Changes in earnings during COVID-19

Disclaimer: this post represents my own views and not those of the Central Bank of Ireland

Two recent CSO releases shed light on the evolution of earnings in the first three quarters of 2020.  Alongside employment and hours, understanding the impact of COVID-19 on earnings tells us how household incomes are affected by the shock.

In previous work, using data from the Financial Crisis, we found that earnings in Ireland were sensitive to economic conditions, notably changes in the unemployment rate. The workers most exposed to lower pay when labour demand falls are those with weaker bargaining power.  For example, in our paper we focused on the lower wages of new hires during the last crisis.

When looking at changes in average earnings, such as from the CSO’s Earnings and Labour Costs release, it is important to take account of changes in the composition of employment. For example, if changes in employment are concentrated amongst lower paid workers, average earnings could rise when there is a negative aggregate demand shock. In a SSISI paper in 2012, Kieran Walsh showed that these compositional effects can be large. The CSO also noted the potential for compositional effects in the context of COVID-19 average earnings changes.

Tracking the earnings of the same workers in the same jobs can remove some of these composition effects, giving a clearer picture of underlying wage developments.  The CSO does something close to this in its Labour Market Insight Bulletin 4/2020, showing changes in average gross weekly earnings conditional on workers being in employment in Q1 and Q3 2020. Earnings includes wage subsidies, where applicable, but exclude PUP payments.

The chart below, from the data in the CSO Bulletin, shows that for all sectors earnings fell by almost 4 per cent for workers in employment in Q1 and Q3. In some sectors, like Administrative & Support Services and Financial, insurance & real estate the changes are double-digit. In others, like Construction and Accommodation & food, earnings are up.

Source: CSO (2020, Figure 5).
Notes: Gross weekly earnings, percentage change (nominal)

For comparison, during the financial crisis, and controlling for composition effects, average weekly nominal pay also fell by around 4 per cent, most of it between 2008 and 2009 (Lydon & Lozej, Table 2). At that time, the declines were largest in sectors connected to property market, like construction and real estate.  The emphasis on nominal pay is important. Between 2008 and 2010, prices (CPI) also fell sharply, by over 5 per cent.  This helped offset the fall in nominal earnings, cushioning the impact on households’ purchasing power.  Price levels have fallen in 2020, by around 1.5 per cent, which suggests a fall in real earnings in the first three quarters of the year of around 2.5 per cent.

… changes in earnings positively correlated with labour demand, but important to control for hours

The changes in earnings between Q1 and Q3 are generally positively correlated with changes in labour demand, such as changes in employment or job postings.  There are some notable exceptions like Accommodation & food – where employment fell by over a fifth, but average earnings rose marginally, by 0.4 percent; or Industry, where employment grew by 2.4 per cent, but average earnings fell by 6.4%. 

Despite conditioning on workers in employment in Q1 and Q3, there are likely still many factors affecting earnings dynamics that are not picked up in the conditional averages. One example is hours-worked. As weekly earnings are the product of hours worked and hourly pay, higher or lower earnings could be due to higher or lower hours. This could matter in sectors with seasonal hours, like Accommodation & Food services.

To get at the the change in hours worked, and for a sample broadly aligned to the administrative earnings data, the CSO provided me with average actual hours worked by sector for employed persons interviewed in Q1 and Q3, from the LFS. I use this data to back out change in average hourly pay as the change in weekly earnings minus change in weekly hours worked.  Readers should note that earnings data is from administrative sources (including wage subsidies), whereas the hours data is from a survey.  Furthermore, the two matched LFS samples are six months apart and may not be exactly representative.

The chart below shows the data. The line in the chart is the change in average gross weekly earnings, corresponding to the bars in Chart 1. Whilst there are offsetting increases in hours in several cases, they are usually small. Furthermore, the direction of the change in hourly pay and earnings is roughly the same for most sectors, with the notable exception of Accommodation and food services. In fact, the increase in hours worked (10.5%, an increase from 32.1 to 35.5 hours per week) offsets a large fall in hourly pay (minus 10.1%).  This fall in hourly pay is more closely alinged with the fall in demand (employment and job postings) that we have seen during COVID-19.  Looking at the historic LFS data, it is clear that this hours increase in Q3 is not unusual. In fact, it is entirely predictable: the historic Q1 to Q3 change in hours is almost exactly the same as the 2020 figure, at 10.3 per cent.

Source: CSO (2020, Figure 5) and LFS actual hours worked by sector

The third chart below shows the correlation between the estimated change in hourly pay (conditional on working in Q1 and Q3) and the change in job postings by sector from Indeed.  Job postings are generally a good indicator of labour demand, and, whilst postings are down across the board, we find that sectors where postings have declined the most have generally see larger falls in hourly pay.

