The following article was published in the Sunday Times on Janaury 10, 2010. This is an unedited version.
Since the beginning of the current crises, through the abandoned economic policy programme of December 2008, to Budget 2010 our Government has been paying lip service to Irish exporters. The rhetoric, however, never matched the reality when it came to providing support for the sector.
Irish aggregate exports have performed in exemplary fashion through the downturn despite a number of very severe external shocks and some new internal bottlenecks affecting the sector.
Per latest CSO data, total Irish exports declined by only 1% in 2009: from 155.4 billion to €153.9 billion. In the mean time, Irish GDP has fallen by an estimated 7.5% and GNP collapsed by a massive 10.4%. And the role of exports in this economy continues to grow. In 2008, Ireland exports amounted to 99.5% of GNP, contributing 0.9% to our economic growth – the highest contribution in the year. Last year, the value of our exports rose to 116% of GNP, with exports accounting for an estimated 2.7% of the decline in GDP. Once again the best performance of all components to growth.
This stellar performance came at the time when external environment was rapidly deteriorating – in terms of both demand and overall trading conditions.
Over the course of 2009 as goods exports flows from 67 developed and middle-income economies have contracted by 23%, Irish merchandise exports were down only 1%. Two sub-sectors – pharmaceuticals and medical devices – have posted robust growth of 12% and 4% respectively over the course of 2009. Excluding these two sub-sectors, merchandise exports from Ireland (down 16% year on year) were still more resilient than overall world trade.
Credit and banking crisis had a direct impact on our trade. In the first half of 2009, Irish exports of services have experienced a severe contraction due to the collapse in international financial services activities. Only a strong performance by the business services and above-average performance by computer services have allowed for some recovery from this shock, with the value of overall services exported from Ireland falling just 1% to €68.4 billion over the course of full year.
Much has been written about devaluation of the dollar and sterling. The deterioration in our terms of trade vis-à-vis the rest of the world was indeed dramatic, contributing to a severe fall off in exports to the UK and Northern Ireland. Irish exporters also faced a significant shift in purchasing by the UK retailers away from Ireland. This was particularly noticeable amongst food and drink exporters – the sector that has the largest penetration by our indigenous companies.
Another factor much overlooked amidst financial markets turmoil was the drying up of the export credit facilities from the banks. Irish Exporters Association, other bodies and a number of economists, including myself, have for two years advocated the need for putting in place a meaningful programme of Government export credit guarantees. Per international data on trade credit flows, such programmes operate in some 57 countries These programmes are usually viewed as being low cost or even revenue-neutral. The risk to the Exchequer from guaranteeing a short-term credit for signed contracts for shipments is minimal if properly implemented and structured.
Initially, the Government has promised to allocate funding for the programme back in October 2008. By January 2009, its scale was cut to a meagre 1.5% of our indigenous exports. The plan was finally shelved just two weeks before Budget 2010 day. In place of trade credit supports, the Minister for Enterprise Trade & Employment has offered Irish exporters a promise to look into providing and ‘employment subsidy’ scheme. The Minister never explained what such a scheme can do for the exporters, nor how she arrived at the conclusion that a long-term jobs subsidy undertaking is less risky than a short-term export credit insurance. Of course, evidence from our European counterparts shows that jobs subsidies have virtually no positive impact on sustainable employment even at the time of robust jobs creation.
On December 1, just as Brian Lenihan was putting final touches to his Budget speech that contained sugary references to Irish exporters, the UK Government announced an extension to the Fixed Rate Export Finance facility through a specially-designated Export Credits Guarantee Department (ECGD). ECGD which also provides “insurance against non-payment risks and guarantees for bank loans to buyers of UK goods”, allows exporters to provide medium and long-term finance to their overseas buyers at fixed rates of interest. The rates charged under the scheme are established through the OECD, and are adopted by all major export credit agencies worldwide. These schemes are more risky than short term credit insurance rejected by the Irish Government.
