Saturday, April 19, 2014

19/4/2014: If Only Forecasts Were Falling Ripe from Trees...


Here we go, folks… ESRI's latest thoughts on Irish economy... and they are earth-shattering.

Let's take a few pointers from the wise:


1) "Ireland could face a debilitating period of stagnation – characterised by high unemployment, falling prices and low growth – if recovery in Europe falters".

"Could"?! 2013 marked a year of contracting GDP and total demand. We now have six consecutive years of falling total demand (sum of domestic investment and spending by consumers and government). Unemployment is already sky-high, long term unemployment is a hinge problem. Prices are not quite falling, but growing at near-zero rate, and stripping out State controlled sectors, goods and services (something ESRI misses on every occasion, like a clock)we have deflation. So all of this "could" happen?


2) "…Prof Fitzgerald said deleveraging by households could continue for “some considerable time” if recovery stalled in the rest of the EU, resulting in a return to stagnation in Ireland."

Can someone explain to me why would deleveraging of the households (repayment of massive debts accumulated during the Celtic Garfield years) suddenly end if "the rest of the EU" were to post robust growth? Is it possible that growth in Germany will start paying Irish mortgages down? Or consumer demand in France picking up can moderate the size of our credit cards bills? How?

Irish exporting sectors employ a small fraction of our households. Irish exports are geared not toward wages payments, but MNCs profits. Pick up in our exports is unlikely to drive household earnings up (easing debt/income ratios or repayment funds available to households - two conditions necessary for new credit creation) in short or medium term.

3) But wait, according to the ESRI, the core threats to the economy are not debt, but the EU growth and housing markets (more specifically: excess demand in the property markets in Dublin and Cork that are at a risk of not being satisfied in poor credit conditions). So in the nutshell, ESRI thinks that if we start building more houses and Germans start buying more BMWs, our economic growth will take off like a rocket.

Confusing symptoms for causes, ESRI is worried about the Japanese scenario for Ireland. But let's take a look at plausibility of the ESRI logic:

  • Japan is a fully sovereign economy with own monetary and fiscal policies (both of which Ireland lacks)
  • Large population and domestic demand (which Ireland lacks)
  • Indigenous (as opposed to tax-maximising MNCs) exports 
  • Set smack in the middle of the most dynamic growth cluster in the world (Asia Pacific) as opposed to the growth-shy Europe (remember, a pick up in growth in the euro area implies annual growth of 2-2.2 percent; a pick up of growth in Asia Pacific means annual growth of 5-7 percent). 
The real problem with Japan's economy is actually pretty similar to that of Ireland's:

  • pre-1960s Japan's growth was driven by a period of post-WW2 rebuilding, 
  • between 1960s and 1980 it was driven by the rapid catching up with the advanced economies, 
  • thereafter until 1990s - by a massive property and credit bubble. 
  • So stagnation, property crash and low inflation/deflation were not the causes of the malaise in Japan, but its symptoms. The real malaise for Japan is identical to the one we have in Ireland - lack of catalyst for future growth. 
  • In Japan this problem is exacerbated by adverse demographics. In Ireland - by lack of monetary and fiscal policies room. Ireland is 2 decades behind Japan in household and corporate and banking deleveraging. 

So go figure: can growth in the EU and housing supply improvements in Ireland do enough for Dublin?

Ok, take it from a different angle: 1991-2007 marked massive growth around the world. Japan stagnated. 1991-2007 marked massive monetary and fiscal expansion in Japan. Japan stagnated. 1991-2007 marked significant deleveraging of Japanese economy. Japan stagnated. That is 18 years of stagnation and deflation under the global conditions more favourable than Ireland faces today, with full economic policies kit available to Japan, not available to Ireland, and with indigenous exporting engine much mightier than that of Ireland.

Is ESRI having a clue? Of course it does. It can clearly see that once things get really good, things will be really good: "Conversely, Prof FitzGerald believes if the euro zone recovery picks up pace this year and in 2015, and is accompanied by an increase in domestic demand, Ireland could see a more rapid reduction in the numbers unemployed and a return of the public finances to a small surplus over the period 2017-2019."

Ah, now we talking. And if we discover a pot of gold and a chest of diamonds at the end of that proverbial rainbow, just to the North of the fabled riches of oil, gas, uranium, rare earth metals, and Bord Bia certified caviar... then we can afford pensions for the ESRI boffins too. 
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