Sunday, March 15, 2009

What if interest rates rise?

Just to stake some forward looking ground - here is a quick thought.

While we are preoccupied with the current crises, one has to wonder what the future might hold. Consider the following scenario.

Mid-2010 and German economy recovers slightly ahead of the rest of the Eurozone. Why? Because Germany is more exposed to global growth and thus will respond to renewed global demand for investment and consumer goods; and because German consumption has been suppressed since the mid 1990s, creating a significant domestic demand overhang. The ECB's response will be to immediately raise interest rates.

Of course, prior to German recovery, Manufacturing Purchasing Indices and other leading indicators will be flashing red for some time, prompting an earlier rise in interest rates in early 2010. So, say, Eurozone enters 2010 with 0.5-0.75% rate, goes to 1.0-1.25% by June 2010 and jumps to 2.0-2.25% by the end of 2010.

What happens then? Ireland, will by now have much higher taxes (three-tier rates structure of 25%, 48% and 52%), much lower standard deductions and standard rate ceiling, with higher PRSI and pensions tax relief at a standard rate. This will mean that before ECB rates hikes, our mortgages burden will be on par with those that prevailed at the onset of the crisis, but against a backdrop of lower disposable income. Now, as interest rates revert to rising, the burden of debt will start climbing up against decimated household incomes. Homeowners, with savings exhausted during the 2009-2010 downturn will be feeling more heat than they do today. Foreclosures will rise and personal insolvencies will go sky high. Consumption will remain suppressed, but this time, there will be no boost in savings. Ireland Inc might suffer a complete fall-out of the growth re-start.

An example
Here are some numbers. Assume we take a family with Q1 2008 after-tax income of €100 and a mortgage burden of €35 (35% of the after-tax income). By Q1 2009, due to falling interest rates, this family's mortgage costs will have fallen 26% (roughly 10% per each 1% fall in ECB rates). At the same time, the family income has declined to €91 due to increased taxation (Budget 2009) and recession. In Q1 2009, family mortgage burden was €26 or 28.5% of the disposable income.

Now, assume we are in Q4 2009 and recession continues and Mr Lenihan has stuck to his promises and raided the family income to 25-48-52% tax rates outlined above). The family after-tax disposable income now stands at €82, while the ECB has lowered the rate to 0.75% from current 1.50%. The family is now paying €24 in mortgage which constitutes a mortgage burden of 29.25% of the family income.

We go to Q1 2010 next. Recession and Mr Lenihan keep on robbing the family of income, so its after-tax take home pay is now €79.5. But due to advance leading indicators flashing recovery for Germany, the ECB tightens the rates a notch to 1.0%. Family mortgage burden jumps to 31% as the twin blades of higher taxes and interest rates inflict two simultaneous cuts to household's spending power.

On to Q4 2010. Things are going swimmingly in Berlin, so the ECB races with rates increases. We have three scenarios:

Scenario 1: relative stagnation in Ireland - so our income remains at €79, while German expansion drives rates to 1.75%. Irish family's mortgage burden jumps to 33.4% of the disposable income.

Scenario 2: recession in Ireland continues, with income falling to €76, while more mild German expansion drives the ECB to raise rates to 1.5%. Irish family's mortgage burden jumps to 34%.

Scenario 3: recovery shines upon Ireland and our income rises to €80, while rapid growth in Germany drives rates up to 2.25%. Our family's mortgage repayment burden is now at 36% of the disposable after-tax income.

May be Alan Ahearne, in his new capacity, can tell Minister Lenihan this much? Or anyone from a myriad of our vociferous social-democratic economists, begging the Government today to raise taxes. Little hope. His (and their) policy advice to date has been pretty much in line with the Government's efforts to demolish private sector workers in order to save public sector jobs. Then again, neither Ahearne, no Lenihan will be losing much sleep over ordinary families who will be unable to stay afloat in this WunderWorld of richly rewarded public sector and impoverished private sector workers that they are creating.

Recession? Raise taxes. Public finance busting at the seams? Raise taxes. Unemployment? Raise taxes. Public sector inefficiencies? Raise taxes. Exports plunging? Raise taxes. Banks falling off the cliff? Raise taxes. And always blame the outside world for any trouble we might land ourselves into. Classic economic problems with uniquely Irish responses.


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