What is it about GDP in the first quarter these days?

The behaviour of the UK economy so far in 2017 has been something of a hot potato in debate as the numbers swing one way and then the other. Let me give you an example of a ying and yang situation . The downbeat ying was provided last week by the official data on UK retail sales.

The 3 months to March shows a decrease of 1.4%; the third consecutive decrease for the underlying 3 month on 3 month pattern……Looking at the quarterly movement, the 3 months to March 2017 (Quarter 1) is the first quarterly decline since 2013 (Quarter 4).

That was ominous for today’s GDP release as the consumer sector had been part of the growth in the UK economy. Our official statisticians crunched the numbers as to the likely effect.

The 3-month period ending March 2017 coincides with Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2017 of the quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) output estimate. It marks the first negative contribution of retail sales to quarterly GDP growth since Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2013, contributing negative 0.08 percentage points (to 2 decimal places).

However only yesterday there was a yang to the ying from the Confederation of British Industry or CBI.

Retail sales growth accelerated in the year to April, with volumes rising faster than expected, according to the latest monthly CBI Distributive Trades Survey.

Here is some more detail.

59% of retailers said that sales volumes were up in April on a year ago, whilst 21% said they were down, giving a balance of +38%. This outperformed expectations (+16%), and was the highest balance since September 2015 (+49%)…….Sales volumes grew strongly in clothing (+97% – the highest since September 2010), and grocers (+40%). Meanwhile sales volumes decreased in specialist food & drink (-43%) and furniture & carpets (-30%).

If we stay with the specifics of the CBI report its is fascinating to see clothing leading the charge again. Regular readers will recall that this was the state of play last autumn and at that time it was female clothing in particular. So ladies if you have rescued us yet again we owe you another round of thanks. In such a situation you would be the consumer of last resort as well as often the first!

But the issue here is how does this fit with the official data? There is one way it might work and it comes down to the timing of Easter which was later this year than last. Whilst the official data does make seasonal adjustments I have seen this miss fire before. Perhaps the clearest generic example of this is first quarter GDP in the United States which year after year has been lower than the trend for the other quarters hinting at a systematic issue.

House prices

If these have been leading the charge for UK economic growth then this morning’s news will disappoint.

House prices recorded their second consecutive monthly fall in April, while the annual rate of growth slowed to 2.6%, the weakest since June 2013.

The date is significant as it was the summer of 2013 when the Bank of England lit the blue touch-paper for UK house prices with a new bank subsidy programme. The latest version of this called the Term Funding Scheme has risen in size to £57.5 billion.since its inception last August. Looking forwards if we allow for the obvious moral hazard this is hardly especially optimistic.

As a result, we continue to believe that a small increase in house prices of around 2% is likely over the course of 2017 as a whole.

The GDP data

UK gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated to have increased by 0.3% in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2017, the slowest rate of growth since Quarter 1 2016.

This was driven by the retail sales slow down and this.

Slower growth in Quarter 1 2017 was mainly due to services, which grew by 0.3% compared with growth of 0.8% in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2016……The services aggregate was the main driver to the slower growth in GDP, contributing 0.23 percentage points…….The main contributor to the slowdown in services was the distribution, hotels and restaurants sector, which decreased by 0.5%, contributing negative 0.07 percentage points to quarter-on-quarter GDP growth.

The services slow down will have had a big effect because it must be pretty much 80% of our economy by now. Officially it is 78.8%.

Actually much of the economy grew at this sort of rate.

Production, construction and agriculture grew by 0.3%, 0.2% and 0.3% respectively in Quarter 1 2017.

So a slowing on the end of 2016 but here is something to think about. UK GDP growth was 0.2% in the first quarter of 2016 so ironically it is better this year but also was 0.3% in 2015. Are we developing a similar problem to the US where it seems to be something of a hardy perennial situation and if so why?

Looking Forwards

As well as the more optimistic CBI retail sales report there was this from Monday.

The survey of 397 manufacturers found that domestic orders had improved at the fastest pace since July 2014 in the three months to April. Meanwhile export orders recorded the strongest growth in six years, supported by strong rises in competitiveness, particularly in non-EU markets which improved at a record pace.

It is not the only body which is looking forwards with some optimism.

The UK economy slowed sharply in Q1, as signalled by PMI. March rise in PMI suggests Q1 GDP could be revised up from 0.3% to 0.4%………Note that Q1 GDP was based on a forecast of no service sector growth in March. PMI showed strengthening ( Chris Williamson of Markit ).

What about the individual experience?

We have settled on GDP per capita as a better guide and this was frankly poor this time around.

GDP per head was estimated to have increased by 0.1% during Quarter 1 2017.

This adds to an issue which the chart below highlights, guess which of the lines is our more recent experience?

For the people who think that their individual experience has not backed up the claims of improvement there is food for thought in that chart.

Is GDP underecorded?

Tim Worstall wrote a piece for CapX this week telling us this.

