Potential Output and Output Gaps

 

Happy new year to all. In case some of you missed it, the Department of Finance published two working papers (by Gavin Murphy, Martina Nacheva and Luke Daly) just prior to Christmas looking at the ever topical issue of Ireland’s output gap. Both papers can be accessed at this link. The first paper takes a detailed look and review of the main methods used to estimate the cyclical position of an economy. The authors highlight the diversity of modelling approaches used across institutions both within Ireland and abroad. The second paper outlines in detail the methodology used by the Department to produce estimates of the output gap for Ireland. To date, the Department has used the European Commission’s harmonised approach (i.e. common to all EU Member States), which has at times resulted in counterintuitive estimates of Ireland’s cyclical position. This research seeks to develop more plausible estimates taking better account of the nature of Ireland’s small open economy. Such work will enable the Department to better evaluate the appropriate fiscal stance and the sustainability of public finances over the medium term.  For those with an interest in macroeconomic modelling and forecasting as well as fiscal policy related issues, the papers offer an invaluable source of information into what can be a complex area.

 

How (Not) To Do Public Policy: Water Charges and Local Property Tax

Jim O’Leary has an op-ed about the Local Property Tax  in today’s Irish Times, based on his recent report, How (Not) To Do Public Policy: Water Charges and Local Property Tax, published by the Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway. The report was launched at a conference last month at NUI Galway featuring senior policymakers, public servants, academics and other experts who evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of the policy-making process in Ireland with a view to suggesting how the quality of policy-making might be improved. Highlights from that conference, including videos of Jim’s presentation and Robert Watt’s keynote speech as well as audio of the panel sessions can be found here on the Whitaker Institute website.

New Central Bank Quarterly Bulletin

The Bank released its third quarterly bulletin of the year this week (Quarterly Bulletin (QB3 – July 2018). The outlook for growth remains favourable despite significant downside risks.  The economy is expected to grow (in GDP terms) by 4.5 per cent this year and by 4.2 per cent in 2019. Most of the impetus to growth is likely to continue coming from domestic sources with the unemployment rate averaging 4.8 per cent next year on the back of solid and sustained gains in employment.

A number of significant downside risks remain. These predominantly relate to the vulnerability of the economy to external shocks, namely Brexit, further increases in protectionist trade policies and any changes to international tax regimes (that could affect FDI flows). Domestically, while inflationary pressures remain contained, the gradual erosion of spare capacity increases the prospects of overheating. In particular, in the labour market, unemployment is fast approaching levels that in the past have triggered an acceleration in wage inflation.

Aside from the normal outlook for the economy, the Bulletin contains a number of Boxes on a diverse range of topics. These include pieces on the National Accounts, a new economic indicator, trade, inflation, credit and debit card returns and mortgage arrears. The Bulletin also has a signed article that looks at Irish Government investment, financing and the capital stock.

Boxes

  • International economic outlook (Box A – page 13)
  • Revisions to the CSO National Accounts (Box B – page 15)
  • A new monthly indicator of economic activity (Box C – page 21)
  • Irish exports and world demand (Box D – page 29)
  • Consumer prices in Ireland (Box E – page 38)

On the financing side of the economy, there are pieces on:

  • Credit and Debit Card Return (Box A – page 51)
  • Mortgage Arrears Statistics (Box B – page 59).

Signed Articles

The Bulletin includes a signed article by Hickey, Lozej and Smyth (2018), on “Irish Government Investment, Financing and the Public Capital Stock

If the retired are not poor, is it right for them to keep all-day free bus passes?

There has been a considerable fuss over a suggestion for a modest scaling-back of the benefits to the retired. It was proposed that ‘free bus travel’ be available only at off-peak travel times. At all other times, free bus travel would continue to apply.

The fuss has been strikingly one-side: the proposal was denounced by politicians, interest groups and journalists. Otherwise, silence; including on this blog.

The case for this change is easily stated – rush hour is busy because of workers travelling to/from work at times they don’t control. So it is a more efficient use of the bus system that people with more discretion over when to travel, notably the retired, would use (free) buses only at other times.  (Of course they could travel as paying passengers at any time.) Nearly one-tenth of passengers on the buses at rush hour use free bus passes. So either we expand the bus system or we move bus-pass holders to (free) travel at another time and release a lot of bus space.

Available information suggests this change would also improve fairness. There is considerable evidence that the retired are not poor, either in income or in wealth terms. Removing a small fraction of the bus subsidy would seem to be fair, especially if it also made the bus service work better.

The CSO’s 2013 Household Finance and Consumption Survey (Table 12) indicates that in households where the head of household was under 35, median net wealth was €4,000. For households headed by a person 65 or older, median net wealth was €348,000. It seems legitimate to conclude that the retired are not poor in terms of their net wealth. (This is hardly surprising; they have had decades more than twenty-somethings in which to save. Grey and wrinkled has a few compensations.)

