The Economic Future of Ireland

The economic and financial crisis of 2008/2009 hit Ireland heavily. The asset price bubble and the subsequent deflation have added to the uncertain macroeconomic outlook. How did the country went from the times of the “Irish miracle” to the prolonged economic slowdown? Following the beginning of the 2008/2009 economic and financial crisis, Ireland was hit by an unprecedented economic slowdown. In 2008, the GDP declined by 3.0 percent on the annual basis. In 2009, the GDP further declined by 7.1 percent in real terms. The unemployment rate increased to almost 12 percent.

Prior to the outburst of the economic crisis, Ireland enjoyed stable and predictable levels of public debt. In 2007, the country was known for having stabilised the public debt at 25 percent of the GDP – the lowest level of any Western European country. In 2009, the debt-to-GDP ratio increased to 64 percent of the GDP. Once known as the sick man of Europe, Ireland’s economic policymakers have implemented a set of fiscal policy measures aimed to boost the long-term economic growth and abolish the economic policy based on the state intervention, high tax rates on labor and capital and export-led growth.

Ever since the 1960s, Ireland pursued a soft version of industrial policy targeted at the promotion of inward foreign direct investment and the education of highly skilled workers. In addition, Ireland reduced the corporate income tax rate to 12.5 percent and provided a thorough technical assistance and to multinational companies located in Ireland. Indeed, U.S. multinationals such as Microsoft, Dell and Intel were encouraged to locate in Ireland mainly because of its geographic proximity to key European markets, skilled English-speaking workforce, membership in the EU, relative low wage level and favorable corporate taxation.

In early 1990s, the results of a precise set of economic policies were spectacular. By the end of 2006, the unemployment rate dropped to 4.6 percent from 18 percent in early 1980s. Between 1992 and 2005, Irish GDP increased by an average of 6.9 percent while the investment grew by 8.6 percent on the annual basis. The largest contribution to GDP growth was domestic demand (5.3 percentage point). Hence, Ireland’s public finance enjoyed a favorable outlook mainly due to the rapid decline of debt-to-GDP ratio from 1980s onwards, and from a relatively low demographic pressure on the budgetary entitlements.

During the Irish boom, Irish banking and financial sector were highly dependent on the wholesale funding. Due to largely positive macroeconomic outlook from 1990 onwards, Irish banking sector received high and consistent credit ratings from agencies such as Moody, S&P and Fitch. In turn, the reliance on fragile wholesale funding resulted in overleveraged balance sheets. After the failure of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the short-term outlook on Irish banking sector signaled a significant rise in credit-default swaps which raised concerns over the ability of banks to provide the wholesale funding for a mountain of short-term debt liabilities. And since the overleveraged balance sheets downgraded the outlook on Irish banking sector, the institutional investors demanded higher risk premium to extend the funding channel to the Irish banks.

The Directorate Generale for Economic and Financial Affairs of the European Commission downgraded the macroeconomic forecast of Irish GDP growth. By the end of 2009, the economic activity plummeted by 7.1 percent. The housing market crash was largely a result of the asset price bubble channeled through the overinvestment in the construction sector which represented 12 percent of the GDP. Nothing could explain the deflationary pressures in the aftermath of the financial crisis than excessive housing prices during the pre-crisis Irish economic boom. After 2008, Ireland’s household savings rate increased to the level above 10 percent which is a result of the adjustment in the household balance sheet. In fact, between 2001 and 2007, the share of household debt in the GDP nearly doubled.

Meanwhile, the mountain of liabilities in the Irish banking and financial sector raised the concern over its solvency. The Irish Government immediately facilitated a bailout plan for the troubled banking sector. Consequently, the large budget deficit resulted in excessive debt-to-GDP ratio which grew by 39 percentage points between 2007 and 2009. In the annual European Economic Forecast (Spring, 2010), the European Commission estimated that by the end of 2011, the debt-to-GDP ratio could reach as high as 87.3 percent. while the cyclically-adjusted government balance is estimated to increase up to -10.2 percent of the GDP. The contraction of domestic demand which, by all measures, is the main engine of Ireland’s economic growth led to a rapid increase in the unemployment rate which increase from 6.3 percent in 2008 to 11.9 percent in 2009. By 2011, the European Commission forecast that the unemployment rate is expected to further increase by 1.5 percentage point compared to 2009. In World Economic Outlook, the IMF estimated that the unemployment rate in Ireland would increase by 1.1 percentage point by the end of 2011. In 2009, Ireland experienced net outward migration for the first time since 1960s in the wake of expected 13.8 percent unemployment rate in 2010.

The macroeconomic forecast for 2011 is favorable. The European Commission upgraded GDP growth estimate to 3 percent. Meanwhile, the investment is expected to increase for the first time since the 60 percent cumulative decline of the construction sector. The positive contribution of net exports to the gradual narrowing of the current account deficit could be an important measure to alleviate the rising pressure over debt-to-GDP ratio. On the other hand, Ireland’s Department of Finance revised the macroeconomic forecasts and estimated that by the end of this year, the GDP would grow by 1 percent on the annual basis.

The essential measure of Irish economic recovery is the retrenchment of wage rates in the public sector and the adjustment of public sector wages to the cyclical dynamics of economic activity to prevent the possibility of excessive inflationary pressures in the course of economic recovery. Current measures of retrenching public sector wages successfully anchored the inflationary expectations. According to the IMF, the annual inflation rate is estimated to peak at nearly 2 percent by the end of 2015. The falling wage rates in the private sector could induce the reallocation of resources in the tradeable sector, further adding to the contribution of net external trade to the GDP growth.

The key measures to alleviate the consequences of economic and financial crisis in both real and financial sector are the immediate narrowing of Ireland’s excessive budget deficit and public debt in the share of GDP. High public debt is mainly the result of government capital injection into Anglo-Irish Bank which represents about 2 percentage points of net deficit increase in 2010. The entire consolidation package represents 2.5 percent of the GDP.

Deutsche Bank recently published Public Debt in 2020 and estimated the levels of public debt by the end of that year for both advanced and emerging-market economies. The analysis by Deutsche Bank predicted the effect of a combined negative shock in real interest rate, primary government balance and real GDP growth. If the combined shock of all three variables were to change by about one-fourth standard deviation from the estimated growth rate, the public debt in 2020 would reach 154 percent of the GDP. If the combined shock of all three variables increased by one-half standard deviation from the baseline estimates, the public debt in 2020 would increase to 197 percent of the GDP. The difference in the estimated increase is due to higher intensity of the combined shock. In addition, to restore the debt-to-GDP ratio to pre-crisis level, Ireland would be required to increase the primary government balance to 6 percent of the GDP.

Given the enormous magnitude and burden of public debt and overleveraged corporate and financial sector, the immediate facilitation of measures to alleviate the public indebtedness is necessary. Ireland’s economic future is constrained by the persistence of budget deficit which adds to the future burden of public debt. Prudent efforts to reduce the burden of both debt and deficit are of the essential importance. Nevertheless, Irish policymakers should not neglect the economic policies that created the Irish miracle as well as the policy errors that caused the deepest economic decline in Western Europe during the 2008/2009 economic crisis.

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