Business

Saturday 21 October 2017

Our growth rate is good but not enough for a 'crock of gold' on wage demands

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist. Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist. Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Donal O'Donovan

Donal O'Donovan

'Leprechaun Economics' referred to the ludicrous and misleading growth statistics thrown up last year when the Central Statistics Office used standardised economic tools to measure the eccentricities of the Irish economy.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman coined the term, after official figures showed the economy here had grown by more than a quarter in 2015.

Figures yesterday showed growth came in at a respectable 5.2pc in 2016. That is outstanding by current European standards, but without a sensible comparison it's tricky to know what it means in terms of an Irish trend.

The latest figures are less extreme than 2015 but we know that at least some of the so-called 'leprechaun effect' is still lurking in the data. The latest 5.2pc sounds more plausible, but it still needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

We do know that the CSO figures for growth in personal consumption, up 3pc, doesn't get distorted by murky goings-on inside the balance sheets of multinationals, so it's easier to measure.

The figures are also in line with other tangible figures like retail sales and employment, which we can see and sense in the real economy.

These are the kind of measures that do for economics what sticking a wet finger in the air is to meteorology.

It might not be particularly sophisticated, but it gives you a good sense of which way the wind is blowing.

Right now, in terms of the Irish economy, things are set fair. Real growth, the kind that translates into ringing tills and rising bank balances, is well below the headline figures but it is solid if slowing.

That slowdown is partly because there's now less far to bounce back than in the early part of the recovery. We've gone from barely seeing a new car on the road in 2012 to no longer being surprised by a 2017 reg.

The core drivers of real growth, jobs, are still being added. Compared to 2013 or 2014, though those jobs are increasingly being generated by domestic spending, not exports. Net exports declined last year, in fact, while imports grew.

Jobs and wage growth are also increasingly being generated from direct State spending.

Increased Government spending - 5.3pc last year - is in large measure a function of the public sector wage bill.

The CSO's Government spending category leaves out things like investment in roads and hospitals, or spending on pensions. It includes day-to-day spending, on the likes of legal services, and to a huge degree, wages.

Spending by the State was hammered in the crash, so it's hardly a surprise to see it coming back.

But 5pc in an economy that's probably growing at closer to 3pc is a fair old clip.

As things stand, it's only the start of it. We know that wage demands were only getting started in 2016.

The call, across swathes of the public sector, for higher wages has only gotten louder since.

Public Expenditure Minister Pascal Donohoe yesterday made a bid to dampen expectations - but having sold the pass on Garda pay last year, the Government is in a tight spot.

Having stuck their own fingers in the air and felt the apparently warm breeze of recovery, all unions - not unreasonably - are out for the best deal for their members. The problem is, the recovery in State spending is running ahead of the real recovery. It's not public sector workers' fault, but if it isn't tackled, it'll be a problem for them, and for the rest of us.

The air pressure is rising.

Irish Independent

Also in Business