IMF Executive Board Concludes 2006 Article IV Consultation with IrelandPublic Information Notice (PIN) No. 06/88
August 7, 2006
Public Information Notices (PINs) form part of the IMF's efforts to promote transparency of the IMF's views and analysis of economic developments and policies. With the consent of the country (or countries) concerned, PINs are issued after Executive Board discussions of Article IV consultations with member countries, of its surveillance of developments at the regional level, of post-program monitoring, and of ex post assessments of member countries with longer-term program engagements. PINs are also issued after Executive Board discussions of general policy matters, unless otherwise decided by the Executive Board in a particular case. The Staff Report for the 2006 Article IV Consultation with Ireland is also available.
On July 26, 2006, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded the Article IV consultation with Ireland.1
Ireland's economic performance remains strong. In recent years, real GNP growth was one of the highest among industrial countries; the unemployment rate was among the lowest; and HICP inflation declined to close to the euro area average. Employment growth was rapid, reflecting strong immigration and rising labor force participation. This remarkable performance reflected both good policies and fortunate circumstances. Prudent government spending led to declining government debt; low taxes on labor and business income encouraged labor supply and investment; and flexible labor and product markets helped growth. At the same time, favorable demographics boosted the working-age population, and participation in EMU lowered interest rates.
However, economic activity has become reliant on building investment and competitiveness has eroded. The share of the construction sector in economic activity has increased and is now one of the highest in Europe. Bank credit to property-related sectors has grown rapidly and now accounts for more than half of total bank lending. Household debt as a share of household disposable income rose to about 130 percent in 2005, among the highest in Europe. Reflecting the expansion of the labor-intensive construction and services sectors, labor productivity growth has declined. The combination of the slowdown in productivity growth, faster wage growth in Ireland compared to its trading partners, and the appreciation of the euro, has led to an appreciation of the ULC-based real effective exchange rate. Partly as a result, the contribution of net exports to growth has fallen steadily since 2001. After being in balance for several years, the external current account registered a deficit of about 2½ percent of GDP in 2005.
Executive Board Assessment
The Executive Directors commended Ireland's continued impressive economic performance, which has been supported by sound policies, including prudent fiscal policy, low taxes on labor and business income, and labor market flexibility. Economic growth is strong, unemployment is low and labor participation rising, and government debt has been reduced dramatically over the past two decades. Nevertheless, Directors observed that growth has become increasingly unbalanced in recent years, with heavy reliance on building investment, sharp increases in house prices, and rapid credit growth, especially to property-related sectors. At the same time, competitiveness has eroded, reflecting the combination of faster wage growth in Ireland compared to its trading partners, declining productivity growth, and the appreciation of the euro against the U.S. dollar. Directors observed that Ireland's small, highly open economy is also vulnerable to external shocks.
Directors expected economic growth in 2006-07 to remain strong, driven by domestic demand and accompanied by a widening current account deficit and continued rapid credit growth. While the contraction of the construction sector to a more sustainable size over the medium term is likely to be smooth, Directors noted that an abrupt correction cannot be ruled out.
Directors welcomed the Financial System Stability Assessment Update, which finds that Ireland's financial sector soundness indicators are generally strong and that the major lenders have adequate buffers to cover a range of shocks. The recent increase in the risk-weighting on high loan-to-value residential mortgages is an important signal of the need for banks to differentiate between higher- and lower-risk lending within an asset class. Directors suggested that the Financial Regulator continue to monitor banks' risk management practices, including for commercial property lending. Going forward, they called for continued updating of the stress-testing framework, and further strengthening of the regulatory and supervisory framework, especially for insurance.
While recognizing that Ireland's fiscal position is sound, most Directors considered that a modest fiscal tightening would be desirable in 2007, given the strength of domestic demand, potential risks of a hard landing, and the need to prepare for population aging. Slowing the growth of current spending to slightly below nominal GDP growth would also help prevent inefficiencies that could otherwise emerge given the rapid increases in spending in recent years. A number of Directors, however, saw less merit in fiscal tightening at the current juncture, pointing to the need for further increases in spending to achieve social goals, as well as to the recent tightening of euro area monetary policy. Directors agreed that improvements in public services remain a key priority, and, in this context, encouraged the authorities to focus on value for money, including by monitoring government outputs and extending multi-year envelopes to current spending. They welcomed the authorities' plans to further deepen the public debate on fiscal priorities.
Directors considered that continued wage moderation and labor market flexibility are essential to support competitiveness. The implementation of the new social partnership agreement should continue to allow flexibility in wage increases at the firm level and minimize the increase in the restrictiveness of employment protection legislation.