May 2010

House prices seem to be on the road to recovery in the North.  The market stabilized somewhat in 2009 after falling 35% from the peak (Q3, 2007) and has risen by 4.9% in the first three months of the year.  The authors of the University of Ulster Quarterly House Price Index note, however, that price growth varies by area (with Belfast increasing and Mid-West and West declining) and house type (terraces and semi-detached continued to fall, detached and semi-detached bungalows increased), and the level of activity in the market is significantly below what it was in 2006 and 2007.  Belfast prices have risen by 18% over the past year.  Prices in the Republic for the same period continued to decline, falling another 4.8% to 34% of peak prices.  The average price of a house in the North rose to £169,497 (c.€200,000), bringing average prices for the North and South into approximate alignment (the average price for a house in the Republic in Q1 2010 was €204,830 according to the PTSB/ESRI index).

One of the major differences between the North and the South is that, due to a much tighter planning system, the North does not have a sizable overhang in the market, with supply and demand more aligned.  And there has been no need for a NAMA response by government, though a sizable proportion of NAMA assets (€4.8bn) are located in the North and agencies there are clearly worried about how these properties will be affect the market.  Whilst the market might be turning there, it seems likely that it’ll be some time before it turns in the Republic given supply/demand imbalance, the lack of access to credit, and the low levels of confidence in the housing market and the general state of the economy.  The way the southern market is heading, the performance of overseas assets is going to be important as to whether NAMA delivers.  The good news is that NAMA housing assets in the North are gaining value (or at least are not still falling).  The bad news is that the wider macroeconomic situation in the North is somewhat uncertain and widescale cut backs in public expenditure is expected in an economy highly dependent on the public sector could weaken any recovery.  One hopes that this recovery in the North is not a dead cat bounce.

Rob Kitchin


In Part 1 of this paper, data were presented which contradicted the widely-held view that Ireland experienced a sharp loss of export competitiveness vis-à-vis its main trading partners over the period 2000-2007.  Ireland actually increased its share of total world exports (albeit marginally) in this period and did better in this respect than seven of Ireland’s twelve main trading partners.  In terms of share of global services exports, Ireland’s powerful performance easily surpassed all twelve main trading partners and, while Ireland’s performance with respect to merchandise exports was poor, it was still superior to that of Ireland’s two leading trading partners, the UK and USA, as well as Japan.

Part 2 of the paper showed that, while economy-wide unit labour costs in Ireland rose more rapidly than in Ireland’s main trading partners in the period 2000-2007, this did not have the negative impact on Ireland’s export competitiveness which has bee postulated by economic commentators because unit labour costs in both the export manufacturing and export services sectors moved in the opposite direction.  While this was associated with a rapid rise in services exports (and might have been in the case of manufacturing exports were it not for the intrusion of several extraneous factors which had a particularly negative impact on Ireland’s merchandise exports), this should not be construed as establishing a causal link between trends in labour costs and trends in export performance.  An examination of the cost structure of Ireland’s main manufacturing export sectors revealed that not only was there was no link between the proportion of total costs accounted for by labour costs and employment change in these sectors, but that labour costs in general account for a low proportion of costs in the sectors in question (as is also the case with export services).

The third and final part of this paper reviews a number of alternative approaches to assessing national export competitiveness which are much more complex and sophisticated than the simplistic – and erroneous – reduction of competitiveness to international differences in unit labour costs.  These alternative approaches generally portray Ireland’s competitiveness position in a much more favourable light than has become the norm in public discourse of the topic in Ireland.  The paper then raises the possibility that the application of any kind of competitiveness measures to Ireland may be futile due to the high proportion of Irish exports which go into non-competitive markets.  The paper concludes by contrasting the calls by leading foreign industrialists for greater investment in productivity-enhancing education and research & development as the key to enhancing Ireland’s future competitiveness with the narrow preoccupation of Irish economic commentators with labour cost reduction.  Given the influence these commentators have in the policy-making arena, this preoccupation, and associated government spending cuts, could do profound long-term damage to Ireland’s ability to compete in the high-value-added export markets which are essential if Ireland is to sustain its position as a high-income economy.

Alternative approaches to measuring export competitiveness

The recent reports of the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) have tended to downplay, or ignore altogether, the role of labour costs as a factor in assessing  Ireland’s export competitiveness.  Of the 18 different indicators which the NCC uses for this purpose, just one relates to labour costs and productivity.  This downplaying of labour costs – which is entirely justified on the basis of the evidence presented in this paper – gave rise to an extraordinary and quite outrageous attack on the professional integrity of the NCC staff and advisors by Garret Fitzgerald in the Irish Times on January 30 last.  Taking umbrage at the NCC’s failure in its most recent reports to highlight the issue of labour costs which he sees as central to Ireland’s purported loss of competitiveness, Fitzgerald suggested that this might be due to the NCC staff who wrote these reports being inhibited by the presence on the NCC board of members (trade unionists, civil servants) who might have had “difficulties” with an analysis which highlighted the role of wage costs in Ireland’s supposed loss of competitiveness in recent years.

In this context, it is worth looking at the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) published annually by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Swiss-based independent think-tank.  The GCI was devised by, and is compiled under the supervision of, Michael Porter of Harvard University, one of the world’s foremost authorities on international competitiveness and author of the path-breaking book The competitive advantage of nations (1990).

The complex and thoughtful methodology employed by the WEF in constructing the GCI contrasts sharply with the simplistic perspective on this issue held by so many Irish economists and politicians.  In its Global competitiveness report for 2008-09, the WEF employed no less than 113 different  indicators in measuring the GCI for 134 different countries.  These comprise a mix of quantitative data derived from official sources, and qualitative data relating to assessments of various aspects of the business environment in each of the subject countries obtained from some 12,294 business leaders and analysts from around the world (including 59 from Ireland).  These 113 indicators are divided into twelve “pillars” of competitiveness (institutions, infrastructure, education, financial markets, etc.).

The relative weights given to these indicators vary depending on each country’s level of development.  In the WEF’s view, competition based on cost is only appropriate for countries at a low level of development, for whom cheap labour or resources are frequently their only source of competitive advantage.  For countries at an intermediate level of development, the keys to competitiveness are production efficiency and product quality, while for countries at the highest development levels, the key factor is the ability to produce new and different products employing cutting-edge production processes.  In the system of weightings applied to this group of countries (in which the WEF places Ireland), labour cost factors account for just 1.7% of the total value of the competitiveness index.

Contrary to the view of most Irish economic commentators, the GCI actually saw Ireland’s competitiveness improving throughout most of the 2000s, reflected in movement from 30th position in 2002 to 22nd in 2009.  In its country report on Ireland for 2008-09, the WEF identified Ireland’s key competitiveness weakness as lying in infrastructure, along with small market size and the country’s current macroeconomic stability problems.  Labour costs were not mentioned.

