Chief Economist’s Weekly Brief – New rules

The new UK points-based migration system was revealed last week. It sets the same rules for immigrants from all countries and will take effect on January 1st 2021. These rules will make it harder for sectors relying on low paid workers to fill the jobs. Northern Ireland has the highest concentration of these jobs within the UK (>1 in 5). The hope is that this will lead to higher productivity due to investment in education and automation. With a record low unemployment rate, the adjustment period is likely to cause some disruption.

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Farm incomes and the need for a more sustainable model

Guest Blog by Cormac McKervey, Senior Agriculture Manager, Ulster Bank

Recent DAERA figures show that ‘Total Income from Farming’ (TIFF) in Northern Ireland fell by 25% from £386m in 2018 to £290m last year.

This isn’t a profit figure but rather the income earned by farmers as a result of their labour and the capital they have invested in their business.

It’s a significant drop and if the rest of society had to absorb a 25% hit on their income there would be uproar. But for farmers it’s a brief news story confined mostly to the farming press – and the world carries on regardless.  The £290m figure equates to the money farmers receive as direct payment under the CAP. Without the payment, the income figure would be zero.

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Housing market – Up, flat and down

Like the labour market, Northern Ireland’s housing market has been one of the best performing parts of the local economy. One key difference, however, is the housing market hasn’t captured the record highs and lows that the labour market has enjoyed.  Following the most significant property downturn in UK history, the scars are still apparent in the various aspects of the housing market. While many of the indicators point to significant growth over the past decade, the story is one of recovery has opposed to recovered.  

Up – prices still rising albeit at a weaker rate

The latest batch of housing market statistics reveal that the recovery has succumbed to a slowdown. Property prices are the housing market statistic of choice for small talk at dinner parties.  For the past seven years the chat has been of continued house price growth. However, the latest figures from NISRA reveal that the pace of growth eased to 2.5% y/y in Q4 2019. That’s less than halve the pace of growth recorded the previous year and marks the slowest rate of house price growth since Q4 2013. Nevertheless, the rise in local property prices still compares favourably with the UK (+1.6%) and the Republic of Ireland (+1.0%).

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Chief Economist’s Weekly Brief – New Decade, New Chancellor…New Approach?

Name the UK chancellor not to deliver a Budget? Sounds like a Trivial Pursuit question. Sajid Javid may be the first one in 50 years but he is not the only one. Javid’s six-and-a-half months in power did not see him deliver a fiscal set-piece. But he still fared better than Iain Macleod who took ill and died within a month of becoming Chancellor in 1970. Expectations have been raised for the new occupant of 11 Downing Street to embark on a fiscal stimulus.  The economy certainly needs a boost.

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Chief Economist’s Weekly Brief – Catching

Parallels are being drawn between the coronavirus and the SARS outbreak in 2003. But the contours of the world economy have shifted over the past 17 years. China is 17% of global GDP. It was a mere 4% back then. So shuttered business, foregone spending and leisure trips, not to mention the supply-chain disruptions matter much more for the global economy. 

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Slower fall in activity amid stabilisation in new orders

Today sees the release of January data from the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI. The latest report – produced for Ulster Bank by IHS Markit – saw the Northern Ireland private sector move towards stabilisation amid a reduction in near-term uncertainty. Business activity fell at a softer pace thanks to broadly unchanged new order volumes. Meanwhile, firms raised their staffing levels for the second month running and business confidence was the highest since April 2018.

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New decade, new language, new approach to capitalism?

One thing that has taken me a bit by surprise is the speed at which climate change has moved front and centre in economics. By-and-large, the environment and global warming were niche issues in business and financial debate. This was even the case early in 2019. But by the end of last year this had changed dramatically – helped in no small part by a Swedish teenager who I first saw addressing a crowd in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin last March. Such was Greta Thunberg’s influence in this respect that she was named Time magazine’s person of the year 2019.

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Chief Economist’s Weekly Brief – Out

The UK has left the European Union. The transition period, during which the UK remains in both the single market and customs union, lasts until the end of the year, with trade negotiations set to start in March. In the background, the Bank of England kept Bank Rate unchanged, but lowered its forecast for the 2019 UK economy to 0.75%.

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A new approach isn’t just for January…

January is a time when people make changes and commitments for the year ahead; whether it’s putting their finances in order, getting into shape, or introducing more positive behaviours to their lives. This year, that’s even more the case than usual as it’s not just the beginning of a new year, it’s also the beginning of a new decade.

