On the face of it, Budget 2023 was a giveaway of epic proportions. There was something for everyone. Tax cuts, welfare increases, childcare subsidies, reduced student fees, an end to hospital charges and energy cost supports for businesses and households. These were just some of the plethora of attention-grabbing measures announced.
But, what the government appears to have given with one hand, rising prices will more than take away with the other. According to the government’s own economic projections, consumer prices will have increased by 16% between the beginning of 2022 and the end of 2023. Budget measures will help cushion that blow to purchasing power, but for too many people on the margins it won’t be enough. Everyone will feel the pinch, and more people will be pushed into poverty.
*** This article was first published at thejournal.ie on 28 September 2022 ***
Sometimes good news is bad news. News a month out from your annual budget announcement that the public coffers were brimming with unanticipated largesse was the last thing Paschal Donohue will have wanted to hear. Why?
The natural and understandable inclination of any Irish finance minister, and of the Department at their back, is to be conservative, to guard jealously the public purse strings and to manage downwards the expectations of both colleagues and punters. Someone has to take away the punch bowl before the party gets out of hand. This is an inclination inherited a century ago from His Majesty’s Treasury, the so-called ’Treasury view’.
A year ago, the Irish government was expecting an €8.3bn for 2022. As things stand now, we are on course for the largest annual surplus since at least 2006, largely due to gravity-defying corporation tax receipts.
*** This article was first published at thejournal.ie on 25 September 2022 ***
Reported homelessness is at a record high. Unreported homelessness is rampant. Around 50,000 Ukrainian refugees are in emergency shelter. The shortage of student accommodation seems worse than ever despite all the recent investment in that sector. Demand for rental properties races ahead, but supply is at a record low. Surging rents, sub-standard accommodation and insecure tenure are a huge source of stress, anxiety and frustration, and our still-dysfunctional housing market is largely to blame.
When detailed results of the 2021 Census are published, well over half a million households are likely to be in rented accommodation, about a third of the total and rising. While these are concentrated in younger age cohorts, around 1 in 4 householders in their 40’s are in rented accommodation, and this share is also likely to rise as ‘generation rent’ ages. About 1 in 7 renters are estimated to be renting by choice, but the vast majority would rather be owners.
*** This article was first published at thejournal.ie on 19 September 2022 ***
Wholesale gas prices are off the charts in Europe, leading to surging costs to light and heat our homes. Urgent policy action is needed, both in Brussels and in Dublin, if we are to avoid social chaos this Winter. Recent murmurings from leaders in both cities suggest they appreciate the urgency, and that help is on the way. EU energy ministers hold an emergency meeting this Thursday to discuss while preparations continue ahead of Ireland’s budget day on 27 September. Consumers need a break before energy prices break their backs.
Even before the latest round of prices rises, a record 29% of Irish families were already facing energy poverty. That number is now nearing half, and rising. For people already forced to tighten their belts, calls to turn down the heating or wear another jumper aren’t likely to land well. Certainly, steps can be taken to conserve energy but there are limits to what is reasonable in the short-term.
How did it come to this?
It’s all about gas. Russia was the source of 45% of EU gas imports in 2021. But, retaliation for Europe’s support of Ukraine in repelling Russian invaders has seen these supplies reduced to a trickle, causing prices to sky-rocket.
*** This article was first published at thejournal.ie on 6 September 2022 ***
In mid-February, I wrote here that inflation was widely expected to peak in the early months of the year “before falling back over the following 18 months or so towards the levels around 2% that we had become accustomed to.” Highlighting geopolitical threats, I did note that “risks appear to be skewed towards inflation staying higher for longer than is currently anticipated.”
The game changed when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on 24th February. Oil prices initially surged by about 50% while gas prices nearly tripled. Although both have come off their March highs, they remain much higher than pre-war prices. Ominously, there is a growing consensus the war is Ukraine will be prolonged, and growing speculation that Putin could shut off European gas this winter. Meanwhile, international food prices have hit historic highs, even before the impact of Russia’s Black Sea blockade fully feeds through to grain markets. High prices and scarce supply of food and energy will likely get worse before they get better.
Irish consumer prices kept accelerating through May, annual inflation reaching 7.8%. A combination of momentum in prices and the subdued monthly inflation seen in June and July 2021 suggest the annual rate hasn’t peaked yet. Surging inflation is a global phenomenon, and it has everywhere come to dominate political debate around domestic issues. Whether inadvertently or more cynically, this debate has been characterized by much pedaling of myths. So, let’s knock some of those on the head:
*** This article was first published at thejournal.ie on 3rd July 2022 ***
In normal times, January sales for things like clothing and air fares are enough to bring down the price of an average consumer’s monthly shopping basket. January 2021 was very far from normal, of course, and prices ticked up slightly that month.