Ireland has done even better in a number of other recent international rankings related to competitiveness.  In its report for 2010, the World Bank’s annual Doing Business survey placed Ireland 7th out of 183 countries in terms of ease of doing business (labour costs are not among the 40 variables used in compiling the table).  The IBM Global Location Annual Report ranked Ireland as the most successful country in the world for attracting foreign investment in 2009 when measured by jobs per 100,000 population, up from 10th position the previous year.  The Lisbon Council’s European Jobs and Growth monitor ranked Ireland as the second most competitive economy in Europe in 2008, up from fourth place in 2007, while the London-based Centre for European Reform ranked Ireland as the sixth most competitive economy out of the 27 EU states in 2008, two places higher than in 2007.  All of these bodies employ a range of criteria in composing their rankings.

How competitive are Ireland’s export markets?

A final key factor relating to Ireland’s export competitiveness is the fact that, to a very large extent, the markets served by Ireland’s exports are not competitive at all.  For a start, a large proportion of Irish merchandise exports consists of intermediate goods destined for further processing, frequently by other branches of the Irish-based firms in question.  According to UN trade data, Ireland’s ten largest four-digit export sectors accounted for almost 60% of Ireland’s merchandise exports in 2007, and over half of the value of these sectors’ exports consisted of intermediate products (e.g. chemical compounds, electronic components, drink concentrates).

In total, over half of Ireland’s merchandise exports arise in the chemicals and pharmaceuticals sector which is dominated globally by a relatively small number of major multinationals (most of which have an Irish presence).  Due to their sheer size and control of patents, these firms do not operate in truly competitive markets and tend to be highly profitable – profits as a percentage of revenues for pharmaceuticals firms in the US Fortune 500, on average, are typically 4-5 times greater than for other firms (expenditure on R&D goes nowhere near explaining the difference).  This high profitabilitty makes Ireland’s low corporation tax rate very attractive while making the firms in question less concerned about costs than in more competitive sectors.

Oligopoly is also a feature of other Irish export sectors.  Microsoft (whose main Irish subsidiary had a turnover of €11.3bn in the year to June 2008 – the equivalent of 7.5% of Ireland’s total exports in this period) is an obvious example, with profits amounting to 30% of revenues in 2008, over six times the average for Fortune 500 firms (the profit margin on Windows and Microsoft Office is reputedly of the order of 80%).  Google, whose Irish operation has enjoyed spectacular growth since it was established in 2003, had a 2008 profit rate which was only slightly less than Microsoft’s.

Apart from oligopolised markets, a large proportion of foreign-owned operations in Ireland are largely involved in providing services to other units of their parent companies – they are not selling in open markets.  This applies to units engaged in R&D and software development for their parent firms or providing centralised support services for affiliate units elsewhere in Europe and adjoining regions, and to IFSC operations providing insurance and treasury management services to affiliates.  It is impossible to quantify the extent of such activities, but they certainly make up a substantial proportion of service exports which in 2008 accounted for 42% of total exports.

Productivity and competitiveness

This is not to say that foreign firms operating in Ireland are unconcerned about their operating costs here.  However, their approach to this issue is very different from that of Irish economists.  Real labour costs are made up of two components – levels of remuneration (including social security payments) and productivity levels.  Where productivity rises more quickly than remuneration rates, real unit labour costs fall.  High relative productivity explains why the countries with the highest pay rates in the world also possess the world’s most competitive economies.  While Irish economists have focused on wage reductions as the key to lowering labour costs, foreign companies operating in Ireland have been emphasising the need to raise productivity.

Thus, speaking at the announcement by ABB of an expansion of their Irish operations in 2003, company vice-president Dinesh Paliwal said “It is not low costs that attracts international companies to invest in certain countries. It is high productivity, quality and innovation that are crucial to their decision – and Ireland clearly stands out in these areas” (IDA Ireland: Business Ireland 2003 No 3).  Similarly, in an Irish Times article on July 4, 2008, Paul Rellis, General Manager of Microsoft Ireland and then President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland wrote: “We need to add value faster than we add costs…Faster productivity growth provides the clearest route to higher living standards in the future – the time is now appropriate to design and implement clear and co-ordinated policies that will quicken productivity growth in the years ahead”.

Other leading American industrialists have recently gone further in spelling out what Ireland needs to do in order to strengthen its position as a location for export activities.  Writing in the Irish Times on September 17 last, Martin Murphy, Managing Director of Hewlett Packard Ireland, called for the formulation of a national industrial strategy focused on the creation of an enterprise culture and education system capable of making Ireland “a global hub for knowledge, innovation and know-how” characterised by enterprises built on high-quality and high value-added exports of goods and services.  Murphy pointedly added: “Competitiveness will not be achieved by cutting costs alone. We have to also deliver a better service at a lower cost through innovation.”

These ideas were echoed by Craig Barrett, former Chairman of Intel Corporation, in an address to the Royal Irish Academy in February of this year.  Decrying the notion that Ireland could recreate the Celtic Tiger by simply cutting costs, Barrett emphasised the need to concentrate on the creation of value-added jobs requiring major increases in investment in education and research & development (R&D).  Expanding on this theme in a subsequent interview in the Irish Times (February 12, 2010), Barrett argued that in the modern global economy, “the only ways you compete are in the new industries, the value-added jobs where intelligence and training and skills are important”,

The need for increased investment in education and R&D was also the focus of an article in the Irish Times on November 13 last by Jim O’Hara, General Manager of Intel Ireland, Ireland’s largest industrial employer.  The thrust of O’Hara’s argument is encapsulated in just two pithy sentences: “Unless there is the foundation of a highly educated workforce and an internationally recognised commitment to and reputation for research and innovation, Ireland will not be considered competitive… We must have a world-class, digitally connected education system and a clear government strategy across all four levels of education and on into lifelong learning.”


Clearly these arguments by key industrial leaders at the coalface of the global market place have had minimal impact on the economics profession, many of whose practitioners act as key government advisors and shapers of public opinion.  Their focus on cost minimisation is reflected in across-the-board cuts which are having a devastating impact on Ireland’s education system at a time when the need for expanded investment in this system was never greater.  A continued preoccupation with cutting labour costs will have little impact on the competitiveness of our existing export sector in the short term, but will inevitably undermine Ireland’s ability to create and maintain an innovative, high-productivity and high-income economy in the long run.  In the short run, the main beneficiaries of a policy of labour cost reduction will be the owners of small, labour-intensive, low-tech indigenous firms operating in sheltered (and frequently cartelised) business sectors.  In the long run, even these firms will find that it is not in their best interests to simultaneously reduce the incomes and spending power of most of their customers.

