Thursday, July 21, 2022

Downward Historical Revisions and a Large 2021 Increase in the Modified Current Account

The current account of the balance of payments is an important macro-economic indicator. For a variety of reasons Ireland’s headline current account outturns are pretty useless as an indicator of the underlying position of the economy. To that end, the CSO have been publishing a modified current account for a number of years.  The latest estimates were published last week.

Historical Revisions

The first thing we note is that the historical series has been revised down.  This is something that may have been expected given it was thought that something may be mucking up the current account and the impact of the statistical discrepancy.  Anyway, here are the revisions.

Modified Current Account 2022 Revisions

For 2022, the estimate of CA* has been revised down from €24 billion to €13 billion.  This is still a significant surplus and equivalent to around 6.5 per cent of GNI* in 2020.

Large Increase in 2021

The second thing we note from the latest estimates is the large increase for 2021.  The 2021 estimate of CA* is a surplus of €26 billion or 11.1 per cent of GNI*.  In a very timely manner, the CSO have published institutional sector accounts that are consistent with the recent National and International Accounts.  Using these we can get a sectoral breakdown of the modified current account.

Modified Current Account by Sector 2022

The primary drivers of Ireland’s underlying position in the current account of the balance of payments are the household and government sectors.  This remains true to the large increase showing for 2021.

Household savings remained elevated in 2021 while the government deficit closed significantly - due mainly to surging revenues.  Typically taxes would not feature in a discussion of the current account.  They might impact sectoral positions but are generally internal transfers.

Corporation Tax and the Current Account 

Ireland is unusual in having a large share of Corporation Tax paid by foreign-owned companies.  Some of these have set up operations in Ireland to service the domestic market but the largest source of Corporation Tax are foreign-owned FDI companies with operations in Ireland to manufacture for or service markets abroad.

About three-fifths of Corporation Tax is based by US MNCs.  This tax is paid from the profits made on export sales and boosts Ireland’s current account.  The money is not counted as a factor outflow to foreign shareholders but goes to the government as corporate income tax payments.  Strong rises in other taxes such as Income Tax and VAT also helped improve the government’s position.  That the household sector maintained its savings at such an elevated level points to a strength in the position of that sector – albeit in aggregate terms.

The Corporate Sectors in 2021

At this stage we can’t delve too deep into developments in the corporate sectors.  That will come later in the year when a split by foreign and domestic ownership is made available.  For the moment we can see that this is where most of the revisions arise.  The “not sectorised” component of the current account for 2020 went from +€6.4 billion in the 2021 estimate to +€2.4 billion in the latest estimate. 

While the impact of the non-financial corporate sector in 2020 (though technically a residual to make the sectoral balances consistent with CA*) went from +€9.5 billion in last year’s estimates to €1.0 billion in the latest figures.  It is these two changes that led to the downward revision in CA* for 2020 shown in the opening chart.

The contribution of the NFC sector also seems to have played a role in the large 2021 increase in CA* – see the large red block in the column for 2021 in the second chart.  But, as noted above, probably best to wait until the foreign/domestic split of that is made available later in the year before drawing any conclusions on that. 

Who Should be Spending More?

Looking at the household and government sectors shows that the improvement in 2021 was more than just a measurement anomaly.  With the quarterly figures now available we can extend this to Q1 2022.  Here it is as a four-quarter moving sum.

HH Gov Savings minus Investment

One conclusion that could be drawn from this is that the government is (not yet) saving any of its corporate tax largesse – but the household sector is. Could we get households to spend more and the government to save a small bit?  And the increase in household spending can be greater than any saving done by the government.  We don’t need a +€20 billion outturn as currently shown in the above chart.

Events, Dear Boy, Events

If it’s extra spending we’re looking for then it may already be happening – but due to outside circumstances rather than a conscious decision to spend more. Here is national net monthly fuel imports. 

Fuel Imports Net 2005-2022

Pre-COVID these were running at around €400 million a month.  The latest figures go to May 2022 and show net imports of around €1 billion a month.  Import spending at that rate won’t be long in putting a dent in national net lending. But seems unlikely to be large enough to wipe it out.

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