Sunday, September 21, 2014

21/9/2014: Ireland's Performance: Some Gains, Some Pains

Last week I gave a quick interview to Swiss Dukascopy TV. The link is here:

Here are some of my notes for the programme.

Q: Ireland’s unemployment rate fell to five-year low of 11.5 per cent. Fitch restored its A grade to the Irish economy. Noonan believes the upgrade reflects significant progress made in repairing the economy. 

Ireland has shown some significant improvements in unemployment and jobs creation areas and the economy is now growing, at least in official accounts terms, in part driven by changes to GDP and GNP accounting standards. These are well-documented and there is little point of dwelling on the figures.

However, less noticed is the fact that the latest figures for jobs market and population trends remain worrying.

Unemployment, officially, eased to 11.5% as you mentioned. But broader unemployment remains stubbornly high at 21.6% if you include underemployed, discouraged workers and all others who want a job, but cannot find one. If you add to this figure net emigration of working age adults and those who are not counted as unemployed because they are engaged in State Training Programmes, underlying ‘jobless’ rate reaches even higher. Another problem is that the declines in broader measures of unemployment from the peak are running at just about 1/2 the rate of official unemployment rate declines.

People are still dropping out of the labour force. Official Participation rate fell from 60.5% in Q2 2013 to 60% in Q2 2014. This below historical average of 60.8%. The Dependency ratio rose, albeit marginally, in H1 2014 compared to H1 2013. Over the last 3 years of the recovery, dependency ratio remained unchanged at the levels well above historical averages, some 7% above the average currently.

The problem is that the economy is generating jobs, but these jobs are either lower quality - when they cover domestic sectors of the economy and especially agriculture, or high quality jobs in the internationally-trading sectors, where employment is generally being created for younger, international workers. As the result, long-term unemployment amongst older workers is stubbornly high.

So Irish economy is an economy of two halves: one half is the economy that is saddled with high debt burdens, slow growth and in some cases, continued contraction. Another half is the economy with more robust growth. The problem is much of the latter half is imaginary economy of Services MNCs shifting profits through Ireland with little impact on the ground. The first half - the suffering one - is the real economy.

Q: Ireland has lost nearly a quarter of a million young people in five years due to emigration. This is one reason why some are skeptical about the recovery as they believe that there are still not enough jobs. Do you think we have seen enough evidence, which shows significant improvement in the labour market?

Latest emigration figures are somewhat positive for Ireland. We have recorded a decline in net emigration in 12 months through April 2014. This fell from 33,100 in 2013 to 21,400 in 2014. Much of this is down to two factors: some jobs creation in the economy is helpful, but also due to immigration increase from the countries outside the EU. This is good news. Bad news is that this is the 5th year of continued net emigration from the country, matching previous record back in the late 1980s and 1990s. In numbers terms, things are worse than then. In 5 years of 1987-1991, 133,700 Irish residents left the country, net of those arriving. In the 5 years through 2014, the number is 143,800.

So the crisis is easing, but it still is a crisis. And increasingly, people who leave today are people with decent jobs, seeking better career and pay prospects abroad, fleeing high cost of living and taxes. This means we are losing higher quality human capital.

Q: What other positive improvements in the economy are you expecting to see and do you see any downside risks remaining?

On the positive side, we are seeing continued gains in activity in core sectors of the economy. Especially encouraging are the signs of ongoing revival in manufacturing. Services, when we strip out the superficial figures from the MNCs, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter etc, are still lagging, but I would expect this to pick up too. Investment is rising - not dramatically, but with some upward support forward. Much of this down to booming local property markets in Dublin. This is ok for now, as we have a massive lag in terms of supply of housing and even commercial real estate that built up over the years of the crisis. There is a risk of a new bubble emerging in the resale property markets, but this bubble is still only a risk.  Part of investment increase is also down to reclassification of R&D spending from being counted as a business expenditure prior to Q1 2014 to now counted as business investment. However, some indicators (PMIs and imports flows in capital goods and machinery categories) are pointing to a pick up in investment.

The downside risks are banks, retail interest rates cycle (potential for higher cost of servicing existent debt pile in the real economy - a risk that is still quite some time off), credit supply shortages (credit continues to decline in the economy and now we are seeing some downward pressures on deposits too). Beyond this, there is a risk of misallocated investment - investment flowing not to entrepreneurial activity, but to re-sale property markets - something that Ireland is always at a risk of.

I suspect that Irish economy will continue to grow at higher rates than the euro area for the next 12 months. But this growth will continue to come in at levels below where we need to be to actively deleverage our private sector and public sector debts.

Q: And what are the main trends we are witnessing in the Irish bond market right now? 

There is basically no longer any connection between economic fundamentals - as opposed to monetary policy expectations - and the sovereign debt markets in the euro area. Take Credit Default Swaps markets, for example: Irish CDS are at around 53-54 mark, implying cumulative 5 year probability of default of around 4.62%. That is for a country with debt/GDP ratio of over 120% and relative to the real economic real capacity measured by GNP at around 135%. Take a look at Italy, with moderately higher public debt levels and more benign private sector debts: Italy is running at a probability of default of 8.29%.

The markets expectation is for the ECB to deploy a traditional QE on a large scale through its Assets Purchasing Programme - currently being developed.

Problem is: eurozone (and Ireland with it) is suffering from a breakdown in lending mechanism, lack of transmission of low policy rates to retail rates and credit supply. This is not going to be repaired by a traditional QE. It is, therefore, crucial that the ECB deploys a functional ABS purchases programme and scales up its TLTROs and better targets them.

Irish bond yields were, for 10 year paper, down to around 1.8 percent in August from 2.23 percent in July. Yields declines are in line with the rest of the euro area and its ‘periphery’. Has there been any significantly positive news flow to sustain these valuations? Not really. We are in a de facto sovereign bond markets bubble. It can be sustained for some months ahead, but sooner or later, monetary tightening will begin, currency valuations will change, and with this, the tide will start going out. Who will be caught without their proverbial swimming trunks on, to use Warren Buffet's analogy? All economies with significant overhang of private debt - first, second, economies with significant government debt overhang. Now do the maths: Ireland is one of the more indebted economies in the world when it comes to private debt. And we have non-benign sovereign debt levels. We simply must stay the course of continued reforms in order to prepare for the potential crunch down the road.

Overall, Ireland is clearly starting to build up growth and employment momentum, even when we control for the accounting standards changes on GDP and GNP side. But risks still remain, of course. The next few months will be crucial in defining the pre-conditions for growth over 2015-2016. A steady push for more structural reforms, especially completing the unfinished work in protected domestic sectors and developing and deploying real, sustainable and long-term productivity enhancing changes in the public sector will be vital.

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