Proinnsias Breathnach

Yesterday 785 workers were told they may lose their job at Pfizer. This time the job losses are occurring in a sector that was generally believed to be relatively insulated from the effects of the global recession. Should we worry? I would say yes, if it was only for the fact that yesterday’s announcement is just the first step in a larger Pfizer restructuring programme. Last year, at the time of the mega-merger with Wyeth, the company announced that this restructuring programme will involve 19,000 job cuts. Yesterday’s announcement dealt with 6,000 of these. So far, the company has evaluated the sites that manufacture injectables, solid dose, biotechnology medicines and consumer health care. The evaluation of the active ingredient sites, of which Cork also has a few, is still to come. These are the sites that employ the most highly skilled workers.

But there are other reasons to worry, not only for Pfizer workers but for Pharma workers in general. Tánaiste Mary Coughlan has told the Dáil that the job losses at Pfizer have nothing to do with the Irish economy, but were caused by the overcapacity generated by the company’s merger with Wyeth. On the face of it, the Pfizer job losses could be interpreted as a one-off global restructuring of a company that faces over-capacity due to recent merger activity.  However, I believe we are dealing with a more structural issue here. The Pfizer global restructuring is partly driven by a lack of new products to replace a number of blockbuster drugs that are coming off patent. The first one, in 2011, is Lipitor but the next one, Viagra, is not far behind.  Think about it: Loughbeg, one of the plants to be closed, was the global manufacturing site of  Lipitor. Loughbeg  manufactures all of the active pharmaceutical ingredients (the few micrograms of substance with the actual pharmacological effect) and eighty per cent of the formulation (the actual tablet) in Ireland.

Mr. Ricciardi, Pfizer’s global manufacturing president, is quoted saying that “we are not announcing closures, we’re announcing exits”, citing hopes that Pfizer will be able to sell some of the plants to other pharma companies. But what if other companies are starting to develop similar plans for “exits”? Pfizer is not alone. Many other companies are facing the drying up of their drug pipelines with little to replace the blockbuster drugs. Companies are frantically looking for replacement drugs. However, chemical synthesis, the core capability of the traditional big pharma companies is reaching its limits for new drug development. Many diseases will require large molecule drugs that are too complex to produce via chemical synthesis. The hope is that the biopharmaceutical subsector will be able to fill the gap. The IDA has acted with their usual great foresight and has very successfully attracted a number of large biopharmaceutical plants to Ireland. The problem is that this may not create enough jobs to offset the losses in the chemical synthesis subsector and the skills requirements of the two subsectors are different.

From 2011 a lot of drugs come off patent and this will have a big impact on the industry in Ireland. The current value of export is 44 bn. 26% of that is patent protected. It is improbable that this will continue to be manufactured in Ireland. This market will be taken over by specialized generics companies, many of which are located in India. Research undetaken by Frank Barry (TCD) and I shows that local subsidiaries in Ireland and their parent companies have started planning for this over the years. The local plants have changed their role in the global production networks, developing into strategic launch plants and flexible multi-product plants, capable of producing niche-products and the downstream, higher value added elements of the synthesis cycle. An increasing number of companies are beginning to outsource the early, less skill intensive, steps of the active ingredient synthesis cycle to fine chemical companies. Very few processes are outsourced to companies in Ireland. Pharma companies are increasingly using low-cost suppliers in India and China. Until now Pharma companies remain hesitant to outsource the later stage synthesis to companies in India and China, doubting whether these companies have the requisite technical knowledge and can meet the health and safety standards required to supply the highly regulated EU, Japanese and North American markets. This perception is changing, however.

Ireland`s rapidly rising wage levels of the Celtic Tiger era provided an extra incentive to use the Irish facilities for the higher value added elements in the manufacturing chain, notably for new product introductions and late stage synthesis. In principle, such upgrading activity is a healthy development. But this will be of little comfort to the Pfizer and pharma workers affected. I would worry.

Chris van Egeraat

In Part 1 of this paper, data were presented which contradicted the widely-held view that Ireland experienced a sharp loss of export competitiveness vis-à-vis its main trading partners over the period 2000-2007.  Ireland actually increased its share of total world exports (albeit marginally) in this period and did better in this respect than seven of Ireland’s twelve main trading partners.  In terms of share of global services exports, Ireland’s powerful performance easily surpassed all twelve main trading partners and, while Ireland’s performance with respect to merchandise exports was poor, it was still superior to that of Ireland’s two leading trading partners, the UK and USA, as well as Japan.

Part 2 of this paper interrogates two further myths relating to Ireland’s export competitiveness i.e. that rising unit labour costs negatively impacted on Ireland’s export competitiveness in the period after 2000 (thereby bringing about Ireland’s postulated loss of competitiveness in this period) and that labour costs are a key determinant of Ireland’s export competitiveness.  However, initially some explanations for Ireland’s loss of market share in global merchandise exports in the 2000s are advanced  – explanations which have nothing to do with trends in labour costs within Ireland.

Explaining Ireland’s loss of market share in merchandise exports 2000-2007

Some special factors contributed to Ireland’s loss of share of global merchandise exports between 2000-2007.  One of these was the rapid rise in the prices of minerals and fuels in this period which boosted the global market share of countries with high relative endowments in these natural resources at the expense of countries, like Ireland, with low natural resource endowments.  Between 2000-2007, the share of global merchandise exports taken by Fuels & Mining Products rose from 13.3% to 19.0%.  By contrast, the share of Ireland’s merchandise exports accounted for by Fuels & Mining Products was just 1.3% in 2000 and 2.3% in 2007.  Thus, even if there had been no change in the technical efficiency of the Irish export sector during the period, Ireland would still have lost market share due to its relative underdowment in a subsector with a substantial and rapidly rising global market share.

A second contributory factor to Ireland’s loss of global market share in merchandise exports was the knock-on impact of the collapse in 2000-2001 of the so-called “ bubble” on the Office and Telecommunications Equipment (OTE) sector, upon which Ireland has had a heavy export dependence.  This was reflected in a fall in the share of global merchandise exports taken by the OTE sector from 15.0% in 2000 to 10.9% in 2007.  This sector alone accounted for one third of Ireland’s merchandise exports in 2000, according to WTO data.  In this case Ireland was penalised for an overdependence on a subsector which experienced a sharp reduction in global demand for reasons over which the Irish economy had no control.

A third factor which contributed significantly to Ireland’s loss of global market share in merchandise exports in the period 2000-2007 was the emergence, in this period, of China as a major competitor, again in the OTE sector. In 2000 China accounted for 4.5% of global OTE exports, but by 2007 this had jumped to 22.9%.  Within the OTE sector, China’s rise was particularly pronounced in the Data Processing & Office Equipment (DPOE) subsector (global share up from 5.0% to 30.3% between 2000-2007) which accounted for over two thirds of Ireland’s OTE exports in 2000.

