Longfield Lecture in Economics, UCC – Oct 18th 2018, 6pm

Cork University Business School & Department of Economics

 is pleased to invite you to the

Second Annual Longfield Lecture in Economics

 Professor John Fitzgerald

Adjunct Professor of Economics, UCD and TCD

 The Phoenix and the Ashes – 60 years of Irish economic policy

 Thursday 18 October 2018


Venue: Kane Building, Room G02

 All are welcome

 About the speaker

Professor Fitzgerald is one of Ireland’s foremost economists. He is currently an Adjunct Professor in both TCD and UCD, having previously been a Research Professor in the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin. He is a member of the Central Bank of Ireland Commission and he is Chairman of the Irish government’s Climate Change Advisory Council.

 About the lecture

Instead of ushering in a period of economic success, the first 40 years of independence saw a serious underperformance by the Irish economy. Ireland missed the free trade boat after the Second World War and, unlike the rest of Northern Europe from the Urals to Snowdonia, it did not invest in human capital.

Policy began to change in the 1960s. EU membership in 1973, and a steady commitment to developing a modern education system, eventually saw Ireland realise its economic potential.

Bad mistakes in fiscal policy in the late 1970s further delayed Ireland’s convergence to an EU standard of living. However, once the fiscal crisis was dealt with and the EU Single Market came into effect in 1993 Ireland grew very rapidly so that by the mid-2000s Ireland had a standard of living above that of the EU15.

Once again unwise fiscal policy, combined with a massive failure of financial regulation, saw Ireland face a major economic crisis in 2008. However, having got into this mess, policy makers made a very good job of extricating the country from the mire. Nonetheless this process was very painful, leaving a legacy of debt and damage to individual households.

The success of the Irish economy has been built on developing an extremely open economy, a sustained policy of investing in human capital, and a very open labour market. All of this has been underpinned by the multiple advantages conferred by EU membership.

Statistical Codology

Tim Harford, in his column last Saturday in the Financial Times, laments the innumeracy which pervades the popular press and much of the political debate. There are people unable to remember the difference between a million and a billion constantly pontificating on weighty economic issues of all descriptions in both print and broadcast media. My favourite category of statistical codology is the university ranking tables now produced in profusion by various self-appointed scorekeepers, notably the Times Higher Education Supplement which ought to know better. The Irish newspapers reported last week the sad news that Trinity College Dublin had fallen from 117th best university in the whole wide world to a mere 120th according to this venerable source. It has fallen behind the University of York, the shame of it, and has managed to stay just an inch ahead of the University of Oslo (phew!).
Unreported was the even sadder news that the Cork City football team, last season’s Irish champions, are now ranked a humble 160th in the world, down from the heady heights of 157th this time last year and just a corner-kick ahead of Croatia’s Rijeka FC. This vital info can be gleaned from footballdatabase.com, who must be wondering why their number-crunching attracts so little coverage.
There is a simple reason. Football fans know that these rankings mean nothing whatsoever. If anyone really needed to know whether Cork or Rijeka boasts the better team, say if they were drawn against one another in some competition, the matter takes ninety minutes to resolve. How though do you check if Trinity or Oslo has the better university? A ninety-minute showdown between the staff of the two institutions would be quite a spectacle but could turn ugly.
The attraction of the university rankings for journalists is precisely that they are meaningless and accordingly incontrovertible. The winner in the latest league table for world’s best university was none other than the University of Oxford, whose distinguished alumni include Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron and just about all the other folks who have been doing such a spiffing job on Brexit. Which does not mean that Oxford is a poor university. It just means that the concept of university league tables is for the birds. Football league tables (based on the results of actual matches between the teams in each league) are at the upper end of respectable scientific practice by comparison. It looks like Dundalk will relieve Cork of their title as the season draws to a close. But since each team will have played 36 games against the rest this really does suggest that Dundalk have the best team.
However daft the concept and dodgy the statistical methodology, the university tables have their uses. The recent declines in the rankings for the Irish colleges have fuelled demands from their presidents for extra taxpayer cash. A few years back the same tables were showing an advance up the rankings, proof positive, according to the same people, that public spending on universities was delivering the goods and should be increased.
Brexit provides another example of the innumeracy which annoys Tim Harford. The UK’s annual and recurring net contribution to the EU budget has recently been running at about £9 billion per annum, a large number with lots of zeroes. This number, not to be confused with the once-off exit bill, has been ventilated by Brexiteers as, quite properly, a potential ongoing benefit to the Treasury of a full exit. Another figure in circulation is the population of the EU-27 which comes in around 450 million, not quite so large a number but lots of zeroes too. There have been regular assertions that the loss of the UK’s money will cause great damage to the finances of the EU-27: the political editor of the Sunday Express Camilla Tominey ventured that it would ‘bankrupt the European Union’ on a BBC programme, without challenge, a few months back. Nobody at the BBC, it would appear, has thus far bothered to divide the larger of these two big numbers by the smaller. The answer turns out to be £20 per head per annum. Total government revenue in the EU-27 is close to £4,000 billion. The UK’s £9 billion will be missed, but not noticed.
Some people are good at figures but most are not and are lost with very large numbers. Tim Harford’s solution is a call for better statistical training in schools and universities. Even at Oxford this looks a wee bit optimistic. There is however no excuse for the sloppiness about statistical matters in well-resourced media organisations. Here’s another very large number: the BBC gets about £3.5 billion per annum from the license fee, surely enough to engage the services of a statistician, or to buy everyone a pocket calculator. (courtesy the Farmers Journal).