Source: Own calculations using CSO data. Job postings data from Indeed.

It should be said that three quarters of data is a relatively short time period. Added to this is the fact that the COVID-19 shock has generated a very high degree of uncertainty. For firms in some sectors – such as exporters, industry or multinationals – the demand shock may may turn out to be less bad than initially feared. This might help explain negative earnings growth for workers in Industry, but positive employment growth.  It is quite possible that in Q4 or Q1 2021 we may see a strong earnings growth for some sectors as employers unwind pay freezes that were put in place early-on the crisis.

looking ahead

By combining administrative and survey data in novel ways, the CSO provides timely and granular insights on the COVID-19 labour market. This is crucial information for understanding the impact of the shock, and how policy might help mitigate it.

The decline in earnings in 2020 for employees working in both Q1 and Q3 is similar to falls seen during the last recession, albeit with a different sectoral pattern. There are other differences this time around. The most significant difference is the large and decisive policy response to COVID-19 – both fiscal and monetary. In November, over a quarter of workers were supported by Pandemic Unemployment Payments or Wage Subsidies. Furthermore, the government has committed to these supports remaining in place while restrictions remain in in place. Another important difference is healthier state of household balance sheets going into 2020, a factor which dragged on domestic demand during the last recession.

If the spread of the virus can be brought under control in 2021, this points to a potentially shorter duration shock than before. However, the longer restrictions continue, the greater the potential for behaviour to change – like less business travel or less bricks-and-mortar retail, for example – and the harder it becomes for some businesses to reopen. This would lead to permanent job losses, even after restrictions are lifted. Furthermore, if employment and (real) earnings shocks persist, there is greater potential for precautionary savings, with negative feedback loops for domestic demand. The fact most people who have experienced reduced employment or been laid off due to COVID-19 said they expected to return to the same job suggests a widespread perception of this as a short-term or temporary shock – albeit this was in Q3, before the most recent Level 5 restrictions.

Related to this, in services – the sector most affected by the shock – turnover picked up sharply during the summer easing of restrictions. Although some sub-sectors, like travel and accommodation remained far below pre-COVID levels. Job postings in services track tend to track turnover very closely, rising in the summer, before declining again in the move to Level 5.  This suggests that permanent relaxation of restrictions, leading to increased demand, could undo some, but not all, of the labour market damage we have seen in 2020.

Company births and insolvencies

A guest post by Niall McGeever (Central Bank of Ireland) on new company registrations and corporate insolvency in Ireland during the pandemic. [Disclaimer: This blog represents the author’s views and not those of the Central Bank of Ireland]

The severity of the COVID-19 shock and the modest liquid asset holdings of many Irish firms (Financial Stability Review 2020 I; McGeever et al., 2020) raises the question of how the pandemic is affecting business dynamism and failure rates. A marked reduction in new firm formation or a spike in insolvencies could lower the productive capacity of the economy and negatively affect output and employment.

Cecilia Sarchi, Maria Woods, and I look at recent trends in a new Economic Letter on Irish company births and insolvent liquidations during the COVID-19 shock.

There’s lots of economic research showing the importance of new firms for productivity and employment growth. Lawless (2013), for example, shows that young firms contribute disproportionately to employment growth in Ireland.

While a certain level of insolvency over time is inevitable and even desirable to ensure resource re-allocation to productive firms, the failure of otherwise viable firms due to the pandemic could reduce output and productivity growth. See Lambert et al. (2020) for more discussion on this point.

The chart below, Figure 2 from the Letter, shows the new company registration rate between January 2001 and September 2020. The rate averages around 9.5 per cent per annum and is broadly pro-cyclical.

The initial Covid-19 shock coincided with a sharp decline in new company registrations, with the rate falling to 5.3 per cent in April and 6.1 per cent in May. The Companies Registration Office tell us that over 90 per cent of applications to register a new company are made online, so the decline in April and May cannot be explained by procedural delay due to the pandemic. Instead, it likely reflects a temporary decline in both new enterprise formation and stalled investment decision-making by pre-existing corporate groups.

The largest declines during this period were, perhaps unsurprisingly, in Accommodation and Food and in Arts, Entertainment and Recreation. New registrations in these sectors were down 50 per cent on the same period in 2019.

Whilst the number of registrations in the first nine months of 2020 were down around 12 per cent on the same period of 2019, new company registrations rebounded quite strongly over the summer and had returned to roughly pre-pandemic levels by September. An emerging trend in the Wholesale and Retail trade category is the consistent increase in new registrations in “retail sales via mail order houses or via internet” and in “other retail sales not in stores, stalls or markets” between June and September relative to the same period in 2019. This trend is also reflected internationally. US Census Bureau data, for example, shows higher new business applications by non-store (e.g., internet sales) retailers during 2020.