The key factor here was China’s very low cost base in what is a highly-competitive industry, a factor which affected most western economies as much as – if not more than – Ireland.  Table 4 shows the global share of DPOE exports taken by Ireland and its main trading partners in 2000 & 2007.  This shows that the loss of global market share by Ireland’s main trading partners (excluding China) combined was almost as large as Ireland’s, with seven of the eleven comparator countries experiencing more sharp declines than Ireland while there is evidence to suggest that, in the case of two of the three countries which show a rise in market share (Germany and the Netherlands), this was at least partially due to re-exports from these countries of products originally imported from China.  Thus, Ireland’s loss of market share in this sector cannot be attributed to rising costs (including labour costs) relative to Ireland’s main trading partners, but to the emergence of a new competitor with a cost base profoudnly below those prevailing in the western economies in general.

The role of labour costs in Ireland’s export competitiveness

Our argument, therefore, is that, to a significant extent, Ireland’s loss of global market share in merchandise exports in the period 2000-2007 was due to external developments over which Ireland had no control but which had a disproportionate impact on Ireland’s export performance.  By contrast, the evidence suggests that changes in relative labour costs – the factor identified by most economic commentators as being responsible for Ireland’s purported loss of export competitiveness – had little if anything to do with Ireland’s export performance over the last decade.  While most public pronouncements by economic commentators do not state the sources they are using for their assertions that Ireland has been losing export competitiveness and that this is attributable to rising labour costs, it is assumed that the key sources concerned are publications of the ESRI and the Central Bank which routinely repeat these assertions.

Table 4: Share of global exports of Data Processing & Office Equipment (%)

2000 2007 2007 as % 2000
Belgium 1.19 0.93 77.9
France 2.73 1.57 57.4
Germany 4.63 5.95 128.6
Italy 0.88 0.43 49.0
Japan 9.46 4.54 48.0
Netherlands 7.41 8.83 119.2
Spain 0.50 0.25 49.3
Sweden 0.20 0.48 234.0
Switzerland 0.37 0.19 52.4
United Kingdom 5.92 2.45 41.3
United States 15.48 8.64 55.8
11 Trading Partners 48.78 34.26 70.2
Ireland 4.70 3.15 67.0
China 5.01 30.28 604.5


Source: WTO

An interesting fact about most of these pronouncements – and indeed many academic papers on the topic – is the absence of any factual data to demonstrate that Ireland has actually been losing competitiveness.  Most commentators appear happy to assume that if Irish labour costs are rising faster than our competitors, then Ireland must be losing competitiveness.

One commentator who has been stating his sources on labour cost trends and who has been presenting data on trade performance to demonstrate what he considers to be the consequences of these trends is Garret Fitzgerald.  In his Irish Times columns, Fitzgerald has shown that unit labour costs (costs relative to productivity) in the Irish economy rose relative to the USA and Western Europe during the 2000s while growth of industrial exports virtually ceased.  From this he draws the conclusion that the latter phenomenon was a direct consequence of the former.

Apart from the fact that, as shown above, factors other than labour cost trends had a significant negative impact on Ireland’s merchandise export performance in this period, there are serious flaws in Fitzgerald’s analysis.  The labour cost indicator which he uses is the OECD’s Total Economy Unit Labour Cost (ULC), which is based on labour costs throughout the economy and not just in exporting firms (direct employment in export activities accounted for only 12% of Ireland’s total employed workforce in 2000).  Apart from the dubious merit of calculating a national average from such a disparate array of economic sectors (many of which are effectively sheltered from international competition), the assumption (implicit in Fitzgerald’s argument) that unit labour cost trends in the export sector reflect those in the economy at large does not hold water.  Fitzgerald makes no reference to the OECD data on Manufacturing ULCs, which provide a more accurate view of labour cost trends in the Irish export sector (as some 80% of Irish manufacturing output is exported).  These data show that not only have Manufacturing ULCs shown an overall downward trend in the period 2000-2007, but they have been falling relative to most of Ireland’s main trading partners.

Figure 3: Trends in Total Economy & Manufacturing Unit Labour Costs (ULCs) relative to the OECD average, 2000-2007 [2000 = 100]

Source: OECD

Figure 3 shows how Ireland fared relative to the OECD average with respect to both Total Economy and Manufacturing ULCs between 2000-2007.  This shows Total Economy ULCs falling slightly between 2000-2003 and then rising consistently between 2002-2007.  Manufacturing ULCs fell sharply between 2000-2002, then rose again to the OECD average in 2005 & 2006 before falling again in 2007.  The overall trend lines show a diverging trend over time, with Total Economy ULCs rising and Manufacturing ULCs falling over the period.

Table 5 shows the change between 2000 and 2007 for both labour cost measures for Ireland and ten of Ireland’s twelve main trading partners (no data available for China and no Manufacturing ULC data available for Switzerland).  This shows that while Ireland’s Total Economy ULC rose more quickly than any of the other countries, Ireland’s Manufacturing ULC actually fell over the period whereas they rose in six of the ten comparator countries, while of the four which experienced a fall in Manufacturing ULCs, only Japan’s and Sweden’s rate of fall exceeded Ireland’s.

Table 5: Change in Total Economy & Manufacturing Unit Labour Costs – 2000-2007

Total Economy Manufacturing
2000 2007 2000 2007
Belgium 100.0 113.6 100.0 103.7
France 100.0 114.2 100.0 100.8
Germany 100.0 97.8 100.0 91.0
Italy 100.0 120.8 100.0 120.4
Japan 100.0 85.8 100.0 77.8
Netherlands 100.0 114.9 100.0 102.3
Spain 100.0 124.0 100.0 119.4
Sweden 100.0 110.3 100.0 87.1
United Kingdom 100.0 119.5 100.0 107.1
United States 100.0 115.5 100.0 92.7
Ireland 100.0 125.4 100.0 90.5

Source: OECD

Comparative data on Unit Labour Cost trends in export services are not available, but the relevant trends for Ireland can be estimated from Forfás surveys of the economic impact of state-aided economic activities.  These show that Unit Labour Costs in Export Services (pay costs per worker divided by value added per worker) fell by 26.6% between 2000-2007 in the foreign-owned export services sector (which accounted for 94% of services exports in 2000).

Fitzgerald’s assertion, to the effect that Irish manufacturing exports were negatively affected in the period after 2000 by rising labour costs is therefore based on a false premise, since relative labour costs in the export manufacturing sector actually fell in this period.  It has been pointed out by some commentators that real unit labour costs in manufacturing are understated due to the effect of transfer pricing (whereby TNCs operating in Ireland overstate the value of their output in order to avail of Ireland’s low corporation tax rate) in overstating value added.  However, this refers to the absolute value of unit labour costs – there is no obvious reason why this should impact on the rate of change of unit labour costs over time, which is our concern here.

A more obvious flaw in Fitzgerald’s analysis refers to his treatment of services exports.  While acknowledging their strong growth in the 2000s, he fails to explain why the purported rise in Irish labour costs should not have impacted on these in the same way as he suggests they impacted on manufacturing.  To put this in perspective, according to Forfás survey data, in 2007 labour costs accounted for 9.9% of total costs in the foreign services export sector compared with 11.1% of total costs in the foreign manufacturing export sector (i.e. there was no major difference in the relative cost of labour in both sectors).