For it’s obvious to our own eyes, and when properly adjusted GDP shows it once again, that we’ve all got much richer these recent decades.

Okay why?

The CPI overstates inflation – and thus understates how quickly real incomes are rising……Of course the ONS and others do the best they can but the current estimate is that inflation is overstated by 1 per cent a year. Or real income rises understated by it of course.

There are some interesting points on goods which are free ( WhatsApp for example) and ignored by GDP.  However it completely misses out the cost of housing which in recent times has been a major inflationary force in my mind. Would you rather have housing or the latest I-Pad?

Care is needed as of course there were substantial gains in the past but on this logic we are all much better off than we realise. Really?

Comment

The issue with first quarter growth was also true across the channel as the expectation and then the reality show below.

with 0.6% growth signalled for both Germany and France ( Markit )…….In Q1 2017, GDP in volume terms* slowed down: +0.3%, after +0.5% in Q4 2016 ( France Insee ).

So as we note the Bank of France was correct we await the US figures wondering what it is about first quarter GDP? For France this is not yet a sequence as last year was better but the UK and US seem trapped in a mire that appears to have a seasonal reappearance.

Looking ahead we were expecting higher inflation to bite on real incomes as 2017 progressed. As we stand a little of the edge of that has been taken off that impact. What I mean by that is the rise of the UK Pound £ to above US $1.29 helps with inflation prospects as does the fall in the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil to below US $52 per barrel. Of course they would need to remain there for this to play out.

Some posted some Blood Sweat & Tears lyrics a while back and they seem appropriate again.

What goes up, must come down
Spinning wheel got to go round
Talkin’ ’bout your troubles, it’s a cryin’ sin
Ride a painted pony, let the spinning wheel spin

What are the economic prospects for France?

This weekend sees the first stage of the French Presidential elections which seem to be uncertain even for these times. A big issue will be economic prospects which will be my subject of today. But before I do let me send my best wishes to the victims of the terrorist attack which took place in Paris last night. If we move back to the economic situation we can say that the background in terms of the Euro area looks the best it has been for a while. From French Statistics.

In Q1 2017 the Eurozone economy is expected to grow at a similar pace as registered at the end of 2016 (+0.4%), then slightly faster in Q2 (+0.5%) before returning to +0.4% in Q3 2017. The main force behind the expansion in aggregate activity should be private consumption which benefits from the increase in disposable income and favourable labour market conditions and despite the upturn in inflation which is eroding household purchasing power. Moreover investment is forecast to strengthen, driven by improved expectations about near term outlook. Also investment in construction should accelerate. Finally, the positive international environment will likely reinforce external demand growth and exports.

As you can see according to them Goldilocks porridge seems pretty much exactly the right temperature as everything is expected to rise.

What about France itself?

 Some perspective

If we look back 2016 was an erratic year where quarterly economic growth was 0.6%,-0.1%,0.2% and then 0.4%. So whilst it began and ended well there was a near recession in the middle. Overall the growth at 1.1% was in fact less than the 1.2% of 2015 and it does pose a question as that is the level of economic growth which has caused such problems in both Italy and Portugal. Indeed if we look back we see that as 2011 opened quarterly economic output was 509 billion Euros whereas in the last quarter of 2016 it had only risen by 4,4% to 531.6 billion Euros ( 2010 prices).

This lack of economic growth has contributed to what is the major economic problem in France right now.

In Q4 2016, the average ILO unemployment rate in metropolitan France and overseas departments stood at 10.0% of active population, after 10.1% in Q3 2016……Among unemployed, 1.2 million were seeking a job for at least one year. The long-term unemployed rate stood at 4.2% of active population in Q4 2016. It decreased by 0.1 percentage points compared to Q3 2016 and Q4 2015.

The fact so long after the credit crunch hit the unemployment rate is still in double-digits albeit only just echoes here. Also there is the issue of underemployment.

In Q4 2016, 6.2% of the employed persons were underemployed, a ratio decreasing by 0.1 percentage points quarter on quarter, and by 0.4 percentage points over a year. Underemployment mainly concerns people who have a part-time job and wish to work more.

Oh and if we return to the unemployment rate actually 10% is only a reduction because the previous quarter was revised higher. We could improve like that forever and remain at the same level!

The next consequence of slow/low economic growth can be found in the public finances.

At the end of 2016, the Maastricht debt accounted for €2,147.2 billion. It rose by €49.2 billion in 2016 after € +60.2 billion in 2015. It reached 96.0% of GDP at the end of 2016, after 95.6% at the end of 2015.

In essence this has risen from 65% pre credit crunch and the combination of an annual fiscal deficit and slow growth has seen it rise. France seems to have settled on an annual fiscal deficit of around the Maastricht criteria of 3% of GDP so to get the relative debt level down you can see how quickly it would need to grow.

What about prospects?

This morning’s business survey from Markit has been very positive.

