3/8/20: Ireland’s Real Surreal Economy

In recent months, I have mentioned on a number of occasions the problem of Ireland's growing GDP-GNI* gap. The gap is a partial (key, partial) measure of the extent to which official GDP overstates true extent of economic activity in Ireland.

In general terms, GDP is an estimate of the total value of all goods and services produced within a nation in a year. The problem is, it includes capital and investment inflows into the country from abroad and is also distorted by accounting manipulations by domestic and foreign companies attributing output produced elsewhere to output produced in the country. In Ireland's case, this presents a clear-cut problem. Take two examples:
1. An aircraft leasing company from Germany registers its 'capital' - aircraft it owns - in Dublin IFSC. The value of aircraft according to the company books is EUR10 billion. Registration results in 'new investment inflow' into Ireland of EUR10 billion and all income from the leases on these aircraft is registered to Ireland, generating annual income, of, say EUR100 million. EUR 10.1 billion is added to Irish GDP in year of registration and thereafter, EUR 0.1 billion is added annually. Alas, none of these aircraft ever actually enter Ireland, not even for services. Worse, the leasing company has 1/4 employee in Ireland - a lad who flies into Dublin once a month to officially 'check mail' and 'hold meetings', plus an Irish law firm employee spending some time - say 8 hours a week - doing some paperwork for the company. Get the idea? Actual economic activity in Ireland is 12 hours/week x EUR150 per hour x usual multiplier for private expenditure = say, around EUR230,000; official GDP accounting activity is EUR100 million (in years 2 on) and EUR10.1 billion (in year 1).
2. A tech company from the U.S. registers its Intellectual Property in Ireland to the tune of EUR10 billion and attributes EUR 2 billion annually in sales resulting from the activities involving said property from around the world into Ireland. The company employs 1,000 employees in Dublin Technology Docks. Actual economic activity in Ireland is sizeable, say EUR 7 billion. Alas, registered - via GDP - activity is multiples of that. Suppose IP value grows at 10% per annum. In year 1 of IP transfer, company contribution to GDP is EUR 2 billion + EUR 10 billion + EUR 7 billion Normal Activity. In Year 2 and onwards it is EUR 2 billion + 10%*EUR 10 billion + EUR 7 billion Normal Activity.
Now, normal GNI calculates the total income earned by a nation's employees and contractors, etc, and businesses, including investment income, regardless of where it was earned. It also covers money received from abroad such as foreign investment and economic development aid.

So GNI does NOT fully control for (1) and (2). Hence, CSO devised a GNI* measure that allows us to strip out (1) above (the EUR 10 billion original 'investment'), while leaving smaller parts of it still accounted for (employment effects, appreciation of capital stock of EUR 10 billion, etc), but largely leaves in the distorting effects of (2).  Hence, GNI* is a better measure of actual, real activity in Ireland, but by no means perfect.

Still, GNI*-GDP gap is telling us a lot about the nature and the extent of thee MNCs-led distortion of Irish economy. Take a look at the chart next, which includes my estimates for GDP-GNI* gap for 2020 based on consensus forecasts for the GDP changes in 2020 and the indicative data on flows of international trade (MNCs-dominated vs domestic sectors) implications for potential GNI* changes:

As it says in the chart, Irish GDP figures are an imaginary number that allows us to pretend that Ireland is a super-wealthy super-duper modern economy. These figures are a mirage, and an expensive one. Our contributions to international bodies, e.g. UN, OECD et al, is based on our GDP figures, and our contributions to the EU budget are, partially, based on GNI figures. None are based on GNI*. For the purpose of 'paying our way' in global institutional frameworks, we pretend to be a Rich Auntie, the one with a Gucci purse and no pension. For the purpose of balancing our own books at home, we are, well, whatever it is that we are, given GNI*.

This distortion is also hugely material in terms of our internal policies structuring. We use international benchmarks to compare ourselves to other countries in terms of spending on public goods and services, public investment, private entrepreneurship etc. Vast majority of these metrics use GDP as a base, not GNI*. If we spend, say EUR10K per capita on a said service, we are spending 14% of our GDP per capita on the service, but 23% of our GNI*. If, say, Finland spends 20% of its GDP per capita on the same service, we 'under-spend' compared to the Finns on the GDP basis, but 'over-spend' based on GNI* basis.

There is a serious cost to us pretending to be a richer, more developed, more advanced as an economy, than we really are. This cost involves not only higher contributions to international institutions, but also potential waste and inefficiencies in our own domestic policies analysis. Gucci purse and no pension go hand-in-hand, you know...