in tourism across France, Italy and Spain, although markets are still projecting a period of very weak or falling GDP which it is assumed will limit the degree to which the ECB can raise interest rates.

The future path of Irish GDP will largely depend on how the external sector performs and the composition of exports makes it less likely that a big decline there will materialise judged on the evidence from the Pandemic period. The labour market here also appears robust, although it is clear that households have retrenched in response to the surge in consumer prices since last autumn.

Indeed, we have seen two consecutive quarters in which real consumer spending fell; the decline in the final quarter of last year was modest, at 0.6%, but that was followed by a sharper fall in the first quarter of 2022, at 1.3%. Retail sales , a more timely indicator of household spending, did recover in the second quarter, rising by 2.2% in volume terms, but that was due to a big increase in April, as sales have actually fallen in nine of the past twelve months. Excluding the motor trade, retail sales also picked up in q2, albeit by only 0.5%, and again reflecting a strong April as sales fell in May and June by a cumulative 4%.

The annual change in the monthly retail sales data is volatile given the distortions due to Lockdowns last year but the fall in June was notably large, at 6.6%, with only two sectors recording positive growth- Bars and Chemists- so the squeeze on real household incomes is clearly biting. CPI inflation was probably unchanged in July at 9.1%, a welcome respite if true following five consecutive months of acceleration, and the ongoing fall in fuel prices offers some hope that we may be at or near the inflation peak. The scale of the weakness in retail sales may also prompt shops to offer more sales, so putting additional downward pressure on the monthly CPI but the big upside risk remains the broader energy picture, with European gas prices still rising and hence feeding through into higher home heating costs.Ireland may avoid a recession in terms of GDP but household spending and the High Street have not escaped.