The latest data download from NISRA represents the most positive set of labour market statistics since the pandemic arrived. All the key indicators moved in the right direction. Unemployment and economic inactivity rates fell in the three months to April relative to the previous quarter. Meanwhile the number of Northern Ireland employees on payrolls, hours worked and the employment rate all increased. Perhaps the only fly in the ointment was self-employment fell to a 19-year low and there was a pick-up in proposed redundancies in the first half of June albeit from very low levels. Today’s labour market statistics coupled with the recent Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI surveys for April and May signal that the local jobs recovery has moved up a number of gears in the second quarter. Indeed, May’s PMI posted the joint-fastest rise in private sector staffing levels in the survey’s nineteen year history.
An easing of lockdown restrictions has facilitated a significant rebound in economic activity and employment. The successful and rapid rollout of vaccines also effectively ensures that the severe lockdowns of the past will not be required in the near future. However, it is important not to get carried away. This stage of the economic recovery was always going to lead to the strongest rates of growth and pick-up in hiring. Indeed the HMRC payrolls data may reveal a return to pre-pandemic employee levels as soon as next month.
Northern Ireland new car sales posted another freak year-on-year growth rate in May. There were 3,879 new cars sold locally last month. That represents a whopping 2,594% y/y increase on May 2020’s total (144) and compares with the 13,629% y/y rise recorded in the previous month. These jaw dropping growth rates are explained by the fact that comparisons are being made with last year’s lockdown lows. For example, last April saw just 24 new cars sold. But these seemingly impressive growth rates, while welcome, compare unfavourably with pre-pandemic car sales volumes.
It could be said that we have a Ketchup bottle economy at the minute. Shake a ketchup bottle and nothing happens. But eventually we will get covered in red sauce as the blockage is worked free. Something similar is happening in global supply chains at present and this is impacting on all of our lives.
In the 1985 film Brewster’s Millions, Richard Pryor’s character is left a £300 million fortune. Provided Monty Brewster meets the challenge of blowing $30 million in 30 days he can keep the whole estate. Simply giving the money away though is forbidden and there are limits on gambling and donating to charity. The lead character embarks on a spending spree and fulfils the conditions of the will, therefore inheriting the lot.
Will we see a Brewster style spending spree in the global economy in the months ahead? Some think so. Over $5 trillion dollars of savings have been stockpiled by consumers around the world with household savings rates in many countries reaching century highs. As lockdown restrictions ease the expectation is that we will see a strong rebound in consumer spending from two sources. First, pent-up demand will be unleashed as spending patterns normalise. And second, we should see an unwinding of the forced savings squirreled away during lockdown. This boost in consumer spending, which accounts for around three-quarters of Northern Ireland GDP, will fuel an economic recovery globally, nationally and locally.
Boom times are back? March has been a bumper month for property transactions with local estate agents experiencing sales volumes not seen since 2007/08. Unlike the last property boom, the surge in activity is largely catch-up from the lockdown-induced record slump in Q2 last year (-67% y/y). The pent-up demand has been boosted by fresh demand from outside of Northern Ireland stemming from the post-COVID-19 opportunities of working from home. A temporary reduction in the stamp duty land tax has also provided an added incentive for the more expensive and typically larger properties.
If someone had told us a year ago that we were going to go through the deepest recession in a century and end up with an unemployment rate of just 3.7%, this probably would have been considered absurd. Logic would dictate that a double-digit contraction in economic output would create a double-digit unemployment figure. But there has been little logical about the past year – as the Sunday Times columnist David Smith succinctly described it, it has been “the deepest recession, but also easily the weirdest”.
As far as economic output is concerned, 2020 has been a year of extremes. Record rates of decline in Q2 followed by record rates of expansion in Q3. Lockdown restrictions have had the effect of turning economic activity off and on. However, as the pandemic has progressed, subsequent lockdowns have been less severe on economic activity than the first. Many businesses have been able to adapt and function throughout lockdowns or pivot into new markets. The trajectory of economic output has largely followed a bungee jump. The initial fall and rebound will be the most extreme, but subsequent declines and rebounds will moderate. Not surprisingly, the latest Industrial Production and Index of Services (private sector only) from NISRA revealed further declines in output in Q4 2020. These two indices account for the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s Composite Economic Index. Given the scale of the declines revealed today, it is inevitable that the Composite Economic Index (a proxy for GDP), when published next month, will post a sizeable contraction.
It’s hard to believe that when the Chancellor stands up at the despatch box on the 3rd March, this will be only Rishi Sunak’s second budget, and comes 51 weeks after his first. However, in that intervening period he has made another 13 fiscal announcements, with the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (i.e. furlough scheme) the most significant.
The local construction industry rebounded in the second half of last year and recovered much of the turnover lost due to lockdown restrictions. That’s according to the latest Construction Employers’ Federation State of Trade Survey for H2 2020. Two-thirds of turnover for last year occurred in H2. However, despite the rebound, average turnover was still down 20-25% on 2019.
Northern Ireland’s latest labour market statistics smack of ‘nothing to see here…just move along’. Other than the record number of redundancies proposed in 2020 (11,000), there are few signs that the economy is in the midst of an economic crisis. Indeed, many of the indicators point to an improvement. For example, the unemployment rate and the number of individuals claiming unemployment related benefits is falling. Meanwhile the total hours worked and the number of employees on payrolls continued their upward trends. Talk of a labour market recovery, however, is premature. The Chancellor recently stated that the economy is going to get worse before it gets better. Similarly, the labour market will deteriorate before a sustainable recovery takes hold. Unprecedented employment support measures, such as the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), largely inoculated the UK and NI economies against a severe labour market shock. But once these measures are withdrawn a surge in unemployment in the second half of the year is inevitable.