Wednesday, August 9, 2017

8/8/17: Did Irish Household Spending Fully Recover from the Crisis?

I have recently seen several research notes claiming that in 1Q 2017, Ireland has finally fully recovered from the shock of the Great Recession. These claims were based on consumer demand regaining its pre-crisis peak.

What do the facts tell us about this claim? That it is a half-truth.

Consider the following chart plotting consumer demand (consumer expenditure on goods and services) computed on an aggregate 4 quarters running basis. I use official CSO data for both expenditure figures and population figures. And I compute per-capita expenditure on the basis of these statistics.

In 1Q 2017, aggregate household expenditure on goods and services stood at EUR96.16 billion against pre-crisis peak of EUR94.118, using constant prices to account for official inflation. Incidentally, there is nothing new in the claim of recovery on that basis, because Irish households' aggregate spending on goods and services has surpassed pre-crisis peak in 2Q 2016.

The problem with the aggregate expenditure figure is that population changes. So the chart above also shows per-capita real expenditure, expressed in 1,000s of constant euros. Here, the matters are a bit less impressive. Per capita household expenditure on goods and services in Ireland peaked pre-crisis at EUR21,508.75. At the end of 1Q 2017, this figure was EUR 20,574.71.

There is another problem with analysts' celebrations of the 'end of the lost decade'. Aggregate household expenditure peaked (pre-crisis) in 1Q 2008, so it took 32 quarters to recover that peak. Per-capita household expenditure peaked in 2Q 2008, which means we are 35 quarters into the crisis and counting. Neither comes up to a full decade.

Finally, there is a really big problem. This one relates to what a 'recovery from the crisis' really means. In the above, we implicitly assume that a recovery from the crisis is return to pre-crisis peak. But there is a major problem with that, because our current state of life-cycle incomes, savings and debt in part reflect decisions made under the assumptions that operated back in the pre-crisis period. In other words, our income, savings, investment, career choice and debt carry a 'memory' of the times when (pre-crisis) trends did not incorporate any expectation of the crisis.

What does this mean? It means that psychologically, materially and even economically, the end of the crisis is when the economy returns to where it should have been were the pre-crisis trend extended into the present. To make this comparative more robust, we should also recognise that, in part, the pre-crisis trend should have omitted at least some of the most egregious excesses of the bubble years.

Let's do that exercise, then. Let's take pre-crisis trend in household expenditure (aggregate and per-capita) for year 3Q 2000-2004 (eliminating the explosive years of 1997-2000 and 2005-2007) and see where we are today, compared to that trend.

On trend, our aggregate personal expenditure should have been around EUR111.7 billion marker in 1Q 2017. It was EUR96.16 billion. This hardly reflects a recovery to the pre-crisis trend.

Also on trend, our per capita expenditure should have been around EUR24,140 in 1Q 2017. It was EUR20,575. This hardly reflects a recovery to the pre-crisis trend.

As some of my friends in Irish stuffbrokerages have been known to remark in private: "Shit! Damn numbers." Indeed... the recovery will have to wait... but, lads, you know you can do these calculations yourselves, right? You are paid six figure salaries and bonuses to do them. Or may be you are not. May be, you are paid six figure salaries and bonuses not to do these calculations...

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