When measuring performance it is important to know what success looks like. It is also necessary to have suitable benchmarks to measure progress along the way. As far as the economic recovery is concerned, getting back to pre-pandemic levels of output, activity and employment satisfies both these criteria. Earlier this week we saw that the number of employees on Northern Ireland payrolls hit a record high for the third month running having eclipsed pre-pandemic levels of employment back in June. On the face of it this looks like mission accomplished until you consider that this is flattered by furlough with 36,100 on the Job Retention Scheme as of the 31 July 2021. Furthermore, focussing on only one measure of labour market success can ignore huge failures in other areas – e.g. self-employment is down over one-quarter from its pre-COVID-19 levels.
So what about output? How is it faring?
It is perhaps worth rewinding back to what the output figures were showing over the last year or so.
2020 was a year of extremes. Record rates of decline in Q2 followed by record rates of expansion in Q3. Lockdown restrictions had the effect of turning economic activity off and on. But as the pandemic 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. All sectors with the exception of construction saw steeper peak-to-trough declines in this recession than the one that followed the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). The trajectory of economic output has largely followed a bungee jump. The initial fall and rebound being the most extreme, but subsequent declines and rebounds will moderate. For example, Northern Ireland’s private sector output fell by only 2.3% q/q in Q1 2021 – a period of lockdown – which compared favourably with the massive 19.5% quarterly contraction in Q2 2020 (Lockdown 1.0).
May has already brought with it April showers and some weather warnings. The first week of May has brought in the first economic data for April and we should brace ourselves for some startling year-on-year growth rates for April and for Q2 in due course. Two indicators worth watching concern residential property transactions and new car sales.
Today’s SMMT new car sales for April confirmed that UK new car sales increased by 3,177% year-on-year last month. But this growth rate paled into insignificance relative to the 13,629% year-on-year rise for the Northern Ireland new car market. Context is everything here. The huge increase is a reflection of how bad April 2020 was rather than how strong activity is this year. This is what economists call ‘base effects’ in this case rebounding off an extremely low base. For example, there were just 24 cars sold last April during the first full month of lockdown. That represented a 99.4% y/y decline on the previous year. Despite a near 14,000% y/y in April 2021, last month’s sales of 3,295 new car sales were still disappointing. Local dealers sold 20% fewer new cars in April 2021 than they sold on average each April during the decade before COVID-19 struck. Indeed, last month’s car sales figures represent the second worst April on record.
2020 witnessed the fastest and deepest recession on record. But unlike output, the labour market has not followed the usual recession playbook. Unprecedented employment support has kept unemployment surprisingly low. Indeed, 2021 has already seen some encouraging signs on the labour market front. For example, proposed redundancies in Q1 have slowed to a trickle. Meanwhile the Ulster Bank Northern Ireland PMI for March revealed the first increase in employment levels in 13 months. Given the successful rollout of the vaccine, business optimism has returned to levels not seen since before the pandemic. As a result, firms are gearing up for the recovery and hiring the right people is a key part of that.
Levelling-off. The best indicator ofemployee numbers is the HMRC PAYE data. This highlights the actual number of employees on payrolls. Having peaked at just under 754,000 in March employment fell by 16,500 to a post-pandemic low of 737,508 (-2.2%) in May. Since then however, over 40% of these losses, some 6,800 jobs had been clawed back by February 2021. Over three-quarters of this jobs recovery occurred in the three months to February. However, the flash estimate for March suggests this recovery may have stalled with payrolls slipping back by over 200 jobs to 744,065. The latter is almost 10,000 fewer than last March’s peak.
One direction.Northern Ireland’s house price recovery is six-years old. For twenty-three of the last twenty-five quarters residential property prices have gone one way – up! Despite this significant run of steady price rises, less than one-third of the 57% drop in prices that occurred between Q3 2007 and Q1 2013 has been recouped so far. As of Q2 2019, local house prices were still 39% below Q3 2007’s ‘freak peak’.
The latest Northern Ireland Composite Economic Index confirmed that the local economy notched up its sixth successive quarter of growth in Q1 2019. The 0.3% q/q rise marked an improvement on Q4 2018’s lacklustre growth rate of just 0.1%. While the rate of growth in the latest quarter was perhaps stronger than expected, it still represents a rather weak rate of expansion. Meanwhile the annual rate of growth slowed from 1.8% y/y in Q4 to 1.5% in Q1 2019.
New car sales are traditionally viewed as a key barometer of consumer confidence. Despite the labour market being the strongest it has ever been, consumer confidence – viewed through the lens of new car sales – remains uninspiring. Last month proved to be the weakest June for dealers in seven years with 5,170 new vehicles rolling out of showrooms. That was six per cent lower than last year. However, the latest figures follow the best May in 11 years and a mediocre April. As a result, the second quarter still posted a respectable 2.7% y/y rise (+369 cars) and the strongest Q2 in three years.
A graph charting instances of house prices being discussed at dinner parties across Belfast and Dublin would show a very large spike around 2007 followed by a deep trough in the years after the boom rediscovered gravity. Indeed, the subject became almost taboo as the downturn unfolded and residential property prices fell almost 60% from their respective peaks.