Central Bank Quarterly Bulletin 4, 2020

A guest post by Enda Keenan from the Central Bank, highlighting some of the key messages from Bank’s latest Quarterly Bulletin.

Today the Bank published its fourth and final Quarterly Bulletin for 2020. The report contains a detailed overview of developments in the economy since the publication of last Bulletin in July as well as our latest macroeconomic forecasts out to 2022.

The forecast for GDP growth has been revised upwards to -0.4 per cent in 2020 reflecting more positive developments in consumption, strong export performance and an enhanced level of fiscal support arising from the July stimulus package. Growth prospects for next year and 2022 are more subdued compared to the previous Bulletin due to the implications of a WTO Brexit. As outlined Box A, a disruptive transition to a WTO trading relationship would frontload associated output and employment losses. In this baseline scenario, the growth rate of the Irish economy is 2 percentage points lower in 2021 relative to a Free Trade Agreement due to the introduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers. The ILO unemployment rate is projected to average 5.3 per cent for this year, rising to 8 per cent in 2021 following the closure of income-support schemes at the end of the first quarter (Box D in the Bulletin discusses the challenges that arise for measuring unemployment in the time of COVID-19).

Since re-opening from a period of lockdown, the recovery of the Irish economy has been uneven as levels of domestically focussed economic activity remain well below pre-pandemic levels. In particular, consumer-facing services sectors, such as tourism, hospitality and retail services, which are also more labour-intensive, have been slower to recover contributing to a projected decline in underlying domestic demand of 7.1 per cent this year. The strong performance of exports, which are expected to decline by just 0.3 percent in 2020, is the main factor driving an upward revision in the baseline projection for GDP. Box C details the relative resilience of high-value exports such as computer services and pharmaceuticals during a period of declining trade-weighted world demand.

The Central Bank’s Business Cycle Indicator (BCI), a monthly summary indicator of overall economic conditions estimated from a larger dataset of high-frequency releases, fell sharply during the months of March and April reaching a historical low (Figure 1). The latest estimates show that economic conditions continued to improve into July and August, but the rate of recovery has slowed down. Despite the improvement over the four months to August, the overall level of the BCI remains substantially below that observed prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis.

Figure 1: Business Cycle Indicator (BCI) for Ireland’s Economy

The outlook remains highly uncertain, depending not only on the economic consequences of COVID-19 and its containment, but also on the nature of the trading relationship between the EU and the UK. Recognising this uncertainty, Box E analyses the impact of a ‘severe’ COVID-19 scenario as an alternative to the baseline forecasts in which there is a strong resurgence of the pandemic, leading to the restoration of widespread and stringent containment measures for a more prolonged period. Underlying domestic demand is projected to fall by 8.5 per cent in 2020 in this case with a continued contraction of -1.3 per cent into 2021. While the economy does not begin to recover until 2022, underlying domestic demand remains 6 percentage points below 2019 levels. In the ‘severe’ scenario, the unemployment rate rises to 12.5 per cent in 2021 before moderating to 10.1 per cent the following year.

The bulletin also contains analysis on the latest income tax developments and measurement difficulties for the unemployment rate arising from COVID-19.

Household wealth in Ireland: results from the 2018 HFCS survey

Guest post by David Horan (Central Bank of Ireland). Disclaimer: this blog post represents the author’s views and not those of the Central Bank of Ireland or the European System of Central Banks.

The Central Bank has published a Research Technical Paper on household wealth in Ireland: “Household wealth: what is it, who has it, and why it matters” (Horan, Lydon & McIndoe-Calder).

The paper uses data from the latest wave of the Household Finance and Consumption Survey (HFCS 2018) to track changes in the financial position of Irish households between 2013 (the last survey) and 2018. The CSO carries out the survey in Ireland. It is part of a wider cross-country project examining household wealth, income and consumption, coordinated by the ECB.

While carried out prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the HFCS survey provides insights into issues relevant to the assessment of the economic impact of the pandemic on Irish households. For example, the data highlight the improved financial position and resilience of households prior to the COVID-19 crisis, than was the case leading into 2008. Moreover, these data highlight distributional considerations and differences between households that align with the asymmetrical effects the COVID-19 induced economic shock has had on households, including along age, employment sector and housing tenure status dimensions.

