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Direction needed for any recovery

THE opposition called it evidence of a two-speed economy, but in some way it is even more complex than that. They were responding to yesterday's Exchequer returns which showed that government borrowing was €35 million less than had been expected at the time of the 2010 Budget, more than 12 months ago.

Clearly, that is welcome news. But the actual borrowing requirement of almost €19bn is a frightening figure. At almost 12pc of economic output (GDP), it is quite unsustainable for a small, open economy.

It is also the case that, despite the controversial pay and spending cuts last year, and the unpopular tax rises, government borrowing fell by just €1bn. That shows how very difficult it is to correct the public finances unless the economy is growing healthily.

That dilemma is the source of the great global debate about whether it is better to borrow and stimulate the economy, and leave the public finances until the economy is motoring, or cut back at once, against a seemingly impossible background of falling output and declining tax revenues.

In Ireland, such an "either or" debate is far too simplistic. Even were it not in the euro, Ireland is too small to inflate away accumulated debt, as large economies have done in the past, and may do again in the future.

It is also too small, and dependent on foreign consumer goods, to get much economic benefit from extra borrowing anyway. There may be a place for a small, carefully-targeted investment programme to provide jobs, but it will make little difference to the general picture.

In fact, the general picture is not as gloomy as might be supposed. A country of four million people will be nothing if it is not an exporter. While everyone has been bleating about the need to get the consumer spending, the exporters have been doing their job. The task is to make sure they keep doing it -- and do it even better.

In what turned out to be a remarkably good year for global trade, Irish exports of goods and services grew by almost 7pc. That brought them to record levels and there must be satisfaction at the switch from the traditional UK market towards North and South America and Asia.

It does still represent a loss of global market share. That is not entirely unexpected, but the Irish Exporters Association is right to say that policy should concentrate on making it easier and cheaper to export from Ireland.

Many outside the export sector will not like to hear that. They yearn for the day when crowded shops and restaurants, and busy building sites, once again cut the dole queues and swell tax revenues. However, the export horse will have to be well yoked to the consumer cart before such a day can arrive.

We can safely assume that the export sector contributed much, if not most, of the 25pc boost to corporation tax revenues last year. This helped offset a modest shortfall in income tax revenues. Weakness in consumer spending had something to do with that, no doubt, although excise duties and VAT held up well to expectations.

Ultimately, the public finances are inextricably linked to the costs of the banking crash. While it may be possible to absorb the extra €10bn currently earmarked for the banks, if talk of up to €25bn turns out to be true, there must be serious doubt about the country's ability to shoulder that burden.

That is a problem for another day. In the meantime, the unprecedented €6bn adjustment in last month's Budget probably is indeed likely to knock more than 1pc off domestic demand this year. But another good export performance could compensate and return the economy to overall growth for the first time since 2008 -- though perhaps not as much as the Government's 1.75pc figure.

The Exporters Association is right that ambitious targets will be required. It calculates that annual indigenous export growth of 8pc, and multinational growth of 11pc, could create 300,000 new jobs. Along with the corporation tax this would generate, it would go a long way to getting borrowing below the 5pc of GDP necessary for any return to stability.

There are also jobs to be created in improving the shoddy infrastructure which has hampered exporters. There are also jobs which ought to be culled in corpulent state companies and agencies, to reduce excessive costs on trading companies.

The calls for greater competition in private business services, such as the law and accounting, should also finally be heeded. There is a way out, but it is not always clear that people are looking in the right direction.

Irish Independent