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Consumer spending in Ireland feeling the pinch following Brexit

  • Date: Thu, Nov 24, 2016

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The recovery of the Irish consumer economy that was powering ahead through the first half of 2016 has slowed significantly in recent months. This softening trend has affected almost all categories of services and retail, in what may be seen as a Brexit effect. This is one of the key findings of the latest quarterly Consumer Market Monitor (CMM) jointly published today, Nov 24th, by the Marketing Institute of Ireland and UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. Data from the Q3 2016 Monitor indicates that the consumer economy in Ireland is experiencing a slight dampener on what has been a steady recovery since the beginning of 2014. The key question is whether this is a temporary blip or a sign of a deeper malaise that has been precipitated by Brexit.

Mary Lambkin, Professor of Marketing, UCD Smurfit School and one of the authors of the Monitor, said: “A reassuring factor is that the fundamental factors underpinning the consumer economy are still very strong and should provide a counter-balance to any external shocks. In particular, employment stands at 2.015 million right now, and is continuing to grow.”

Tom Trainor, Chief Executive, The Marketing Institute of Ireland, said: “Notwithstanding the backdrop of economic recovery, the monitor has identified a slowdown that serves to remind us of the need for continued vigilance and purposeful action to ensure we stay on track.”

  • Overall rate of growth has slowed by approximately 50% in Q3
  • Q3 accommodation and food services have fallen from a growth rate of 13-14% in the first half of the year to 3.4%
  • Only 2% of housing stock is changing hands indicating a serious supply problem
  • Household debt in Ireland remains high by international standards, at 153% of disposable income compared with a Eurozone average of just over 90%


Following a very strong first half year, the Irish consumer economy has slowed down across all sectors in Q3 of 2016. This may owe something to the Brexit vote in the UK, and the knock-on effect on the value of the sterling. It may also have been influenced by the lengthy political uncertainty here at home over the formation of a new government.

While it is never good to see economic weakness, two points are worth noting about the recent figures. Firstly, the slowdown in the third quarter is relatively modest - it is a softening of the growth rate rather than an actual decline. In this respect, it looks more like a temporary blip rather than a fall from a cliff such as we experienced in 2009. Secondly, the economic fundamentals on which the consumer economy is built remain strong.

The improvement in the labour market has been a critically important factor driving the consumer economy and this remains very positive. There are now 2.015 million people at work, up 56,200 year-on-year, and up by 190,000 or 10% since the low point in 2012. Pay increases have also contributed, up 2% on average in 2015, and up by a similar percentage this year.

This increasingly healthy employment situation drives the amount of disposable income circulating in the economy, and the evidence shows that spending very closely matches income. In fact, there has been a remarkable increase in disposable income in recent times - it increased by 5% in 2015, and by a similar amount this year.

Another important influence on consumer spending is household wealth, which comes mainly from the value of our homes, as well as other savings and investments. After a long slump, Irish household wealth is increasing again as property values recover and progress is being made in paying down debt. Under normal circumstances, perceptions of increasing wealth increase consumer confidence, encouraging people to release funds for spending on various things.

Unfortunately, circumstances were not normal during much of this year, and this had a downward effect on consumer confidence. Recent quarters have seen the first interruption to a steadily upward trend in confidence since 2013. Political uncertainty here at home and concerns over Brexit have weakened confidence slightly, but there has been nothing like the collapse in confidence that has occurred in the UK.

Confidence is still relatively strong here and is driving a steady, if not spectacular, increase in consumer spending that is producing better sales performance in most retail and service sectors. Some of this reflects pent up demand following a long period of recession, and this can be seen most clearly in growing sales of big-ticket items - new cars, home furnishings, clothing and other consumer durables - all of which are continuing to grow well, even in the most recent quarter.

Sales of new cars are everywhere, a bellwether of economic recovery, and Ireland is no exception. Following several lean years, sales of new cars were up over 30% last year to 121,110. New car registrations were up by a further 30% in the first half of 2016, but this slowed to 19% in Q3, for a year-to-date total of 136,044. Sales of imported second hand cars have been particularly strong, up 35% for the year to the end of September. This possibly reflects the weakening of sterling which makes imports more affordable.

Retail sales excluding the motor trade grew strongly in 2015, with volume up 6.1% for the year, and value up 2.7%. This rate of growth continued in the first half of 2016, with volume up by 5.5% and value by 2.7%. However, growth slowed to about half that rate in Q3, with volume up by 3.2% and value by 1.3% year-on-year.

Sales of services have also shown a two-tier pattern in 2016, up by 4.7% in Q3 year-on-year, compared to a 7% growth rate in the previous quarter. Worryingly, accommodation and food services fell quite dramatically, from a growth rate in double digits (13-14%) in the first half of the year to 3.4% in Q3. In contrast, information and communications held up well, continuing to grow in double digits in Q3, following spectacular growth in previous quarters (up 21% year-on-year).

Residential property is the sector under the most pressure, and this has been the case even before Brexit came into sight. There were 47,313 homes purchased in 2015 and 22,767 mortgages issued for purchase, accounting for about 50% of purchase transactions.

There were 30,500 homes purchased in the first three quarters of 2016, 10% lower than the same period in 2015. Cash-buyers accounted for 46% of transactions, with just 16,343 mortgages issued, up just 2.2% from the same period in 2015.

