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Ireland: GDP Contraction to Heighten Debt Burden?

By William Oman and James Mason

The latest numbers on Irish GDP are bad news for those hoping that Ireland’s dynamic export sector will drag the country out of insolvency. Overall, in 2010, GDP contracted by 1% while GNP contracted by 2.1% y/y, although growth in Q4 in relation to the equivalent quarter of the previous year showed a positive trend (Figure 1).

The most worrying information is that growth in Q4 was weak (GDP fell by 1.6% q/q seasonally adjusted—SA—in Q4 2010). The increase of GNP by 2.0% q/q SA appears to be more positive, but could be attributed to “the decline in net exports of multinational companies compared with the third quarter result[ing] in a substantial decrease in profits thereby reducing the overall net factor outflows,” according to the Economic Incentives blog. This is particularly worrying because of Ireland’s reliance on exports to drive growth – especially given that the biggest 10 firms account for an estimated one-third of Irish exports.

Figure 1: Real GDP and Real GNP, 2006-10 (% change y/y)

Source: Central Statistics Office

In addition, the prospects for Ireland’s export-led GDP growth have been further weakened by recent corporate tax cuts in the U.S. and the UK. In its second 2011 budget, the UK government announced that it would cut corporate taxes to 26% by end-2011 and 23% by end-2015. These fiscal policy changes will heighten the competition faced by Ireland to attract or retain multinational firms.

The contraction of GDP poses the threat of a vicious circle. As GDP falls and the tax base contracts, Ireland’s per capita tax burden increases and the quality of public services declines. These two trends increase the incentives for (more wealthy and employable) residents to emigrate to countries with better outlooks for jobs and lower tax burdens, creating a destructive fiscal feedback loop.

Lower nominal GDP also leads to higher government debt and deficit ratios. The government had projected GDP to rise by 0.3% in Q4 2010, so the actual Q4 data suggest that debt- and deficit-to-GDP ratios will be higher than previously expected. A further worry is the reduced fiscal space. With nominal GDP €3.3 billion lower than had been assumed in the 2011 budget, the Irish government’s ability to increase tax revenue and improve its fiscal position will be even more limited in 2011. (See related Ireland coverage.)

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