Tuesday, December 29, 2020

No, Facebook has not moved IP out of Ireland

There are a number of reports that Facebook has moved intellectual property out of Ireland:

The story is now in wide circulation but it is wrong.  While it is true that Facebook has relocated some IP licenses to the United States these licenses were not in Ireland to begin with; they were in the Cayman Islands.

The Facebook subsidiary at the centre of these stories is Facebook Internation Holdings I Unlimited.  And as this extract from its most recent (and ultimately last) filing with the Company Registration Office states the subsidiary is “domiciled in the Cayman Islands.”

Facebook Ireland Holdings Unlimited Note

And Facebook itself have been clear that the licenses for the international rights to sell advertising on the Facebook platform were located in the Cayman Islands.  One example of this was when spokesperson Delphine Reyre appeared become the TAXE Committee of the European Parliament a few years ago (video here).

Here are some extracts from Reyre’s contributions to the committee hearing.  But note though that these are the words of one of the parliament’s translators rather than the original dialogue (which was in French).  Some precision may have been lost in translation but the central points are clear. 

Anyway here is some of what Facebook spokesperson, Delphine Reyre, said to the committee [preceded by timestamps in the video recording].

[15:56:34]  There was a question on the Cayman Islands. Our model is exactly the same as Google's.  We do have an operation there in the Cayman Islands, and as my colleague said, as our companies develop around the world, he talks about tax creativity but in fact it's tax conservatism to use these methods.  These are the methods that are used in order to be able to work well at an international level as I tried to explain in my introductory remarks. And that is exactly why we have our intellectual property offices in the Cayman Islands.  I also wanted to tell you that the snapshot you are taking of our business model at the moment is just that: it is only a snapshot. It is going to change; it is constantly changing for all the reasons that I set out before.  For all the work that the OECD is doing, for the BEPS group is doing.  And of course this is constantly evolving because of the decisions make in Ireland on business headquarters, tax headquarters.

[15:59:00] Let me just point one thing out.  The fact that out intellectual property office is in the Cayman Islands doesn't have an impact on most European countries but it does have an effect on how we pay taxation in Ireland, that's as far as non-US countries are concerned. I hoped this sheds light on the situation.

[16:01:52] The model we have plumped for is a usual model, a conservative model.  So when we moved abroad, if you like, we were only a four-year old and we just took up the general model that everyone was using. That was to put your intellectual property in a neutral place that allows you to cover the whole world.  And as Nicholas from Google said the difficulty is that the United States taxes intellectual property all over the world so companies therefore are encouraged to therefore find a neutral location.

[16:29:45] As for the issue of the Cayman Islands you are talking of tax dumping once again we don't agree with that description.  As my neighbour has described it is a question of taxes that are deferred for the United States.  Secondly, which don't effect at all all the countries in Europe apart from Ireland.  And as for Ireland there we are in total compliance with Irish law as it stands today.  We are in perfect compliance with Irish law in the future as well once changes have been made.  As regards the countries where we are set up: The Netherlands, there we have an office; in Switzerland, we don't have an office. And in Luxembourg we have a legal entity. And that's all we have by way of headquarters.

[17:03:16] When it comes to operations in the Netherlands, we have a commercial office. That's all.  So, there is no 'dutch sandwich' or whatever there. As regards Luxembourg there is a legal entity and you asked what these legal entity was doing.  I understand that the legal entity has allowed us to get an inter-company loan and support for an inter-company loan.  I don't have the details.

[17:04:55] I think that your question is whether or not there is a 'dutch sandwich'.  There is not. I can reassure you there is not.  It does not go through The Netherlands.

The changing nature of outbound royalties from Ireland

The subsidiaries of US MNCs operating in Ireland have annual revenues of around €400 billion.  These revenues are generated from sales of products and services that are the result of research and development that is primarily undertaken in the United States. 

These include pharmaceutical medicines and computer chips which are manufactured at Irish facilities and online advertising on platforms such as Google and Facebook which have their international headquarters in Ireland.

Paying for technology

It is non-controversial that the Irish operations of these US companies have to pay for the technology they use.  There are essentially two ways in which this can be achieved:

  1. An outright purchase with the Irish company acquiring the rights or license to use the technology;
  2. Recurrent payments with the Irish company getting access to the technology via royalty payments.

Historically, the latter was the main method used.  And the scale of the outbound royalty payments attracts significant attention.  For example, in its latest Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs) addressed to Ireland the European Commission notes:

[T]he high level of royalty and dividend payments as a percentage of GDP suggests that Ireland’s tax rules are used by companies that engage in aggressive tax planning, and the effectiveness of the national measures will have to be assessed.

How big are these outbound payments? Pretty big.

Royalty Imports 2012-2020

In 2019, outbound royalties from Ireland were €84 billion and on their own are enough to offset around 20 per cent of the revenues flowing into Ireland.  This looks like being a high watermark.  Figures for the first three quarters of the year suggest the total for 2020 will be less than €70 billion which is still a very significant sum.

The fall in 2020 is not the result of a reduction in sales leading to lower royalties.  Exports from Ireland in the key categories are set to reach record levels this year. 

In the first three quarters of 2019, computer services exports in Ireland’s Balance of Payments were €84 billion; in the same period of 2020 they were €92 billion.  Exports of pharmaceuticals in the External Trade data were €43 billion in the first ten months of 2019; in the same period of 2020 they were €51 billion.

Of course, it might have been expected that outbound royalty payments would have being falling before now. This is because of the onshoring of intangible assets that has been ongoing for the past number of years.  This has seen some companies switch from #2 above (recurrent royalties) to #1 (outright purchases).

Divergent patterns of royalty payments

It is likely that the chart above with total outbound royalties clouds some divergent patterns.  This can be seen if we look at the contribution of the pharmaceutical and ICT sectors to the total in recent years.

Royalty Imports ICT Pharma 2016-2020

This shows that, in 2016, the amount of outbound royalties for the ICT and pharmaceutical sectors were similar.  After that though the series diverge, with outbound royalties in the ICT sector rising and those for pharmaceuticals falling.  Unfortunately, data suppression by the CSO means that the quarterly series for the ICT sector does not extend beyond Q2 2019 but the general point is clear.  Indeed, the annual figures which are available show that royalty payments from the ICT sector went from €40.7 billion in 2019 to €50.7 billion in 2020 (the first half of 2020 was €22 billion).

Destination matters

Of course, royalties leaving Ireland is only a part of the story.  Where they go to is also relevant.  By far the largest destination of these royalties are what the CSO term ‘offshore financial centres’.  In their notes the CSO set out that:

This category overlaps with the regions referred to above and covers Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Netherlands Antilles, Barbados, Bahrain, Bermuda, Bahamas, Belize, Cook Islands, Curacao, Dominica, Grenada, Guernsey, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Isle of Man, Jersey, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St Maarten, Turks and Caicos Islands, Cayman Islands, Lebanon, Saint Lucia, Liechtenstein, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Montserrat, Maldives, Nauru, Niue, Panama, Philippines, Singapore, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa.