This last statistic brings us to what is possibly the biggest flaw of all in the argument of those who assert that labour costs are the key ingredient in export competitiveness i.e. labour costs in fact only account for a relatively small proportion of costs in Irish export activities.  To explore this further, Table 6 presents some relevant data from the Census of Industrial Production (CIP) relating to Ireland’s main export manufacturing sectors for the period 2000-2006 (with the exception of the Food & Beverages sector in which natural resource endowment has a substantial impact on competitiveness).  Due to changes in coverage, the CIP data for 2007 are not directly comparable to previous years and have been excluded from this table.

Garret Fitzgerald in his Irish Times articles has placed much emphasis on the job losses sustained in the 2000s due, in his view, to rising labour costs.  One might expect, therefore, that sectors in which labour accounted for a high proportion of costs to have the weakest employment performance over the period, either due to loss of market share or through substitution of capital for labour.  In fact, the data in Table 6 show no relationship whatever between proportionate labour costs and rate of employment change (Pearson’s R = -0.03).  Thus, for example, the Medical, Precision & Optical Instruments sector, in which labour costs accounted for 25% of total costs in 2000, experienced 41% employment growth over the period, whereas the Electrical Machinery & Apparatus sector, in which labour costs were almost equally important (23%) experienced a decline in employment of 50%.  A distinctive feature of the table is the major differences between sectors in employment performance, which demonstrates the futility of making industry-wide statements about employment trends and their causes.

A further distinctive feature of the table is the relatively low proportion of costs accounted for by labour costs in all sectors, ranging from just 4.1% for Office Machinery & Computers to 28.7% for Machinery & Equipment, with an overall average for the nine sectors of 10.8%.  It may be noted that the very low labour cost share in the Office Machinery & Computers sector did not spare that sector from serious job losses in the 2000s, indicating that China’s meteoric rise in this highly competitive sector is attributable to low costs in general, and not merely low labour costs.

Table 6: Labour costs and employment change, main export sectors – 2000-2006

Sector Export % 2000 Labour % Input Costs 2000 Empl Change 2000-2006 (%)
Reproduction of Computer Media 97.2 21.1 -27.5
Organic Chemicals 99.8 8.2 +23.3
Pharmaceuticals 96.0 16.4 +35.3
Perfumes & Toilet Preparations 98.5 27.8 -28.5
Machinery & Equipment 71.6 28.7 -22.7
Office Machinery & Computers 86.0 4.1 -36.4
Electrical Machinery & Apparatus 83.1 23.2 -50.3
Communications Equipment & Electronic Components 93.3 13.2 -43.4
Medical, Precision & Optical Instruments 95.4 25.0 +41.2
Total 92.7 10.8 -14.8

Source: Census of Industrial Production (CIP)

Economic commentators appear to be unaware of the low share of labour costs in the total cost structure of Ireland’s exporting firms, frequently pointing to the high share of GNP accounted for by labour remuneration as indicative of the importance of labour costs to competitiveness.  Thus, in a recent article dealing specificially with the measurement of labour cost competitiveness by Central Bank economist Derry O’Brien in that institution’s prestigious Quarterly Bulletin, the following passage appears on page 105: “The largest costs incurred by firms are typically labour costs”.  This is presented as a self-evident truth with no supporting data, yet as is obvious from the data presented above, labour costs account for only about ten per cent of total costs in the export activities which were the very focus of the paper in question.  This means that the five per cent reduction in wages which the ESRI’s John Fitzgerald sees as being necessary to restore Ireland’s competitiveness (see quotation above) would have the effect of reducing the overall costs of the average exporting firm by less than one half of one per cent – hardly likely to have a major impact on competitiveness.


This part of the paper has shown that, while economy-wide unit labour costs in Ireland did rise more rapidly than in Ireland’s main trading partners in the period 2000-2007, unit labour costs in both manufacturing and export services moved in the opposite direction.  While this was associated with a rapid rise in services exports (and might have been in the case of manufacturing exports were it not for the intrusion of several extraneous factors which had a particularly negative impact on Ireland’s merchandise exports), this should not be construed as establishing a causal link between trends in labour costs and trends in export performance.  An examination of the cost structure of Ireland’s main manufacturing export sectors revealed that not only was there was no link between the proportion of total costs accounted for by labour costs and employment change in these sectors, but that labour costs in general account for a low proportion of costs in the sectors in question (as is also the case with export services).

The third and final part of this paper reviews a number of alternative approaches to assessing national export competitiveness which are much more complex and sophisticated than the simplistic – and erroneous – reduction of competitiveness to international differences in unit labour costs.  These alternative approaches generally portray Ireland’s competitiveness position in a much more favourable light than has become the norm in public discourse of the topic in Ireland.


O’Brien, Derry (2010) Measuring Ireland’s Price and Labour Cost Competitiveness Central Bank Quarterly Bulletin, 2010 No 1, 99-113.


Proinnsias Breathnach

If ever there was a divisive term, it’s the phrase “creative industries”.  People just seem to either love it or loathe it. Advocates of  an Irish “smart economy” economic recovery see the creative industries as a collection of innovative business sub-sectors who generate novel intellectual property and redesign/recombine existing technologies into new products that are both intermediate inputs into the economy-wide innovation process and finished products in their own right. At first glance, this doesn’t seem so objectionable. While not being a panacea to the economic travails we’re enduring at the moment, it offers the hope of enhanced productivity and (dare we say it) a “competitive edge” for Irish firms in the domestic economy and in the global marketplace. The creative industries may even generate some sustainable employment, if not directly then indirectly (though nowhere near the number of new jobs we need to absorb our ever-growing dole queues).

Critics of the “creative industries” notion, however, would beg to differ. First, there’s the term itself. Creative industries are generally defined as those industries which generate intellectual property (IP). But this implies, according to the critics, that creative ability is only harnessed for economic gain and that it can be measured in economic terms. What’s more, this established definition can be traced back to the UK’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport in the mid-1990s – which leads some to dismiss “creative industries” as Blair-era spin aimed at rebranding the economy and producing flattering measures of both current and potential economic activity. A second (perhaps more pragmatic) critique is similar to that voiced on RTE’s recent The Front Line discussion of the Smart Economy idea (May 10th): basing strategies for economic recovery on the creative industries would involve investing serious amounts of taxpayer’s money in R&D activities that may or may not succeed in the long term, and are unlikely to create significant employment in the short-term for the cohort of people (such as construction workers) who have been hardest hit by the recession.