For incomes, the CSO Survey on Income and Living Conditions (Table 1e) reported that in 2016 median net disposable income (adjusting for household size) was €21,387 for those aged 18-64 and not a very great deal less, €17,956, for those over 65. So for every €100 of net disposable equivalised income of the median member of the first group, the median retired person has an income of €84. The costs of the retired are surely lower than those working (mortgage, children’s education costs)? In any case, according to the report (Table 2) those aged over 65, have a lower risk of poverty (10.2% v. 16.6%) and also a lower rate of deprivation (13.1% v. 20.9%) compared to those of working age.

Given the similarity of incomes, there seems a solid basis to say the over 65s are not poor in income terms either, compared to the working age population.

Yet the older generation have various non-means-tested benefits including free bus passes. They were also essentially exempted from the post-2008 income and benefit reductions. I will leave the inter-generational aspects of the planning laws for another occasion.

Subsidies for the retired was recently raised in the UK which “continue[s] to treat pensioners as though they need free travel, winter fuel allowances and the like, despite the fact they are on average now the best-off demographic group in the country.” In a comment pertinent to the Irish case, the writer argued that amongst the UK groups needing more public funds are children and the mentally ill. If money goes to the over-65s, it will be harder or impossible to finance the other programmes.

The broader setting for this discussion is whether our prevailing redistributive and other policies in fact discriminate against younger rather than older generations. Many of the retired and soon-to-be-retired, benefitted from lower costs of going to college, drastically lower house prices, and much more generous pension schemes that today’s twenty- than thirty-somethings will have. On top of this there are pensions, free bus travel and other benefits; some of this money may have more deserving uses, not excluding healthier public finances.

From this perspective, do we redistribute income on the basis of means or, say, voting propensity? Regarding the latter, a rough calculation (exit poll age data, total turnout, and population less non-nationals) suggests that in the 2016 general election turnout was 41% for voters under 24, and 61% for those over 65. 

How, then, was the bus-policy reform proposal responded to? It did not go down well! Its author was personally vilified and the proposal was drowned in ridiculous hyperbole, while more important aspects of the speaker’s policy recommendations at the conference passed unremarked. One Minister remarked that the civil servant’s suggestion was unprecedented. It’s not hard to see why.

There was the usual claim by a journalist that “free bus pass holders have contributed to the economy for decades” On that principle, shouldn’t everyone have everything free forever? (Where are our free newspapers?)

Senator Buttimer of Fine Gael demanded that the civil servant be fired. The Independent Alliance judged that this change would cause “severe hardship” and could jeopardise the ability of the retired to get to hospital. (Severe hardship? Really? No pensions, no cars, no taxis, no offspring, in Independent Alliance constituencies?)

Even the elusive Minister Ross took to the battlements to declare that the change would happen only over his dead body, although some think the Minister’s body has been alarmingly immobile since he took office. (Missing Minister.)  The Minister added that this modest change was no less than “an extraordinary assault on the rights of older people.” (An extraordinary assault?)

As for the temerity of the civil servant, I believe the department he works for is called Public Expenditure and Reform. His remarks were made at a conference where the OECD recommended that Ireland needs to focus more on evaluation of the impact of public policies. The responses amounted to saying: our supporters like this policy, we are not interested in any evaluation.

This sorry episode is reminiscent of the ‘anti-expert’ commentary of members of the Bertie Ahern governments. Minister Martin Cullen in the mid-2000s dismissed warnings of economic overheating contained in an ESRI mid-term review of the public investment programme, as merely the views of ESRI ‘sandal wearers’. He insisted that the government would press ahead in the face of the advice it had itself commissioned. Ten years on, some current Ministers seem to believe much the same thing.

The retired in the population used to be poor. That’s not been true for a long time. Policy has to catch up. The Government should seek to improve the efficiency of the transport system particularly when it can be achieved at no loss of fairness. In any event, they should give a civil hearing to policy suggestions.

Complete inflexibility from the retired may leave them with few sympathisers should the large deficits in the public pension scheme require real fiscal surgery in the future.

Latest Assessment Report from IFAC

The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has published its latest Fiscal Assessment Report.  The report and some additional resources are available here.

Accompanying the report is a working paper that looks at how a counter-cyclical “rainy day fund” could be incorporated in the framework of the Stability and Growth Pack.  Last week, IFAC published its assessment of compliance with the Domestic Budgetary Rule in 2017 as well as an update of its Standstill Scenario which estimates of the cost of maintaining today’s level of public services and benefits in real terms over the medium term.