Plenty of zero-tax or no-tax jurisdictions in there.  By the end of 2019 around half of the outbound royalties (around €10 billion a quarter) were going to offshore financial centres.

Royalty Imports to OFCs 2010-2020

It can be seen that the amounts were relatively modest up to the end of 2013 after which they increased rapidly.  The reason for this is that up to then Ireland levied a withholding tax on outbound royalty payments to non-treaty countries.  If royalty payments were made by an Irish resident person or entity to these jurisdictions some of the payment would have to be withheld and paid to the Revenue Commissioners to cover potential tax liabilities.

There was a fairly easy workaround for companies to avoid Ireland’s withholding tax on outbound royalties to non-treaty countries.  Under the EU’s Patents and Royalties directive EU member states cannot levy a withholding tax on royalty payments made to a resident of another member state. 

And as is well known The Netherlands does not levy a withholding tax on outbound payments from there to locations such as Bermuda.  This means the chart above does not fully represent the amount of outbound royalties from Ireland that are directed to ‘offshore financial centres’.

In Q4 2019, just over €8 billion of royalties went from Ireland to The Netherlands – and it’s probably safe to assume that via this “dutch sandwich” they were further transferred on to jurisdictions such as Bermuda.

All the companies doing this are US companies.  The US tax system has allowed (and incentivised) US companies to locate licenses for the use of their technologies outside the US in low-tax jurisdictions such as Caribbean Islands. 

So while the Irish subsidiaries were correctly paying for the use of technology generated elsewhere these payments were going to locations where the companies had no substance rather than where the technology was actually developed, i.e. the United States.  The primary tax payments affected by these strategies are US tax payments.

There are many reasons why these strategies will no longer be effective.  Actions 8 to 10 of the OECD’s BEPS I Project means that such payments to jurisdictions which lack the substance to produce the service or technology being paid for may no longer be tax deductible.  The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act abolished the principle of deferral in the US tax code which was a primary motivation for the creation of these structures. 

Changes to Ireland’s residence rules for Corporation Tax meant it was no longer as feasible for US companies to avail of the deferral provisions in the US tax code such as the “same country exemptions” – the basis for the “double irish” being that two companies were registered in the same country.

Google changes tack

One of the most high profile companies with the a “double irish with a dutch sandwich” structure was Google.  But this time last year Google came out and said:

“A date of termination of the Company’s licensing activities has not yet been conīŦrmed by senior leadership, however management expects that this termination will take place as of 31 December 2019 or during 2020.

“Consequently, the Company’s turnover and associated expense base generated from licensing activities will discontinue as of this date” the filing with the Dutch Chamber of Commerce added.

“We’re now simplifying our corporate structure and will license our IP (intellectual property) from the US, not Bermuda,” a spokesman said in a statement.

Can we see the impact of this in Ireland’s Balance of Payments data? It seems we can.

Eurostat don’t have a good quarterly series for royalty payments from Ireland to the Netherlands (many of the values are redacted) but there is a compete series for payments to the euro area and the available numbers suggest that payments to The Netherlands make up 90 per cent of royalty payments from Ireland to the euro area. 

For example, we know that there were €8.1 billion of royalties from Ireland to The Netherlands in Q4 2019; the total for the euro area was €8.9 billion. Anyway, let’s get to it.

Royalty Imports to Euro Area 2008-2020

Pretty clear that there was a significant change at the start of 2020.  This change doesn’t make a huge amount of difference to Google’s operations in Ireland – in the short-term at any rate.  The Irish company must still pay for the right to use Google’s technology but these license payments or royalties are no longer going to Bermuda via The Netherlands. 

Can we see where they are going?  Again it seems we can.  Here are outbound royalty payments from Ireland to the United States.

Royalty Imports to United States 2008-2020

Note that the vertical scale of both charts are the same.  It is not a huge leap to conclude that the royalty payments that went to The Netherlands in Q4 2019 went to the US in Q1 2020. 

So now rather than being parked offshore in Bermuda this income will be taxed under the provisions of the TCJA (FDII, GILTI etc.) though will likely be at a rate that is less than the 21 per cent headline rate of the federal US corporate income tax.

And so does Facebook

And it’s not just Google making these changes.  As we looked at previously Facebook’s outbound royalties from Ireland were paid to the Cayman Islands (with no stopover in The Netherlands).  Facebook have now said that:

“Facebook International Holdings Unlimited is being wound up as part of a change that best aligns with our operating structure. In preparation for the unlimited company winding up, FIH’s assets were distributed to its US parent company.

Intellectual property licenses related to our international operations have been repatriated back to the US. This change, which has been effective since July this year, best aligns corporate structure with where we expect to have most of our activities and people. We believe it is consistent with recent and upcoming tax law changes that policymakers are advocating for around the world.”

The above chart of Eurostat data of royalty payments from Ireland to the US goes to Q2 2020.  The Facebook announcement of a change in its structure from Q3 2020 means that there will be more to add to this when data for subsequent quarters are published.

Manufacturing concern

The European Commission are concerned with the level of outbound royalty payments from Ireland.  Will they still be concerned as a greater and greater share of these payments, particularly for the ICT sector, flow to the United States?  And what about in manufacturing where it is likely that the payments will continued to fall?  Will that reduction satisfy the concerns of the Commission?

When they published the Q1 2020 national accounts the CSO said:

However, royalty imports for pharmaceutical products and preparations decreased by almost €1 billion in Quarter 1, 2020 when compared with Quarter 1, 2019 and the accumulation of the IPP relocations to Ireland in recent years may now be leading to reduced quarterly royalty payments abroad.

It seems in manufacturing, that US companies in Ireland have responded to the changes in tax rules by onshoring their licenses to Ireland with their subsidiaries here undertaking an acquisition of the license.  The capital cost incurred will be deductible for tax with the eligible amounts set out under Ireland’s rules for capital allowances.

The BEPS project’s overarching objective was to try and ensure that company profits were aligned with substance.  US MNCs had little or no substance on Caribbean Islands and maintaining the licenses they had there was no longer feasible.. 

But for US MNCs that have operations in Ireland is there a reason why ICT companies such as Google and Facebook have decided to relocate these licenses to the US while pharmaceutical companies and other manufacturing companies have onshored the licenses to Ireland?

It may come down to that BEPS objective – or, more particularly when it comes to intangible assets, DEMPE. This stands for the development, enhancement, maintenance, protection and exploitation of the intangible asset. 

It seems that US manufacturing companies have decided they have sufficient DEMPE activities in Ireland (or that they could move to Ireland) to justify co-locating the license to use their intellectual property with their production facilities in Ireland.  On the other hand it seems that US ICT companies have decided they do not have, and will not have, sufficient DEMPE activities in Ireland to justify co-locating their licenses here.