The Markit Flash France Composite Output Index, based on around 85% of normal monthly survey replies, registered 57.4, compared to March’s reading of 56.8. The latest figure was indicative of the sharpest rate of growth in almost six years.

The idea that elections and indeed referenda weaken economies via uncertainty may need to be contained in Ivory Towers going forwards.

The numbers provide further evidence that the French private sector remains resilient to political uncertainty around the upcoming presidential election. Indeed, business optimism hit a multi-year high in April, with a number of respondents anticipating favourable business conditions following its conclusion.

Even better there was hope of improvement for the labour market.

Moreover, the rate of job creation quickened to a 68-month peak. Both manufacturers and service providers continued to take on additional staff, with the pace of growth sharper at the former.

However a little caution is required as we were told by this survey that there was manufacturing growth in February as the index was 52.2 but the official data told us this.

In February 2017, output diminished for the third month in a row in the manufacturing industry (−0.6% after −0.9% in January). It decreased sharply in the whole industry (−1.6% after −0.2%). Manufacturing output decreased slightly over the past three months (−0.3%)…..Over a year, manufacturing output also edged down (−0.5%)

Bank of France

In a reversal of the usual relationship the French central bank is more downbeat than the private business surveys as you can see below.

In March, industrial production rose at a less sustained pace than in February.

Whilst it describes the services sector as dynamic I note that its index for manufacturing fell from 104 in February to 103 in March leading to the overall picture described below.

According to the monthly index of business activity (MIBA), GDP is expected to increase by 0,3% in the first quarter of 2017. The slight revision (-0,1 point) of last month estimate does not change the overall perspective for the year.

The cost of housing

This is very different to the situation across La Manche ( the Channel) and a world apart from the Canadian position I looked at yesterday.

In Q4 2016, house prices slightly decreased compared to the previous quarter (−0.3%, not seasonally adjusted data) after two quarters of increase. This slight downturn was due to secondhand dwellings (−0.4%). However, the prices of new dwellings grew again (+0.7%).

Indeed some more perspective is provided by the fact that an annual rate of growth of 1.9% is presented as a rise!

Year on year, house prices accelerated further in Q4 2016 (+1.9% after +1.4% in Q3 and +0.7% in Q2). New dwelling prices grew faster (+2.9% y-o-y) than second-hand dwelling prices (+1.8%).

Not much seems to be happening to rents either.

In Q1 2017, the Housing Rent Reference Index stood at 125.90. Year on year, it increased by 0.51%, its strongest growth since Q2 2014.

Just for perspective the index was 124.25 when 2013 began so there is little inflation here.

Comment

There is much that is favourable for the French economy right now. For example the European Central Bank continues with very expansionary monetary policy with an official interest-rate of -0.4% and 60 billion Euros a month of QE bond purchases. The Euro as an exchange-rate is below the level at which it started although only by 6%. So France finds that it gets a boost from very low debt costs as the recent rise in them only leaves the ten-year yield at 0.83%.

So 2017 should be a good one although there is the issue of why other countries have out-performed France. We only have to look south to see a Spain where economic growth has been strong. A couple of years of that would help considerably. But as I type that I am reminded of some of the comments to yesterday’s article especially the one saying house prices in Barcelona are on the march again. To get economic growth these days do we need booming house prices? This leads into my argument that we are calling what is really partly inflation as growth. The catch is that the numbers tell people they are better off but then they find housing ever more expensive and increasingly frequently unaffordable. As we stand France does better here but is that at the cost of higher unemployment?

 

 

 

 

UK economic growth is showing some signs of slowing

We advance on quite a bit of UK economic data today and in a link to yesterday’s article there is news to make  Gertjan Vlieghe of the Bank of England even more gloomy. It comes from the housing market.

House prices in the three months to March were 0.1% higher than in the previous quarter; the lowest quarterly rate of change since October 2016. The annual rate of growth fell further; to 3.8% from February’s 5.1%, the lowest rate since May 2013. ( Halifax).

The date given is significant as it is just before the Bank of England launched its initiative to ramp house prices called the Funding for Lending Scheme. Officially this was supposed to boost business lending whereas the reality was that mortgage rates fell quite quickly by over 1% and the total drop was around 2% according to the Bank of England. The UK house market responded in it usual manner to such stimulus. If we stay with the Bank of England it will no doubt be disappointed that its latest banking and house price subsidy scheme called the Term Funding Scheme has not worked in spite of the £55 billion provided.

By contrast I welcome this news which is being reported by more than one source and regular readers will be aware I was expecting it. Even the Halifax itself briefly joins in.

A lengthy period of rapid house price growth has made it increasingly difficult for many to purchase a home as income growth has failed to keep up, which appears to have curbed housing demand.

An extraordinary example of this is given from the London borough of Haringey when houses have “earnt” much faster than their owners salaries/wages.

House prices in the borough increased by an average of £139,803 over the last two years, exceeding average take-home earnings in the area of £48,353 over the same period – a difference of £91,450, equivalent to £3,810 per month.

What could go wrong?