A bullet-point summary of the latest FAR:

  • A rapid cyclical recovery has taken place since at least 2014 and this is continuing at a strong pace.
  • Ireland’s debt burden is still among the highest in the OECD.
  • Negative shocks will inevitably occur in future years and there are clear downside risks over the medium term, namely those associated with Brexit, US trade policy and the international tax environment.
  • Improvements on the budgetary front have stalled since 2015 despite the strong cyclical recovery taking place – one that is reinforced by a number of favourable tailwinds.
  • Any unexpected increases in tax revenues or lower interest costs should not be used to fund budgetary measures.
  • The Council welcomes the Department’s publication of alternative estimates of the output gap.
  • The Medium Term Objective (MTO) of a structural deficit of no less than 0.5 per cent of GDP was reached in 2017.
  • The Council sees the fiscal rules as a minimum standard for sustainability and continues to recommend that the Government commit to adhering to the Expenditure Benchmark even after the MTO is achieved.

And on Budget 2019 in particular:

  • The Government should at least stick to existing budget plans for 2019 as there is no case for additional fiscal stimulus beyond existing plans as set out in the 2018 Stability Programme Update.
  • Estimates of the medium-term potential growth rate of the economy and expectations of economy-wide inflation for next year imply an upper limit for increasing the adjusted measure of government expenditure of 4.5%.
  • In nominal terms this translates into spending increases or tax cuts of up to €3½ billion (“gross fiscal space”) as the starting point for Budget 2019.
  • Previously announced measures – including sharp increases in public investment – mean that the Government’s scope for new initiatives in Budget 2019 will be limited.
  • If additional priorities are to be addressed, these should be funded by additional tax increases or through re-allocations of existing spending.
  • Improving the budget balance by more than planned would be desirable, especially given current favourable times, possible overheating in the near-term and visible downside risks over the medium term.

Revenue Annual Report 2017 and New Research

This morning Revenue published our Annual Report for 2017. The report contains lots of information on Revenue’s activities and outputs last year that contributed to the collection of €50.8 billion in net receipts for the Exchequer, as well as delivering on service to support compliance, the implementation of customs controls and facilitation of trade.

Also published today are a series of research papers that may interest readers of this blog:

Updated Corporation Tax research profiles tax payments received in 2017 as well as analysis of 2016 tax returns. This includes significant new analysis of multinational companies in Ireland.

An analysis of Income Dynamics and Mobility based on Revenue micro data. This examines the distribution of incomes by decile and percentile as well as tracking mobility of income earners over time.

Profiles of Excise Duty and Capital Taxes receipts. Excise, Capital Acquisitions Tax , Stamp Duty, Capital Gains Tax and Local Property Tax cover wide ranging activities, transactions and products. The profiles document these in detail and show changes in core components in recent years.  For the first time, information on capital taxes are combined together with location and earnings data to present new perspectives on the taxes.

Revenue’s latest customer survey, of small to medium sized enterprises in 2017, is Revenue’s fourth SME survey. Responses show that customer satisfaction with Revenue service remains high across a range of headings. The survey also includes a behavioural experiment to test the impact of personalisation on response rates.

Also published is the annual illegal tobacco survey results for 2017 and the first quarterly Local Property Tax statistics for 2018.

 

The taxation of profits from intangible assets and Ireland’s contribution to the EU Budget

In last weekend’s Sunday Independent Richard Curran had a piece the start of which looked at a measure passed via Financial Resolution No. 3 on the night of the Budget speech. He says:

Multinationals make very real profits from charging for the use of their IP. In 2015, the trading profit made by multinationals in Ireland on their IP shot up by €26bn. This was completely offset by capital allowances they received - basically reducing their taxable profit on that to close to zero.

To put it in perspective if we had allowed just 80pc of that to be set against capital allowances, we could have taxed 20pc of it at 12.5pc. It could have yielded around €650m in tax.

The measure is linked to the recently published Review of Ireland’s Corporation Tax Code and Richard Curran’s piece throws light on most of the key issues, except one: the link to Ireland’s contribution to the EU budget.  This is referenced in paragraph 9.3.11 of the review:

Figures from the Revenue Commissioners and Tancred (2017) show that there was a €26 billion increase in intangible-asset related gross trading profits in 2015. This was offset by an increase in the amount of capital allowances for intangible assets of a similar scale. These gross trading profits are included in Ireland’s Gross National Income but the use of capital allowances results in a much smaller amount being included in the taxable income base for Ireland’s Corporation Tax. Given Ireland’s contribution to the EU Budget is calculated by reference to Gross National Income, this increase in profits has an impact.

Assessing this impact was beyond the scope of the review but is something which the seven-page note linked below attempts to address.  With lots of moving parts precision is difficult to achieve but the broad elements of the issue should hopefully stand out.

