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Despite Brexit Uncertainties, Ireland’s 2017 economic performance set to surpass 2016

  • Date: Fri, Sep 15, 2017

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  • Drop in Sterling has caused consumer prices to be approximately 1.2% lower than would have been the case had Sterling remained stable
  • Consumer confidence in Ireland significantly higher than in the UK and the rest of Europe.
  • Number of homes purchased was up by 8%, despite a shortage of supply

Dublin, September 2017: Spending in the consumer economy was up by 3% in Q1 2017, and all the signs are positive for continuing growth—a growing population, increasing employment, and rising incomes, and the drop in the value of Sterling is enhancing buying power in many sectors, particularly cars. All forecasts are positive for this year and may actually surpass the performance achieved in 2016. The consumer economy is now one of the main contributors to economic growth, along with investment in construction.

These are the key findings of the latest Consumer Market Monitor (CMM), published today by the Marketing Institute of Ireland and UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. Data from the Q2 2017 Monitor indicate that Irish consumers seem to have shrugged off initial fears of Brexit and are spending on many types of goods and services, especially every kind of household goods.

“The strength of demand is most evident in the housing market where mortgage approvals increased by 41% in H1, and the number of homes purchased was up by 8%, despite a shortage of supply. All types of household goods are all growing very strongly,” according to Marketing Professor Mary Lambkin UCD Smurfit School author of the report.

“The growing population along with increasing employment and rising income are driving a strong increase in disposable income, which is positive for Irish marketers,” said Tom Trainor, Chief Executive of the Marketing Institute of Ireland.


Consumer spending continues to be one of the main drivers of economic growth in Ireland at present, along with investment in construction. Strong growth is continuing in both sectors in 2017 and this trend is expected to continue through 2018. Personal consumption has grown by 3% in the first quarter of the year, and is expected to grow by 3.1% for the whole of this year, and by 2.7% in 2018.

The main drivers of this growth are population expansion, along with increasing employment, and rising incomes. It has been estimated that half of the growth in consumer spending was driven by population growth between 2011 and 2016. Furthermore, there are now 2.045 million people at work, up 68,600 year-on-year, and up by 220,000 or 12% since the low point in 2012.

Employment is expected to continue performing strongly this year and next, with growth of 2.8% projected for 2017 and 2.3% in 2018. This will mean an additional 105,000 persons at work which would bring employment to over 2.15 million for the first time since 2008.

Pay increases have also contributed, up by 2% on average in 2015 and by 5% in 2016. The  drop in the value of Sterling since the Brexit referendum has also helped, causing  consumer prices to be approximately 1.2% lower than would have been the case had Sterling remained stable.

These factors drive the amount of disposable income circulating in the economy, and spending 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 further 4.4% in 2016. In sum, it reached €99 billion in 2016, not far off the 2007 peak of €102 billion.  Disposable income is up by a further 4.7% this year and this is expected to support consumer spending growth through this year and next.

Another important influence on consumer spending is household wealth, as perceptions of increasing wealth raise consumer confidence, encouraging people to release funds for spending. Irish household wealth is increasing again as property values recover and progress is being made in paying down debt.

As a result, consumer confidence is very strong here at present, and significantly higher than in the UK and the rest of Europe. It fell a little bit in the second half of 2016 due to worries about Brexit. However, the confidence barometer is now back in positive territory and has got a significant boost in recent months.

This is driving a steady increase in consumer spending that is producing sales growth in most retail and service sectors. The strongest growth was in cars which were up 20% in volume terms last year and which accounted for 24% of total consumer spending growth. Spending on holidays also increased by 10% last year.

Retail sales excluding the motor trade grew by 5.3% in volume and 2.4% in value in 2016 which was a relatively strong performance, considering the upheavals provoked by Brexit and the US election. Retail sales have continued to be strong in the first half of 2017, up by 6% in volume and 3% in value, the highest rate of growth experienced since 2007.