Economic and Social Review, Autumn 2018

The latest edition of the Economic and Social Review (Volume 49, No.3) is now available, containing the following research and policy articles:


Job Insecurity and Well-being in Rich Democracies by Arne L. Kalleberg

Economic Stress and the Great Recession in Ireland: The Erosion of Social Class Advantage by Christopher T. Whelan, Brian Nolan and Bertrand Maitre

Household Formation and Tenure Choice: Did the Great Irish Housing Bust alter Consumer Behaviour? by David Byrne, David Duffy and John FitzGerald

Policy Articles

An Analysis of Taxation Supports for Private Pension Provision in Ireland by Shane Whelan and Maeve Hally

The Precarious Position of Drug Education Workers in Ireland by Clay Darcy

129th Barrington Medal, 2018/2019

The Barrington Medal is awarded annually by the Council of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland under the auspices of the Barrington Trust (founded in 1836 by the bequest of John Barrington). The award is intended to recognise a promising new researcher in the economic and social sciences in Ireland. The award is a silver medal and €1,000. This will be the 170th anniversary of the lecture series and the recipient will be the one 129th Barrington Lecturer.

The lecture should be based on a paper of not more than 7,500 words addressing a topic of relevance to economic or social policy and of current interest in Ireland. In treating the issue of economic or social policy,
the paper may either report the findings of a statistical research study dealing with some aspect of the problem or deal with the underlying theoretical considerations involved, or preferably combine these two
approaches. It should be written in a manner that makes it accessible to non-specialists in the area. More technical material may be included in an appendix.

The paper is published in the Journal of the Society, so it should not have been published before (nor should it be published subsequently without the prior consent of the Council of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland). Candidates, who at the time of their submission must be not more than 35 years of age, should at least submit a detailed abstract of approximately 1,000 words on the proposed lecture, with preference being
given to full papers. A short CV and the name of a proposer who is familiar with their work should also be submitted.

The call for entries closes on September 8th.  More information, including a list of past winners of the Medal since 1992, is available here and from secretary@ssisi.ie.

Negotiations and trust

I am reading Hugo Young’s wonderful This Blessed Plot (is it really possible that it is out of print? How could that possibly be?). He agrees that de Gaulle behaved “monstrously” in vetoing the UK application to join the EEC in 1963, but also makes a good case that Macmillan deserves a share of the blame too. Macmillan’s approach to the negotiations was “conditional and tentative, creeping in a state of high suspicion towards this moment of historic destiny”; the UK made it clear that it wanted to “unpick” the Treaty of Rome in certain ways and wasn’t “necessarily willing to accept the acquis communautaire” — although it was offering nothing in compensation for this. Macmillan went out of his way to emphasize the fact that the Commonwealth and the UK’s relationship with the US were central concerns for him, strengthening de Gaulle’s view that the UK did not really belong in the EEC. Nor did the UK show any great enthusiasm for joining that organisation, in case this might weaken its bargaining hand. All of this merely served to strengthen European suspicions about the UK, and not only in France, and made it much easier for de Gaulle to eventually veto the UK application (just as UK diplomatic ineptness had made it easier for him to veto Plan G some years previously).

