Ireland Finds Itself in a Unique Financial Position
Recent figures from the Central Statistics Office have revealed that Ireland is currently experiencing a positive net flow of income, amounting to €20bn. This is a stark contrast to the country’s economic history, which has been plagued by deficits and financial imbalances. In the late 1970s and mid-2000s, Ireland faced significant deficits, with spending exceeding income. The causes of these imbalances differed, with government borrowing being the main issue in the 1970s, while the private sector was to blame in the 2000s. However, the outcome was the same in both cases – a period of retrenchment and recession.
Fortunately, Ireland is now far removed from such problems. With a national surplus of €20bn, the country is not facing any financial constraints. In the past, Ireland borrowed money to increase government spending and to build houses. With the current surplus, there is a temptation to do both. However, the constraint now lies in the resource capacity of the economy to absorb additional spending. While there are areas in need of improvement, such as housing, health, and transport infrastructure, the capacity to produce these improvements domestically is limited. Importing ready-made solutions is not an option; Ireland must produce these improvements itself.
Another constraint is the record-low unemployment rate. The economy does not have surplus resources that can be directed towards these areas. Simply throwing money at them would result in domestic inflation. While there is a desire to improve these areas, it is crucial to create space in the economy to achieve it. The public finances are not holding Ireland back, but using all available financial resources would be unwise.
It is important to recognize that a significant portion of Ireland’s resources comes from the corporation tax paid by US multinationals. While this is a welcome source of income, it is beyond Ireland’s control. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that the country does not become overly reliant on this revenue stream. After years of concern about the national debt, Ireland is now shifting its focus to national savings. This is a prudent move, considering the potentially temporary nature of the government’s tax windfall. Norway has successfully implemented a similar strategy with its oil revenues.
The Irish government has announced plans for two national funds: a national reserve fund and an infrastructure fund. However, only one of these can be considered a true savings fund. The infrastructure fund is essentially just another vehicle for spending. Ireland already has a capital spending envelope in place, which may need to be increased, but there is no need for a new mechanism. Calls have already been made to direct the resources from the infrastructure fund towards housing, transport, agriculture, and the climate transition. While these are worthy causes, they fall under the category of spending, not saving.
In contrast, Norway’s €1 trillion sovereign wealth fund is strictly prohibited from being used domestically. This eliminates the influence of lobby groups and politicians seeking to direct the funds towards specific sectors or their constituencies. Ireland’s proposed infrastructure fund operates in the opposite manner.
However, there is still an opportunity for Ireland to establish a national reserve fund that focuses on actual savings. In the future, the income from this fund could be used to meet rising healthcare and pension costs associated with an aging population. Another way to make additional resources available is by reducing the national debt, which accumulated after previous episodes of economic mismanagement. Lower debt results in lower interest costs, freeing up funds for other uses.
One advantage of a national reserve fund is its potential to provide resources in times of financial crisis. If Ireland were to lose access to borrowing money on financial markets due to unsustainable interest rates, the resources in a national savings fund could be deployed until order is restored.
In conclusion, Ireland is facing various challenges, but simply throwing money at them is not a sufficient solution. If the country wants to build more houses, provide better healthcare, and improve public transport, it needs the necessary resources and space within the economy to do so. It is crucial to prioritize these areas and find sustainable ways to achieve these goals.