Sales of new cars are one important exception; sales of new cars were down by 10% in the first half of this year, for a total of 87,346 units. This might suggest a weakening in the consumer economy but that is not actually the full story because there has been a dramatic rise in the number of imported second hand cars, up 47% in 2016, and up by another 46% in the first half of 2017 for a total of 44,945. This reflects the weakening of sterling which has made imports better value. Taken together, car sales in the first half of the year are actually up by 3% on last year, which is quite healthy.

Sales of services are also showing a bit of weakness, with growth slowing to 2.5% in the second quarter of this year, compared to 5.5% for 2016. Professional, scientific and technical services have done best in Q2 (+11.9%), followed by wholesaling (+6.7%), and accommodation (+3%), but several other categories have fared poorly: administrative and support services (-3%), Transportation and Storage (-1%), Information and Communication (-3%), and Other Service Activities (-8%).

Residential property is the sector under most pressure, as is well known. There were 45,342 homes sold in 2016 which was actually lower than the 47,313 sold in 2015, partly driven by a shortage of supply.

There were just 20,500 properties for sale nationwide in March 2017, the lowest since the series started in January 2007. Despite the tight market, residential transaction volumes are up in 2017; there have been 16,975 transactions in the first half of the year, up 8% year-on-year. Mortgage approvals in H1 2017 were also up by a very large 41%, for a total of 17,605, indicating the strength of demand in the market.

Consumer Confidence 

Consumer confidence in Ireland reached a record high in June 2015, and remained strong through the rest of the year. At this point, confidence here was well ahead of the last peak in 2007, and well ahead of our European neighbours.

Unfortunately, confidence fell steadily through 2016, with Q4 at 5.9, (compared to 16.6 in Q4 2015,) reflecting uncertainly about Brexit, the tumult of the US election, and industrial unrest.

The first half of 2017 saw confidence pick up again, reaching a high of 9.4 in June, reflecting continuing strength in the economy. The current level of confidence is consistent with a solidly improving Irish economy, although a majority of consumers still say they do not perceive an improvement in their own finances.

Consumer confidence in the UK has been negative since Q2 2016 due to worries about Brexit, as well as general political uncertainty. Confidence has declined steadily through the first half of 2017, reaching -7 in June.

2016 was a tumultuous year for US consumers, which negatively affected confidence levels. However, confidence has recovered this year, to the highest level in 16 years, despite the continuing upheaval in the White House. 

Consumer Incomes and Spending

The amount of disposable income in the economy rose by 5.5% in 2015 and by 4.4% in 2016 bringing it to a total of €99 billion, close to the €100 million level that was last seen in 2007. Increasing employment and pay increases of 2% in 2015 and 5% in 2016, were the main drivers of the increases in disposable income. Lower fuel prices and a weakening in the value of Sterling also boosted disposable income. Disposable income is up by a further 4.7% this year so far, suggesting continuing strength in the consumer economy.

Household spending began to recover in 2014, when it grew by 2%, and it grew by a very strong 4.5% in 2015. Spending continued to grow in the first half of 2016, but the rate of growth weakened in the latter half, ending the year up by 3.3%. The pre-Christmas peak in 2016 surpassed the 2007 peak for the first time in nine years. Within this, goods related consumption was particularly buoyant – up by 4.1% with services related consumption growing by 2.4%.

Spending is continuing to grow in 2017, up by 3% for Q1, year-on-year, and is currently the main driver of growth in the Irish economy, along with construction.  Growth of 3%  is forecast for 2017 as a whole, and this rate of growth is expected to continue in 2018.

All of the main components of spending continue to be strong in 2017. Retail was up by 6% in volume terms in the first half and Vat was up by 11%, year-on-year, supporting evidence of strong spending. Services were not quite as strong, up by 2.5% on average for the first half of the year.

Personal spending in the UK grew each quarter since Q4 2011 at an average annual rate of 2%, and continued to grow right through to the end of 2016, suggesting that Brexit had little impact up to that point. However, growth has slowed to 0.1% in Q1 2017, as have other key economic indicators.

