Monday, June 22, 2015

22/6/15: IMF Review of Ireland: Part 1: Growth & Fiscal Space

IMF published conclusions of its Third Post-Program Monitoring Discussions with Ireland.

The report starts with strong positives:

"Ireland’s strong economic recovery is continuing in 2015, following robust growth of 4.8 percent in 2014. A range of high frequency indicators point to an extension of the solid recovery momentum into 2015, with growth increasingly driven by domestic demand as well as exports. Job creation continued with employment growth of 2.2 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2015, bringing the unemployment rate down to 9.8 percent in May."

Actually, based on EH data from CSO, employment growth was even stronger: 2.67% y/y in 1Q 2015 (see here: The survey data is slightly different from the QNHS data.

"Tax revenues rose 11 percent year-on-year during the first five months of 2015, while spending remained within budget profiles, so the fiscal deficit for 2015 is expected to be 2.3 percent of GDP, outperforming the budget targets."

"Banks’ health has improved, but operating profitability remains weak and, despite the recent progress in the resolution of mortgages in arrears, 17.1 percent of mortgages have been in arrears for over 90 days, and of these, almost 60 percent have been in arrears for over 2 years."

All so far known, all so far predictable.

Here is what IMF thinks in terms of forward outlook.

On Fiscal side: "The deficit is likely to come in well below budget again in 2015. This welcome progress should be locked by avoiding any repeat of past spending overruns. The deficit reduction projected for 2016 is too modest considering Ireland’s high public debt and strong growth, making it critical that revenue outperformance— which appears likely— be saved as the authorities intend."

Wait, Spring Statement by the Government clearly does not suggest 'saving' of revenue outperformance as intended policy objective. If anything, spending these 'savings' is on the cards. So a bit more from the IMF:

"Medium-term spending pressures related to demographics and public investment indicate a need to build revenues and it is critical that any unwinding of savings in public sector wages be gradual. Tax reforms should be focused on areas most supportive of job creation and productivity while protecting progress achieved in base broadening."

Again, this does not bode well with the Spring Statement intentions to unwind, over two years, reductions in public sector earnings costs, and reducing tax burden at the lower end of the tax base. Whether these measures are right or wrong, IMF seems to ignore them in their analysis, as if they are not being planned.

And slightly adding depth: "Staff estimates that improvement in the primary balance in structural terms is modest in 2016, at about ¼ percent of GDP, as the reduction in the overall deficit partly reflects an expected decline in the interest bill and a narrowing of the output gap." In other words, efforts / pain are over. We are cruising into improved performance on inertia. IMF does not exactly like that: "A stronger adjustment, of at least a ½ percent of GDP, would also be appropriate in 2016 in view of Ireland’s high public debt and strong growth, implying an overall deficit target of about 1.5 percent of GDP. However, it appears most likely that revenues will exceed official projections, which are for tax revenue growth before measures that is significantly below nominal GDP growth, and also given that revenue outperformance has underpinned Ireland’s track record of over delivering on fiscal targets for a number of years." Wait, what? Not spending cuts drove Irish effort? Revenue outperformance? Aka - taxes and indirect taxes and hidden charges.

So the good boy in the back of the classroom needs to get slightly better: "The commitment of the Irish authorities to comply with their obligations under the Stability and Growth Pact, including the Expenditure Benchmark, means that revenue outperformance in 2016 and later years will not be used to fund additional expenditure; the need for a change from the past procyclical pattern of spending the revenues available was a key lesson drawn from the crisis that is firmly embedded in their new fiscal policy framework."

Yeah, that in the year pre-election? Are they mad, or something?

Just in case anyone has any illusions on what the Fund thinks about the forthcoming injections of pain relief planned by the Government, here it is, slightly hidden in the lengthy discourse about longer-term risks. "Looking to the medium term, sizable adjustment challenges indicate a need to build revenues while the limited fiscal space should be used to support durable growth. The authorities’ expenditure projections account for demographic pressures as growing cohorts of both young and old increase demands for education and health services. …Staff recommended that the authorities consider steps to raise revenues to help address these pressures…"

More revenue to be raised. And yet the Government aims to cut taxes. Oh dear...

Back to the positives: IMF upgraded its growth projections for short-term forecasts:

"Compared with the 2015 Article IV consultation concluded in late March, growth projected for 2015 is revised up to almost 4 percent from 3½ percent, with a more modest increase in 2016." 2016 growth is now projected to be at 3.3% from 3.0% projected at the end of March 2015. 2017 growth forecast was lifted from 2.7% in March to 2.8% now. However, 2018 forest was balanced down to 2.5% now from 2.6% in March report.

Back in March, private consumption was expected to grow 1.5% in 2015, 1.6% in 2016, 2.0% in 2017. This is now revised up to 1.6% in 2015, 1.9% in 2016, with 2017 remaining at 2.0%.

However, IMF revised down its projections for gross fixed investment growth. In March report, the Fund forecast investment to grow 9.5% in 2015, 7.5% in 2016 and 6.0% in 2017. This time around, IMF expects investment growth of 9.2% in 2015, 7.3% in 2016 and 5.5% in 2017.

Interestingly, IMF also introduced some modest upgrades to Irish net exports, though it noted that given exceptionally high rates of growth in goods exports in recent months, even the upgraded forecast might be too pessimistic.

However, with all said and done, the IMF still produces a slightly cautious medium-term outlook: "Staff’s medium-term outlook is little changed from that in the 2015 Article IV consultation, with medium-term growth on the order of 2½ percent being similar to the 3 percent projected by the Irish authorities in their recent Stability Programme Update (SPU)." Which means that, in basic terms, Irish official forecasts are probably within error margin of the IMF forecasts, but are a bit more optimistic, nonetheless.

Quite interestingly, IMF finds no substantive risks to the downside for Ireland, going effectively through motions referencing Greece and domestic debt overhang. Even interest rates sensitivity of the massive debt pile we carry deserves not to be cited as a major concern.

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