Monday, February 22, 2010

Economics 22/02/2010: Leading indicators of an Irish recovery

For those of you who missed my Sunday Times article yesterday, here is the unedited version (note: this is the last article of mine in the Sunday Times for the time being as Damien Kiberd will be back with his usual excellent column from next week on):


The latest Exchequer results alongside the Live Register figures clearly point to the fact that despite all the recent talk about Ireland turning the corner, the recession continues to ravage our economy. And despite all the recent gains in consumer confidence retail spending posted yet another lackluster month in December 2009. Predictably, credit demand remains extremely weak, with the IBF/PwC Mortgage Market Profile released earlier this week showing that the volume of new mortgages issued in Ireland has fallen 18% in Q4 2009.

Even industrial production and manufacturing, having shown tentative improvement in Q3 2009 have trended down in the last quarter.

As disappointing as these results are, they were ultimately predictable. Economic turnarounds do not happen because Government ‘experts’ decide to cheer up consumers.

Instead, there is an ironclad timing to various indicators that time the recessions and recoveries: some lead the cycle, others are contemporaneous to it, or even lag changes in economy.


In a research paper published in 2007, UCLA’s Edward E. Leamer shows that in ten recessions experienced in the US since the end of World War II, eight were precluded by housing markets declines (first in terms of volumes of sales and later price changes). The two exceptions were the Dot Com bust of 2001 and the end of the massive military spending due to the Korean Armistice of 1953. Residential investment also led the recovery cycle.


Despite being exports-dependent, Irish economy shares one important trait with the US. Housing investments constitute a major proportion of our households’ investment. In fact, the weight of housing in our investment portfolios is around 65-70%. It is around 50% in the US. As such, house markets determine our wealth and savings, and have a pronounced effect on our decisions as consumers.


Consider the timing of events. Going into the crisis, Irish house sales volumes turned downward in the first half of 2007. House prices declines followed by Q1 2008, alongside changes in manufacturing and services sectors PMI. A quarter later, the whole economy was in a recession.


House price declines for January 2010 indicate that roughly €200 billion worth of wealth was wiped out from the Irish households’ balancesheets since the end of 2007. With this safety net gone, the first reaction is to cut borrowing and ramp up savings, to the detriment of immediate consumption and new investment.


So, if housing markets are the lead indicator of future economic activity, just where exactly (relative to the proverbial corner) are we on the road to recovery? Not in a good place, I am afraid.


Per latest data from the Central Bank, private sector credit continues to contract in Ireland, with December 2009 recording a drop of 6% on December 2008. Residential mortgage lending has also fallen from €114.3 billion in December 2008 to €109.9 billion a year later. This suggests that at least some households are deleveraging out of debt – a good sign. Of course, the decline is also driven by the mortgages writedowns due to insolvencies.


Worse, as Central Bank data shows, the process of retail interest rates increases is already underway. In November 2009 retail interest rates for mortgages have increased for all loans maturities and types. Irish banks, spurred on by the prospect of massive losses due to Nama, are hiking up the rates they charge on existent and new borrowers.


And more is to come. Based on the current dynamic of the interest rates and existent lending margins for largest Irish banks compared to euro area aggregates, I would estimate that average interest rates charged on mortgages will rise from 2.67% recorded back at the end of November 2009 to around 3.3-3.5 % by the end of this year, before the ECB increases its base rate. This would imply that those on adjustable mortgages could see their cost of house financing rise by around 125 basis points, while new mortgage applicants will be facing rates hike of well over 150-160 basis points.


On the house prices front, absent any real-time data, all that we do know is that residential rents remain subdued. Removing seasonality out of Daft.ie most recent data, released this week, shows that downward trend in rents is likely to continue. Commercial rents are also sliding and overall occupancy rates are rising, with some premium retail locations, such as CHQ building in IFSC, are reporting over 50% vacancy rates.


Does anyone still think we have turned a corner?


The problem, of course, is that the structure of the Irish economy prevents an orderly and speedy restart to residential investment.

First, there are simply too many properties either for sale or held back from the market by the owners who know they have no chance of shifting these any time soon. We have zoned so much land – most of it in locations where few would ever want to live – that we can met our expected demand 70 years into the future. We also have 350-400,000 vacant finished and unfinished homes, majority of which will never be sold at any price proximate to the cost of their completion. To address these problems, the Government can use Nama to demolish surplus properties and de-zone unsuitable land. But that would be excruciatingly costly, unless we fully nationalize the banks first. And it would cut against Nama’s mandate to deliver long-term economic value.


Second, there is a problem of price discovery. Before the crisis we had ESRI/ptsb sample of selling prices. Based on ptsb own mortgages, it was a poor measure. But now, with ptsb having pushed its loans to deposits ratio to 300%, matching Northern Rock’s achievement, there is not a snowball’s chance in hell it will remain a dominant player in mortgages in Ireland. Thus, we no longer have any indication as to the actual levels of property prices, and absent these, no rational investor will brave the market. The Government can rectify the problem by requiring sellers to publish exact data on prices and property characteristics.


Third, the Government can aid the process of households deleveraging from the debts accumulated during the Celtic Tiger era. In particular, to help struggling mortgage payers, the Government can extend 100% interest relief for a fixed period of time, say 5 years, to all households. On the one hand such relief will provide a positive cushion against rising interest rates. On the other hand, it will allow older households with less substantial mortgage outlays to begin the process of rebuilding their retirement savings devastated by the twin collapse in property and equity markets. Instead of doing this, the Government is desperately searching for new and more punitive ways to tax savings. Finance Bill 2010 with its tax on unit-linked single premium insurance products is the case in point.


Fourth, the Government can get serious about reducing the burden of our grotesquely overweight public sector. To do so, the Exchequer should commit to no increases in income tax in the next 5 years. All deficit adjustments from here on will have to take a form of expenditure cuts. Nama must be altered into a leaner undertaking responsible for repairing banks balancesheets, not for providing them with soft taxpayers’ cash in exchange for junk assets.


Until all four reforms take place, there is little hope of us getting close to the proverbial corner for residential investment, and with it, for economy at large.



Box-out:

Back in January 2009, unnoticed by many observers, a small change took place in the Central Bank reporting of the credit flows in the retail lending in Ireland. Per Central Bank note, from that month on, credit unions authorized in Ireland were classified as credit institutions and their deposits and loans were included in other monetary financial institutions. This minute change implies that since January 2009, Irish deposits and loans volumes have been inflated by the deposits and loans from the credit unions. Thus, a search through the Central Bank archive shows that between November 2008 and February 2009, the total deposits base relating to resident credit institutions and other MFIs rose from €166 billion to €183 billion, despite the fact that the country banking system was in the grip of a severe crisis. Adjusting for seasonal effects normally present in the data, it appears that some €14-15 billion worth of ‘new’ deposits were delivered to the Irish economy though this new accounting procedure. Of course, deposits on the banks liability side are exactly offset by their assets side, which means that over the same period of time more than €16 billion of ‘new’ credit was registering on the Central Bank radar. Now, this figure is also collaborated by the credit unions annual reports which show roughly €14 billion worth of loans issued by the end of 2007 – the latest for which data is available. This suggests that the credit contraction in the Irish economy during 2009 is understated by the official figures to the tune of €14-15 billion. Not a chop change.
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