Only 2% of housing stock is changing hands currently, half the EU average, which is indicative of a supply problem. This problem is largely due to a shortage of supply and this, in turn, is driving up prices which is damaging affordability. This is a complex problem and will take some time to solve.

Consumer Confidence

Following a drop in consumer confidence during the recession years, optimism among consumers regarding their economic prospects recovered significantly. It began to pick up in 2013, and rose further through 2014 due to a steady flow of good news on employment, tax receipts, and growth in services and manufacturing.

This upward trend continued in 2015, reaching a record high in June, and remained strong through the rest of the year. Consumer confidence in Ireland was now well ahead of the last peak in 2007, and well ahead of our European neighbours.

Unfortunately, consumer confidence has fallen steadily during the first three quarters of 2016, reflecting uncertainly about the new government, industrial unrest, and Brexit.

Consumer confidence in the UK has also seen a significant drop in Q3 2016 in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. This continuing downward trend is forecast to have a major impact on consumer spending in the coming quarters.

Consumer Incomes and Spending

Household disposable income rose by 5.5% in 2015 to a total of €98 billion, due to a combination of expanding employment and increasing pay rates. There are now 2.015 million people at work, up 190,000 or 10% from the lowest point in 2012. Pay increases of 2% were common in 2015, and this trend has continued in 2016.

Consumer spending turned a corner in 2014, when it grew by 2%, and it grew by a very strong 4.5% in 2015. Personal spending has continued to grow this year, with 4% forecast for the year as a whole, and 3-4% in 2017. Recent figures suggest a slight slowdown, however, with a 3.5% rise in Q1 2016, and 2% in Q2, year-on-year. VAT receipts were up 5.1% cumulatively to the end of Q3, more or less in line with consumer spending, but below the 7% growth rate of the previous two years.

Consumer Borrowing

The ratio of household debt to disposable income has fallen by a remarkable 60% since its peak of 215% in mid-2011, and is continuing to reduce by about 2% per year. However, household debt in Ireland remains relatively high by international standards, at 153% of disposable income. This compares with a Eurozone average of just over 90%.

Loans for house purchase, which account for 84% of household loans, peaked in Q1 2008 at €124 billion but decreased to €75 billion by the end of Q3 2016, a cumulative decline of 40%, or an annual rate of -2.4%.

On the positive side, household savings almost doubled this year, to 9.5% of gross disposable income, up from 5% in 2014. This increase was driven by a rise in housing values as well as a decline in debts.

Household net worth stood at €626 billion, or €135,080 per capita, at the end of 2015. In fact, household net worth has risen by 41% since the post-crisis low in mid-2012, but it is still 12.8% lower than its peak in mid-2007.

Retail Spending

Following five years of decline, retail sales achieved a significant turnaround in 2014, with volume up by 3.7% and value by 1.6%.

The recovery accelerated in 2015, with sales volume up by an impressive 6.1% and value up by 2.7% for the year. This growth in sales exceeded the growth in footfall (up 1.6%) providing evidence of a real uplift in spending.

The first half of 2016 delivered strong sales growth for most retailers, up by a very strong 5.5% in volume and 2.7% in value year-on-year. Retail sales have continued to grow in Q3, but at a slightly slower rate of 3.2% in volume and 1.3% in value, year-on-year.

Recent Trends

The latest indicators for 2016 show a year of two halves. Spending in all categories increased strongly in the first half of the year, but the rate of growth has slowed to about half of the previous rate in the third quarter.

New car registrations in the first half of 2016 were up 30%, but this has slowed to 19% in Q3, for a total of 136,044. This suggests a final figure of about 150,000 cars for 2016 which is approaching the average sales level of the early 2000s.

Retail sales excluding the motor trade grew strongly in 2015, with volume up 6.1% for the year, and value up 2.7%. This rate of growth continued in the first half of 2016, with volume up by 5.5% and value by 2.7%. Growth slowed to about half that rate, however, in Q3, with volume up by 3.2% and value by 1.3% year-on-year.

All product categories except books/newsagents experienced growth in Q3 2016, but at a significantly lower rate than previous quarters. Household equipment which combines furnishings, electrical goods, hardware, paints and glass, was the only category to show continuing strong growth in Q3.

  • Food sales up 5.8% in volume and up 5.2% in value;
  • Non-specialised stores (supermarkets) up 3.0% in volume and 2.5% in value;
  • Fuel up 1.5% in volume and down -5.1% in value;
  • Clothing, footwear & textiles up 2.7% in volume and 2.3% in value;
  • Household equipment up 7.0% in volume and 2.2% in value;
  • Department stores up 2.6% in volume and 1.7% in value;
  • Pharmaceuticals and cosmetics up 1.5% in volume and 1.1% in value;
  • Bar sales up 2.6% in volume and up 3.3% in value;
  • Books, newspapers, stationery down -5.6% in volume and -4.8% in value.

Overall, the indications are that while retail sales are still growing, the rate of growth has slowed in the third quarter. The final quarter, which is usually the most important period of the year for retailers, will be an important test, to determine whether Brexit is likely to have an enduring influence on our consumer economy.

The full report can be viewed on

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