Credit card sales

Among the many interesting bits of data in today’s release of the Central Bank’s monthly statistics are the February 2009 data for credit card spending. I haven’t paid too much attention to these before, but they seem like a useful early indicator of retail sales, and they may include cross-border purchases.

Not surprisingly, the February figures are very weak — indeed it seems that January and February 2009 are about the same as the same months in 2006. And these are in nominal euros — not inflation adjusted.

I thought readers might like to see this seven year chart which I have drawn. Of course February is generally the lowest month of the year (though it wasn’t in 2008), but the drop is very striking.

Update: OK, so I’d better deflate this by the CPI as below (Average in 2002=100). I leave it to someone else to seasonally adjust.

Stimulus for Development

Commentators across the spectrum have worried that the April budget will tax and cut so much money out of the economy that we will face serious deflation. There has been a shift in emphasis from the over-riding importance of minimizing the budget deficit to recognizing the need to minimize the deflationary effects of fiscal measures. We are seeing an increasing number of proposals in that regard.

This is not unrelated to a second major political shift – the re-opening of partnership discussions and the potential for working through more complex and multi-layered ways out of this crisis. I can’t see any other institutions that can put together a combination of measures to promote a growth strategy that would accompany fiscal measures.

Without that growth strategy, the fiscal measures will not achieve their desired goal. We will simply end up chasing our tails, raising tax rates on a declining tax base and promoting deflation by combining tax increases, employment reductions, spending and wages cuts in a single year. Immediate measures to restore a degree of fiscal stability and reduce the budget deficit are necessary – but require a strong countervailing growth policy to restore the economy, and even to maintain those narrow fiscal goals. Continue reading “Stimulus for Development”

Avoiding confusion on the structural deficit

It appears the government will formulate its fiscal adjustment plan around a target path for the structural deficit.  This is a good idea in principle.  But unless carefully managed it could be a recipe for confusion in practice, especially if assumptions differ from those in the Commission’s Stability Programme (March 2009). 

At present, there are differences in estimates of the structural deficit between the Department of Finance’s Addendum (January 2009), the Commission’s Stability Programme Opinion (March 2009) and the recent ESRI analysis.   Such discrepencies are not surprising given the difficulty of measuring potential output and the rapidly evolving revenue estimates.  Although the Commission’s estimates of potential output strike me as overly pessimistic, it would be wise to use Commission’s figures (suitably updated to incorporate revised tax projections) to anchor the fiscal plan.

The important point is that the government should try to achieve as much clarity as possible on its analysis of and projections for the structural deficit.  

Illustratrive contours of a possible plan:  The Commission projected a deficit of 9.5 percent of GDP for 2009.  They also estimated a structural-cyclical split of 8.1-1.4.  I assume the recent disappointing revenue numbers have added 2.5 percentage points to the ’09 projection.   In addition, the real GDP growth forecast for ’09 has been revised from -4 percent to -6.5 percent.  Using the standard methodology, the new structrual-cyclical split is 9.6-2.4. 

It is useful to distinguish between two elements in the fiscal plan.  First, the adjustment required to correct for the slippage in the structural deficit from the 8.1 percent target.  This is 1.5 percent of GDP.   Second, the plan for reducing the structural deficit from the 2009 target of 8.1 percent to 3 percent by 2013.

Fine Gael Stimulus Plan

The Irish media has referred a lot in recent days to the Fine Gael stimulus plan, so I decided to go take a look at it. A one-sentence summary of the plan is that it would see the government borrowing an additional €11 billion over the period 2010-2013 and spending this on a set of energy, environmental and communications projects.

The plan is, to put it mildly, puzzling. The main source of funds is the Pension Reserve Fund, which our politicians (untrained in the sophisticated distinction between gross and net debt) apparently view as free money. In addition, the investments will be financed by a special bond issued to “the Irish public” and to “pension funds and international markets”. The plan states that the NPRF will be “replenished” with dividends from state companies carrying out these investments and from the sale of some state assets (of course, these state assets could be sold even without borrowing €11 billion).

I do not claim to be an expert in the microeconomics of Irish energy or communications markets, but it seems pretty far-fetched to think that these investments would pay back to the taxpayer at anything other than a very long horizon. I’d be interested to know what others think on this.

Next week’s budget will see the government raising taxes and cutting expenditure on front-line services, with painful adjustments totalling €4 to €6 billion likely to occur. However, few doubt that this adjustment is necessary. Against that background, the opposition’s plan to borrow an extra €11 billion to spend on a bunch of energy projects just seems to me to be very strange.

Sachs on the Geithner Plan

Jeff Sachs has a nice piece in the FT on the Geithner plan.  Sachs is against it and explains his objections with a very clear numerical example.  Of course, readers of this blog have seen this kind of thing here already but Sachs makes an additional useful point that hasn’t been discussed here.

It is no surprise that stock market capitalisation of the banks has risen about 50 per cent from the lows of two weeks ago. Taxpayers are the losers, even as they stand on the sidelines cheering the rise of the stock market. It is their money fuelling the rally, yet the banks are the beneficiaries.

This point is important in an Irish context because our government is discussing its own plan to overpay for bad bank assets.  It is natural for media commentators to interpret stocks going up as good news as usually this corresponds to good news about the broader economy. However, in this case, it should be remembered that stocks are just a claim of a particular group of investors on a particular sequence of future dividend payments.

Bank stocks rising on news that the government is likely to adopt such a plan—and probably rising a lot more if the plan is implemented—should be interpreted as good news for bank shareholders, but not necessarily as good news for the taxpayer.  There are better ways to solve our banking problems and analysis along the lines of “the market is reacting positively to the plan” misleads the public into thinking that plans like this represent good public policy.