Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The household sector accounts make sense again

It’s a well-worn path that Ireland’s national accounts are so heavily distorted by the impact of MNCs that getting any reliable signal from some of the most commonly-used aggregate measures is close to impossible.  The work of the CSO has led to the publication of some bespoke measures from the Irish accounts such as GNI* and CA* that strip away some of the distortions.  These have been welcome additions to the accounts.

Within the accounts themselves the household sector may be a good place to look for underlying trends.  The outcomes for the household sector should reflect many of the underlying trends in economy for incomes, spending, saving, investment and borrowing.

About 18 months ago we did a deep dive and pulled together a coherent narrative from the accounts. In summary, household current spending (consumption) and capital spending (capital formation) was below household income so that the household sector was an aggregate net lender and was using these funds to repay loan liabilities. 

But then, this time last year, the apparent coherence was revised away and the figures at that time reported the household sector to have been a net borrower since 2014.  We returned to this a few times (here, here, here and here). 

At the time we were still waiting to get a clear view of CA* so the net lending/borrowing position of the household sector would have been an important indicator when looking for signs of pressures in the economy.  Except, after last year’s revisions, it didn’t make sense.  But this has now been restored.

If we go all the way to the bottom line we can see the result of the latest revisions.

Household Sector Net Lending Revised Oct 2018

There has been a massive upward revision in the accounts to the net lending position of the household sector.  For the period 2014-2017 in cumulative terms, the household sector has switched from being a net borrower of €1 billion to being a net lender of €16 billion. 

This is much closer to what we would expect given the scale of debt reduction untaken by the household sector in recent years with loan liabilities reducing from over €200 billion in 2008 to under €140 billion now. 

Household Sector Loan Liabilities

It never made sense that the funds for these repayments were coming from the sale of unlisted shares.  That the accounts now show that a large part is coming from unspent income eases any concerns about the build-up of financial pressures in the household sector: the “deleveraging hypothesis” trumps the “overheating hypothesis”, for now at least.  The deleveraging will not continue for ever.

Although not of central concern there may be some interest in looking at where the revisions were entered into the accounts.  Some of it happened in the current account.  There has been some upward revision to the gross savings rate from what was shown this time last year but not massively so.

Household Sector Savings Rate Revised Oct 2018

This has largely been because of an upward revision to household income.  For example, gross disposable income for 2016 has been revised from €95 billion to €97 billion with the result that the gross savings rate is now 1.5 percentage points higher.  The output produced and wages paid by the household sector itself were revised up.

But some of the more significant changes happened in the capital account.  Here are the previous and revised figures for gross capital formation of the household sector.

Household Gross Capital Formation Revised Oct 2018

The 2016 figure for household capital formation has been revised from €8.0 billion down to €5.2 billion.  The main item in the capital formation of households is housing; both the improvement of existing units and the acquisition of new units.  There is even less of this going on then previously thought which is a major reason for the revisions in the net lending shown at the top.

Whatever the reason we now have a set of household accounts that make sense.  The household sector is not spending all its income and is a significant net lender which is what we would expect given the scale of the reduction in household loan liabilities in recent years.  As hinted above this points to wondering what will happen when the deleveraging stops.

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