Ireland’s recently adopted four-year recovery plan promotes an export-led strategy. The idea is to introduce measures to assist the export sector. These measures will assist export recovery through enhanced competitiveness and sector specific initiatives. Export growth will in turn deliver high value employment and act to stimulate the domestically trading sectors of the economy. These developments will in turn boost consumption, reduce unemployment and increase tax revenue. Confidence in this strategy is supported by the recent performance of the internationally traded sector. The government estimates exports have grown by over six percent in 2010.

Given the importance of the pharmaceutical industry to Ireland’s economy and its large share in Ireland’s exports, it is useful to take a closer look at the developments of this sector and their implications for the recovery plan.

The Irish pharmaceutical industry is performing strongly throughout the economic crisis. CSO external trade data show that exports in the combined chemicals and pharmaceuticals sector (which is dominated by the pharmaceutical sub-sectors) grew from €44.2bn in 2008 to €49.4bn in 2009 (+12%). The most recent CSO release shows further export growth by 4% in the first eight months of 2010 (compared to the first eight month in 2009). This compares with falling exports in other important manufacturing sub-sectors, notably the office machines sector (computer hardware), which experienced a drop of 32% in exports. As a result the combined chemicals and pharmaceuticals sector now accounts for 60% of Ireland’s manufacturing exports.

Now let’s take a look at the employment figures of the CSO. Between Q4 2007 and Q4 2009 employment in basic pharmaceutical products and pharmaceutical preparations (NACE 21) dropped by 9%, from 30,800 to 27,900.  How can we explain this apparent paradox?

Part of the job losses are related to corporate merger activity and the concomitant reorganisation of global manufacturing capacity. Other job losses are related to pharmaceutical companies losing markets when some of their products reach the end of their patent life. I discussed the implications of this “patent cliff” issue for Ireland in a previous IAN post. These processes were responsible for the recent high profile job-losses and plant closures at Pfizer and GSK in Cork. But one would expect these processes to translate in a drop in pharmaceutical exports, not an increase.

After talking to some pharmaceutical company managers, I believe the answer to the puzzle lies in a parallel development which may be termed “fat pharma going lean”. Traditionally, because of obscenely high pharmaceutical prices, pharma companies’ main concern was to have a sufficient supply of product. Pharma companies paid little attention to production efficiencies. However, product prices have come under serious pressure due to increasingly stringent price controls in many markets, as well as increased competition. In addition, changes in the regulatory environment have significantly increased the cost of bringing a drug to the market. In response, following the example of the electronics industry, most pharmaceutical companies are now introducing more efficient processes. As a result, Irish plants are starting to produce significantly more output, while at the same time reducing their head count. In some Irish plants, staff numbers have been reduced by over 10 per cent, completely under the radar of the media.

One might argue that this development will make the plants more efficient and put them in a better position to attract future investments by the parent company. However, efficiencies are implemented globally, not only in Ireland.

The recent growth in Irish pharmaceutical exports has not been job-less, it has been job-shedding. At least in the context of the pharmaceutical industry, the Government’s export-led recovery strategy may be problematic. In this sector, in the short term, increased exports are unlikely to lead to significant number of new jobs. Without new jobs, there will be no boost to consumption, no boost to the domestic sector, and no boost to income tax. Pharma is, of course, a specific case. The increasingly important internationally traded services sector may lend itself better to the export-led recovery plan.

Chris van Egeraat