Key developments between 2013 and 2018
When comparing changes between 2013 and 2018, it is important to consider the economic context under which both surveys were conducted. In many respects, 2013 reflects the low point of the recession following the financial crisis; by 2018 the economic recovery was well underway. With this in mind, it may come as little surprise that the financial position of many households in Ireland improved considerably between waves.

We observe that household net wealth grew by over €76,000 for the median household – or by 74 per cent – to €179,200 between 2013 and 2018.  House price growth and declining mortgage debt were the primary drivers of this development.

Net wealth increased across the entire wealth distribution, while inequality, as measured by the gini coefficient, fell between waves. Key to this was the decline in negative equity, which fell from 33 per cent of mortgaged households in 2013 to 4 per cent in 2018. Median gross household income surpassed its previous peak in 2007, reaching €47,700 in 2018. Combining household wealth and income, we find the two are closely linked and that relatively higher income households also tend to be wealthier households — although the relationship is not one-for-one. 

Economic implications
Compared to 2013, households were more resilient in 2018, with debt to asset and debt to income ratios falling significantly between survey waves. These improvements are particularly pronounced for those between 30 and 49 years of age. The debt service burden – the cost of servicing debt repayments to (gross) income – has also fallen since 2013, primarily due to rising incomes. Net liquid assets – the sum of liquid assets less non-collateralised debt – are a commonly used financial buffer metric. The proportion of Irish households with net liquid assets increased to 72.6 per cent in 2018, while the median value of these financial resources increased from €2,000 to €3,000 2018.

To better understand the resilience of indebted households to negative shocks, Table 1 shows the proportion of households by debt-service bucket in 2018, where savings account for at least three mortgage payments. Over two thirds (67.8%) of lower debt service households – that is households with mortgage repayments less than 5% of their gross income – have savings at least three times that of their regular mortgage repayments. Looking at households with the highest debt service ratio (>40% of income), we find that 42% of these households have savings of at least three times that of their regular mortgage repayment.

Turning to household spending patterns, we find that the gross income share that households regularly spend on goods, services and housing varies substantially by income. The average household spends about 80 per cent of their income. Those in the bottom income quantile, on average, report spending more than their income on regular expenses. For the 13% of households that report having expenses greater than their income, typical strategies employed to bridge the gap include using savings, especially for middle income households; getting help from friends and family, especially for lower income households; and using credit cards and overdrafts.

In line with other data sources, homeownership rates have fallen while the share of those renting accommodation has risen. Over 60 per cent of recent owner-occupier home-buyers were under the age of 40 at time of purchase. Almost 30 per cent of recent buyers report receiving an inheritance or gift within three years of their house purchase with a median value of €25,000 (self-reported). The prevalence of inheritance was lower for older borrowers, however the amounts they received tended to be higher.

House price developments play a key role in changes in the net wealth position of Irish households. The ‘collateral channel’ argues that wealthier households have easier credit access. We do find that households are less credit constrained in 2018, which holds true for younger and older households, and for homeowners and renters. Although we cannot rule-out improvements on the supply-side as a driver of this development.

In the mid-2000s, housing equity was used by many households to fund both consumer spending (often on durables) and investment (often in more housing). This peaked in 2006/07, when the value of housing equity withdrawal for the household sector was equivalent to some 10 per cent of income. When house prices fell sharply, this had real effects on spending and investment. In the paper we show that, despite housing wealth in 2018 exceeding previous highs, the household sector as a whole continues to inject as opposed to withdraw equity. In 2018, injections were running at around 10 per cent of income (Figure 1). This reasons for relatively large ‘injections’ include the continued repayment of long-lived, large debts from the early-/mid-2000s, and a far lower level of top-up borrowing relative to the past.

The paper highlights several potential areas of future research using the HFCS data*. For example, we provide useful insights into how households can withstand unexpected income shocks and the financial resilience of households, which are particularly relevant in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

In many respects, we can see that households are better placed going into 2020 than they were leading into the last crisis in 2008. Given the healthier position of many household balance sheets in 2018. Our work indicates that, if house prices and/or incomes falls, we would not expect household debt to drag on spending in the same way it did going in to 2008. Incomes developments are therefore likely to be the primary determinant of consumer spending when the public health threat from COVID-19 recedes. Understanding the distribution of income shocks within the context of household wealth and income position will be important going forward.  