Should this be a concern for Ireland? Perhaps.  By onshoring their licenses to Ireland the manufacturing companies are further embedding their presence here.  It is another spoke in wheel solidifying their presence here.  ICT companies such as Google and Facebook have not moved their IP to Ireland.  As a result their international headquarters are a bit more footloose.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The Contribution of the Domestic Non-Financial Corporate Sector to Recent Growth and Some Taxing Questions

In an earlier post we went through some of the remarkable improvements for the household sector in recent years.  Of course, an outstanding question is: where did the growth come from?  We can get some insight into this from the same sector accounts. 

Current Account

Here we will look at the Irish-owned non-financial corporate sector which as we will see has been a major contributor to recent growth.  First, the current account. Click to enlarge.

Domestic NFC ISA Current Account 2013-2019

Some of the changes here are very significant.  Between 2013 and 2019, output of domestic NFCs increased by 55 per cent, wage paid by 66 per cent and gross operating surplus by 83 per cent.  Compared to where they were in 2013, last year NFCs produced €53 billion more output, paid employees €18 billion more and generated €12.5 billion more profit. 

These have been a significant factor underlying the economy’s recent growth.  A useful sectoral breakdown is also provided.  Here are the domestic sources of compensation of employees (with domestic financial corporates (NACE K) also included))

Domestic Corporate COE Paid 2013-2019

The largest relative increase was the 130 per cent rise in employee compensation from domestic ICT companies (NACE J). The largest absolute increase was the €2.6 billion increase in employee compensation from professional, scientific and technical activities companies (NACE M), with mining and manufacturing (B,C), wholesale and retail (G), and administrative and support services (N) as well as ICT also recording increased greater than €2 billion.

Some of the other notable changes in the current account of the domestic NFC sector are the near 1,000 per cent increase the retained earnings of foreign subsidiaries and related entities of Irish-owned NFCs, the 500 per cent increases in dividends received and the 13 per cent increase in Corporation Tax paid. 

Two per cent tax rates?

It is surprising to see such a small increase in Corporation Tax paid by domestic NFCs over a period when all performance indictors improved significant.  The figures are this item are a significant revision on what the CSO reported this time last year. For example, it was previously reported that domestic NFCs paid €1.6 billion of Corporation Tax in 2018.  This is now estimated to be just €0.5 billion. 

It is not clear why there has been such a significant downward revision.  Nor is it clear that the figure is correct.  If we take the figures for depreciation from the capital account we can get the Net Operating Surplus of the sector.  This is probably the closest proxy of the tax base for Corporation Tax in the sector accounts and is akin to EBIT (the FISIM adjustment excepted).  Anyway, using Net Operating Surplus we can get some effective tax rates.

Domestic NFC Tax Paid 2013-2019

Those certainly are some eye-catching numbers down at the bottom.  Perhaps there is some support for this in the Revenue Commissioners research paper on recent Corporation Tax receipts which shows that non-multinationals (i.e., domestic companies) have the lowest effective tax rates in their data.

However, that conclusion was based on an effective tax rate in 2018 or 7.4 per cent which is almost three times larger than what the national accounts are showing.  Differences in definitions and coverage aside that is a large gap to be explained. No explanation is offered here.

Capital Account

We dipped into the capital account with the depreciation figures used above and here it is in full.

Domestic NFC ISA Capital Account 2013-2019

Again, we are looking at some large increases over the period.  In line with the rise in profits (and seeming absence of a rise in taxes) the annual increase in net worth rose significantly over the period.

Of this, ever more was used for gross capital formation, with the investment spending of domestic NFCs rising from €7 billion in 2013 to €19 billion in 2019.  There was no year where this fully exhausted the gross saving available and for each of the past seven years the domestic NFC sector has been a net lender. 

That is, after working through the current and capital accounts there was a residual surplus that was transferred to the financial balance sheet.  And it could be that some this is going on the financial balance of foreign subsidiaries or related companies given the increase in the retained earnings on FDI shown in the current account.

Financial Balance Sheet 

We don’t have a financial transactions account so move straight to the financial balance sheet.  As we said last year this has been exploding.

Domestic NFC ISA Financial Balance Sheet 2012-2019

The financial assets of the Irish-owned NFC sector have gone from €167 billion in 2012 to €513 billion last year.  On the other side of the balance sheet, financial liabilities have gone from €175 billion to €633 billion.   Even with the huge increase in the gross figures, the net financial worth of the sector has been largely unchanged, going from –€108 billion in 2012 to –€120 billion last year.

Such is the scale of the increases across the available categories it’s actually pretty hard to determine what is going on.  But for both financial assets and liabilities there has been extraordinary growth in the equity category.  Are there some form of circular transactions taking place?

While the balance-sheet amounts are massive we didn’t really see significant distortions in the current account.  Yes, there has been a surge in the retained earnings of foreign related entities.  This was €3 billion in 2019 and it is possible that some of this should be included in operating surplus.

It would be nice to see the interest figures before the FISIM adjustment but they are only published by Eurostat who do not use the bespoke sectoral breakdown employed by the CSO.


All-in-all it looks like there are two things going on in the domestic NFC sector.  The first is a large, and very real, contribution to the growth of the Irish economy in recent years with significant increases in output, wages and profits.  This has driven a lot of the improvements that occurred pre-COVID.

The second is some kind of financial engineering on the balance sheets of (some) domestic NFCs.  It is possible this involves some sort of circular international transactions with huge increases on both sides of the balance sheet but limited impact on net worth.  To the extent, that there are flows which might, for example, reduce the tax base in Ireland, is unclear.  And, indeed, the tax paid on the tax base of this sector that remains seems unusually low with an estimated effective rate of not much more than two per cent.

So a mix of the good and the unexplained.

Friday, November 6, 2020

The convergence of urban-rural incomes in the SILC

In recent years, the Survey of Income and Living Conditions has shown remarkable improvements for Irish households with significant rises in income and significant falls in inequality.  One feature within the findings has been the narrowing of the urban-rural divide.

To start, just look at real income.

SILC CSO Median Real Equivalised Disposable Income Urban-Rural 2004-2018

In 2013, median real equivalised disposable income in rural areas was just 85 per cent of that in urban areas.  For the past couple of years it has been 95 per cent or higher.

For the purposes of the SILC, households are classed as living in an urban or rural area based on population density (as measured by the 2016 Census).  Areas with a population density of less than 1,000 per square kilometre are classified as rural.  In 2019, 30.9 per cent of the weighted sample were in rural areas.

With incomes by area we can also look at at-risk-of-poverty rates by area.  This is the percentage of people living in households with an equivalised income below 60 per cent of the national median.  For 2019, the threshold used by the CSO was an income after taxes and transfers of €33,400 for a household of 2 adults and 2 children.

In previous years, as the rural category had a lower income, it had a higher at-risk-of-poverty rate. This reversed in 2019.

SILC CSO At-Risk-Of-Poverty Rate Urban-Rural 2004-2018

We don’t have inequality figures by status but this could be taken to imply that there is less inequality in rural areas at the bottom of the income distribution.