A note on intangibles, the taxation of their profits, and Ireland’s contribution to the EU budget

Update: Here is a bullet-point summary

  • In 2015 intangible-asset-related gross trading profits of multinationals operating in Ireland increased by €26 billion.
  • In the same year claims for capital allowances related to expenditure on intangible assets increased by €26 billion.
  • No Corporation Tax is due on the gross profits offset by capital allowances
  • Using estimates from the Department of Finance implies that these figures have risen to around €35 billion for 2017.
  • These untaxed profits are included in Ireland’s Gross National Income which adds about €200 million to the country’s contribution to the EU budget.
  • A cap on the amount of capital allowances that can be used in a single year is to be introduced for new claims for capital allowances on intangibles.
  • Based on patterns for the past two years the Department of Finance forecast that this will result in €150 million of additional Corporation Tax being paid in 2018.
  • The Revenue Commissioners figures for 2015 and the Department of Finances estimates of the impact of recent onshoring imply that  intangible-asset-related gross trading profits are expected to be around €40 billion in 2018 (with a further €36 million added to the EU contribution).
  • If the cap applied to all claims, existing and new, then the additional Corporation Tax to be collected in 2018 could be up to €1 billion using the 2015 figure published by Revenue and estimates from that time used by Finance.
  • If companies who are expected to move IP here in future years are happy to pay the tax now why doesn’t the same apply for companies who already have IP here?

Miriam Hederman O’Brien Prize 2017

The presentation of the 2017 Miriam Hederman O’Brien prize awarded by the Foundation for Fiscal Studies will take place on the Monday 2nd October from 8:00 -9:30am in the Grafton Suite, The Westbury Hotel, Dublin 2.

The aim of the prize is to recognise outstanding original work from new contributors in the area of Irish fiscal policy, to promote the study and discussion of matters relating to fiscal, economic and social policy and to reward those who demonstrate exceptional research promise. The prize forms an important part of the Foundation’s overall objective of promoting more widely the study and discussion of matters relating to fiscal, economic and social policy.

The shortlisted papers are shown here and past winners here.

There will be tea / coffee from 8.00 as well as an opportunity to view stands promoting some of the work and applications nominated for the Award.

The event is free but please register in advance to info@fiscal.ie.

Save the date: September 7 – Policy Forum on Higher Education Funding

I am organising a policy conference on the above topic to be held at the RIA on Dawson Street from 9.30-12.30 on Thursday, September 7.

The main focus will be on the potential role of income-contingent student loans in HE funding.

The morning will begin with short presentations by five speakers, including Bruce Chapman (Australian National University), Lorraine Dearden (Institute for Fiscal Studies and University College London), Charles Larkin (Trinity College), Senator Aodhan O Riordain (to be confirmed) and myself. This will be followed by a 60-90 minute discussion session. The event will be chaired by Frances Ruane (ESRI).

I’ll post a detailed programme here when it’s finalized.

Update: Senator O Riordain has confirmed and the final programme is available here.

Presentation to MacGill Summer School

Earlier in the week I contributed to a session at the MacGill Summer School on threats to the economy.  My speaking notes for the presentation are here though delivery may have been slightly different.

Conclusion:

We can build 40,000 houses a year, motorways between our regional cities, urban rail connections in the capital, and the roll-out of broadband across the country. We can reduce taxes, increase social transfers and public sector pay. We can spend all the benefits of the surge in Corporation Tax, ultra-low interest rates and the proceeds from the sale of the banks. They are our choices to make. But we cannot do it all and expect the benefits of prudent economic and budgetary management.

No lobby or special interest group sees their request for support as being the one that pushes the economy into the red. And they are right; but we have to watch the totality of what we are doing. If we try to do too much and fly too close to the sun we will fall to earth.

The biggest threat to the Irish economy may not be the decisions of Teresa May or Donald Trump; the biggest threat to the Irish economy are the choices we make ourselves. Let’s make a better fist of getting it right this time.

June 2017 Fiscal Assessment Report

The 12th Fiscal Assessment Report from the Fiscal Advisory Council is now available.  The report has a summary assessment and four in-depth chapters but here’s a summary of the summary to give a flavour of the analysis:

  • The economy is performing strongly and does not require fiscal stimulus.
  • It may be necessary for fiscal policy to “lean against the wind” (i.e be counter-cyclical) to offset overheating pressures and/or prepare for possible downside risks that may materialise.
  • No overheating pressures evident at present but likely if current high growth continues.
  • In the near term, growth may exceed government projections due to momentum from 2016 and possible increase in housing output.
  • Medium-term outlook is uncertain due to external risks such as Brexit, and a “hard” Brexit is used as the central scenario in the latest forecasts.
  • Debt levels remain high and the role of revised debt targets is unclear.
  • Fiscal rules breached in 2016 and likely to be breached again in 2017.
  • Unexpected revenue gains have been used to fund within-year increases in expenditure.
  • In 2016, government revenue (excluding one-offs) grew by 2.7 per cent and primary expenditure by 2.4 per cent; the underlying primary balance was essentially unchanged in 2016 with a similar outcome expected for 2017.
  • Fiscal stance is not appropriate for a rapidly growing economy that is close to its potential, that continues to run a deficit with a high debt levels and that has clearly identifiable risks on the horizon.
  • Fully adhering to the fiscal framework, including to the Expenditure Benchmark after the MTO has been achieved, would go some way towards avoiding fiscal policy that aggravates the boom-bust cycle.
  • The Council welcomes the commitment to develop an alternative to the Commonly-Agreed Methodology for supply-side forecasts.