No doubt, the debate regarding the merits of the “creative industries” will rumble on indefinitely. However, we would like to offer a few  suggestions: first, maybe the hostility engendered by a term such as the creative industries could be mitigated if we reframe it as something more limited, such as “those industries that generate intellectual property and other novel products/ processes from existing technologies”, and accept that fact that creative thinking itself will never be amenable to industrial classification. Second, instead of talking in terms of a sub-set of creative industries, we could think in terms of “creative” activities embedded across the entire economy. Thirdly, we think those familiar what are deemed to be creative industries would accept that the industry itself is not one to generate large-scale employment opportunities, but instead is centred on micro-firms and the self-employed. In light of this, it would be wrong to trumpet the creative industries (or smart economy, or “innovation island” etc) as the potential source of short term employment, but rather as a source of differentiation that enhances domestic products and services though novel inventions and processes.

Even if one is not overly enamoured with the idea of the creative industries, it is still informative to have an impression what exactly is meant when we speak of the Irish creative industries.  Established industrial-classification based definitions of creative industries such as those discussed above point to the following as the creative industries sub-set: advertising; architecture; the arts and antique market; crafts; design; designer fashion; film and video; interactive leisure software; music; performing arts; publishing; software and computer services; and radio and television. The Arts Council have estimated that at a national level these sectors generate approximately €5.5 billion in terms of gross value added. A recent report published by Dublin City Council (which we have authored) estimates that, in the Greater Dublin Area, that same subset of industries employ over 77,000 people (59% of Irish Creative workers; 10% of total Dublin employment) and generate approximately €3.25 billion a year for the Greater Dublin Area. [The full report is available from Dublin City Council’s International Relations and Research Office and can also be accessed as a working paper here].

While the sub-set of industries included in this type of estimation is open to debate, the key message is that there is a significant reservoir of creative abilities in place within the Irish economy. The report also indicates that this sub-set of industries appears to be relatively more concentrated in larger urban centres. However, rather than being ammunition for a “Dublin versus the rest of Ireland” argument over job creation, the question facing us is how do we mobilise these creative resources (wherever they are located) to enhance the competitiveness of the broader economy in the medium and longer term.

Declan Curran and Chris van Egeraat

[This is an expanded version of a paper delivered to the Conference of Irish Geographers at NUI Maynooth on May 1, 2010]

Introduction: The importance of exports to the Irish economy

Due to the small size of the domestic Irish economy, Irish-based businesses must look to export markets in order to achieve the economies of scale or specialisation capable of generating high living standards comparable to other advanced economies.  The achievement and maintenance of export competitiveness (i.e. the ability of Irish-based firms to compete in export markets) is therefore an essential requirement for the Irish economy’s long-term success. Expanding exports has been a central objective of Irish government policy since the late 1950s and has enjoyed a considerable measure of success as reflected in the ratio of exports of goods and services to GDP which grew from just over a quarter in 1950 to 94% in 2000 – one of the highest such ratios in the world.

The Irish government has mainly relied on inward investment by TNCs as the means of expanding Ireland’s export base, with foreign firms accounting for 89% of all exports of goods and services by 2000 (a proportion which has remained constant in the 2000s).   In that year, eleven sectors accounted for three quarters of all exports (Table 1), with Office Machinery & Data Processing Equipment and Organic Chemicals between them accounting for almost 36%.  The 1990s in particular were a period of spectacular export growth, the annual compound growth rate of 13.8% (in volume terms) being exactly twice the GDP volume growth rate of 6.9% – itself a very high sustained growth rate over such a long period. Thus, while GDP almost doubled in volume terms in the 1990s, the corresponding volume growth of exports totalled 265%.  This saw Ireland’s share of global exports doubling, from 0.64% to 1.22%, between 1991-2000, according to World Trade Organisation (WTO) data.

The loss of competitiveness myth

The performances of Irish exports and export competitiveness after 2000 have been the subject of an extraordinary process of distortion and misinterpretation on the part of a wide range of highly influential economic commentators.  The effect of the virtual unanimity of view expressed by these commentators has been the creation of a veritable myth surrounding Ireland’s export competitiveness over the last ten years, a myth which has now, unfortunately, achieved the status of accepted wisdom.

Table 1: Main export sectors 20001


% total exports

Office machinery & data processing equipment 19.2
Organic chemicals 16.5
Electrical machinery & apparatus etc 7.7
Food & beverages 6.8
Software 5.8
Medical & pharmaceutical products 5.2
Telecommunications & sound equipment 3.7
Business services 3.2
Travel & tourism 2.8
Essential oils & perfumes etc 2.3
Financial services 2.2
All merchandise exports 82.1
All service exports 17.9


1 Note: Services sectors derived from CSO Balance of Payments data; Merchanside sectors derived from CSO External Trade data.  The Balance of Payments data include totals for merchandise exports which differ slightly from the External Trade data, but do not provide the sectoral breakdown required for compilation of this table.

The key elements of this myth are that Ireland lost its export competitiveness in the decade after 2000 and that this loss of competitiveness was due largely (if not entirely) to Irish labour costs rising more quickly than in Ireland’s main trading partners in this period.

Among those who have espoused the view that Ireland lost competitiveness in this period are Alan Ahearne (NUIG economist and current economic advisor to the Minister for Finance); Patrick Honohan (currently Governor of the Central Bank); Alan Barrett and John Fitzgerald (senior economists at the ESRI); Morgan Kelly (Professor of Economics at UCD) who, in an article in the Irish Times on December 29 last, wrote that Ireland’s competitiveness “collapsed” after 2000; Philip Lane (Professor of International Macroeconomics at TCD); Jim O’Leary (Department of Economics, NUI Maynooth) who writes a regular column in the Irish Times; and Rossa White, chief economist at Davy Research.

These and others have also ascribed this supposed loss of competitiveness to Ireland’s rising wage costs and have advocated wage cuts as the principal or only means of “restoring” Ireland’s competitiveness.  The following is a list of relevant quotations:

Alan Ahearne:”if we are to regain competitiveness, we have to do it the difficult way – through wage cuts.” (Sunday Tribune, January 11, 2009)

Alan Barrett: “wage falls are vital to the restoration of competitiveness” (quoted in The Irish Times, April 29, 2009)

John Fitzgerald: “Wage cuts of 5 per cent in both the private and public sector are needed ‘to achieve the necessary improvement’ in the economy’s competitiveness” (quoted in The Irish Times, Oct 17, 2009)

Morgan Kelly: “The economy will not begin to grow until real wages fall to competitive international levels” (Irish Times, January 20, 2009)

Jim O’Leary: The competitiveness of the Irish economy will be “enhanced” by “the emergence of lower private sector wages” (Irish Times, August 7, 2009).

