Tuesday, February 18, 2014

18/2/2014: Wages and Employment: Irish labour market plight

This is an unedited version of my Sunday Times column from February 9, 2014.

In recent months, Irish Government has gone into an overdrive, producing various reports, scorecards and papers on the Irish economy. Much of this activity is a welcome sign that various Departments are starting at last to engage with the world beyond the halls of civil service and political establishment.

The most recent report card on the Irish economy, courtesy of the Department of Finance, presents an interesting read. The document provides an insight into Official Ireland's view of the future, with forecasts covering 2015-2018 medium-term priorities for the Government, including: managing public finances, focusing on jobs, and restructuring the financial system.

To those of us inhabiting the real economy, removed from the MNCs and Government finances, of key importance here are the objectives of "reviving domestic demand" and "increasing employment". The Department’s overarching framework for achieving economic growth in the economy rests on the assumption that over 2014-2016, both total domestic demand (sum of public and private consumption of goods and services and investment) and exports will be positive contributors to growth. In fact, domestic demand is forecast to add, on average, 1.2 percentage points to economic growth annually, accounting for more than half of the GDP expansion in 2014 and 2015 and over 40 percent of growth in 2016.

The Department of Finance vision of the future is a positive one, especially for the financially battered Irish households. Alas, it also reflects some potential contradictions – a sign of the overall dilemma inherent in our economy’s structure. For all the talk about recovery and regaining of our economic independence, Ireland is still facing years of dealing with the debt crisis as well as sustained fiscal austerity. Growing out of this predicament can only be achieved by pushing up exports. But this, in turn, requires moderation in production costs and, thus, suppression of domestic demand. As the 1990s showed, you can’t have both, growth in exports and growth in the domestic economy, until we erase the debt overhang.

By definition, increases in domestic demand can only come from either public or households' consumption and investment uplifts or both.

Growth in Government spending on both current and capital goods and services is not on the cards. In 2014 and 2015 Irish fiscal tightening will continue to reduce domestic demand. In particular, fiscal consolidation, as planned, will take 1.8 percent of GDP in 2014 and 1.1 percent of GDP in 2015. Thereafter, we are still set to face the so-called 'preventative arm' of the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact (SGP). Under the 2011 Six-Pack legislation amending the SGP, a number of fiscal rules will apply to Ireland, including the requirement to continue reducing structural imbalances by at least 0.5 of GDP per annum, plus the debt break mechanism designed to draw debt to GDP ratio down toward 60 percent benchmark over time.

Which means the households are expected to fund the fiscal adjustments in 2014-2015, and fiscal maintenance in 2016 and beyond. All while delevaraging own debts and paying for the banks deleveraging their loan books, without dipping into deposits which will have to remain high to sustain core banking sector performance metrics.

Meanwhile, the Department of Finance forecasts that Ireland's unit labour costs adjustments over 2008-2015 will total 21 percent, relative to the Eurozone average. This projection, turn, underwrites the forecast growth in our exports.

Just how the households of Ireland can be expected to deliver on all of this is anyone's guess. An even bigger guess is required to explain as to how all of the above financial pressures on Irish households can be dealt with while increasing private investment and consumption, e.g. growing domestic demand.

The answer to the above questions rests with the outlook for the labour markets and wages.

In 2013, Irish economy seen the return of growth in employment - the only significant bright spark on otherwise bleak economic horizon. Based on the latest data we have, in 12 months through September 2013, numbers in employment rose in all sectors in Ireland, with exception of Transport and storage, Administrative and support services, Public administration, and Health and social work. Non-agricultural employment rose by 33,000 and the bulk of new employment was generated in the jobs with 35 and higher average weekly paid hours. In fact, in Q3 2013 compared to Q3 2012, the number of people in employment more than 35 hours per week rose 52,500.

This means that employment growth is now beginning to support domestic demand growth.

The problem is that this support is coming off extremely low levels. Between 2008 and 2013, number of jobs with weekly work hours in excess of 35 hours has fallen 242,500. And gains in employment so far are still fragile. At current rates of growth, it will take us some 13 years to get back to the same levels of full-time employment. Of all sectors, only three are currently registering larger number of jobs than in 2007-2008 period: Accommodation and food, Information and communication, and Health.

And the latest Live Register figures released this week show that controlling for State Training Programmes participation, declines in the numbers on the Live Register remained rather static over the last 4 months.

With employment rising off low levels the other source for growth in domestic demand can be found in earnings. And, aptly, in recent months, there has been resurgence in political chatter about the need to raise wages.