There is much more detail on all of this in the report.  The report does not contain much about Budget 2018 because the government have not updated their “fiscal space” estimates.  These will be provided in the Summer Economic Statement to be published in a few weeks and will be assessed in the Council’s Pre-Budget Statement.

The Domestic Budgetary Rule and the Fiscal Stance in 2016

The Fiscal Council published its Ex-Post Assessment of Compliance with the Domestic Budgetary Rule in 2016.  The assessment is summarised in this table:

Main Assessment

The budget condition for 2016 was a structural balance of 0.0 per cent of GDP which was not achieved in 2016 as the structural balance was -1.7 per cent of GDP.

The adjustment path condition required an improvement of 0.6 percentage points of GDP in the structural balance.  This was not achieved as the improvement was 0.3 percentage points of GDP.

The expenditure benchmark is designed to give the real change for an adjusted measure of government expenditure (net of discretionary revenue measures) that corresponds to the required change in the structural balance.  Discretionary revenue measures (including non-indexation of the tax system) amounted to -€0.7 billion in 2016. The assessment is that Ireland was in compliance with the expenditure benchmark in 2016.

This contradiction between failing to achieve the required improvement in the structural balance yet complying with the expenditure benchmark is largely explained by a one-off transaction relating to AIB preference shares that took place in 2015.  As the AIB transaction was not repeated in 2016, the €2.1 billion from that transaction could be replaced with other government spending without breaching the expenditure benchmark.  The outturns show that around half of the €2.1 billion “space” was used for expenditure in 2016 (which will continue in subsequent years).

If this one-off item is excluded from the 2016 assessment of the expenditure benchmark then it would have been breached by 0.4 per cent of GDP.  The breach net of one-offs roughly corresponds to the shortfall in the required improvement in the structural balance (0.3 percentage points of GDP) which does take one-off items into account.

Under the 2012 Fiscal Responsibility Act the Fiscal Council is required to assess the fiscal stance using the structural primary balance.  That is, the general government balance excluding interest costs and one-off items and adjusted for the cyclical position of the economy.

Fiscal Stance

The primary balance itself is relatively straightforward to measure and the figures from the CSO show it to have been +0.7 per cent of GDP in 2015 and +1.7 per cent of GDP in 2016.

To get the underlying changes the impact of one-off items must be removed.  The Fiscal Council assesses that there were three such items in 2015 and 2016.  These were the AIB transaction in 2015, while in 2016 there was the return to Ireland of a pre-paid margin related to borrowing from the EFSF and part of the EU contribution assessed to Ireland that will be non-recurring.  Accounting for these, the table above shows that the primary balance net of one-offs showed close to no change in 2016 – it improved by 0.1 percentage points of GDP.

The structural primary balance depends on the cyclical position of the economy, that is the difference between the actual and potential growth rates of the economy.  The measurement and estimation involved in this are significant.  The CSO put the real GDP growth rate for 2016 at 5.2 per cent while the potential real GDP growth rate estimated using the method set out by the European Commission is 5.1 per cent.

These closeness of these numbers implies that the impact of the business cycle on the government balance in 2016 was relatively small.  The change in the primary balance net of one-offs and the change in the structural primary balance are pretty much the same.  The structural primary balance is estimated to have been unchanged in 2016 which would correspond to a “neutral” fiscal stance.

Your views on the fiscal stance will depend on how appropriate you think the 5.2/5.1 figures are as indicators of the real/potential growth rates of the economy in 2016.  Was the Irish economy growing above its potential in 2016?  What is the appropriate fiscal stance given the cyclical position of the economy? The Fiscal Council will assess these and other issues in its forthcoming Fiscal Assessment Report which is set to be published next week.

Interpretation in fiscal space

The suspension of belief is commonly needed for science fiction.  Most space dramas require alien races to speak English or the existence of some form of instantaneous universal translator.  It now seems that something similar is required when moving in fiscal space.  Fiscal space is the money available for new measures while achieving minimum compliance with the rules.   Lots of words are being used to describe this but can we tell what they actually mean?

Continue reading “Interpretation in fiscal space”

Paper on the recovery in the public finances following the crisis

Next Thursday (May 25) I will present a paper to The Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (SSISI) on the recovery in the public finances following the financial crisis. The meeting takes place at the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street at 5.30pm. Details (including the paper) are available on the SSISI website here.

 

Producing Short-Term Forecasts of the Irish Economy: A Suite of Models Approach.

A new working paper from Niall Conroy and Eddie Casey of the Fiscal Council Secretariat.