The at-risk-of-poverty rate is a relative income measure.  To help with understanding differences in living conditions we can look at deprivation rates.  This is the percentage of individuals living in households who experience two or more items of deprivation from a list of 11.  According to the CSO for the population as a whole:

In 2019, the most common item of deprivation experienced was the inability to afford to replace any worn out furniture (18.1%), followed by being unable to afford to have family or friends for a drink or meal once a month (13.6%) and being unable to afford a morning, afternoon or evening out in the last fortnight (11.7%).

Here are the rates for urban and rural areas.

SILC CSO Deprivation Rate Urban-Rural 2004-2018

These have always been closer than the income levels or at-risk-of-poverty rates might imply.  This is likely because those in rural areas face a lower price set compared to those in urban areas, most notably for housing.

Over the past few years, rural area have had a lower deprivation rate than urban areas and though the fall that had been evident in both since 2013 stopped in 2019, the gap between them increased.  There was no significant change in the deprivation rate for rural areas in 2019 while it rose in urban areas.

Finally, we can look at the consistent poverty rate which is a measure that combines those at-risk-of-poverty and also experiencing deprivation.

SILC CSO Consistent Poverty Rate Urban-Rural 2004-2018

Given what this shows it wouldn’t be out of place to talk about urban-rural divergence in the SILC rather than convergence.  In 2019, the consistent poverty rate for rural areas continued to fall and was less than half what it was in urban areas (3.1 per cent versus 6.5 per cent). 

The “rural Ireland being left behind” narrative is a common refrain.  There is no evidence of it here.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

The position of the household sector as we entered the crisis

Last week, the CSO published the 2019 Financial and Non-Financial Institutional Sector Accounts.  Obviously, with the emergence of COVID-19 this is a world away from where we find ourselves now but it is instructive to see where we were with the onset of the crisis.  We previously looked at some of the COVID-generated chaos in the household sector with the Q2 2020 sector accounts here.

The non-financial accounts of last week’s publication give the incomes and expenditures of each sector and then how they translate through the positions for items like loans and deposits is shown in the financial accounts. 

Here we will look at the household sector.  First, an extended version of the current account for the household sector. Click to enlarge.

Household Sector Current Account 2015-2019 Full

OK, lots more detail there then we need to go through.  The headline results are that Gross Disposable Income rose 7.3 per cent in 2019 to reach €114.2 billion.  Household Final Consumption Expenditure rose 5.6 per cent and was €102.0 billion.  Income rising faster than consumption meant savings rose and the Savings Rate was 12.2 per cent in 2019.

The most significant change for the household sector in recent years has been the rise in employee compensation received.  In 2015, this was €77 billion.  By 2019 it exceeded €100 billion.  The was driven by an expansion of employment and an increase in earnings.

Household Sector COE Paid 2003-2019

By far, the largest source of the increase were non-financial corporations, and COE from this sector was €15 billion higher than it was at the previous local maximum in 2007 and 2008.  For more recent years, we have a breakdown of this between domestic and foreign NFCs, noting that foreign NFCs include traditional FDI as well as foreign-owned companies with a presence to serve the domestic market.

Household Sector COE Domestic and Foreign NFCs 2013-2019

In recent years, COE growth from domestic firms has outstripped that from foreign firms.  In 2015, were responsible for 35.5 per cent of the COE that arose in NFCs, €16.8 billion out of €47.4 billion.  By 2019, the foreign share was down to 32.6 per cent, €21.4 billion out of €65.7 billion.

Further up the table it can be seen that that the mixed income of the self-employed was much less buoyant than employee compensation. Self employed income, which includes agriculture, went from €11.6 billion in 2015 to €12.3 billion in 2019. 

There was a substantial increase in the Gross Operating Surplus of the household sector from €12.2 billion in 2015 to €18.9 billion in 2019.  The GOS of the household sector is derived from the provision of housing services.  Most of this is income from “imputed rents” said to be paid by owner-occupiers to themselves (this nets out further down the table via “imputed rent” expenditure in consumption). Household GOS also includes the surplus generated from actual rents for housing earned by households who own buy-to-let properties.

Household Sector GOS and MIxed Income 2003-2019

In the allocation of primary income account there isn’t a whole lot going on.  We will consider interest flows – though before the adjustment is made for Financial Intermediary Services Indirectly Measured (FISIM). No, let’s not go there. 

Here are the gross interest flows for the household sector from Eurostat.

Household Sector Interest 2003-2019

Interest received is down to less than €300 million while interest paid has been €4 billion or slightly under for the past six years or so.  As stated, most else in this part of the current account has been relatively stable.  There has been a bit of a bounce in dividends received by the household sector which exceeded €2 billion for the first time in 2019.

The next part of the table works through income taxes and social contributions paid, social benefits received and other transfers paid and received.  The net outcome here gives us the difference between Gross National and Gross Disposable Income. 

The gap between the blue and red lines below can be considered part of the contribution of the household sector (including employers’ social insurance contributions) to the non-cash-transfer cost of government.

Household Sector Income and Consumption 2004-2019

We can see that back in 2010 there was close to no difference between Gross National and Gross Disposable Income for the household sector.  This means the amount the government collected from income tax and social contributions from household income was almost fully matched by the amount the government paid in social benefits to households. 

Household Sector Net Tax Social Position with Government 1995-2019

Since 2010, the gap has opened significantly and exceeded €15 billion in 2019 as the amount of tax and social contributions collected (Income Tax, USC & PRSI) has risen but the amount of social contributions paid has been relatively stable (n.b. this only goes up to 2019!).

Going back to the previous chart, the gap between the red and green line gives the amount of disposable income that is not used for consumption: household savings.

Household Sector Savings Rate Revised 1995-2019

In 2019, the household savings rate is estimated to have been just over 12 per cent.  There have only been two years since 1995 when it was higher: the crisis years of 2009 and 2010. 

The income of the household sector had been growing rapidly in advance of the COVID-19 crisis but the gains were not being used for current consumption.  What was the household sector doing with the income it wasn’t spending?  The possibilities are that the money was used for capital spending or put on the financial balance sheet.  To assess that we can look at the capital account.

Household Sector Capital Account 2015-2019

The bottom line here is the household sector has not been using the additional savings from the current account for capital spending.  There are a couple of other minor capital flows to account for but the main take from the capital accounts is [S – I], savings minus investment.

In 2015, households had €8.0 billion of gross saving and did €4.4 billion of capital spending leaving €3.6 billion for net lending,  By 2019, household gross saving was nearly €14 billion and while household capital spending had increased it was still less than €7 billion.  This meant in increase in net lending to €7.4 billion.

Near the bottom of the above presentation of the capital account we can see net capital formation: the difference between gross capital formation and consumption of fixed capital (depreciation).  This shows that there have been very modest net additions to the household sector capital stock. 

Household Sector Gross and Net Capital Formation 2003-2019

Indeed, as recent as 2015, household gross investment was not sufficient to cover depreciation.  In 2019, the net increase in the household capital stock was just €1.1 billion which isn’t much more than the amount investment grants received by the household sector for the likes of retro-fit projects.  It’s probably not a surprise that household capital formation remains muted given the modest increases in the supply of new housing, which is the main capital formation the household sector engages in.