Of course, the irony has it, Minister Lenihan also contributed to the exporters woes by placing a new charge on transport costs in the Republic and internationally via the Carbon Tax. This Government has already introduced one export-impacting tax back in October 2008. The so-called travel tax of €10 per departing passenger has now been linked to declining Exchequer revenue and the damages done to Irish tourism, hospitality and transport exports by a group of international transport economists, through my own analysis and Government-appointment panel of industry experts. With Carbon Tax we now have two measures that explicitly threaten our exports.
These policy contradictions set the stage for 2010.
Overall, 2009 marked the worst year on record for domestic food and drink exporters, as well as computer hardware and other manufacturers. Given that these sectors account for over 50% of the total exports-supported employment in the country, there is increasing urgency for enacting some meaningful support policies aimed at sustaining our export activities and employment. The idea that we first let companies sink on the lack of trade finance and then provide them with subsidised unskilled labour through employment support schemes run by our fabulously ineffective Fas, as the Government is suggesting, makes absolutely no sense.
Another significant concern for 2010 relates to the lagging imports by MNCs-dominated sub-sectors, such as pharma, medical devices and computer hardware. These sectors import majority of material inputs into their production from abroad and low imports relative to exports here suggest two possible trends.
Firstly, increased volumes of exports from some of these sectors in 2009 are most likely driven by record transfer pricing bookings through Irish operations. This is normal for any international operation in a recession, when companies scale back on capital investment and ramp up their tax optimization operations. While such developments have benefited Ireland in 2008-2009, continuation of these activities is not assured in 2010. Should there be a restart of global investment cycle (with some signs already pointing to improved capital investment in the BRIC economies and Asia), the incentives to book artificially inflated profits through Ireland will decline in relative importance.
Second, lagging imports growth shows that the MNCs might be unsure about the need to maintain high levels of inventories in Ireland. This in turn indicates the relative fragility of the expanded exports levels for these companies and puts overall Irish exports further at risk.
Lacking any real policy supports for the exporters, the Irish Government has resorted to the tactics of deflection and evasion. For example, in December 9, Minister for State with responsibility for international trade, Billy Kelleher TD was forced to defend the Government unwillingness provide exports credit insurance scheme proposals by referring in the Senad to Nama, banks recapitalization and even the nationalization of the Anglo Irish Bank.
In 2010, even the expected return to global growth in trade volumes is unlikely to push Irish exports beyond 2% annual growth mark, according to the latest forecasts from the Irish Exporters Association released this week. And even this forecast is predicated on continued improvements in Irish economic competitiveness and no further adverse changes in the euro position vis-à-vis other major currencies.
Instead of empty rhetoric, our exporters deserve a real chance to drive this economy out of the slump. Hoping that Nama will solve all of our problems simply won’t do.
Per latest CSO release, in Q3 2009, the gross external debt of all resident sectors in Ireland stood at €1,637bn or €51bn down on the Q2 2009 level. But, per same CSO release, the liabilities of Ireland-based monetary financial institutions (aka our financial system inclusive of IFSC) were virtually unchanged quarter on quarter at €691bn with their share of total debt rising from 41% in Q2 2009 to 42% in Q3. Similar dynamic took place in Other Sectors – comprising insurance companies and other financial enterprises, plus non-financial companies – where debt as of Q3 2009 stood at €618 billion or 38% of the total, up from 37% in Q2 2009. Direct investment sectors liabilities rose over the quarter by 2 billion and General Government increased. This implies that virtually all of the quarterly decrease in our indebtedness came from the Central Bank funds changes. This is why excluding the Central Bank and Government liabilities, total economy debt rose from 1.513 trillion in Q2 2009 to 1.508 trillion in Q3 2009.
But what the CSO and the media reporting on the figure didn’t tell us is since Q3 2007, the overall debt levels in Other Sectors rose by a cumulative of 15.6%, in Direct Investment sector by 9.3%, and our total debt rose by 8.33%. Only banks have so far managed to de-leverage in Ireland (down 9.8% on Q3 2007) thanks to the taxpayers’s cash. Which brings us to a sad but inevitable conclusion – while banks use our money to write down their bad debts, is it any surprise that the real debt burden in the Irish economy is not declining?