Abstract:

The Council’s mandate includes endorsing, as it considers appropriate, the official macroeconomic forecasts of the Department of Finance on which the annual Budget and Stability Programme Update are based. As part of the endorsement process and for the purposes of its ongoing monitoring and analysis of the Irish economy, the Council’s Secretariat produces its own Benchmark macroeconomic projections. This paper describes the short-run forecasting models used by the Secretariat for producing these projections. The general forecasting approach can be described as follows. Equations are used to forecast each component of the expenditure side of the Quarterly National Accounts. Multiple models are estimated for most components, with the simple model average used as an initial input into the formulation of the Benchmark projections. The out-of-sample forecasting performance of these models is assessed at each endorsement round. In addition to these model-based projections, other elements are considered. Discussions with the Council and other forecasting agencies help to guide any judgement that may be applied before arriving at the final Benchmark projections.

How much of Ireland’s “fiscal space” will climate inaction consume?

Here’s a guest post on the very important potential fiscal costs of climate mitigation by the IIEA’s Joseph Curtin. 

***

The basic imperative to reduce emissions is easily understood. From March 2015 to July 2016, in each successive month the previous highest global temperature for that month was broken. July 2016 was the warmest of any month on record in the period of historic measurement. Given this record goes back roughly 160 years, the odds of this occurring without man’s input in the form of greenhouse gas emissions is infinitesimally small.

Reducing emissions is a political challenge that is difficult to grapple with, in Ireland as in many other countries. In welcome developments, we now have a Government Department with “Climate Action” in its title, and the newly established citizens’ assembly was given the goal of exploring “how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change”.fig1.png

But on the ground there are few examples of “action” and “leadership” to draw upon. There has been no plan to reduce emissions since the previous strategy expired 4 years ago. As we can see from the EPA’s latest inventory report, since the end of the recession in 2011 Irish emissions have more or less flat lined. In fact emissions will probably increased in 2015 (although EPA data have not yet been published) and are projected to continue increasing in the years ahead.

Continue reading “How much of Ireland’s “fiscal space” will climate inaction consume?”

Brexit Flu?

The latest exchequer returns are in, and are a bit down relative to trend and to target month-on-month. From the release:

July 2016 Outturn
July 2016 Target Excess/Shortfall (€m) Excess/Shortfall (%)
Income tax 1519 1522 -3 -0.20%
VAT 1766 1830 -61 -3.30%
Corp. Tax 116 139 -23 -16.50%
Excise 482 507 -25 -5%
Stamps 114 111 3 2.30%
Capital Gains 14 8 6 67.40%
Capital Acquisitions 19 17 2 13.80%
Customs 26 29 -4 -13%
Levies 0 0 0 0.00%
LPT 21 23 -2 -6.60%
Unallocated 9 0 9 0.00%

The two numbers everyone will focus on are the 13% drop in customs taxes and the 16% drop in corporation tax.

In terms of money in the door up to July, the State is still up 8.5% on last year, so we shouldn’t be too worried about the supply of sweeties come Budget day just yet. The other important thing to note is just how volatile these data are–they bounce around a lot, and you can read very little into one month’s data. So please, before everyone runs off saying Brexit is killing the Irish economy, it isn’t. Or perhaps more accurately, it isn’t just yet.

Another interesting piece of data shows Irish consumers are a bit put off but unlikely to develop Brexit flu from contact with their nearest neighbour.

While UK PMI data is nose-bleed inducing, the recently-released KBC consumer sentiment index shows that Irish consumer sentiment declined in July, but the scale of the drop was relatively modest when measured beside its UK equivalent, as the chart below shows.

csijul16d02So what do we see? We see a bit of concern, and bit of a wobble, but that’s all, up to now. Hold fire on the pronouncements of doom for a few more months at least.

Thinking a little about indexation

The Minister for Social Protection wants to index many social protection payments to a cost of living index as an anti-poverty measure. This makes sense on the face of it, as long as that cost of living index is going up, and as long as the level of benefits fall when the cost of living falls. It’s also worth thinking about the virtues of indexation, as this was one of the main criticisms IFAC had of the fiscal space calculations during the last election.

Let’s say you index benefits to the consumer price measure of inflation.

Here’s what happened to that reading over the longer run.

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 11.29.28Just messing about with the idea a little more, imagine we ‘begin’ the Irish economy in year 1 with a CPI reading of 100, and grant benefits of €100. Then we can add in (say) the last 20 years of real CPI data from 1995 to 2015 to get a sense of what would have happened to benefits in a year-on-year basis as a result.

The line is the increase in benefits as a result of the indexation, and the bars are the changes in euros to the benefits as a result of the cost of living increase or decrease, measured on the right hand axis. The excel sheet I used to knock this up is here.