Undoubtedly the most ardent proponent of the thesis that Ireland lost export competitiveness through excessive labour cost growth in the 2000s has been former Taoiseach and UCD economist Garret Fitzgerald, who has advanced this argument repeatedly in his Saturday column in the Irish Times.  Fitzgerald has particularly identified the sharp rise in labour costs associated with a surge in public spending by the Fianna Fáil government in the period 1997-2003 as being responsible for what he has termed the “disastrous” decline in Ireland’s national competitiveness over the last ten years (Irish Times, January 31, 2009).  This view has also been endorsed by The Irish Times itself which, in an editorial in the issue of April 29, 2008, stated that “wage falls…are the necessary and unavoidable means to regaining competitiveness lost over recent years”.

In that follows we will be presenting evidence which shows that Ireland’s exports rose more quickly than most of Ireland’s main trading partners during the 2000s, that Ireland’s unit labour costs in the key manufacturing sector actually fell relative to our main trading partners in this period, and that while, overall, Ireland’s share of global exports slipped back somewhat between 2002-2007, this varied between sectors with many sectors experiencing significant growth in export share.  We will also provide evidence to show that labour costs had no obvious influence on the varying export performances of the different export sectors over the last decade and that, indeed, labour costs comprise only a small proportion of the total costs of most export sectors.  The paper then goes on to point to the wide range of considerations which have a bearing on national export competitiveness, and to argue that the reduction by economic commentators of competitiveness to a matter of labour costs is not only grossly simplistic but also potentially profoundly damaging to Ireland’s long-term export growth prospects.

Measuring Ireland’s export competitiveness

The two standard methods of gauging a country’s export competitiveness are to compare trends over time in either export growth (or decline) or in export market share vis-à-vis other countries.  Data relating to the former method are provided by the OECD and for the latter by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).  Figure 1 shows the trend in volume growth in exports of goods and services from Ireland and the OECD as a whole between 2000 and 2007 (prior to the onset of the current recession in Ireland).  Volume growth adjusts overall value growth for changes in prices.  This shows that Ireland’s exports grew much more rapidly than for the OECD at large in 2001 and 2002, with the gap then narrowing somewhat up to 2006 and widening again in 2007.  Thus, at end-2007, Ireland’s exports, in volume terms, were 48.4% greater than in 2000 compared with an overall figure for the OECD of 39.1%.

Figure 1: Index of volume growth of exports of goods and services, Ireland & OECD, 2000-2007 [2000 = 100]

Source: OECD

Clearly, therefore, Ireland’s export performance was significantly better than that for the OECD as a whole over the period.  There is no evidence here of the sharp loss of competitiveness postulated by many economic commentators.  Ireland’s export growth rate was superior to that of 19 of the 29 other members of the OECD, including the UK and the USA.  The only West European countries to exceed Ireland’s growth rate were Luxembourg, Austria and Germany (the other seven being the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – all East European countries coming from a low base – Turkey, Japan and South Korea).

The second export performance indicator used here refers to trends in Ireland’s share of global exports.  For comparison purposes, we use Ireland’s 12 most important trade partners, calculated from the combined value of exports to, and imports from, all trade partners in 2007 (the first year for which detailed data on the distribution of services exports and imports are available).  Table 2 compares the change in Ireland’s share of global exports between 2000-2007 with that of Ireland’s 12 main export partners.  This shows that Ireland’s share of total global exports actually increased slightly over the period, whereas the combined share of Ireland’s 12 main trading partners declined.  Again, the evidence shows that, far from a major loss of competitiveness, Ireland actually improved its competitiveness position in this period. Of Ireland’s 12 main trading partners, seven experienced a loss of global market share, the largest relative declines being shown by the USA, Japan, France and the UK, in that order (the UK and the USA being by far Ireland’s main trading partners).  Of the five countries which experienced a growth in their export share, only China (which more than doubled its share) and Germany posted increases significantly greater than Ireland’s.

Table 2: Shares of total global exports 2000-2007

2000 2007 2007 as % 2000
Belgium 2.77 2.90 104.7
China 3.52 7.72 219.3
France 5.13 4.03 78.6
Germany 7.96 8.85 111.2
Italy 3.74 3.51 93.9
Japan 6.91 4.84 70.0
Netherlands 3.55 3.71 104.5
Spain 2.11 2.19 103.8
Sweden 1.35 1.34 99.3
Switzerland 1.39 1.36 97.8
United Kingdom 5.09 4.14 81.3
USA 13.35 9.32 69.8
12 trading partners 56.85 53.93 94.9
Ireland 1.21 1.24 102.5


Source: WTO

While Ireland’s share of total global exports rose between 2000-2007, this masks substantial differences between merchandise and services exports over the period.  These differences are demonstrated in Figure 2.  This shows Ireland’s overall share of global exports growing from 1.21% in 2000 to 1.46% in 2002, then falling gradually to 1.19% in 2006 before recovering to 1.24% in 2007.  In 2000 Ireland’s share of global merchandise and services exports were almost identical at around 1.2%.  Thereafter, Ireland’s share of global services exports grew continuously and strongly (from 1.24% in 2000 to 2.76% in 2007), whereas merchandise exports, having grown from 1.20% in 2000 to 1.36% in 2002 then declined consistently to 0.87% in 2007.

Figure 2: Ireland’s share of global exports 2000-2007

Source: WTO

Table 3 compares Ireland’s performance with respect to these two broad sectors with that of Ireland’s 12 main trading partners over the 2000-2007 period.  As regards merchandise exports, overall the 12 trading partners combined experienced a loss of global market share over the period, although not nearly as substantial as Ireland’s.  However, of seven countries which experienced a loss of market share, three (the USA, Japan and the UK in that order) experienced a relative loss of market share which was greater than Ireland’s.  Of the five countries which gained market share, again China performed particularly strongly, more than doubling its share over the period.

As regards services exports, while six each of the 12 trading partners gained and lost market share, as a group they lost market share.  The USA experienced the greatest relative loss of market share while China and Sweden experienced the strongest gains, albeit well behind that achieved by Ireland.

Table 3: Trends in shares of global merchandise and services exports – 2000-2007

Merchandise Services
2000 2007 2007 as % 2000 2000 2007 2007 as % 2000
Belgium 2.92 3.09 105.8 2.10 2.14 101.9
China 3.86 8.72 225.9 2.03 3.60 176.8
France 5.07 3.94 77.7 5.39 4.41 81.7
Germany 8.55 9.44 110.5 5.38 6.42 119.4
Italy 3.73 3.57 95.9 3.78 3.27 86.6
Japan 7.42 5.10 68.8 4.69 3.76 80.2
Netherlands 3.61 3.94 109.0 3.26 2.79 85.4
Spain 1.79 1.81 101.4 3.52 3.76 106.9
Sweden 1.35 1.21 89.4 1.35 1.87 138.7
Switzerland 1.25 1.23 98.6 1.99 1.90 95.6
United Kingdom 4.42 3.14 71.0 8.00 8.30 103.7
USA 12.11 8.21 67.7 18.77 13.92 74.2
12 trading partners 56.07 53.40 95.2 60.26 56.13 93.2
Ireland 1.20 0.87 72.4 1.24 2.76 223.0

Source: WTO

Conclusion to Part 1

The data presented above do not support the thesis of a generalised loss of export competitiveness on the part of Ireland vis-à-vis its main trading partners over the period 2000-2007.  Ireland actually increased its share of total world exports (albeit marginally) and did better in this respect than seven of Ireland’s twelve main trading partners.  In terms of share of global services exports, Ireland’s powerful performance easily surpassed all twelve main trading partners and, while Ireland’s performance with respect to merchandise exports was poor, it was still superior to that of Ireland’s two leading trading partners, the UK and USA, as well as Japan.