This kind of thinking is also clearly in the minds of Northern Ireland’s politicians with the publication of theNew Decade New Approach agreement. The document, in promising a new approach to government locally for the decade ahead, contains a commitment to sustainability in our politics, finances and approach to the environment.

Very often, when people make their new year’s resolutions, they aren’t sustainable and become good intentions rather than a long-term new way of doing things. Before you know it, 10 years of good intentions each January soon mount up and can mean a decade lost.

The key thing for the NI Executive is to ensure that New Decade New Approach isn’t just well-meaning words, but a genuine new approach to some very important issues. Though, we have been here before.

The reality is that the NI Executive is now in its third decade since the Good Friday Belfast Agreement and we have heard many resolutions and commitments before that haven’t come to pass. This includes commitments around financial responsibility, revenue raising and effective delivery. Though is there good reason to believe that this time could be different?

Firstly, there is a sense that the public mood has changed. A report by Deloitte just over a year ago for instance showed that 61 percent of people in Northern Ireland would back greater spending on public services even if it meant some tax rises. This demonstrates that there might potentially be public willingness to accept the kind of revenue-raising Northern Ireland needs, if they can be assured that it willbe spent to bring essential public services to the required standard.

And indeed, it would appear that the public mood in Northern Ireland over the three years of no Executive moved from indifference at the political situation to anger at the impact the lack of local decision-making and the deterioration in public services.

The same Deloitte report also looked at the impact of austerity across the UK. Almost 78 percent of Northern Ireland households said that they had been affected not very much or not at all. This compares with 68 percent for the UK as a whole.

Indeed, Northern Ireland has always received more in public expenditure per woman, man and child than anywhere else in the UK but has always generated much less revenue than most other regions. 

The average person in Northern Ireland receives £1,100 more in public spending than their Welsh equivalent and £1,261 more than the average person in the North East of England. These are areas with similar economic conditions to NI. Meanwhile, revenue raised in Northern Ireland accounts for less than one percent of its GDP, the lowest of any UK region.

So, all of this potentially creates an environment where tough decisions could potentially be made, including to raise revenue to support the delivery of better public services.

Indeed, New Decade New Approach says all the right things. But will positive actions follow? Optimists like myself hoped the approach of the new Executive would be to adapt Mario Draghi’s “do whatever it takes” commitment of 2012 when it comes to today’s public services. But instead local politics seems to have quickly turned into Meatloaf’s “but I won’t do that”. I’m afraid, with red lines drawn, ruling out water charges, increases in tuition fees and other revenue raising, it looks a lot like the old approach.

A senior civil servant quoted in the aforementioned Deloitte report said that “it’s not like we don’t know what needs to be done. We just need the political leadership to do it”. New Decade New Approach sets out what needs done, but we need the political will to follow through.

So what needs done? We need to look at raising revenue through a range of means. Our default setting in Northern Ireland seems to have been that as many people as possible should pay nothing – i.e. if some people can’t pay, no one should. But we need to reverse this to have the starting position that everyone should pay, and then we work out who should be entitled to pay less or nothing.

Some of the potential revenue generators include the usual suspects such as higher tuition fees, water charges, rates, prescription charges, GP charges, and others.

We know that some of them just aren’t going to happen. One thing of note is that Dry January appears to permeate New Decade New Approach, as far as domestic water charging is concerned anyway.  But will the politicians’ red line on this matter mean that we see a public outcry due to brown lines – i.e. dirty water coming through the pipes – in the future?

More important than raising additional funding is what we do with the money we have already. There needs to be a relentless focus on delivery and (better) outcomes. From this perspective, fewer schools and hospitals are necessary. The RHI scandal shone a light on the way in which money has been used in Northern Ireland. We have been very good at getting public money into Northern Ireland, but we haven’t been very good at using it to its maximum potential.

The reality is, as I said before, Northern Ireland gets more money than anywhere else in the UK and generates less revenue. When we look at domestic rate levels, for instance, the average bill in Wales for household charges (i.e. water, sewerage and rates) is £1,826, whilst in Northern Ireland, it is £970. Scotland is the next lowest at £1,516, while the average household in England pays £1,742.

The long and short is that if the new approach for the new decade promised in the political deal means anything, it must mean more revenue raised locally but more importantly better value for public money. Will it be a new decade but same old approach? Let’s hope not. We need to be less Meatloaf and more Mario Draghi.

Domestic Rate Levels -2019-2020

Average Bill (Council Tax/Rates)Water and SewerageTotal Household Charge
England£1,327£415£1,742
Wales£1,411£415£1,826
Scotland£1147£269£1,516
Northern Ireland£970£0£970

Source: Department of Finance