Picture1

Hopefully you can see two things. First, the measure is highly pro cyclical. Precisely when we want benefits to decrease a bit, because the economy is growing strongly, they go up, and when we want benefits to increase a bit to cover the cost of living during a crash, they go down. Second, in recent years inflation has either stagnated, or fallen, so you wouldn’t see a huge increase or decrease in benefits either way. Now you could smooth out some of these effects out with a moving average of, say, 3 years, but this little exercise shows, I think, that it’s worth looking carefully at indexation proposals.

(Updated with thanks to commenter Tony_Eire.)

Managing the Budget with High Debt and No Currency

A sovereign state with low debt can access liquidity through the markets. There are limits and they will be reached when the debt ratio begins to send out distress calls. Until that (unknown) point, there are, in effect, un-borrowed foreign exchange reserves. With an independent currency liquidity can be created for government or banks without external conditionality. There are limits here too and creating excess liquidity brings inflation risk and exchange rate pressure.
With high debt and hence uncertain access to bond markets a short-term expansion cannot safely be financed through debt sales without constraining capacity to repeat the procedure. Without a currency either, the creation of liquidity is conditional on the cooperation of the foreign central bank. If its conditions include constraints on fiscal action there can be no stabilisation policy – no exchange rate, no monetary or fiscal discretion.
Most Eurozone governments can borrow in the markets at low rates, courtesy of QE, despite historically high debt ratios. In the absence of QE the perception of capacity to borrow could diminish rapidly. Availability of QE is in any event not automatic – there is none for Greece, for example. There are also unclear conditions on ELA creation by national CBs. Consent from the ECB can be withdrawn arbitrarily or may be permitted only on penal conditions, such as pay-offs to unguaranteed creditors of bust banks.
The Eurozone governments with high debt face an illusion of policy space in current circumstances, with apparently easy access to debt markets. The constraint appears to be the EU rules about budgetary limits, as long as QE lasts.
But QE will end at some stage and the constraint becomes the market demand for sovereign debt. The design problem for fiscal policy (the only stabilisation tool available) is to manage the trade-off between using it now and having less to use later. Since the election Irish politicians have found agreement on two policies: (i) that the European Commission should be lobbied to relax the budget rules and (ii) that government should borrow ‘off balance sheet’.
Policy (i), lobbying the Commission, sacrifices future budget flexibility explicitly. The inverse demand curve for sovereign debt is r = f(D) where D is the debt ratio. Unless f(D) is flat the sacrifice is real. Moreover f(D) is unknown, although known not to be flat. Unless sovereign bond buyers are unable to count (ii), hiding sovereign liabilities, is just gaming the Eurostat debt definition. This definition (gross general government debt to gross output) is not a serious measure of debt servicing capability and, after QE, a sovereign could easily be inside some EU limit and unable to borrow. Eurostat does not lend money.
There are arguments for battling to borrow: interest costs are low and it is an article of faith that high-value public investment projects are plentiful. The trade-off (looser policy now versus the risk of ill-timed tightening later) would look better if the economy was becalmed, multipliers high, debt ratios modest, macro-volatility historically low and the foreign central bank known to be benign. None of these conditions applies currently in Ireland.
There is a case for using the QE respite to borrow reserves, accepting the negative carry, as NTMA appears to be doing. The case for deferring the attainment of budget balance is harder to see.

Report of the Fiscal Council

Is here (.pdf). A few days late to this, so apologies, but just one thought:

Think how far our budgetary institutions have evolved. From Charlie McCreevy getting up on Budget Day in the early 2000s and announcing measures his own cabinet hadn’t heard of, to today’s fiscal council reports, Spring Statements, National Economic Dialogues, to the design of new structures like the Budget Oversight Committee, reviews of the process of national budgeting (.pdf), a Parliamentary Budget Office to cost the figures independently, and an agreed spending envelope by the public, a lot has changed in 15 years.

Despite the annoyance it generated during the election, the ‘fiscal space’ is a well recognized academic idea dating back to the 1990s, and the fact that the entire debate took place using broad parameters everyone serious agreed upon is a very good thing. We actually had a debate in Ireland, messy and all as it was, on whether to spend more on services, or give back more in tax cuts. Thus informed, the public chose the former in large numbers. They want a recovery in services.

Four thoughts on the reformed budgetary process

The new budgetary process announced last week includes an oversight committee within the Oireachtas and a series of stepping stone documents en route to the formal Budget Day announcement speech in October.

These processes are the Spring Statement, to set the tax and spend parameters for the coming 12 months, the National Economic Dialogue, to bring what used to be called the ‘social partners’ together to discuss spending priorities en bloc with Ministers, an expenditure report in early July and the tax strategy papers being circulated by late July.

First thought: A lot of this is happening already, and has been happening for years if not decades.

Think about the process. About half way through the year, a rough spending envelope is envisaged. Lobby groups try to convince Ministers to spend more on their thing, whatever that is, and within the walls of Merrion St., the boffins figure out various tax and spend combinations, which then gets presented to the Minister for her or his sign off on budget day. The same people performing the same processes will be working on the new budgetary processes.