February was not a good month for the UK economy

This morning’s data releases show that we were not at our best this February.

In February 2017, total production decreased by 0.7% compared with January 2017 with falls in all four main sectors, with electricity and gas providing the largest downward contribution, decreasing by 3.4%.

It is with a wry smile that I note that like the poor numbers for Spain also released this morning a familiar scapegoat takes the rap.

The monthly decrease in electricity and gas was largely due to falls in both electricity generation and in the supply and distribution of gas and gaseous fuels; this was largely attributable to the temperature in February 2017 being 1.6 degrees Celsius warmer than average.

Manufacturing output also fell by 0.1% as the Pharmaceutical industry continued its erratic pattern and drove the numbers yet again.

The deficit on trade in goods and services widened to £3.7 billion in February 2017 from a revised deficit of £3.0 billion in January 2017, predominantly due to an increase in imports of erratic goods;

This was added to by this.

The largest revision was to exports, with a downward revision of £1.3 billion in January 2017. This was mainly due to a revision to the exports of erratic commodities (down by £1.0 billion).

Some of the problem is the ongoing issue of how the UK’s gold trade is measured. Frankly the efforts are not going so well. Better news came from this revision as we see that we both exported and imported more.

Since the last UK trade release, there have been upward revisions across both exports and imports of trade in services throughout the 4 quarters of 2016.

Whilst I continue to have little confidence in the numbers the official construction series had a weak month as well.

output fell by 1.7% in February 2017 in comparison to January 2017……infrastructure provided one of the main downward pressures on output in February, decreasing by 7.3%.

Taking some perspective

Underneath this some of the recent trends remain good. For example if we look at manufacturing.

In the 3 months to February 2017, manufacturing increased by 2.1% (unchanged from the 3 months to January 2017), continuing its strongest growth since May 2010……. ( and on a year ago) manufacturing providing the largest contribution, increasing by 3.3%.

This has been driven by a combination of the transport industry, textiles, machinery and computer equipment.

Within this sub-sector, the manufacture of motor vehicles, trailers and semi-trailers rose by 14.4% compared with February 2016.

This drove production higher so that it is 2.8% higher than a year ago although North Sea Oil & Gas pulled it lower.

If we move to the trade picture and look for some perspective we see this.

In the 3 months to February 2017, the deficit on trade in goods and services narrowed to £8.5 billion, reflecting a higher increase in exports than imports, mainly due to increases in exports of machinery and transport equipment, oil and chemicals;

So the by now oh so familiar deficit! But a little lower than before. We should remember that we had a relatively good end to 2016.

The current account deficit improved in Quarter 4 2016, mainly due to an improved primary balance and an improved trade in goods position.

However we now wait for the March data as another weak month would be the first turn down in the UK economy for a while. Should we see that then we will be even further away from regaining the pre credit crunch position.

both production and manufacturing output have steadily risen but remain well below their level reached in the pre-downturn gross domestic product (GDP) peak in Quarter 1 (Jan to Mar) 2008 by 6.7% and 3.0% respectively in the 3 months to February 2017.

Productivity

This of course is one of the problem areas of the post credit crunch world and whilst we have some the problem is far from solved.

Productivity – as measured by output per hour worked – increased by 0.4% in Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2016, following growth of 0.2%, 0.3% and 0.3% in the 3 preceding quarters. As a result, labour productivity was around 1.2% higher in Quarter 4 2016 than in the same period a year earlier and grew consistently over 2016.

Household Debt

I think the chart not only speaks for itself but is rather eloquent.

 

Comment

We have seen the first series of weak numbers from the UK economy since the EU leave vote. Production fell in January and that has now been repeated in February as even manufacturing saw a dip. If we look back the services sector had a disappointing January so the expectations for the NIESR GDP estimate later are likely to cluster around 0.4%. Of course the Bank of England will be watching all of this and perhaps especially the weaker house price data.

As ever the numbers are erratic and we have only part of the picture. On the optimistic front the business confidence figures for all out main sectors showed growth in March. In fact the services data was strong.

March data pointed to a rebound in UK service sector growth, with business activity and incoming new work both rising at the strongest rates so far in 2017. Survey respondents also remained optimistic about the year-ahead business outlook,

Fingers crossed!

 

Norway is apparently very happy but what about house prices?

Today we are taking a trip across the North Sea to what we are told is the happiest country on Earth. From the World Happiness Report.

Norway has jumped from 4th place in 2016 to 1st place this year, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland in a tightly packed bunch. All of the top four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance. Their averages are so close that small changes can re-order the rankings from year to year.

As I note that Finland is 5th this seems to be a Nordic thing although of course it does make one wonder about the criteria as well as how many copies of this were sold there by Pharrell.

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

There are clear economic influences here as we note that Africa is apparently “waiting for happiness” and intriguingly China is like this.

People in China are no happier than 25 years ago

But returning to Norway there are clear economic influences at play.