The story is not irrelevant today. Imagine that the UK had said, in June or July 2016, that given the closeness of the vote it would seek the closest possible relationship with the EU. Imagine that it had said that avoiding a hard border in Ireland was a major priority, but that it also wanted to avoid the emergence of trade barriers within the UK. Imagine that it had said that, therefore, it would be seeking to remain within a UK-EU customs union, and that it would unilaterally commit to remaining fully aligned with all EU regulations regarding goods. Imagine that it had said that, self-evidently, this would require it to abide by all relevant ECJ rulings, and that it would naturally be willing to make a contribution to the EU budget (but nowhere near as big a one as at present, of course). And imagine that it had said that it would also be willing to sign up to a broader set of guarantees ensuring that it would not try to steal a competitive march on the rest of Europe by undermining labour and regulatory standards more generally.

It might have been quite difficult for the EU to reject such an offer outright, and there might even have been reasons for it to welcome it. The EU could have made it clear that under these circumstances there would not be free access to the EU market for services, and that this might have very negative implications for various manufacturers based in the UK for whom the provision of services to their clients is an important part of their business. It could have added that these difficulties might be surmountable if the UK accepted all four freedoms of the Single Market and paid more into the EU budget. The UK might have objected to these objections. But at least there might have been a basis for negotiation.

It seems as though the UK government may finally be inching towards a situation in which it finds itself proposing something very like the hypothetical offer outlined above. There are still mad aspects to what is supposedly being suggested, notably the proposal that the UK collect customs duties on behalf of a customs union of which it is not a member, and that goods destined for the internal UK market should potentially be allowed to face an entirely different set of tariffs. And yet, the UK is apparently proposing to remain harmonized with EU regulations for goods. We are slowly getting there.

But only very slowly, and only in the face of enormous domestic political resistance. The UK did not proactively propose the solution suggested above – it is being dragged there, kicking and screaming, since it is finally coming to realize that there is no sensible alternative (other than accepting not only a customs union but all four Single Market freedoms, or not leaving the EU at all). Its government has worked, not to build up trust, but to destroy it. Its ministers have made no secret of their disdain for the EU. The UK government has made it clear that it really does want to do free trade deals around the world, and that it really does want the freedom to regulate – or deregulate – as it chooses. Even if Her Majesty’s Government is forced by circumstances to sign up to something that precludes this, we know that this would be only reluctantly: it is quite obvious that the UK does not want this solution. And we also know from experience that its government is capable of signing a document one day, and denying that it means what it says the next.

And what this means is that there is no trust on the other side of the table; nor should there be. And that implies that even if this British government eventually comes to accept that it needs to sign up to full customs union membership, as well as full compliance with EU regulations as regards goods, an offer along those lines may not be acceptable to the EU. Indeed, it seems almost certain that it will not be.

But it is still worth asking what would have happened if clear minds and strategic thinking had prevailed in London in June and July 2016, and such an offer had immediately been proposed without any strings being attached. There would still have been those who, like de Gaulle in 1963, would have wanted to reject it, and they might still have gotten their way. (They might even have been right: I am not implicitly comparing them to de Gaulle, who clearly behaved badly.) But I am willing to bet that it would have been more difficult for them.



Economic and Social Review, Summer 2018

The latest edition of the Economic and Social Review (Volume 49, No.2) is now available, containing the following research and policy articles:


The Socioeconomic Determinants of Crime in Ireland from 2003-2012 by Stephen Brosnan

Householder Preferences for the Design of an Energy Efficiency Retrofit Subsidy in Ireland by Matthew Collins, Seraphim Dempsey and John Curtis

Decomposing the Drivers of Changes in Inequality during the Great Recession in Ireland using the Fields Approach by Cathal O’Donoghue, Jason Loughrey and Denisa M. Sologon

Policy papers

The Impact of Free GP Care on GP Utilisation in Ireland by Paul K. Gorecki

Lifting the Lid: the Private Financing of Motorway PPPs in Ireland by Dónal Palcic, Eoin Reeves and Anne Stafford

A gap in current policies for Irish financial stability

In a recent speech, the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, Sharon Donnery, floated the prospect that the CBI might impose Counter Cyclical Capital Buffers (CCyB) on Irish banks, in order to guard against an unstable credit build-up in the currently strong economic environment. She also used the speech to discuss current conditions in the Irish financial system and review the macroprudential regulation policies of the CBI.