The big difference in today’s formulation is how open and transparent it could be. It may not be. The simple way to make it less transparent is to under-fund the budget oversight committee’s secretariat, plunge them into a sea of unsearchable .pdfs, ignore any requests for raw data by saying something like ‘commercial sensitivity’ or something else, and go to the pub.

Second thought: Assuming everyone engages with an open heart, the big wins may still not be transparent. This is because really stupid ideas like Decentralisation won’t even make it to the floor of the Committee.

The process will have a hard time establishing its importance without additional reports on the distributional impacts or gender impacts of new policies, new models, or an open data framework. Unpopular but necessary fiscal elements (say increasing the local property tax at some point) may well get stymied by a committee afraid to make an voter-unfriendly decision.

Third thought: None of this will avoid last minute dot com political flyers. We may still see weird little subsidies for greyhounds or taxidermists or endangered snails or whatever still creeping in at the last minute, because that’s the way our politics works.

Fourth thought: This is the start of a longer conversation about fiscal oversight and control, vote by vote, within the Oireachtas and within the Government. It is going to be fascinating.

Reforming Ireland’s Budgetary Cycle

Via Commenter @DOCM:

The final report of the Oireachtas sub-committe on reform is now available here.

It represents a major, even historical, change, including the introduction by 2017 of an IPBO, which we discussed here.

There remain, however, a number of major ambiguities e.g. no definition of the “budgetary cycle”, lack of clarity in the role of the Budget Oversight Committee (BOC) and its relations ship with the the sectoral committee “shadowing” Finance, PER and the Taoiseach’s department and, in particular, the other sectoral committees (page 9) “Committee also to consider option where Departmental Estimates would be considered by sectoral committees which would make their views known to Budget Oversight Committee for its consideration of aggregate position.”

In short, plenty on the form but very little in the matter of the substance of the involvement of the Dáil in deciding the levels and allocation of expenditure and taxation. It seems. however, that the split between PER and Finance will be between these two issues cf. the remarks by the Minister of Finance:

“The Spring Economic Statement will become a summer statement and it should be ready by June. There will be a full debate in the House. I am providing all the text papers to the finance committee so that there will be a full debate on taxation at that point, in advance of the budget.”

Ireland exits the EDP

Unsurprisingly the European Commission have concluded that Ireland’s “excessive deficit” per the reference values in the TFEU has been corrected.  The Commission decision is here.

The Commission have also published their country-specific recommendations on Ireland based on this staff report.

There is lots in the staff report but on the fiscal side in introducing their CSRs the Commission note:

[Following the abrogation of the excessive deficit procedure, Ireland is in the preventive arm of the Stability and Growth Pact and subject to the transitional debt rule.] In its 2016 stability programme, which is based on a no-policy-change assumption, the government plans gradual improvements of the headline balance until reaching a surplus of 0.4% of GDP in 2018. The revised medium-term budgetary objective  a structural deficit of 0.5% of GDP – is expected to be reached in 2018. However, the annual change in the recalculated11 structural balance of 0.1% of GDP in 2016 does not ensure sufficient progress towards the medium-term budgetary objective. According to the stability programme, the government debt-toGDP ratio is expected to fall to 88.2% in 2016 and to continue declining to 85.5% in 2017. The macroeconomic scenario underpinning these budgetary projections is plausible. However, the measures needed to support the planned deficit targets from 2017 onwards have not been sufficiently specified. Based on the Commission 2016 spring forecast, there is a risk of some deviation from the recommended fiscal adjustment in 2016, while Ireland is projected to be compliant in 2017 under unchanged policies. Ireland is forecast to comply with the transitional debt rule in 2016 and 2017. Based on its assessment of the stability programme and taking into account the Commission 2016 spring forecast, the Council is of the opinion that Ireland is expected to broadly comply with the provisions of the Stability and Growth Pact. Nevertheless, further measures will be needed to ensure compliance in 2016.

The Commission press release detailing all of the decisions taken and documents published today is here.

What should an Irish Parliamentary Budget Office Do?

Parliamentary Budget Offices (PBOs) exist around the world and typically provide budget projections, budget risk analyses, estimates of policy changes, impact assessments, flow of funds analyses, macro-trend analysis, and financial analysis where, prospective policies can be independently costed. The PBO also has an outreach function to show the public the work parliament does in assessing the fit of new proposals.

PBOs are different from Fiscal Councils, in that fiscal councils occupy a watchdog function, evaluating the health of the economy generally and assessing compliance with constitutionally-mandated fiscal rules. Ireland has a fiscal council, it does not have a PBO. The new programme for government commits (on pages 14 and 15) to establishing one.

Continue reading “What should an Irish Parliamentary Budget Office Do?”