But let’s look at what the household sector did with the €7.4 billion that was left after all current and capital spending has been accounted for.  So we switch from the non-financial to the financial accounts and start with the Financial Transactions Account.

Household Sector Financial Transaction Accoun 2015-2019

The bottom line here, net financial transactions, is slightly larger than the net lending we saw at the end of the capital account, but not significantly so.  What are the household sector doing with the resources they have left after their spending has changed in recent years. 

Household Sector Contribution to Net Wealth

Back in 2012, the increase in net household wealth due to financial transactions was mainly happening via loan repayments with only a modest increase due to adding to deposits.  Over the following years this reversed and in 2019 most of the contribution to net wealth due to financial deposits was from increases to deposits.

Of course, this may not simply be due to changes in what the household sector is doing with its net lending surplus.  For example, if one household takes out a mortgage to buy a house from another household who put that money on deposit that will reduce the contribution of loans to net wealth and increase the contribution of deposits in net wealth but in overall terms the impact of this on the net wealth of the household sector is zero.

Anyway, let’s look at the impact on the financial balance sheet of the household sector.

Household Sector Financial Balance Sheet 2015-2019

Here we can see that the change from 2015 to 2019 in the values on the balance sheet roughly corresponds to the sum of transactions over the same period as shown in the previous table.  The only significant exception to this is insurance and pensions reserves which, as well as increasing due to household contributions, have also increase due to revaluation effects, i.e. rising asset values.

We can see that the above reflects the rising deposits and falling loans from the financial transactions account.  The stock of loan liabilities of households fell from €146.9 billion at the end of 2015 to €130.9 billion at the end of 2019.  On the asset side of the balance sheet, the amount of current and deposits rose from €129.0 billion to €147.2 billion.

Here is a chart with a longer series highlighting that the reversal of the relative size of loans and deposits takes us back to a position last seen in 2002.

Household Sector Loans and Deposits 2001-2019 CSO

Using these stocks of loans and deposits and the amount of interest paid we can calculated implied interest rates.  The average interest on loans was around three per cent.  The average interest rate on deposits is essentially zero.  After narrowing post 2008, the interest differential or margin between loans and deposits is back to where it was in the early 2000s (around three percentage points).

Household Sector Implied Interest Rates 2001-2019

We can get a better relative position if we put the stocks of loans and deposits as a share of income rather than just looking at the nominal levels.  This shows that the 2019 loan/deposit position of the household sector, in aggregate terms at least, was pretty much back to where it was in 2001/02.

Household Sector Loans and Deposits to GDI 2001-2019 CSO

The current account showed us that the income of the household sector has recovered all the losses suffered in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.  And now we can see that the worst of the excesses of the credit bubble have been purged from the household sector financial balance sheet. The COVID crisis is wrecking havoc.  The consequences of that would be far worse if the pre-crisis position of household sector was not as strong as it was.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Why has income inequality fallen in Ireland?

The question of why income inequality has fallen in Ireland should get more traction in the discussion of social outcomes in Ireland.  If rising inequality is a global concern shouldn’t we there be a wider understanding of how one of the few countries to generate a reduction in inequality achieved it?

Ginis from 1980s to now 

The measurement of inequality is a non-trivial task.  For our purposes here we will limit the discussion to gini coefficients from survey data and look at estimates of gini coefficients for market, gross and disposable incomes.  These are good indicators but by no means perfect.

The gini coefficient has a range of zero to one.  Zero represents perfectly equality – everyone has the same; one represents perfect inequality – one person has everything.  Anyway, here are changes since the 1980s in the gini coefficients of disposable income for a sample of countries covered by the Luxembourg Income Study.

LIS Gini Coefficient Change 1980s 2010s Ranked

For most of the selected countries, income inequality increased. And there is Ireland down close to the bottom with a reduction in its gini coefficient of 0.034 (from 0.328 in 1987 to 0.294 in 2010).  For the sample as a whole, the arithmetic mean of the gini coefficients increased by 0.023 (from 0.269 in the 1980s to 0.292 for the latest estimates). 

As can be seen in the outer panels, Ireland went from being one of the most unequal countries in the sample in the 1980s to being pretty much in the middle by the 2010s.  So why has Ireland’s relative position improved?  Why hasn’t Ireland seen the increase in inequality that has been evident in most other high-income countries?

Primary Income, Transfers, Gross Income, Taxes and Disposable Income

The sample in the above chart was chosen because of the availability of estimates using data from the Luxembourg Income Study of comparable estimates of the gini coefficient going back to the 1980s for:

  • primary income (labour income + capital income + private transfers)
  • gross income (primary income + social transfers)
  • disposable income (gross income after tax)

Using  these we can assess the impact of the starting point of primary income, the contribution of social transfers tp gross income and the impact of income taxes on the changes in a country’s gini coefficient for disposable income over the past 30 years or so.

We’ll start with a table of the raw data from Caminada, Wang, Goudswaard & Wang (2017) which has useful information on the definitions and variables used.  There is also estimates for many more countries but the sample selected here is one which allows a full comparison between the 1980s and 2010s for primary, gross and disposable incomes.

Gini by Income Type 1980s 2010s

OK, lots going on there.  From an Irish perspective what do we see?  Well, for primary income (labour income + capital income + private transfers) Ireland had the highest gini coefficient for both time period. 

Ireland was average for the impact of social transfers on income inequality in the 1980s but was highest in the 2010s.  The latest available year for Ireland in the study was 2010 which obviously was the midst of a crisis period following the crash of 2008 so unemployment transfers may be a factor.  We will come back to this.

In terms of gross income (primary income + social transfers) Ireland went from inequality that was well above the average in the 1980s to being slightly above the average in the 2010s.  For the impact of taxes (including social contributions) on inequality, in the 1980s, Ireland was close to the average and moved to having one of the largest impacts of taxes by the 2010s.

And the bottom line is, that within this group of countries, Ireland went from having inequality in disposable income which was well above the average in the 1980s to being pretty much bang on the average in the 2010s.  Ireland’s gini coefficient went from being 0.06 above the average in the 1980s (which in relative terms was 22 per cent higher) to being equal to the average in the 2010s.

But this headline approach only hints at why Ireland has seen a reduction in inequality while it has risen in most other high-income countries.  Next, we identify the changes in the above table.

Gini Changes by Income Type 1980s 2010s

Like the chart at the top, the table here is ranked by change in inequality in disposable income (in absolute terms).

We can explicitly see now that inequality in primary income increased in all of the selected countries, bar France where there was essentially no change.  In absolute terms, the increase in the gini coefficient for primary income in Ireland was close to the average of the group.  In relative terms, the increase in Ireland was lower (as Ireland had a higher level of primary income inequality to begin with).

The impact of social transfers on income inequality generally increased across the group.  There were some countries where the impact of transfers fell (notably Slovakia and The Netherlands) but typically across the group, social transfers were doing more to reduce inequality in the 2010s than they were in the 1980s.