With the Omicron wave of the pandemic beginning to ebb, this year we are seeing a return to normality. Consumer prices fell -0.4% last month. This brought the annual inflation rate down to 5.0%, from the 5.5% registered in December. The last time inflation was that high, in April 2001, we were still using old money, punts and pence.
So, are we past the worst?
The good news is that, so far, rising inflation in Ireland has not been broad-based. Although supply issues have impacted on home rentals, and on some goods like cars and furniture, price rises have been largely confined to oil, gas and the sectors that depend on these energy inputs (transport, electricity).
*** This article was first published at thejournal.ie on 18 February 2022 ***
Who had heard of GameStop a month ago other than committed gamers and punters on the stock market? The bricks-and-mortar computer game retailer burst to prominence in recent weeks as a pawn in a supposed David-and-Goliath story, a battle of wits between plucky nerds and the wolves of Wall Street.
Spotting a chink in a hedge fund´s armour, small investors organized themselves through a small corner of social media, a reddit bearing the fitting moniker #WallStreetBets. Basically, the hedge fund had reached the not-unreasonable conclusion that computer game shops were going the way of Xtra-Vision. They borrowed shares in GameStop and sold them, hoping to buy them back at a lower price before returning them to their original owner and pocketing the difference.
*** This article was first published at thejournal.ie on 7 February 2021 *** Continue reading
Everything has changed, changed utterly.
Our new normal would have been unthinkable just a few short weeks ago. Social distancing measures are absolutely necessary to slow the spread of Covid-19. They help us buy time and avoid our creaking health service becoming more swamped than would otherwise be the case. Still, medical practitioners face difficult decisions, between life and death, who to treat first, to whom should scarce ventilators be assigned. These are unenviable choices to have to make.
It should go without saying that our frontline medical staff deserve our unquestioning support and cooperation in the weeks and months ahead. Right now, money should be no object to ensuring they have all the resources they need to avoid unnecessary deaths. To be fair, the caretaker government is taking resolute action. Of course, our health system should not be left short of resources at the best of times, but that is an important debate for another day. Even the best, most egalitarian health services in the world are now bracing for the worst.
A global recession is likely inevitable. As a trade-dependent economy, Ireland will be hit hard. But, the first to be affected are those service sectors that depend on social interaction: bars, restaurants, cinemas, airlines and the like. More than 100,000 jobs have already been lost, with up to half a million potentially at risk in the coming months. This crisis is different to 2008, but in some ways the economic effects could feel somewhat similar. And recessions and poverty are killers too. Continue reading
Making virtue of necessity is a tried and trusted political tactic. With neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil able to command a sustainable majority after the 2016 election, and unwilling to give up the narcissism of small differences by forming a grand coalition, we were left with a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement that pleased nobody. Independents were brought into the government fold while the soldiers of destiny reserved the right to play hurlers on the ditch without pulling the plug.
The necessity of this ‘temporary little arrangement’ was wrapped up in the virtuous rhetoric of so-called ‘new politics’. Political reforms were to open up the legislative process, making it more deliberative and less confrontational. Due consideration would be given to opposition proposals and private members’ bills. The Committee system was to be streamlined and treated more seriously.
‘New politics’ was treated in some quarters as a breath of fresh air in 2016. Some thought it might last until 2017 or 2018 at a push. One thing that wasn’t expected was that the UK would vote to leave the European Union later in 2016. The political psychodrama across the Irish Sea has since kept audiences agog, and kept the Dáil in suspended animation. The Taoiseach dare not face the electorate with Brexit unresolved. The ‘temporary little arrangement’ has lasted longer than many would have expected, providing stability in uncertain times.
But, is this a good thing? Continue reading
At the time of writing, just as the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Prime Minister Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was unlawful, the range of potential Brexit outcomes remains shockingly wide. More than three years have passed since the UK people voted narrowly to exit the European Union, yet it is still possible that there will be a no-deal Brexit at Halloween, that there will be no Brexit at all, or that sooner or later they will leave with a deal.
Yogi Berra is known not only for his baseball exploits for the New York Yankees around the middle of the 20th century, but also for his way with words. He famously asserted that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” At the best of times, economists often convey a false sense of certainty about their own forecasts. What economists do is make certain assumptions, such as how they expect a “shock” will impact on variables like trade, investment and consumer behavior. At times like these, facing an unprecedented event such as Brexit, even making accurate short-term forecasts becomes next to impossible. Continue reading