Much has been made of the fabled increases in Irish competitiveness in recent years. And to be honest, data does show some significant gains. But as this blog has pointed out repeatedly, these gains have not been (a) as straight forward as the Government would like us to believe, and (b) not a significant as to warrant the claims that we are one of the most competitive countries when it comes to labour productivity.
On (a) above, we know that most of the gains in Irish competitiveness during the crisis are accounted for by jobs destruction in heavily overheated construction and retail sectors. In other words, Irish average productivity improved because we pushed less productive workforce into emigration and unemployment, not because our more productive sectors increased their labour productivity.
On (b), here are the latest stats. All data is based on Harmonized Competitiveness indicators, unit labour costs, reported by the ECB. Latest data is through Q4 2011 and higher values reflect lower competitiveness.
Consider first the data for annual average readings:
Chart above suggests relative improvement in Ireland's position vis smaller member states of the euro area, but lack of significant gains compared to some groupings, especially those that combine more advanced economies in Europe. And chart below confirms the same:
Looking at the Q4 data - Irish competitiveness gains through 2011 have been far less impressive than annual averages suggest. Charts below show full sample of countries, followed by the EA12 euro area states excluding the 2004 Accession states.
Considered across the end-of-year figures, Irish unit labour costs remain well ahead of those in our closest competitors. Luxembourg - a country with virtually un-interpretable statistics due to huge imbalance between its workforce and population, as well as its economic output composition - is the only country of the old EA12 group that currently has lower labour competitiveness than Ireland.
What about pre-euro and euro-period changes? Chart below illustrates:
The introduction of the euro has resulted in deterioration in hci-based labour competitiveness metrics in all euro area economies, save for Austria, Finland and Germany. Largest deterioration took place in Slovakia and Estonia (catching up period, due to high entry differential), with Ireland posting third largest deterioration. The same remains even during the crisis period 2008-present, as illustrated in the chart below.
During the crisis, Irish hci-ulc index reading fell from 130.5 at the end of 2007 to 111.5 in Q4 2011 - the largest gain in competitiveness of all EA12 states. However, the rate of gains for Ireland has slowed down significantly in 2011. In 2009, the first year of improvements, competitiveness rose 7.1% on 2008, which was followed by a gain of 9.1% in 2010 and only 2.9% in 2011.