(*) Datasets for research and analysis are available from both the CSO (the HFCS RMF) and the ECB. The ECB dataset also includes cross-country data for most countries.

Government must hold its nerve on borrowing as it reboots economy

Patrick Honhan in The Irish Times today. Based on presentation to the Royal Irish Academy earlier in the week (slides; video).

Central Bank Quarterly Bulletin 3 2020

Guest post by Stephen Byrne, Central Bank of Ireland

Today the Bank published its third Quarterly Bulletin of the year. The report contains a detailed overview of developments in the economy since the publication of last Bulletin in early April as well as our latest macroeconomic forecasts out to 2022.

Given the scale of uncertainty surrounding the economic impact of Covid-19, two different scenarios for the economic outlook are outlined in the Bulletin (see featured image above).

In the “baseline” scenario, the economy reopens in line with the Government’s phased plan, allowing for a rebound in economic activity in the second half of the year. Some containment measures would remain in place meaning that activity would be constrained in some sectors for a longer period. Beyond the initial rebound, recovery is expected to be gradual, in line with a slow unwinding of precautionary behaviour as the effects of the shock on consumers and businesses lingers. The unemployment rate is set to decline from its second quarter peak of about 25 per cent as the year progresses and is projected be around half that level by the end of this year, before averaging just over 9 per cent next year and 7 per cent in 2022.

The baseline scenario sees output recovering to its pre-crisis level by 2022. However, the level of activity will be significantly below where it would have been had the economy grown in line with expectations before the outbreak of the pandemic.

In the “severe” scenario, the strict lockdown period is assumed to have a more damaging impact on economic activity and is not successful in effectively containing the virus. Stringent containment measures would remain in place, or would be re-instated, albeit not as severe as before, based on an assumption that there would be a resurgence of the virus at some point over the next year. In this scenario, there is a subdued economic recovery with a larger permanent loss of output. Unemployment remains higher for longer in this scenario and would average just below 17 per cent in 2020, while consumer spending is projected to fall by around 14 per cent and GDP by over 13 per cent this year. In this scenario, the projected recovery in growth in 2021 and 2022 would not offset the loss of output this year, leaving the level of GDP in 2022 about 5 per cent below its pre-crisis level.

Both of these scenarios assume that a Free trade agreement in goods between the UK and the EU, with no tariffs and quotas on goods, takes effect in January 2021. If such an agreement is not reached, then the EU and the UK would move to trading on WTO terms from January 2021. Box D of the Bulletin discusses the implications of such an outcome.

The bulletin also contains analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on debt dynamics and sustainability, as well as a detailed examination of the regional labour market impacts of the pandemic.

Finally, an accompanying signed article explores alternative long-term recovery paths for the economy and assesses the impact of fiscal and monetary policy supports. The Article considers how hysteresis – or scarring ­­– effects could influence the pace and nature of the recovery. The paper shows that, as a highly open economy, Ireland benefits from the positive effects of monetary and fiscal policy measures implemented abroad. The assessment of the combined effects of domestic and international policy supports indicates that the actions will help to meaningfully reduce the scale of the output loss in Ireland from the pandemic.

Measuring national income in the time of COVID

National accounts are useful.  Yes, they have their limitations, and, particularly in the case of Ireland, can be subject to distortions but they are useful.

One of those uses is measuring changes in living standards.  If the growth of the inflation-adjusted measure of national income exceeds the growth rate of the population then it is likely that living standards are rising, at least on average.  This is usually taken as the real growth rate of per capita GDP (or another variant).

For Ireland, this averaged around one per cent per annum for the first three decades post independence, it rose by an average of three per cent per annum over the next thirty years and has averaged around five per cent per annum in the period since the late 1980s which is where it was before the current crisis hit.  These are useful summaries of our economic performance, though as is well known, such long-term averages do belie some significant volatility that Irish growth rates have exhibited.