Up to 2010 at least, the largest increase in the impact of social transfers in the group was seen in Ireland.  On average across the group, the impact of social transfers reduced the gini coefficient by an additional 0.02 in the 2010s compared to the 1980s.  In Ireland, the additional impact of transfers in 2010 was 0.06.

This meant that the inequality of gross income (primary income plus social transfers) was largely unchanged in Ireland between the 1987 and 2010 where the average of the gini coefficients for gross income rose by 0.03 across the group as a whole.

The final contribution to the change in inequality is income taxes.  Here there was a mixed range of outcomes such that the average change in the impact of taxes on inequality was close to zero.  But within the group, the impact of taxes on inequality fell in Israel, Australia and Switzerland, whereas it increased in Finland, Norway, Denmark and Ireland.

Initial Conclusions: 1987 to 2010

Therefore, when looking at why income inequality in Ireland fell over period 1987 to 2010 we could initially conclude that:

  1. Ireland had a similar absolute increase in primary income inequality that other high income countries;
  2. The impact of social transfers on inequality increased in Ireland by more than the average increase in other countries; and
  3. The impact of taxes on inequality increased in Ireland while it was unchanged on average across other countries.

Taxes and Transfers

So, why did income inequality fall in Ireland while it rose in other countries? Government policies – or, at least, the impact of government policies. This summarises the change in the impact of social transfers and income taxes on inequality.

Gini Changes from Taxes and Transfers 1980s 2010s

The fiscal levers in most countries were doing more in the 2010s to reduce inequality than they were in the 1980s, but were not keeping pace with the increase in the inequality of primary income.  In the Netherlands, Israel and Slovakia the impact of transfers and taxes on inequality was reduced.

Ireland stands out as having the largest increase in the impact of taxes and transfers on inequality, and as this was greater than the impact of the increase in the inequality of primary income, we get the resultant fall in income inequality in Ireland.

That was 2010. What about now?

Of course, in any analysis such as this end points matter.  2010 was the last year for Ireland included in the study and that could not be considered a typical year.  The OECD also publish estimates of gini coefficients for market, gross and disposable income but unlike the study used here only go back to 2004.  But the OECD estimates do allow us to assess what has happened since 2010.

A comparison of the OECD estimates for 2010 with those derived using the Luxembourg Income Study for the same year shows they are very similar.

  • Market/primary income: OECD 0.577; LIS 0.564
  • Gross income: OECD 0.369; LIS 0.366
  • Disposable Income OECD 0.298; LIS 0.294

For gross income and disposable income they are essentially the same.  There is a bit of a difference for market/primary income but that is likely because they use different starting points.  The OECD’s definition of market income is labour income plus capital income.  Primary income in the study using the LIS data is labour income plus capital income plus private transfers. 

This means that transfers like voluntary individual pensions are included in the definition of primary income in the LIS study but not included in the definition of market income used by the OECD.  Anyway, it is not a significant factor and changes in the OECD estimates are likely to closely reflect what would happen to the LIS estimates if they were updated for recent years.

So, what do the OECD estimates of income inequality since 2010 for Ireland show?

Ginis Ireland OECD 2010-2017

Thus, we see that in the seven years to 2017, market inequality fell (likely due to the significant increases in employment from 2012 on) while the impact of transfers on inequality fell by more. It would have fallen as a lower share of the working-age population were reliant on transfers with the additional fall possibly because the growth rate of transfers did not keep pace with wage growth.  Over the period the impact of taxes on inequality increased but this is very much driven by the 2017 data point.

Preliminary Conclusions: 1987 to 2017

It’s a bit of an extrapolation but if we were comparing the changes in inequality in Ireland from 1987 (using the estimates derived by the LIS) to 2017 (using the OECD’s estimates) we would say that inequality fell in Ireland because:

  • market income inequality rose by less than it did in other countries;
  • the impact of social transfers on inequality increased by around the same amount as it did in other countries; and
  • the impact of taxes on inequality increased by more than it did in other countries.

Lets look at these in a bit more detail to see how they stack up.

Inequality of Primary and Market Income

The work Caminada, Wang, Goudswaard & Wang (2017) is useful as it provides estimates of primary income inequality going back to the 1980s.  The countries in the sample in this piece are those that have these estimates in gross terms (i.e. before taxes).  A shortcoming is that the estimates do not extend beyond 2013, or earlier for some countries.  As shown above the OECD have estimates of gini coefficients for market income available for recent years.

Gini Primary and Market Income LIS and OECD

For most countries there is little difference between the estimates of the gini coefficient for primary income based on the data in the Luxembourg Income Study and the those for market income as published by the OECD.  For example, the LIS primary income gini for Ireland for 2010 is 0.564 while the OECD market income gini for the same year is 0.577.  The treatment of private transfers and voluntary individual pensions is likely responsible for the difference.  In all instances shown for this group of countries, Ireland had the highest inequality in primary or market income.

It is taking a small liberty but we will extend the gini coefficients for primary income from the LIS to recent years using the relative changes in the OECD’s gini coefficient for market income.

Gini Market Income Estimated Change 1980s to 2010s

This suggests that from the mid-1980s to the late 2010s the average gini coefficient for primary income in this group increased by 0.04 (from 0.44 to 0.48).  Ireland had a lower increase in the inequality of primary income with gini estimated to have increased by 0.01 (from 0.51 and 0.52).

Sidetrack: A Quick Sense Check

Here is a chart to see if the gini coefficients for primary income in the LIS dataset (orange) and those for market income is the OECD dataset (blue) track each other for Ireland.

Gini Coefficients LIS OECD Primary Income 1987 2017

It is pretty clear that from 2004 to 2010 they do.  There is no reason to believe that the reduction in market income inequality seen in the OECD data since 2012 will not also be evident in the equivalent measure for primary income in the LIS data, if more recent updates are provided.

Also included in the above chart are the best measures of primary income inequality in the LIS waves for Ireland from the late 1990s.  For these years, data on household disposable income was collected as well as data on transfers payments received but it appears the surveys did not include data on income taxes paid. 

So, the grey line above represents primary income with taxes deducted.  Essentially it is the inequality of disposable income excluding transfers.  The estimates suggest market income inequality declined in Ireland in the late 1990s.

Finally, Eurostat’s gini coefficient of income before social transfers (pensions included in social transfers) is shown.  This indicates that the inequality of market income increased in the early 2000s and again after the crash in 2008.  It has been falling in recent years. 

The Eurostat series is pushed back one year to align with the OECD measure in the chart which is estimated from the same survey data but assigns the results to a year earlier than Eurostat.  Eurostat assigns their indicators to the year the data is collected.  The OECD assign their versions of the indicators to the previous year, as that is the time period to which most of the data actually collected applied to.  Anyway, the series clearly track each other; sense check completed; on we go.

The Impact of Social Transfers

While the impact on inequality of social transfers in Ireland is close to the average of the group of countries being assessed, one thing worth noting is that Ireland has a younger population than most of the countries in the sample, or more particularly Ireland has a lower share of the population aged 65 and over.

