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Brendan Keenan: As consumer spending dips exports must provide growth

WE were poorer than we should have been a couple of decades ago, and now we're not as rich as we thought we were.

That, at any rate, is one way of looking at things. Back then, an outside economist pointed out that there was room for consumer-driven growth in Ireland, because of the large balance of payments surplus with the rest of the world.

We could use that 5pc of GDP surplus to import more consumer goods, he said, thereby improving our standard of living, and creating jobs along the way.

I had never quite looked at the balance of payments that way before. Now, of course, that way of looking at things is all the rage.

The Chinese and Germans, and a few others, stand accused of limiting their own living standards through their large surpluses. Worse, unless they spend more, the global recovery will stutter for want of demand in the deficit countries.

It is a slippery concept, and a controversial one. The Chinese and Germans do not see it that way. Admittedly they are in very different positions. China's income per person is still low, and it sits on the world's largest foreign reserves. It does seem hard on the Chinese population that these trillions of dollars are not for them.

Conservative

Germans, on the other hand, are among the wealthiest people on the planet, and the most conservative. It might be difficult to get them to spend more.

The government would then have to do it for them, by running budget deficits to offset the private savings represented by the surplus. And that is simply not on the cards.

It is, however, the size of the Chinese and German economies which makes them important.

China had a surplus of $316bn in the last recorded 12 months, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, and Germany one of $180bn.

But as a proportion to their economies, at 5pc-6pc of GDP, they are by no means unusual -- or even the biggest savers.

Northern Europe runs large surpluses. At 6.6pc of GDP, Sweden has the biggest of the EU countries surveyed. The Netherlands is close to 6pc.

This, of course, is the euro problem whose members (Sweden is not one) lack the automatic balancing mechanisms of either national currencies or national financial flows between regions.

Devaluations impose a lower standard of living on the country involved, but in a disguised fashion.

Revaluations based on surpluses increase it, but the actual effect depends on the circumstances. Germany has had no growth in domestic demand for most of the past 10 years and exports account for around half the economy.

There is a more unpleasant way of looking at it. If Germany is consuming less than it could, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy are probably consuming more than they ought.

Deficit

A balance of payments deficit based on productive investment may well be sound policy: borrowing abroad to fund consumption -- which includes public services -- is not.

This view had gone out of fashion and for a while was regarded as irrelevant for the euro area. But it is back with a vengeance.

The problem for the deficit countries is that cutting domestic demand is painful under any circumstances, but may not even be matched by an increase in exports.

Ireland, as usual, is in a curious position. There has been significant adjustment, as reflected in the swing of around 6pc of GDP in the balance of payments towards something close to balance.

This has clearly been accompanied by a reduction in personal consumption. Personal spending is down 8pc from the peak.

But imports have fallen 13pc, driven by the collapse of the building industry and a decline in general investment. The harsh fact is that the economy is shrinking even faster than consumption.

So, although personal spending is now €7bn less than in 2007, to the great distress of the retail sector; as a share of the economy it has risen from 50pc to 53pc. This is the basis for the oft-repeated mantra that future growth must come from exports.

No golden rule

There is no golden rule which says how much a country should depend on trade, as the differing cases of Germany and the USA demonstrate.

But there is a general feeling that small countries need it more; on the grounds that they will inevitably have to import the bulk of their consumer goods.

These usually have to be manufactured in very large quantities which a small home market cannot support.

Our fellows in the small open economy category certainly seem to take that view. Singapore has a whopping surplus of 18pc of GDP, while Hong Kong's is 8pc.

A key question -- although you will be lucky to see it debated among our policymakers -- is whether it should be an Irish objective to move into significant surplus.

One reason for doing so would be the tenuous nature of Irish statistics in this area.

They are a residual of the huge flows of payments into, and profits out of, the multi-national sector. The chemicals industry alone accounted for €26bn of the trade surplus in the first nine months of the year.

Things have become even more complicated with the arrival of UK firms seeking to avoid tax by setting up headquarters here.

Their UK earnings can now appear as belonging to Irish residents, thereby improving the balance of payments.

So, apart from any other reason, it might be no harm to have the cushion of a statistical surplus -- essentially as a means to making the economy less volatile and vulnerable. Exports would have to increase, and the rise, if any, in personal spending and government consumption would have to be very modest.

This is not actually what people want, or even expect. Almost all the business people one meets look to the consumer to get the economy moving again.

One fears they may be looking in the wrong place.

The Irish Exporters Association suggested recently that an annual rise of 8pc in exports would be needed to produce any significant impact on the economy. They may be not far off the mark, but it is a tall order.

Despite all the excitement about this year's performance, exports are up just 3pc in the first 10 months, in a year when world trade is expected to grow by 13pc.

As well as dealing with any specific barriers to successful exporting, we may have to suppress our incomes, and therefore our costs, even further, before we get the balance right.

Indo Business