Part 2 of this paper will interrogate two further myths relating to Ireland’s export competitiveness i.e. that rising unit labour costs negatively impacted on Ireland’s export competitiveness in the period after 2000 (thereby bringing about Ireland’s postulated loss of competitiveness in this period) and that labour costs are a key determinant of Ireland’s export competitiveness.


Proinnsias Breathnach

The Irish Times reports today that a proposal to dezone land in Kerry was subject to a heated council debate yesterday.  The county manager and senior planners have proposed to dezone hundreds of acres in mid-Kerry, but were met with resistance from some councillors, with landowners and developers looking on from the gallery.  The chief worry was that by dezoning land those that had bought it would be bankrupted (though this is unlikely to happen to those who continued to own land that was zoned whilst in they were in possession of it). Danny Healy-Rae made the interesting observation that “the more land zoned for development, the better. It created competition and brought house prices down.”  Existing home owners in Kerry, already in negative equity, might not necessarily see this as a good outcome either, though this is a situation from which there are few winners.  There have been similar stories relating to Clare, Waterford and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown in recent months.

As an article in the Irish Independent earlier this month makes clear, the zoning of land over the last number of years has ignored: good planning guidelines and regional and national objectives; sensible demographic profiling of potential demand; and the absence of essential services such as water and sewerage treatment plants, energy supply, public transport or roads.  Instead it has been driven by the demands of local developers and speculators, and ambitious, localised growth plans framed within a zero-sum game of potentially being left behind (if that town had growth or particular services, then this town had to have the same as well). It is extremely difficult to justify a situation in which there is presently enough land to accommodate an additional 1.1m units (as reported by the Irish Independent).  That said, we are where we are, and it seems likely we are going to go through the painful process of vested interests seeking to protect investments that were made in good faith as council officials seek to rezone and dezone land that is clearly surplus to requirements in both the short and long term.  And no doubt a number of cases will end up in the courts.  What seems vital, however, is that lessons of the present property crisis are learnt and the zoning and planning system changed to stop what John Gormley has called ‘unfettered and irresponsible rezonings’, so that a more sustainable situation arises with respect to the environment and land/housing market.

Rob Kitchin

In order to discuss the past, present and future of the blog as a tool in the humanities, Pue’s Occurences has organised a one day symposium to be held from 10am to 5pm on 3 June 2010 in the Trinity Irish Art Research Centre (TRIARC) at Trinity College Dublin.  Ireland After NAMA will be represented by Rob Kitchin.  Several other academic blogs will be represented on the day, which will discuss the use of blogging as a tool to share information and reach new audiences. The format is set to be informal, with lots of time for debate and discussion.  The draft programme is available here.  You can also download the poster here.  You can can register here.  There will be a small fee of 5 euro (payable on the day) to defray the cost of lunch.  Numbers are limited so please do register in advance.

I was told a story at the weekend of a group of developers getting together to toast the creation of NAMA with champagne when it was announced by Brian Lenihan.  How true it was, I’m not sure, but I can easily imagine it happening.  Here was an institution that was going to keep them from bankruptcy and losing everything in very short order.  Sure, they would still have to pay back the state, but the state had been very good to them over the past few years and would continue to help them out on favourable and flexible terms whilst they dealt with the crisis facing them.  They’d be able to carry-on living their champange lifestyle whilst the state helped get them back on their feet in time for the next property bubble. And a lot of the public felt the same thing – NAMA was a bail for developers and failed banks, not simply a mechanism to save the Irish economy.

Frank Daly, the Chairman of NAMA, made a speech yesterday to the Leinster Society of Chartered Accountants (reported in the Indo, IT, RTE), that noted that many developers are clinging to their old ways and lifestyles stating, “Certainly not all of them have yet abandoned the extravagant mindset of the 2003-2007 era”.  A few weeks ago Brendan McDonagh, NAMA Chief Executive, told a Dail committee that indebted developers were “displaying obvious wealth almost in defiance of us”.  Both Daly and McDonagh have made it clear that those developers who think that NAMA is a vehicle for them to continue to live champagne lifestyles are in for a rude awakening.  Yesterday, Daly detailed that NAMA is going to undertake the due diligence on loans and business plans that were quite clearly absent during the Celtic Tiger years, arguing that, “Our approach has been fully vindicated by what has emerged to date in terms of sub-standard loan documentation and of assets not properly secured,” and that developers are “fully aware” of what is expected in terms of the “thoroughness and stringency of their business plans”.  He went on to state that no borrower is too big to fail, which suggests that there might well be some significant casualities in the coming weeks and months.  Daly also went on to criticise the planning process, questioning how many shopping centres or apartment developments a medium-sized town could accommodate?  Clearly a question that some towns have answered the hard way, with hundreds of empty units that may remain as such for quite some time.  A similar question could be asked of hotels and office blocks.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the sales of champagne in Ireland over the next couple of years.

Rob Kitchin

The Sunday Independent reported yesterday that “councils have rezoned 33,000 hectares of land — enough to build a staggering 1,086,119 units.”   They don’t have a link to the source of the data, which is a shame.  I can’t find the data anywhere on the DEHLG website.  The most recent figures the DEHLG report are from June 2008, which IAN has discussed previously along with a basic model of how long that rezoning would last in each county if population continued to grow as it did between 1996-2006.   In June 2008 there were 14,191 hectares of land zoned for 462,709 potential new units.  The Independent’s article suggests that in the last two years there has been a bit of a rezoning frenzy in which the amount of land rezoned has more than doubled (the amount of rezoned land had been increasing throughout the 2000s, up from 10,775 in 2000 to 14,191 in 2008, then jumping dramatically to 33,000 in 2010).   Interestingly, the Independent reports that Meath is the county with the largest oversupply relative to projected demand (60 times in excess).  However, the June 2008 data suggests that Meath had the least oversupply, with only a few years worth of land zoned, so it would be interesting to get more detail as to what has happened there.  In general terms, it appears that councils have been trying to push through extensive rezoning ahead of the new Planning Bill that will significantly tighten rezoning and planning decisions, and also confers additional powers to the DEHLG to dezone land.  If anyone knows a bit more about what councils have been doing re. rezoning in the last couple of years it would be interesting to get some info.  Also, if anyone knows how to source the current rezoning data we’d be grateful for a link.

Rob Kitchin