In part, these calls are driven by wages dynamics during the crisis. As of the end of September 2013, average weekly earnings in Ireland were down across all sectors by EUR16.40 compared to the same period in 2012 and down EUR31.37 compared to 2008 average. However, earnings were up significantly in Information and communication: rising EUR40.28 per week on Q3 2012 and up EUR64.28 on 2008 levels. This is a sector with employment that is predominantly capturing foreign workers into new jobs. In turn, these workers have only tenuous connection to the domestic economy: they rarely invest in Ireland, do not save here and are more likely to spend money abroad than the long-term residents. In almost all sectors of the economy linked more directly to Irish resident workforce, earnings are still declining.

So employment might be growing, but wages are declining or stagnant. Which does not bode well for household incomes and, in return, for domestic demand growth story.

More importantly, earnings deflation or stagnation must continue if the Government projections for exports growth were to materialise.

The maths are further stacked up against the theory of domestic demand growth fuelled by wages rises. Given changes to taxes over recent years, a euro increase in wages from current levels for an average household will yield less than 50 cents in the gains in the disposable income. When juxtaposed against the non-discretionary spending, such as funding mortgages, this means that wages increases are not exactly an efficient path to growing domestic demand. Based on Central Bank data, average mortgage in arrears today is EUR190,372. Per CSO, average household income is around EUR61,000pa, once we adjust for unemployment. Which means that at current tax rates, a 1.5 percent increase in income (corresponding to average weekly earnings rising by EUR10.13 on their Q3 2013 levels) is not enough to offset a 0.25 percent rise in mortgage interest.

This week, we have seen the publication of the research paper showing that some 100,000 households in Ireland are unable to pay their mortgages despite having regular income from employment. That is roughly 63 percent of all mortgages in arrears.

Put simply, from economy’s point of view, it is more effective to raise and extend mortgages interest relief than attempt fuelling wages inflation. With ECB’s policy firmly geared toward lower rates, one might be excused thinking that interest rates increases are for now a distant prospect, but in 2013, house loans rates for outstanding mortgages in Ireland went up 0.1 percent compared to the same period in 2012, while rates of outstanding consumer loans were up 0.34 percent. Overall, these increases, suggest that just to keep up with the cost of funding our immense household debt overhang, households need to see wages increases of some 2.2-2.4 percent per annum. Unless you work in ICT, this is not on the books, given supply-demand imbalances in skills and jobs in this economy.

Which leaves us with only one sector where realities of supply and demand have little to do with pay and employment and where wages increases can be imposed by the state: the public sector. This is precisely where pressures to raise wages are currently emerging, driven by political, not economic considerations. With local and European elections approaching, Labour wing of the current Government is trying desperately to force the reversal of their slide in electoral approval ratings. Labour's traditional support base - the Unions - are happy to oblige, in return for concessions of value to their members.

The problem with this, however, is that in order to keep labour costs competitive on the aggregate, wages hikes in the public sector will require more wages ‘moderation’ somewhere else in the economy. Furthermore, with fiscal policy breaks still in the hands of the EU, increases in the lower skilled wages in public sector are likely to benefit incumbent employees at the expense of the newcomers. And if productivity growth in private sectors does not compensate for labour cost increases in public sector, we will be heading for new layoffs, slower jobs creation and, thus, contracting domestic demand.

Our economy is between a rock and a hard place. We are living through the slowly unfolding nightmare of the exports-led recovery – a recovery during which households’ earnings and employment growth are unlikely to reignite domestic economy any time soon. The only way this dilemma of wages vs exports can be resolved is if it is accompanied by a rapid reduction in household debt. But, of course, you won’t find that featuring anywhere in the Official Ireland glossy presentations or in Labour Party’s exhortations about the need for wages growth.

This week, Irish Spirits Association published the latest statistics on our whiskey sector. According to the association data, Ireland had only 4 registered distillers delivering gross value added to the economy of EUR568 million for all spirits produced. This compares against 108 distillers of whiskey alone, pumping out value added of ca EUR3,630 million in Scotland. Total exports in Ireland stood at 6.2 million cases per annum. Scotch exports were fifteen times that number. The figures highlight both a massive potential for Irish whiskey growth and a huge gap between our sector output and that of our next-door neighbours. Looking at the Scottish model, it is clear that Ireland’s decades-old policy of industrialising production in the whiskey sector has failed spectacularly. We need a new policy approach focusing on stimulating independent distilleries, catering to higher value-added premium segment of the market, and delivering rapid innovation with focus on high quality. Marketing efforts of our trade facilitation agencies are not enough.

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