Norway moves to the top of the ranking despite weaker oil prices. It is sometimes said that Norway achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it. By choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending them in the present, Norway has insulated itself from the boom and bust cycle of many other resource-rich economies.

There is a mixture of fact and PR release there so let us look further at the Norwegian economy. Oh and being the top of any list these days poses a question.

Economic growth

This from the Norges Bank last week is not especially inspiring.

In 2016, mainland GDP in Norway grew at the slowest rate recorded since the financial crisis. Growth picked up a little between Q3 and Q4 as projected earlier.

Norway Statistics tells us this.

Continued weak growth Mainland Norway: Growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) for mainland Norway was 0.3 per cent in the 4th quarter of 2016, slightly up from the 3rd quarter.

The annual rate of growth was 1.1% and if we look into the detail there was something familiar for these times.

Consumption of goods increased by 0.6 per cent, after having mostly fallen since the 3rd quarter of 2015. Increased car purchases contributed to more than half of the rise in household consumption of goods.

A hint of easy monetary policy which these days often appears in the car sector. Also something else seems rather familiar.

The declining wage growth that we have seen in recent years will continue, and estimates for 2016 show that the average annual wage growth was 1.7 per cent.

If we return to the Norges Bank report we see that real wages have fallen.

The consumer price index (CPI) rose by 3.6% between 2015 and 2016, while consumer prices adjusted for tax changes and excluding energy products (CPI-ATE) rose by 3.0% in the same period.

A lot of the impact here has been from the oil and gas sector.

What about monetary policy then?

Here we go.

Norges Bank’s Executive Board has decided to keep the key policy rate unchanged at 0.5%. The Executive Board’s current assessment of the outlook suggests that the key policy rate will most likely remain at today’s level in the period ahead.

So like so many other central banks they ignore inflation being above its target ( which is 2.5%) and concentrate on economic growth.

In the wake of the decline in oil prices since summer 2014, the key policy rate in Norway has been reduced in several steps. Monetary policy is expansionary and supportive of structural adjustments in the Norwegian economy,

So far the oil price and industry has been a silent elephant in the room but if we defer that to later let us look at the dangers from low interest-rates which are domestic debt and house prices.

House Prices

Today’s data release tells us this.

On average, prices for new dwellings have increased by 10.4 per cent in the 4th quarter of 2016 compared to the same quarter in 2015…….Prices for existing flats, small houses and detached houses have increased by 15.9, 9.9 and 7.6 per cent respectively from the 4th quarter of 2015 to the 4th quarter of 2016.

If we look into the detail we see that the prices for flats ( multi dwelling apartments) are driving this move. Let us remind ourselves that this compares with wage growth of 1.7% and real wages which are falling and it comes on the back of previous rises. The flats index was at 80 in the first quarter of 2011 and has risen to approximately 117. If we look back for what has happened in the credit crunch are we see that house prices have doubled since 2005 ( to be precise the index is 199.3).

What about debt?

The Norges Bank puts it like this.

Persistently low interest rates may lead to financial system vulnerabilities. The rapid rise in house prices and growing debt burdens indicate that households are becoming more vulnerable. By taking into account the risk associated with very low interest rates, monetary policy can promote long-term economic stability.

That lest sentence is a contradiction in terms designed to fool the unwary I think. We see that borrowing was on the march.

Net incurrence of loans increased from NOK 167 billion to NOK 186 billion, while net investments in deposits decreased from NOK 65 billion to NOK 55 billion.

Debt growth was 5.6% in 2016 and that left the debt to income ratio at 2.35.  Back to the Norges Bank.

Growth in household debt accelerated through the latter half of 2016, and debt is still growing faster than household income. The rapid rise in house prices and growing debt burdens indicate that households are becoming more vulnerable.

The mortgage rate series at Norges Bank was at 3.98% as 2013 ended and 2.49% as 2016 ended so we can see the pattern although the low was 2.35% last August. It is not a surprise to see money supply growth be firm.

The twelve-month growth in the monetary aggregate M3 was 6.5 per cent to end-January, up from 5.4 per cent the previous month.

The debt situation for the government is rather unique. It does have some but if you put in the sovereign wealth fund then net financial assets must be around treble annual GDP.

Comment

If we look at the elephant in the room then the oil and gas sector accounts for around 22% of Norway’s economic output. If we add in the fishing industry then Norway is especially gifted in terms of natural resources. The catch in recent times has been the fall in the price of crude oil which sees the Brent benchmark just above US $51 per barrel as I type this. In terms of an annual comparison the price is higher and Norway is one of the countries which most welcomes that but it is a far cry from the US $100+ of a couple of years ro so ago. This has been picked up in the unemployment data where the unemployment rate headed towards 5%. It has now fallen to 4.4% but there are other worries here.

the seasonally-adjusted unemployment decreased by 0.4 percentage points, or 12 000 persons………the seasonally adjusted number of employed persons decreased by 22 000 persons from September to December.