In many ways, Irish macroprudential regulation has been exemplary, but there is a glaring defect. Stanga et alia (2017 and 2018) compare 26 countries regarding mortgage arrears, financial stability and macroprudential policies, and Ireland’s profile is remarkably poor. As Stanga et al. note, controlling mortgage arrears is a key objective of macroprudential policies, and Ireland has very poor performance by this metric.

Ireland’s intractable mortgage arrears problem stems in large part from its defective legal system regarding loan security, with extremely limited lenders’ rights to collateral repossession. This defect in turn limits the reliability of Ireland’s quite restrictive macroprudential policies. As Stanga et al. state in their international overview:

“Better institutions – which improve judicial efficiency and make it easier for banks to enforce their rights – reduce the level of mortgage defaults. We consider several proxies for institutional arrangements and compile an index of institutional quality (IQ). We find a significant and negative relationship between IQ and mortgage arrears, both before and after the onset of the financial crisis – the higher the average quality of institutions, the lower the average mortgage default ratio (Figure 3). Moreover, the effects of macroprudential policies and institutional quality on mortgage defaults are mutually reinforcing. As illustrated in Figure 4, the effect of the MPI [Macro Prudential Index] on defaults becomes stronger in countries with better institutions. This result suggests that the effect of tougher macroprudential policies (that reduce household leverage and ultimately deter defaults) is amplified in an institutional environment conducive to an efficient judicial system with better protection for lenders’ rights and better enforcement capabilities.”

In addition to making banks more cautious, the limited-repossession system in Ireland makes the CBI more stringent in its macroprudential squeeze on credit flows. The prospect of a future spike in mortgage defaults is a key concern for the CBI, along with the high average loss-give-default in such a scenario. Because of this, the CBI is correct to stamp down hard on any signs of substantial credit flow into the domestic housing market.

When it comes to tackling the underlying defect in the Irish system (the too-limited repossession rights of lenders) the CBI has taken the line that this is somebody else’s problem. The CBI harangues the government endlessly on tax and spend policies (which are also not strictly the CBI’s problems) but when it comes to addressing the big defect in the Irish system regarding repossession, the CBI is as quiet as a mouse.

Who is paying for this unusual Irish system of extremely-limited repossession rights? Nondelinquent mortgage borrowers pay for the limited-repossession system since their mortgage interest rate includes the expected cost of default, capturing both a high probability of default and a high loss given default. Households looking for mortgages suffer in two ways: one, the Irish limited-repossession system makes mortgages more difficult to obtain; two, the system has a knock-on effect on housing construction: property development is a high-risk business and with no guarantee of mortgage-ready buyers, developers are extra-cautious.

The net effect of the Irish limited-repossession system on housing prices is indeterminate since there are opposite effects on the demand and supply sides. Cash buyers might benefit or lose on a net basis: they lose from the decrease in house construction (hence higher prices) but benefit from reduced bidding competition against mortgage-based buyers. Existing mortgage holders (other than defaulters) lose, and prospective mortgage holders lose twice over.

At the conclusion of her speech Donnery states:

“While there are uncertainties placing a precise value on the short-term benefits and costs, in the longer-term, increasing the margins of safety in an uncertain world is of benefit to all.”

Consider a young Irish household wishing to buy a family home using mortgage finance. In exchange for a mortgage loan, they might be willing to take a chance that they lose the house in some future scenarios if things turned out badly and they could not pay the loan back. They want a house now and are willing to take a chance on the future. Such a mortgage contract is not legally available to them in Ireland nowadays, since repossession can only be enforced in ridiculously limited circumstances and, due to this legal reality, banks are not allowed to issue mortgage loans unless they are virtually default-risk-free. The young household will have to rent or live with parents, for many years into their future.

The Irish financial system, where there is virtually no chance of receiving a default-risky mortgage and even less chance that such a loan could end with repossession, is not of benefit to all. For many people in many circumstances, risk is good.