Tuesday, March 5, 2013

5/3/3013: Irish Services PMIs: February 2013

Irish Services PMI (published by NCB) for February were out today, highlighting some interesting (for a change) shifts in the short-term trends worth discussing.

The headline numbers were good, although less strong than those recorded in January. This is not surprising since PMI surveys are biased toward multinationals in some core driving sectors (due to weighting factors attached to sectors and the overall quality, collection and reporting of data biases).

  • Seasonally-adjusted Business Activity (headline index) declined to 53.6 in February from 56.8 in January 2013, but remained above 50.0 line. 
  • 12mo MA through February 2013 was 53.0, which is not statistically significantly different from 50.0, but nonetheless represents a reading consistent with moderately strong expansion of activity. This marks the seventh consecutive month of readings above 50.0 although February was the second slowest month for activity over this latest period of consecutive expansions.
  • 3mo MA through February is now identical to the previous 3mo MA through November 2012 - both at 55.4. For comparative purposes: 3mo MA through February 2010 was 47.2, through February 2011 - 52.1, through February 2012 - 50.0, so annualised activity is running ahead of previous 3 years.
  • Main point to be made in the above is that since roughly April 2010, we have been trending along a new late- or post-crisis trend along the average of 52.1 average (49.6 to 54.6 range) as compared to May 2000-December 2007 average of 57.6 (52.5 to 62.7 range). As charts above and below clearly show, the new trend is (1) lower and (2) less steep in take-offs from the local minima (lows). In my view - this shows two factors: Factor 1: overall slower rate of growth (do keep in mind that the current trend is coming off historical lows of the Great Recession and should be consistent with much faster uplift and higher average and range than pre-crisis trend), and Factor 2: more mature nature of business in Irish Services sectors (with ICT and Financial Services now in advanced stages of late investment cycle compared to the period of 2000-2007 when these were growing rapidly and posting recovery from the dot.com bubble).
Now on to some of the components of the headline index.

  • Chart above shows that New Business sub-index also posted moderation in the rate of growth in February 2013 compared to five months of robust expansion prior to February. In fact, February reading of 53.1 was the slowest pace of expansion in seven months, although it does come on foot of seven months of consecutive above 50.0 readings. 
  • Trend-wise, the same conclusions that were drawn in the last bullet point on the headline index - those relating to structurally slower pace of growth in the recent years compared to pre-crisis rates of expansion - continue to hold for New Business sub-index as well. Since April 2010, the sub-index averaged 51.3 (range of 48.4 to 54.2) against pre-crisis (May 2000-December 2007) average of 57.4 (range of 52.4 to 62.5).
  • On short-term dynamics, 3mo MA through February 2013 stood at 55.4, slightly down on 55.8 3mo MA through November 2012, but ahead of 47.2 3mo MA through February 2010, ahead of 52.1 3mo MA through February 2011 and ahead of 50.2 3mo MA through February 2012.
Chart below summarises the shorter-range data for the two core indices.

Two charts plotting other principal components of the overall index:

Focusing on few sub-series of interest:
  • Employment sub-index remained above 50.0 in February, posting a reading of 52.5 - the shallowest expansion since September 2012, but marking a sixth consecutive month above 50.0. 3mo MA now is at 54.1 and previous 3mo MA through November 2012 was at 53.0. Good news - in 2009-2012 3mo MA through February was below 50.0 in every year. Bad news is that Employment is closely linked with Profitability (see below).
  • Business Confidence / Expectations 6mo out are continuing to fly high, propelled most likely by a combination of current upbeat conditions (the two series: Expectations and Current Conditions show the strongest co-determining relationship of all series, suggesting that the real driver for Expectations is not actual anticipation of the future events, but rather firms' assessment of current conditions) and by the endless barrage of feel-good propaganda from the business lobby and the State. The last, third factor, is human nature (aka 'winner's curse' bias). We expect things to get better because they were pretty damn awful until now and for a very long time... Come on, folks, let's face the music - unless you are a transfer-pricing arbitraging MNC, things are hardly getting any better. And, unless you live in the world of Googlites (aka 25-30 year olds with no attachment to anything save a party on a weekend) you are facing a mountain of debt, shrinking assets and wealth, higher taxes and the prospect of more of the same. What 'confidence at 69.1' can we have in mind? 
  • Oh, and to top things up - you'd think that Confidence comes from higher profits for the firms... Well, in the Wonderland of Transfer Pricing it is not and hence in Ireland we have Services sector where profitability is shrinking (41.5 in February on 49.2 in January) for 62 consecutive months now (since January 2008, every month there was negative profitability growth, with the average shrinkage at 41.9 - aka very very very deep contraction), but businesses confidence has been up on average at 60.9 - aka very very strong confidence growth on monthly basis).
If anything, aside from the major trend outlined in the first set of bullet points above, the point on Confidence and Profitability is the second main conclusion from the longer-term data analysis, for it exposes the surreal nature of the Irish economy - economy distorted by extreme transfer pricing and tax optimisation activities of the MNCs.

Now, let's touch briefly on the main short-term observation from today's data release: the core drivers for each of the main sub-series:
  • When it comes to Business Activity index, level support at 53.6 in February was provided by a broader base of sectors, with Technology, Media & Telecoms sector (TMTS) posting comparable expansion to Transport, Travel, Tourism & Leisure sector (TTTLS). This is similar to what was observed back in October 2011 and is an improvement on the trend that (at least over the last six months) have seen TMTS being the main and dominant driver of the index improvements.
  • Business Activity Index for Expectations out 12 months ahead was dominated (as in every one of the previous 6 months) by TMTS, with Business Services Index coming in as the second upside driver (same as in January 2013).
  • TMTS was the main driver for the third consecutive month behind growth in Incoming New Business, while Financial Services were the main driver over the last 4 months behind the growth in the Incoming New Export Business.
  • In Employment generation, TMTS again outstripped all other sectors for the third consecutive month, which, of course, means we are only reinforcing the demographic misalignment emerging in the economy with main generation of new jobs taking place in sectors that are more reliant on importing skills from abroad.
  • TMTS was the only sector in which profitability improved in February 2013 (same as in December 2012 and January 2013). In all other sectors, profitability was in decline for the third consecutive month. Why, you might ask? Interestingly, TMTS saw the sharpest countermovement in input/output prices, with input costs posting sharpest acceleration in February, and output costs posting the sharpest deterioration. In any normal economy that would mean shrinking, not expanding, profit margins. But in Ireland, of course, there is little normal about the TMTS sector dominated by the massive MNCs aggressively using their Irish activities for tax arbitrage from their European and even global operations.
Some interesting stuff, eh? You bet official 'analysis' of Irish PMIs is not talking about any of this...

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