Meanwhile the central banks eases and pumps up the housing market. Maybe us Brits have set a bad example but what must first-time buyers and the younger generation think of this as a strategy?

Let me leave you with something very Norwegian.

A total of 30 800 moose were shot during the hunting year 2016/2017; a decrease of 300 animals from the previous hunting year and a decrease of 22 per cent from the record hunting year 1999/2000.

 

Can we make any sense of the GDP data for Ireland?

Firstly let me wish everyone a Happy St.Patrick’s day as we also wait for England versus Ireland in the Six Nations rugby tomorrow. In that spirit let us immediately open with some good news. From the Irish Central Statistics Office or CSO.

Preliminary estimates indicate that GDP in volume terms increased by 5.2 per cent for the year 2016. GNP showed an increase of 9.0 per cent in 2016 over 2015.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, constant price GDP for the fourth quarter of 2016 increased by 2.5 per cent compared with the previous quarter while GNP increased by 3.2 per cent over the same period.

What grew? Well pretty much everything.

Building and construction recorded an 11.4 per cent increase in real terms and manufacturing recorded a 1.8 per cent increase . The distribution, transport, software and communications sector increased by 7.8 per cent while the agriculture sector increased by 6.2 per cent, and other services by 6.0 per cent. Public administration and defence recorded an annual increase of 4.4 per cent.

Looking ahead

The good news theme continues as we peruse the business surveys.

The latest Investec Services PMI Ireland report shows that business activity continued to increase sharply during February, with the rate of expansion only slightly weaker than January’s seven-month high. The headline PMI came in at 60.6, versus 61.0 in the previous month.

As we look around we do not get many readings in the 60s so let us look at manufacturing.

The latest Investec Manufacturing PMI Ireland report shows a further solid improvement in business conditions, albeit the pace of growth has slowed for a second successive month. The headline PMI was 53.8 in February, down from 55.5 in the preceding month.

So good numbers especially in the services sector although with the nature of these surveys they are less reliable than in larger countries as we have seen before on occasion in Ireland with the example of a cut in pharmaceutical production ( Lipitor going off-patent) which was missed.

Also in the circumstances this raised a wry smile.

On the latter, we note that panellists again highlighted the UK as a particular source of demand.

Unemployment

A consequence of the better economic data has been this.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for February 2017 was 6.6%, down from 6.7% in January 2017 and down from 8.4% in February 2016.

This represents quite an improvement on the 10.1% of February 2015 and a vast improvement of the 15.2% of January 2012. It is not yet back to the pre credit crunch lows, however, which were around 2% lower.

Inflation

Here is an interesting combination with the good news above as you see central bankers will have a mind block because Ireland has not had inflation for some time.

Prices on average, as measured by the EU Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP), increased by 0.3% compared with February 2016.

Actually I am slightly exaggerating but if we use the Irish CPI and base it at 100 in 2011 then it was 101.5 in 2016. Even worse for the inflationoholics who run central banks and of course the media who copy and paste such views it was possible for relative prices to change.

The sub index for Services rose by 2.0% in the year to February, while Goods decreased by 1.5%.

So if low/no inflation has been good for Ireland how does it feel about the European Central Bank determination to push it higher? I forecast good news from this back on the 29th of January 2015.

However if we look at the retail-sectors in the UK,Spain and Ireland we see that price falls are so far being accompanied by volume gains and as it happens by strong volume gains.

Trouble

In spite of the official news being good there are signs of what Taylor Swift would call “Trouble, trouble,trouble” if you look below the headlines. The Irish Times pointed out this last December.

The fact that more than 6,000 people, including children, are now officially “homeless” and living in emergency accommodation in hotels, guesthouses and charity shelters is offensive……….It flows from policy decisions and political collusion that created a deeply unequal society.

Focus Ireland counted 7148 and pointed out that the number was up 40% over the past year and was likely to be under recorded. There are other issues in this sector as we look at the sale of property by the bad bank NAMA. Firstly the excellent NAMA Wine Lake is critical of the accountancy at play here.

NAMA acquired €74bn of loans for €32bn. The NAMA “profit” is on the €32bn acquisition price. We bailed out the banks for the €74bn-€32bn.

How is that going?

NAMA lost £190m on £4.5bn par value Project Eagle sale. How much will NAMA lose on (average of) €50m loans it will sell in next 24 hours?

Also there is the issue of all this apparently surplus property being traded around whilst people are homeless on an increasing scale.

House Prices

These are of course ignored by the consumer inflation numbers although of course not by anyone wanting to buy a house. Signs of problems are clear.

In the year to January, residential property prices at national level increased by 7.9%. This compares with an increase of 7.9% in the year to December and an increase of 5.6% in the twelve months to January 2016.

If we look for some perspective we see this.

From the trough in early 2013, prices nationally have increased by 49.6%. In the same period, Dublin residential property prices have increased 65.2%………..Overall, the national index is 31.8% lower than its highest level in 2007. Dublin residential property prices are 32.4% lower than their February 2007 peak,

What might be wrong with the official data?