As pensions are typically the transfer with the biggest impact on inequality it would suggest that Ireland would not be out of line if the impact of social transfers on inequality was lower than in other high-income countries.  Estimates from Caminada, Wang, Goudswaard & Wang (2017) allow us to assess the contribution of various fiscal transfers to gross income.

LIS Contribution of Fiscal Transfers to Gross Income

For Ireland, 2007 is used rather than 2010 as so to get estimates from a non-crisis period.  And we can clearly see that in Ireland social transfers related to old-age make a significantly smaller contribution to gross income compared to almost all the other countries in the sample; only Australia is lower.

In aggregate terms the contribution in Ireland of social transfers to gross income matches the overall average (both are around 22 per cent).  The lower contribution in Ireland from old-age-related transfers is made up by a significantly higher contribution from transfers related to family and children and transfers linked to unemployment.  For the selected countries, Ireland has the largest contribution to gross income from transfers related to family and children.

For these transfers Ireland also has the largest impact on inequality due to them.  But this wasn’t always the case.  As the chart shows in the 1980s the gini impact of family and children transfers in Ireland was in line with the average of the group.  Click to enlarge.

LIS Impact of Family Children Transfers on Gini 1980s 2010s

Over the following 30 years, Ireland saw the largest increase in the use of family and children social transfers in reducing inequality.  Across the other countries, only Australia and to a lesser extent the UK, expanded the use of this category of social transfers in reducing inequality.  For most countries the contribution was unchanged, or even slightly down.

By 2010s, Ireland had the largest impact from these transfers on inequality with an impact that was almost three times largest than the average impact across the group.

Impact of Taxes

To show how the impact of taxes on inequality has changed consider the following table.  It shows income taxes (plus social contributions) as a per cent of gross income and the absolute reduction in the gini coefficient as a result of taxes for our group of countries in the 1980s and in the 2010s.  Estimates are not available for France.

LIS Taxes in Gross Income and Gini Impact of Taxes

Also included is a column for the “gini impact per 1 p.p. of taxes in gross income” which is impact of taxes on the gini coefficient divided by the percent of taxes in gross income.  This is a proxy for the progressiveness of the income tax system.

For Ireland we can see that in both time periods the share of taxes in gross income was about three percentage points below the average (20% versus 23% in the 1980s and 19% versus 22% in the 2010s). 

In the 1980s, the impact of taxes on the gini coefficient in Ireland was close to the average (-.045 versus –0.040).  By the 2010s, taxes in Ireland had a much greater impact on the gini coefficient (-0.072 versus –0.042).

We can highlight this if we look at the change in the “gini impact per 1 p.p. of taxes in gross income”.

LIS Change in Gini Impact of Income Taxes

For the group of countries as a whole, the gini impact of 1 p.p. of taxes in gross income was essentially unchanged – and most countries recorded very small changes.  The largest reduction was in Switzerland while the largest increased, by, far, were recorded in Finland and Ireland.  The implication is that income taxes have become more progressive in these countries (or at least that the inequality impact of income taxes has increased).

Putting All Three Together: Final Conclusions

So what are our final conclusions?  Why did income inequality in Ireland fall in the 30 years from 1987 to 2017 while it increased in most other high-income countries?  We conclude that:

  • Ireland experienced a smaller increase in market income inequality than most other high income countries so less additional redistribution was needed to stand still.
  • The impact of social transfers on reducing inequality increased in Ireland over the past 30 years with Ireland having the largest increase in the impact of child and family related social transfers on inequality.
  • The impact of income taxes on reducing inequality increased in Ireland over the past 30 by more than in most other high-income countries.

So, the increased impact of transfers and taxes more than offset the modest increase in market income inequality and hence disposable income inequality in Ireland fell. QED.

Lessons for Elsewhere 

Can Ireland export the antidote to rising inequality?  Possibly but only to some extent.  The impact of policy on inequality in Ireland is well understood.  For example, from Callan, Bercholz and Walsh (2018) we have an assessment of the distributive impact of 2014 tax and welfare policies versus 1987 policies:

Callan Impact of 2014 wage and welfare versus 1987 policies

If 1987 tax and welfare policies (indexed for wage growth) were in place in 2014, household income would, on average be around ten per cent lower.  The largest losses would be experienced by the two lowest deciles, with the income of the bottom decile around 30 per cent lower.

The corollary of this of course, is that the largest percentage income gains from the tax and welfare policies that were introduced in Ireland from 1987 to 2014 went to the bottom deciles.  Giving the largest gains to the bottom deciles will result in a reduction in inequality.  Policy has been one of the major factors in the reduction in inequality in Ireland.

Of course, whether other countries want to go with Ireland’s flat-rated system of welfare and state pension payments, our increased use of child and family related social transfers and our tendency to take people “out of the tax net” is another matter.  Countries may have priorities and objectives other than reducing income inequality that frame their policy choices. 

They may wish to have pension systems where the benefits and not just the contributions are earnings related.  They may wish to provide services for families and children rather than cash transfers.  They may wish to have a broader tax base with tax collected across all income levels rather than being concentrated on the top.  In many ways these would be considered progressive choices but they would likely lead to an increase in measurements of income inequality.

And there is one thing from Ireland of the past 30 years that other countries are unlikely to be able to recreate: The Great Transformation.

Non Agri Employment as Share of Population 1971-2019

As we said above end-points matter.  We looked above at with has happened in the OECD data since 2010.  But also looks at what happened since 1987 – a near miracle increase in employment.  In the past 30 years, the percentage of the Ireland’s population in non-agricultural employment almost doubled.  The expansion of employment will have resulted in an expansion in the distribution of market earnings.  While government policy undoubtedly had a role to play in the reduction in inequality the impact of the turnaround of the economy should not be overlooked either.

Income and Inequality

To conclude we take an extract from a table in this paper by Thewissen, Kenworthy, Nolan, Roser, and Smeeding (2015) and here.  We will do so to add the growth of household income to the changes in income inequality discussed above.  The chart here shows average annual real growth rate in median equivalised income and the average annual change in the gini coefficient.

LIS Gini Change versus Income Growth

It’s not too hard to count the number of countries from our sample that made it into the quadrant for high income growth with falling income inequality. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The serene progression of household disposable income (and the chaos beneath it)

The CSO have published the Q2 update of the Institutional Sector Accounts.  It was worth the days’ delay for what are a pretty remarkable set of figures.  Here we will focus on the household sector and highlight some of the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on the figures.

The Current Account

A key outcome for the household sector is Gross Disposable Income*: the amount of resources that are available for consumption or saving.  The annual change of this suggests little of note happened in Q2 with household GDI recording annual growth of five per cent, in line with the strong growth that has been seen in recent years.   

Household Sector Gross Disposable Income Annual Change 2013-2020

But household gross income is the swan moving serenely across the water while its legs are going like the clappers below the waterline.  Let’s go under to see what has really been happening to household income. It’s pretty dramatic.

