One is the importance of keeping a very close eye on the structural fiscal balance - the true shape of the government's books, shorn of cyclical influences. The Irish government of the first half of the 2000s spent up large on the back of a cyclical and unsustainable boom in revenue, a lot of it emanating one way or another from the massively overheated Irish property sector. In reality, its spending (and the future commitments it also entered into) left it hugely exposed, financially, when its revenues plunged.
At the time, as the book explains, watching the structural balance wasn't much in vogue, and it didn't help that when the first estimates were eventually made of the true Irish position, they didn't correctly pick up the sheer awfulness of the fiscal books. These days we're more on the ball - though the media attention at Budget time is still disproportionately on the government's headline fiscal numbers and not enough on what's really happening under the bonnet - and I was pleased to see that Treasury continues to beaver away at improved ways of calculating where we really are.
I was also struck by how quickly the Irish fiscal situation deteriorated when the balloon finally burst, and there's a lesson there too. Here is what the level of Irish government debt looked like before things went to hell in a handbasket (based on the data in Table 6.1 of The Fall of the Celtic Tiger).
That looks good, doesn't it? Despite the big spendup, revenues were so large that the government could scatter cash to the four winds and still have enough left over to work government debt down to what looks like a conservative level of just under 25% of GDP. You'd think that debt at that level was low enough to be able to cope with anything the domestic or global economy might throw at you, wouldn't you?
But it wasn't.
So when our Fiscal Strategy Report says,
I say, right on.The Government has five fiscal priorities:...2 Reducing net government debt to 20 per cent of GDP by 2020, including repaying debt in dollar terms in 2017/18......5 Using any further fiscal headroom – including from positive revenue surprises – to get debt down to 20 per cent of GDP sooner than 2020
And finally there is the whole issue of overheated property markets: as you read the book, you find yourself asking, are we on the same slippery slope to a property bust as the Irish were?
On balance I'm inclined to think not. We do have some of the same characteristics as the Irish did: a surge in property demand from growth in incomes, strong net immigration, and a monetary policy imported from elsewhere that doesn't suit our circumstances (in Ireland's case it was the common eurozone monetary policy, in ours the Fed's which has, for example, helped drive our fixed rate mortgage rates to low levels). But we don't have others, notably the reckless lending of the Irish banks in general and their huge lending to property development companies in particular.
But sorting out what's happening in real time is as hard here as it was in Ireland. You can easily miscategorise things: what looks to you like a 'genuine' increase in housing demand meeting a near-fixed short-term supply curve could as easily be the early to mid stages of a speculative bubble. And often enough there may be elements of both stories happening at the same time.
Which is why I thought this chart was so interesting. It's by Ronan Lyons, an assistant professor at Trinity, and it appeared a few days ago in this article on the Irish economy blog. It's his estimate of the strength of the different factors that were driving the Irish housing boom/bubble.
As you can see, different things mattered at different times. As the boom started (1995-2001), you had decent sized contributions from a variety of sources - people's incomes (blue), demographics (green), bank lending (red), and those too-low eurozone interest rates (yellow) all played a part. The bubble period of 2001-2007, however, was driven overwhelmingly by loose lending.
Wouldn't it be useful to see the same analysis done here?