There is an obvious concern with GDP (Gross Domestic Product) rising by 21% in one quarter as it did at the opening of 2015. I have covered this before so this time let us examine the view of the Central Bank of Ireland from its Quarterly Bulletin.

However, this masked offsetting trends in the components of GDP, in particular investment and trade, which were not closely aligned with indicators of activity in the domestic economy, but were mainly accounted for by the off-shore activities of multinational firms.

If we return to the official data what did happen to recorded investment in Ireland in 2016?

On the expenditure side of the accounts (Table 3), capital formation rose strongly by 45.5 per cent during 2016.

There is more.

The potential for volatility in the measurement of Irish GDP reflects the fact that parts of the output recorded in Irish GDP now reflects activity which takes place in other countries.

When you consider that the numbers are supposed to represent Ireland and its economy this confession is really rather extraordinary.

In the trade data, for example, changes in the level of contract manufacturing abroad by multinational firms can have a significant impact on exports and imports.

If we look at the data for the last quarter of 2016 there is this.

On the expenditure side there was a decline in net exports of €17,396m (93.7 per cent) during the quarter, largely driven by higher imports (37.2 per cent).

Actually the higher investment and import numbers often represent the same things.

The central bank also looked at the economic impact of Aircraft Leasing where the sums are enormous even for these times.

Assuming that the industry in Ireland is to continue to account for some 50 per cent of the leased output (as per current estimates), this would imply approximately €1.4 trillion ($1.5 trillion17)in new assets – either acquired or via finance leases inward – held by the sector in Ireland

Yet in terms of actual action this generates ” a certain degree of employment and tax revenues ” in reality so how much then? Over 1200 and 300 million Euros a year which are no doubt very welcome but poses a question for measurement.

Comment

The Irish situation opens more than one can of worms. Has the economy grown in recent years? I think so but the data poses lots of questions and let me highlight this with something from the CSO. In response to the issues above it thinks that Net National Product or NNP may help because it allows for depreciation and thus takes out much of the cross-border flows. So is Ireland’s annual economic output 255.8 billion Euros ( GDP) or 202.6 billion Euros (GNP) or 141.1 billion Euros (NNP)? The numbers are for 2015 but also was economic growth 32.4% (GDP) or 24% or 6.4%?

Also how do we relate the national debt to economic output? Perhaps as we have discussed before the best measure is to compare it to tax revenue.

 

What are the economics of Scottish independence?

Yesterday saw the First Minster of Scotland fire the starting gun for a second vote on independence from the UK for Scotland as the pace of possible change ratchets up yet another notch. With it came am intriguing view of how long a lifetime is these days! Although I am also reminded of the saying that “a week is a long time in politics”. However as ever I look to steer clear of the political melee and look at the economics. So how is the Scottish economy doing?

Economic growth

The Scottish government has published this data.

When rounded to one decimal place, at 2016 Q2 annual GDP growth in Scotland was 0.9 percentage points lower than in the UK. At 2016 Q3, annual GDP growth in Scotland was 1.2 percentage points lower than in the UK. Between 2016 Q2 and 2016 Q3, the gap between annual Scottish and UK GDP growth increased by 0.3 percentage points in favour of the UK (when rounded to one decimal place).

As you can see the recent performance has been around 1% per annum slower than the UK and may well be accelerating. With the UK economy overall having grown by 0.7% in the last quarter of 2016 that seems likely to have continued but of course there are always dangers in any extrapolation. If we look back we see that in the pre credit crunch period GDP growth was similar then Scotland did worse and then better as presumably the oil price boom benefited it ( although the oil sector itself is excluded). Then until the recent phase Scotland did mildly worse than the rest of the UK.

Looking ahead

The Scottish government plans to improve this and with an eye on future policy has set a European Union based objective.

To match the GDP growth rate of the small independent EU countries by 2017.

How is that going so far?

The latest data show that over the year to 2016 Q3 GDP in Scotland grew by 0.7% whilst GDP growth in the Small EU was 3.5% (measured on a rolling four quarter on four quarter basis). When rounded to one decimal place, this resulted in a gap of 2.8 percentage points in favour of Small EU. This compares to an annual increase in GDP to 2016 Q2 of 1.0% in Scotland, and an increase of 4.2% in the Small EU – resulting in a 3.3 percentage point gap in favour of Small EU (when rounded to one decimal place).

As you can see the gap here is much wider and leaves Scotland with a lot of ground to recoup. If you look at the list that may well get harder.

The small independent EU countries are defined as: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Portugal and Sweden. Luxembourg has been re-included in the newest update due to a change in availability of data.

Ireland is proving a hard act to follow.

Preliminary estimates indicate that GDP in volume terms increased by 5.2 per cent for the year 2016. GNP showed an increase of 9.0 per cent in 2016 over 2015.