* When discussing incomes from the national accounts it is worth noting that “gross” means before depreciation. Gross income is the amount of income that is available for consumption and investment.  Some investment must go to replace depleted or exhausted capital assets.  This doesn’t really leave us better off than we were before as all we have done is replenish the value of the assets used. It would generally be better to use income after depreciation, or net income, as the main metric but differences and inconsistencies in how depreciation is means that precedence is given to gross measures in most instances.*

Anyway, here’s our table for the household sector current account which this time shows the second quarter of each of the past four years.  A version of the table with H1 for the past for years is here.

Household Sector Accounts Q2 2017-2020

Naturally, lots of attention went to the bottom line – the unprecedented surge in saving.  In the second quarter of 2020, the gross saving of Irish households almost trebled compared to the same quarter of 2019, with the increase of €7.2 billion bringing them to €12.1 for the quarter.  Most of the increase has ended up swelling household deposit accounts.  Here’s the savings rate since 2004.

Household Savings Rate 2005-2020 2

Yes, that is a stunning increase but, given the crisis we are going through, the really remarkable figure is what we showed in the serene chart at the top – gross disposable income.  As we said, in Q2 2020 this was five per cent higher than it was in 2019. Lower consumption (-22.8%) was the main driver of the spike in the savings rate but an increase in income contributed as well.

Contribution to Disposable Income: Earnings

In the face of the COVID-19 crisis,

household income has held up remarkably well – in aggregate terms at least.  Beneath that stability there has been some pretty significant shifts in how that household disposable income was generated. 

In Q2, wages from the private sector were around €2.3 billion lower than in the same quarter last year. And this in itself was boosted with around €1.5 billion from the government’s wage subsidy scheme flowing through companies to their employees. 

Absent the wage subsidy scheme, wages from the private sector would have been 20 per cent lower than last year.  As it was they were down around 12 per cent.  This is a fall that is comparable to the crisis that followed the bursting of the credit bubble.

Household Sector Private Sector Wages Received Annual Change 2004-2020

And, again, that Q2 2020 data point could be –20 per cent if the effect of the government wage subsidy scheme was removed.  We can compare the change in employee compensation in the Sector Accounts to the change in employment in the Labour Force Survey.

Annual Changes in Employment and Earnings 2012-2020

These are not quite perfect comparators but are as good as we can do.  Per the Labour Force Survey total employment in Q2 2020 was almost 25 per cent lower than it was a year earlier.  Including the wage subsidy scheme, aggregate employee compensation was down just over eight per cent.  This is one reason why Income Tax receipts have held up reasonably well.  It suggests that the biggest employment hit was on part-time and lower paid employees.

Going back to the table we can see that the general government pay bill was up around four per cent or just over €200 million in Q2 2020 compared to Q2 2019.  This is inline with the recent increases in aggregate wages from the government sector which on an annual basis have gone from €19 billion in 2013 to €24 billion this year.

General Government COE Annual Change 2013-2020

With some modest changes in other factor flows (interest, dividends etc.) the Gross National Income of the household sector in Q2 2020 was down nearly eight per cent (€2.6 billion) compared to the same quarter of 2019. 

Household Sector Gross Income Annual Change 2002-2020

With wages forming the largest part of the household sector’s gross income it is not a surprise that the changes in gross income are similar to those for employee compensation.  Again, we are looking at a drop not seen since the crash of a 2008/09.

Contribution to Disposable Income: Taxes and Transfers

After gross income has been determined we work through taxes and transfers to get disposable income.  The drop in earnings in Q2 2020 feeds through to a drop in taxes and social contributions both of which were down around one-tenth compared the same quarter last year.  But the real action in this part of the table is with social benefits received, particularly those from the government sector.  First, the annual changes.

Household Sector Government Transfers Received Annual Change 2004-2020

Whoa! Transfers from government to the household sector were up more than 40 per cent in annual terms in Q2.  This was an unprecedented increase.  In Q2 2019, households received €5.8 billion in transfers from government; this year it was €8.5 billion.  The €2.7 billion increase in transfers was greater than the €2.6 billion drop in gross income.

Household Sector Government Transfers Received 4Q Sum 2004-2020

In annual terms, government transfers received by households had hovered around €23 billion from 2014 to 2018.  There would have been compositional changes with unemployment-related supports falling and other areas, such as pensions, rising.  The four quarters to Q2 2020 saw €27 billion of government social transfers paid, with further increases likely in Q3 and Q4.

Indeed, we can see that scale of the spending increase to support incomes that took place if we look at government subsidies on production and government social transfers. The main new subsidy in Q2 was the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) and the main new transfers was the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP).

Government Sector Transfers and Subsidies Quarterly 2013-2020

Prior to the pandemic, quarterly subsidies on production averaged around €200 million a quarter (most of which likely went to ‘commercial’ semi-state companies).  In Q2 2020 the of production subsidies  jumped to €1.8 billion due to the TWSS.  As noted above, government social transfers to households were typically around €6 billion a quarter in the past few years but increased to €8.5 billion in Q2 (due to the PUP.

It should be noted that absent the PUP, government transfers would have increased anyway as workers laid off would have made claims for unemployment benefit.  The reason the flat-rate PUP was introduced was to avoid the need to individually assess hundreds of thousands of claims for number of dependents and level of PRSI contributions etc.  There was no way hundreds of thousands of such claims could be assessed quickly.  As it was the first PUP claims (which at €350 per week was set at the average amount per claimant for Jobseeker’s Benefit) were processed only days after the lockdown was announced.  The speed of response by the State also contributed to the maintenance of households incomes in Ireland.


Due to lower earnings Gross National Income for the household sector in Q2 2020 was down €2.6 billion compared to the same quarter in 2019.  However we have also seen that:

  • taxes and social contributions paid were down €1.2 billion
  • total transfers received were up €2.5 billion, and
  • net other transfers was up €0.4 billion.

So when summed through this meant that household disposable income was actually up €1.5 billion on the year.  As we said at the top, if you were just to look at the annual change in the gross disposable income of the household sector you would think little or nothing changed in Q2 2020.

The fiscal response to the crisis has been hugely impressive in offsetting the income shock of the crisis.  In a typical downturn, one would expect this income support to feed through to support for economic activity but as some sectors of the economy are shuttered by government decree overall economic activity remains weak and household savings surged.

The CSO are to be commended for the rapid production of the quarterly sector accounts.  There are only a few countries who have provided Q2 data to Eurostat.  But already we can see just how remarkable the performance of household disposable income in Ireland has been.

Annual Change in GDI Eurostat Preliminary Data Q2 2020

Eurostat’s preliminary estimate for Q2 is that gross disposable income for the household sector in the euro area was down 2.7 per cent compared the same quarter of 2019.  Of the nine countries with reported figures, seven are showing falls ranging from just –0.4 per cent in Germany and up to –8.8 per cent in Spain, with Sweden’s drop of –7.0 per cent also worth noting.

And standing at the top (at least for this group of countries) is Ireland.  Only The Netherlands, so far, is also showing an annual increase in the disposable income of its household sector, with the increase in Ireland being more than double that of The Netherlands.  Irish households also had the highest savings rate in the quarter for the nine countries shown.