2020 seems set to add to that volatility but let’s consider two things that are likely to muddy the link between the change in real per capita national income (as measured by, say,  GNI*), and the impact of the crisis on living standards:

  • Food consumption and the exclusion of domestic household production from national income;
  • Education and the cost-based approach to including public production in national income.

Food Consumption

Restaurants have been closed for dining in since March.  The CSO’s Monthly Services Index shows that the turnover value of services in Restaurants, Event Catering and Other Food Service Activities was over 50 per cent lower in April than in the same month last year.  The contribution to value added and national income from restaurants will be significantly lower this year.

However, this does not mean we are eating less or even consuming fewer food-related services.  The composition has changed.  The CSO’s Retail Sales Index shows that our retail purchases from Food Businesses were 17 per cent higher in April than in the same month last year.  The food we are not consuming in restaurants and other outlets has been replaced by food we are buying in shops.

In the national accounts, both the food and labour inputs are counted when measuring the value added of restaurants.  For food we buy in the shops the domestic labour input used to turn that food into a meal is omitted from national income, but it still contributes to our living standards.

There’s no doubt there’s more to restaurants than the food we eat and the cooking and cleaning services provided to us.  That is why we are willing to pay more for dining in.  But we are still eating the meal we would have had in the restaurant or cafeteria so someone is still doing the cooking and someone is still doing the cleaning.  It still adds to our living standards, it’s just that it has switched from market production to household production.

The drop in living standards implied by the fall in value added from restaurants in the national accounts won’t be as large as the figures suggest.  We have been forced to move to something that does not have its value added included in the national accounts (nor generate as much Value Added Tax for the government which is also counted as value added when measured at market prices.)

And, separately, the employees who would have been paid from that lost value added have had a large part of their income replaced with government transfers.

Public Education 

For market-provided services the value added is essentially the value of the output produced less than cost of intermediate consumption. 

The value of market output is estimated using the prices people for it.  After intermediate consumption has been subtracted from total revenue, value added is divided between labour through compensation of employees, government through taxes on products, and capital through gross operating surplus.  Net operating surplus remains after a deduction for the consumption of fixed capital (depreciation).  The additional value added that goes to users above the price paid (consumer surplus) is not measured. 

Still, value added is a useful concept and represents a large share of the living standards and welfare benefits of the goods and services we produce and consume in market settings.

This does not hold for publicly-produced services such as education.  These are paid for from general taxation.  We do not have prices and revenues to provide an estimate of the value people place on these services (nor how much they would be willing to buy).  Market prices might be absent but they do contribute to living standards.

The value added for public services in national accounts is essentially the sum of compensation of employees and depreciation, that is, it is the cost not the benefit that is included. 

The value added of education is simply put at the pay bill for teachers and the cost of maintained school buildings.  No benefit above that is included in national income aggregates.

Schools have been closed since the middle of March.  Just like restaurants there has been a switch to domestic production.  Yes, some online supports have been provided but the value of this is unquestionably lower (just as we are only willing to pay lower prices for takeaway meals).  The shift to home-schooling has had a huge impact on living standards.

However, the value added of publicly-provided education services will be largely unaffected.  The fact that the school children aren’t in school doesn’t matter for national accounts; all that matters is that teachers get paid.

Conclusion

The provisional Quarterly National Accounts for Q1 2020 show that constant price gross value added in Distribution, Transport, Hotels and Restaurants was down 10 per cent compared to the first quarter of 2020.  This reflects the forced closure of most of these services towards the end of the quarter.

On the other hand the gross value added in Public Admin, Education and Health was up four per cent compared to the same period a year ago.  This is despite the fact that schools were closed from the 12th of March.

This isn’t necessarily an argument to change the way national accounts are compiled.  Should household production be included in national income? Maybe.  Should the added value of public services be more than pay and depreciation costs? Maybe. For the time being we’ll be satisfied with an understanding of what the figures as currently compiled actually mean.

The drop in value added from restaurants doesn’t mean that we are not eating.  The stability in value added from education doesn’t mean that our kids are being taught.  National accounts are useful and the changes in the aggregates can be a useful proxy for changes in living standards. But not always.