It is an awkward fact that the 21% economic growth registered by Ireland in the first quarter of 2015 lifted the target away from Scotland and it continues to offer something hard to catch. Of course such large moves also challenge the credibility of the Irish data series.

What about employment?

Good but not as good as England currently.

Scotland’s employment rate of 73.6 per cent for Q4 2016, is the second highest across all UK countries, 1.3 percentage points below England. This indicates a worsening position compared with a year ago when Scotland had the highest employment rate across all UK countries, 0.2 percentage points above England (the second highest).

Natutral Resources

Crude Oil and Gas

Plainly Scot;and has considerable resources here although unless there are new discoveries these seem set to decline over time. There have also been big changes in the crude oil price as FullFact reported last October.

It is correct that crude oil prices are currently at around $50 a barrel. Back at the time of the first Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 oil was selling for just over US $90 a barrel.

Energy policy, and how oil revenue would be invested, was part of  the Scottish government’s vision for an independent Scotland……….”With independence we can ensure that taxation revenues from oil and gas support Scottish public services, and that Scotland sets up an Energy Fund to ensure that future generations also benefit from our oil and gas reserves. “

I think that FullFact were being very fair here as there were forecasts from Alex Salmond that the oil price would rise towards US $130 per barrel if my memory serves me right. Whereas it is now US $51 or so in terms of Brent crude oil. So the oil sector has seen something of a recession affecting areas like Aberdeen although there would have been gains for other Scottish businesses and consumers from lower prices.

The Fiscal Position

This has been affected both by the lower oil price and also by the recent trend to lower economic growth than the rest of the UK. The former was highlighted by this from the 2015-16 data.

Scotland’s illustrative share of North Sea revenue fell from £1.8 billion in 2014-15 to £60 million, reflecting a decline in total UK North Sea revenue.

This led to these numbers being reported.

Excluding North Sea revenue, was a deficit of £14.9 billion (10.1 per cent of GDP).

Including an illustrative geographic share of North Sea revenue, was a deficit of £14.8 billion (9.5 per cent of GDP).

For the UK, was a deficit of £75.3 billion (4.0 per cent of GDP).

This adds to an issue I reported on back in my Mindful Money days in November 2013.

So there is something of a shark in the water here. If we add in the fact that Scotland spends more per head than the rest of the UK then the IFS ( Institute for Fiscal Studies) considers that the fiscal position is more dangerous. Both the UK and Scotland spend more than they get in from tax but the Scottish position is more reliant on a fading source of tax revenue. This is what leads to the following conclusion.

As it turns out that source of revenue has ended at least for now and seems to be capped by the shale oil wildcatters for the next few years. All rather different to this.

But a current strength of the numbers is revenue from North Sea oil which was 18.6% of tax revenue in 2011-12 for Scotland.

Of course there would be quite a debate over the share of the UK national debt that would belong to Scotland but the fiscal position is presently poor.

What currency?

This poses a few questions so let me repeat the issues with using the UK Pound.

1. The Bank of England will presumably set interest-rates to suit England (and Wales and Northern Ireland). This may or may not suit Scotland.

2. The value of the pound will mostly be determined by the much larger English economy in some respects similar to the way that Germany dominates the Euro. That has not worked out well for many of the Euro nations.

3. This is to say the least awkward, if further bank bailouts are required. Will the Bank of England be the “lender of last resort” in Scotland? How does this work when it has an independent treasury? Just as a guide, individual nations in the Euro area had their own central banks which survive to this day partly because of this issue.

4. There is also the issue of currency reserves and intervention which presumably also stay with the Bank of England.

5. What about the money supply of Scotland which will again presumably be controlled by the Bank of England and set for the rest of the UK?

6. Has anybody bothered to ask the citizens of the rest of the UK if they are willing to take the risk of having Scotland in a currency but not a political or fiscal union? This would take place just as the Euro is demonstrating many of the risks of such an arrangement. But added to it for the rest of the UK would be new oil or gas discoveries pushing up the value of the pound and thereby making their businesses and industry less competitive.

Comment

Scotland plainly has economic strengths with its natural resources and financial services industry. However since the last vote there has been a deterioration in economic circumstances as we have seem growth fall below that of the rest of the UK. This has led to a problem with the fiscal deficit and it is hard not to think of the criteria for joining the European Union.

New Member States are also committed to complying with the criteria laid down in the Treaty in order to be able to adopt the euro in due course after accession.

We do not know what the national debt would be but the fiscal deficit is around treble the 3% of GDP target per annum in the Euro accession rules. Of course Euro members have often ignored it but they have been much stricter on prospective entrants. Quite a Euro area style austerity squeeze would seem likely and that has been associated with recessions and quite severe ones at that.

Charlotte Hogg’s Resignation

Back on the 1st of March I pointed out the lack of competence on monetary policy she displayed in front of the UK Treasury Select Committee. Today it was announced that she offered to resign last week but Mark Carney would not take it. Now he has.

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/news/2017/charlottehoggletter130317.pdf

 

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/news/2017/028.pdf