We next look at insolvent liquidations. The next chart (Figure 4 in the Letter) shows the insolvent liquidation rate from January 2001 to September 2020. The rate generally tracks macroeconomic conditions very closely and it is worth noting that it rose notably rose with the unemployment rate in early 2008.

The immediate impact of Covid-19 shock was to sharply reduce insolvent liquidations. The annualised rate was exceptionally low at 0.07 per cent in April 2020 and only a touch higher at 0.10 per cent in May. This is due principally to the inability of company directors to safely convene creditors’ meetings. Prior to the pandemic, it was a requirement to hold a physical meeting with creditors to initiate a creditors’ voluntary liquidation. This became impractical during the acute phase of public health restrictions and so the main channel for insolvent liquidations was blocked. This procedural issue was quickly resolved and the Oireachtas passed a company law amendment to facilitate creditors’ meetings by electronic means.

The insolvent liquidation rate reverted to pre-pandemic levels in June and showed no signs of a marked increase up to September. At a sectoral level, Accommodation and Food and Wholesale and Retail Trade show signs of higher liquidations both during the pandemic and relative to 2019. These patterns are aligned with the negative labour market shocks in both sectors.. To a lesser extent, we also see the Arts and health sectors recording higher numbers.

Despite the clear evidence of financial distress facing many firms, there is no evidence yet of a marked increase in corporate insolvencies. The striking contrast between the insolvent liquidation rate and current labour market conditions is unusual and points to the significant role of government supports, loan payment breaks, and forbearance from other creditors in helping firms to stay cash-flow solvent.

Resolving credit distress after COVID-19 – new articles and data from the Central Bank

Over the last fortnight, the Central Bank has published several articles and new data on trends and policy challenges relating to credit.

This includes articles on payment breaks for mortgages by Ed Gaffney and Darren Greaney and for firms by David Duignan and Niall McGeever, as well as enhanced statistics on mortgage arrears by David Duignan, Andrew Hopkins, Ciaran Meehan and Martina Sherman. The new data shows a “persistently high number of PDH [owner-occupier] mortgages that remain in long-term arrears some ten years on from the financial crisis”.

To coincide with a Central Bank Webinar on Distressed Debt on Monday 28 September, Fergal McCann and Terry O’Malley published an article on “Resolving mortgage distress after COVID-19: some lessons from the last crisis”. The article is presented as a “stock-taking exercise as COVID-related [payment breaks] begin to expire”. It draws on the lessons of the last decade, emphasising the need for early engagement and a focus on long-term sustainable solutions. The paper also provides rich new information on the financial position of borrowers as they engaged with the restructuring process over the last decade, highlighting the sharp falls in living standards that had been experienced by many. It also provides clear evidence of the role of deeper up-front payment relief in explaining lower re-default after modification Finally, it highlights the need for lenders and credit servicing-firms to put in place plans and capacity to help customers in financial distress.

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.

Central Bank event: Labour Markets over the Business Cycle

The Central Bank is hosting a one-day conference on “Labour Markets over the Business Cycle” on 11 December in Dame Street (programme below). There is a limited number of places still available. If you wish to attend, please email by 9 December. Please note that places will be allocated strictly on a first-come-first-served basis.

Labour Market Adjustment over the Business Cycle

A one-day conference at the Central Bank of Ireland

11 December 2014
Liffey room, Dame Street, Dublin 2

email to confirm attendance by 9 December



11 December  
08:45 Registration and coffee
09:00 Opening remarks – “Prospects and Challenges for the Irish Labour Market 2015 – 2020”. John Flynn (Head of Irish Economic Analysis Division, Central Bank of Ireland).
Session 1 


Cycles in employment, unemployment and wages
  Labour market transitions in Ireland – Thomas Conefrey (Irish Fiscal Advisory Council)
  Wage Cyclicality – Mario Izquierdo (Banco de Espana)


11:00 Coffee & tea break
Session 2
Labour market attachment
  Are the marginally attached unemployed or inactive? – Martina Lawless (CBI/ESRI)
  Sources of wage losses of displaced workers – Pedro Portugal (Banco de Portugal)
13:00 – 14:00 Lunch
Session 3
14:00 – 15:45
Wage flexibility
  Wage flexibility in Ireland – Olive Sweetman (Maynooth University)
  Wage Setting – Flexibility and Rigidity in the UK since 1975 – Jennifer Smith (University of Warwick)


Session 4


Labour market adjustment during and after the crisis: the role of policies and institutions
  Pedro Martins (Queen Mary University of London)
  Questions & discussion


  Closing remarks

Conference Ends