Consumer Borrowing

Borrowing by Irish consumers grew at a record level from 2000 and peaked in March 2008 at €150 billion, but declined steadily since then, down -41% to €86 billion in Q1 2017. Household debt continued to fall during 2016, down by €1.5bn to €144 billion or €30,199 per capita, but grew by a very slight 0.4% in Q1 2017, the first sign of a return to normal conditions.

Loans for house purchase, which account for 84% of household loans, peaked in Q1 2008 at €124 billion, but decreased to €73 Billion by end Q4 2016, a cumulative decline of 40%, or an annual rate of -2.4%. The number of mortgages in arrears fell further in Q1 2017-- the fifteenth consecutive quarter of decline. A total of 76,422 (10%) of accounts were in arrears at end-March.

Lending for other consumption accounts for approximately 18% of total borrowing. This category peaked in Q1 2008 at €30 billion but declined to €12 billion by December 2016, a reduction of 60%. This category resumed growth in 2016, up by 5.9%, and is grew by a very significant 10% in Q1 of this year, primarily driven by car financing.

Overall, the ratio of household debt to disposable income has fallen by 60% since a peak of 215% in mid-2011. Between Q4 2012 and Q4 2016, Irish household debt has fallen from 194% of disposable income to 141%, a decline of 53%. Despite this, Irish households remain the fourth most indebted in the European Union.

Car Sales

New car sales were up 30% in the first half of 2016 but this slowed in the second half of the year. A final figure of 142,688 cars was sold in 2016, up 18% on the 121,110 cars sold in 2015. The 2016 total was just about the average annual sales level of the early 2000s.

New car sales have been weak in the first half of 2017, down 10.4% year-on-year, for a total of 87,346 units. This would normally suggest a weakening in the consumer economy but that is not actually the full story because there has been a dramatic rise in the number of imported second hand cars, up 47% in 2016, and up by another 46% in the first half of 2017 to a total of 44,945. This reflects the weakening of sterling which has made imports better value.

Taken together, car sales in the first half of the year are actually up by 3% on last year, which is quite healthy, and not indicative of a weakening in consumer spending.

Retail Spending

Retail sales got off to a good start in the first quarter of 2017, up by 5.9% in volume and 2.3% in value on an annual basis. This growth accelerated in Q2, up by 6.9% in volume and by 3.6% in value, year-on-year. For the first half year, therefore, retail sales have grown by 6% in real volume terms, and by 3% in value terms, suggesting a very strong outcome for the year as a whole. This would be the fastest growth in retail sales since 2007.

All product categories except books/newsagents experienced healthy growth in Q2 2017. Household equipment which combines furnishings, electrical goods, hardware, paints and glass, continues to be the fastest growing category, up by 12.9% in volume and 7.1% in value, year-on-year. The only category showing weakness was books/newsagents which continued a declining pattern, down -2% year-on-year, both in volume and value.

  • Food sales up 5.3% in volume and up 3.5% in value;
  • Non-specialised stores (supermarkets) up 5.8% in volume and 4% in value;
  • Fuel up 1.4% in volume and 6.4% in value;
  • Clothing, footwear & textiles up 6.2% in volume and 1.1% in value;
  • Household equipment up 12.9% in volume and 7.1% in value;
  • Department stores up 7.2% in volume and 2.4% in value;
  • Pharmaceuticals and cosmetics up 4.8% in volume and 2.9% in value;
  • Bar sales up 1.3% in volume and up 2.6% in value.
  • Books, newspapers, stationery down -2.0% in volume and -2.0% in value.

View the full Consumer Monitor Reports 

About The Marketing Institute of Ireland 

The Marketing Institute is the professional body for Ireland's marketing people. It exists “to enable marketers to build great brands and great careers”. It does this by sharing best practice, insights and expert content, building the community of marketers, and aiding marketers in career progression. The three themes of content, community and career underpin all Institute activities. The Marketing Institute also owns and operates the All Ireland Marketing Awards, the CMO Summit, and DMX Dublin, Ireland's largest marketing conference.

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