Mission Accomplished!

Back in December 2021, NISRA’s Index of Services and Industrial Production surveys for Q3 2021 revealed that economic output was closing in fast on pre-pandemic levels or indeed even exceeding them.

For example, industrial production (which is mostly manufacturing) was just 0.1% below the pre-pandemic level of Q4 2019 while private sector services output was 2.2% above the same benchmark.

Today we got a more complete picture with the release of the Northern Ireland Composite Economic Index (NICEI) and the Index of Construction for the third quarter.

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UK inflation poised to hit a 30-year high

The annual pace of UK CPI inflation jumped from 4.2% in October to 5.1% in November representing the highest rate in over a decade. That also means the UK’s inflation rate now exceeds the unemployment rate.  No economist foresaw that scenario at the start of 2021. Last month’s reading was stronger than expected with the Bank of England previously not expecting a breach above 5% previously until early next year. The latest inflationary news coupled with yesterday’s strong labour market data will make for an uncomfortable Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) meeting tomorrow.  

Until the arrival of the Omicron variant, the MPC were expected to raise interest rates by 15bps from the record low of 0.1% to 0.25% at tomorrow’s MPC meeting. This would mark the first December interest rate rise since 1994. However, the new added layer of uncertainty stemming from the Omicron variant has led economists to row back on expectations to increase rates until early in the new year. Indeed, in recent days some of those MPC members already voting for a rate hike in previous meetings have signalled that they may have to wait a bit longer. Yesterday the IMF said the Bank of England needed to increase interest rates now to prevent inflation from becoming ingrained and fuelling increases in wage demands. 

Increases in prices of petrol and second-hand cars were the key drivers of the latest surge in inflation.  However, price rises were broad-based across goods and services.  Consumer price inflation was as low as 0.4% y/y in February of this year and is now expected to peak closer to 6% than 5% in Spring 2022.  Any reading above 5.2% (which occurred on Sep-08 and Sep-11) will represent the highest reading since March 1992 (+7.1% y/y). So we are poised to see consumer price inflation hit a 30-year high in the coming weeks while the Bank of England’s Bank Rate (currently) remains at a record low.  

It is worth remembering that September’s CPI rate (3.1% y/y) is used to set the increase in welfare benefits, such as Universal Credit payments.  Similarly the majority of people working are unlikely to see wages keep up with inflation and will also see a fall in their standard of living. Clearly those that can least afford it will experience the biggest squeeze in their cost of living.  Inflation will be just one part of this squeeze, with tax rises the other. National Insurance Contributions are set to rise by 1.25 percentage points next April while income tax thresholds will be frozen for 4-years. The cost of living crisis is set to be the dominant economic story in 2022.

Selected items y/y inflation rates in November 2021

  • Consumer goods 6.5%
  • Consumer services 3.3%
  • Food 2.4%
  • Clothing 3.8%
  • Electricity 18.8%
  • Gas 28.1%
  • Liquid fuels (home heating oil) 85.3% 
  • Petrol 29.5%
  • Diesel 27.5%
  • Furniture and furnishings 11.7%
  • 2nd-hand cars 27.1%
  • Bicycles 15%
  • Articles for babies 15.2%

Residential property prices hit a 13-year high

The latest NI housing statistics, transactions, starts and completions for Q3 2021 were released this morning by NISRA.

Property prices, transactions and starts all rose year-on-year in Q3 2021. However, there was a modest year-on-year decline in housing completions (refers to house building not sales).

Estate agents and house builders have experienced a ‘V-shaped’ recovery. But, given the headwinds stemming from a shortage of housing stock, supply chain disruption and significant inflation with building materials, 2021 could well mark a peak in both transactions and house building activity. In 2022, residential property prices may be the only key housing market metric to still be on the rise.

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“Furlough – Probably the best pandemic policy in the world?”

The onset of the pandemic last year led economists to conservatively pencil in double-digit unemployment rates for the UK and Northern Ireland. What economists hadn’t initially factored in was the Chancellor’s Mario Draghi-style ‘Whatever it takes’ approach to protect jobs and prevent such an outcome from occurring. Rishi Sunak quickly unveiled the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) or furlough scheme. A policy designed to prevent mass unemployment by paying employers to keep jobs until the worst impacts of COVID-19 had passed. In time, economists progressively lowThe onset of the pandemic last year led economists to conservatively pencil in double-digit unemployment rates for the UK and Northern Ireland. What economists hadn’t initially factored in was the Chancellor’s Mario Draghi-style ‘Whatever it takes’ approach to protect jobs and prevent such an outcome from occurring. Rishi Sunak quickly unveiled the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) or furlough scheme. A policy designed to prevent mass unemployment by paying employers to keep jobs until the worst impacts of COVID-19 had passed. In time, economists progressively lowered their unemployment forecasts and revised down the anticipated surge in joblessness when the furlough scheme eventually ended. After several extensions, the Job Retention Scheme finally ended on the 30 September 2021. 

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NI new car sales soar by 2,594% y/y but sales volumes remain well down

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. 

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What a difference a year makes

Twelve months have passed since the labour market reacted to the pandemic induced slump in economic activity. The initial impact was most noticeable on the claimant count (the numbers claiming unemployment related benefit) and the HMRC’s payrolls data. The former posted a record monthly rise in April and peaked at 63,800 in May. That was more than double March’s figure of 30,500. Meanwhile the number of employees on the HMRC’s payrolls data tumbled by almost 12,000 over the same period. Unprecedented employment support measures, such as the Job Retention Scheme (JRS), steadied the ship, but 2020 was still a record year for redundancies.

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Fall in furlough but bigger fall to come

Comment on today’s HMRC update for the number of jobs furloughed in Northern Ireland as of 31 March 2021. 

Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate has been kept artificially low due to the arrival of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (JRS) last year. The latest HMRC figures released this morning revealed that there were 99,400 jobs on furlough on 31st March 2021. That represented the first dip below 100,000 this year and a fall of 9,200 (-8%) relative to the end of February (108,600). Over two-thirds of these jobs were fully furloughed with the remainder partially furloughed. At the start of July 2020 there were a total of 139,100 jobs on furlough. This fell to a post-lockdown low of 65,100 at the end of September. The extension of the JRS and a return to lockdown saw the number of furloughed employments rise to a lower secondary peak of 117,700 in mid-January 2021.   

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Double dipping but economy set for growth this year

Living with lockdowns. 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 (Q2) and rebound (Q3) will be the most extreme, but subsequent declines and rebounds will moderate.

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Rock bottom: official stats finally reveal impact on NI economy

Official statistics have finally revealed the scale of the much talked about economic impact on two key parts of the Northern Ireland economy. Following news earlier in the week that Northern Ireland posted its first quarterly decline in employee jobs in four-and-a-half years, figures today show a staggering slump in output. Both the Index of Services and Index of Production posted record rates of decline. Like a game of snakes and ladders, the COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a big snake taking industrial and services output back to square one or new series lows.

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