Media coverage of the current Irish recession has popularized two ideas. The first is that the recession came about very suddenly. The second is that forecasts (such as the ESRI’s prediction of GNP growth of -4.6% for 2009 compared with -2.6% for 2008) imply that economic performance this year is likely to be far worse than last year. It turns out, however, that neither of these ideas are correct. The source of the misconception, in both cases, turns out to be the lack of use of the CSO’s quarterly national accounts (QNAs) in popular discussions of the Irish economy.
Take the first idea — that the recession occurred quite suddenly. The swing from GNP growth of 4.1% in 2007 to a projected decline in GNP of 2.6% in 2008 has been widely cited to illustrate a violent switch from excellent economic performance in 2007 to a slump in 2008. However, the truth is more subtle. These figures for economic growth are the “annual” growth rate, defined as the percentage difference between the average level of output in a year and the average level of output in the previous year. However, this calculation doesn’t always give an accurate indication of economic performance during a year because it is heavily influenced by what are known as “base effects”. To give an example of what this means, consider a case in which GNP expands rapidly one year and then stays constant throughout the next year. We might intuitively view the second year as one in which there was no growth. However, the “annual” growth rate will appear to be quite positive because the average level of GNP in the second year is higher than its average level in the previous year.
A closer look at the quarterly data shows a gradual slide into the current recession. The QNAs show seasonally adjusted real GNP alternated between expansions and declines from 2007:Q1 onwards. GNP turns out to have peaked in 2007:Q3 and the graph below clearly shows the economy was essentially flat over the period from 2007:Q1 to 2008:Q1 before a more pronounced recession set in during 2008:Q2. So, far from being sudden, the quarterly data show the economy stalling for about a year before the public realized a recession was upon us. (My UCD colleague Colm McCarthy made this point in his paper with Rossa White presented at the DEW in Kenmare).
Now consider the second idea, that a swing from -2.6% growth last year to -4.6% this year implies that things will be getting much worse. Again it turns out that this swing is completely due to the dreaded base effects. The ESRI’s figure of -2.6% growth for 2008 is consistent with a 1% decline in seasonally adjusted GNP in 2008:Q4. Combined with the declines from earlier in the year, the implied level of GNP at the end of 2008 is below the average for 2008 as a whole. So suppose, for example, that GNP managed to remain flat at this level for the whole year (a highly unlikely achievement). In this case, the average-over-average calculation for GNP growth for 2009 would give -2.1%. A dramatic turnaround from sharp contraction to flattening out would not be picked up by this measure.
Against the background of a severe worsening of the global economy and serious domestic fiscal problems, perhaps a better starting point is the observation that the year after 2008:Q3 is unlikely to be better than the previous year. GNP declined 4.8% over the year ending in 2008:Q3. Projecting this average decline of -1.2% per quarter through 2009:Q4, gives a figure for annual (average over average) GNP growth for 2009 of -5.1%.
These calculations show that, rather than a severe worsening, forecasts such as the ESRI’s projection of -4.6% for 2009 actually represent a slight improvement relative to the economic performance seen in the year ending in 2008:Q3.
My point here is not to question the ESRI’s forecast, which may turn out to be a good one, but to argue that economists and media commentators should make more use of the QNA figures when discussing the performance of the Irish economy.
One small change that could be made is to switch from discussing the average-over-average figure for output growth to instead discussing Q4-over-Q4 figures, which reflect the level of output at the end of the year relative to the start of the year. From my time working at the Federal Reserve Board, I know that this is the measure of growth that the Fed staff uses when describing its forecasts to the FOMC. In the above example of flat Irish GNP this year, this Q4-over-Q4 figure would show the economy improving from -4.7% in 2008 to 0% in 2009 rather than the marginal improvement cited above of going from -2.6% to -2.1%.
A caveat to this suggestion, however, relates to the use of GDP and GNP figures for projecting tax revenues. Because Ireland’s tax year corresponds to the calendar year, the year-average level of output is the appropriate figure for budget calculations. The calculations above show how far we are now from the projections underlying October’s budget. Taking the ESRI’s figure for 2008, achieving the budget’s projection of a 1% (average over average) decline in GNP in 2009 would require GNP to actually grow at a 2% annual average rate throughout 2009.