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Figure 6. Decomposition of growth in labour supply

Figure 6. Decomposition of growth in labour supply

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OECD Economic Surveys: Ireland

Policy challenges

The challenges that the prospective situation presents for economic policy are multiple. First, there is a major task for public finances to adjust to the

slower growth environment so that their soundness is assured. This means reconciling continuing large demands on public spending with smaller increases in tax

revenues, which necessitates substantial improvement in public expenditure

management system (Callan et al. 2002). The second challenge is to minimise the

risks of a further weakening in the growth performance. This requires safeguarding

the international competitiveness and keeping the attractiveness of Ireland as a

destination for FDI that will continue to play a key role in the growth process.

Finally, there is a compelling need for regulatory and environmental policies to

focus more clearly than hitherto on consumer interests.

These challenges are inter-related and mostly mutually reinforcing.

Reform of the public expenditure management system should entail improved

quality of public services and should also help to preserve the low tax environment. These should then contribute to safeguarding competitiveness as well as

enhanced welfare. Regulatory reform in non-traded sectors should result in

improved quality of services as well as lower prices. This should contribute not

only to better welfare but also to improved growth prospects by limiting deterioration in cost competitiveness and supporting labour force growth. In what follows,

Chapters II and III address the public finance challenge, whereas the competitiveness

and welfare challenges are mainly dealt with in Chapter IV.

The challenge for public finances

During the period of extraordinary economic expansion tax revenues

consistently overshot budget estimates by large margins. This more than covered

spending overruns that averaged about ½ per cent of GNP and facilitated the

reform of taxation and benefit systems that improved incentives to work. But in

the last two years, with growth slowing, revenue shortfalls emerged, while expenditures gradually adjusted. The 2003 budget appears to be better adapted to the

slower growth environment, once offsetting revenue and spending measures are

taken into account. That budget, while allowing for only a small rise in the overall

envelope, increased spending in key priority areas of infrastructure, health, education and social welfare.

Difficulty in reconciling revenue and expenditure growth will be compounded in the coming years by significant spending pressures. These include

the National Development Plan, Public Sector Benchmarking, the Health strategy

and a range of social provision actions underway as part of the partnership agreements. The budget projections to 2005 contained in the latest Stability Programme Update nonetheless indicate that public finance positions are likely to

remain broadly healthy with the gross debt to GDP ratio remaining below 35 per

© OECD 2003

Adjusting to slower growth and ensuring prosperity


cent on the basis of a small rise in the deficit in the context of below-potential

growth. The sensitivity analysis carried out in the same context, however, shows

that the budget balance is relatively responsive to a change in GDP growth. Looking forward, the impact of the ageing of population will start to bear on public spending after 2005, even though the pace of population ageing is slower than in many other

European countries. It would therefore be necessary to exercise continued budget

prudence beyond 2005 to deal with spending pressures that ensue.

To keep public spending under control in a sustainable manner it is necessary to go beyond setting, and monitoring the adherence to, cash limits to

spending. It is a major task requiring spending allocation based on the evaluation

of output or results of each programme, reassessment of fiscal relations between

levels of government, and reform of the system of service provision, including the

delineation of the role of the private sector.

Ensuring prosperity

In order to ensure continued prosperity it is necessary to maintain competitiveness given the importance of Ireland remaining an effective export platform. As noted above, the increase in prices in the non-traded sectors of the

economy has been quite pronounced in recent years. The cost base of this sector

is substantially determined by wage growth, which has been experiencing very

high rates by international standards in recent years. Higher prices in the nontraded sectors also increase the cost base for the traded sectors of the economy.

The traded sector cannot easily pass on higher costs to the world through higher

prices, so that profitability of firms in this sector risks to be curtailed, potentially

leading to retrenchment in their operations and job losses. The rising cost of living

in the economy is also likely to reduce the attractiveness of Ireland as a location

for high value-added investment and associated high-skill workers. While inflationary forces may be moderating in the shorter term, the international environment is in a historically low inflation environment so that higher relative inflation

will be Ireland’s main threat to growth.

The role of the centrally agreed wage accord in the inflation process has

not been obvious. The social partnership has nonetheless likely helped to promote a common understanding of the problems facing the country and contributed to industrial peace. Moderate rates of wage growth agreed between the

social partners, in exchange for tax cuts, appear to have been exceeded by actual

wage increases by a significant margin (see Annex II). This process of setting a

wage norm might become more relevant in a lower growth environment in coming

to a shared view of what the economy can afford. But actual wage determination

will continue to depend on the particular situation of a specific industry or a company. In these circumstances, excessive wage claims would seem more likely to be

© OECD 2003


OECD Economic Surveys: Ireland

accommodated in those sectors that are sheltered from competitive pressures as

higher costs can be more easily shifted to prices.

Promoting competition, particularly in the sheltered sectors of the economy, through improving the regulatory environment can therefore contribute significantly to containing cost pressures. Ireland has had some success in

introducing competition in certain sectors. Deregulation in the telecommunications and aviation sectors has shown the gains that can result from increased competition. Considerable restructuring and change have taken place as incumbents

sought to improve efficiency and as the new entrants sought to get a foothold in

markets. Ultimately such competition has yielded more choice, improved services, and lower prices for consumers. Progress has also been made in substantially strengthening the power of the competition authority, and new reform

initiatives have been taken in the energy and land transport sectors, as well as in

professions. The success in pursuing reforms in the sheltered sectors of the economy

will be key to safeguarding cost competitiveness.

Ensuring prosperity for an Ireland that has already caught up with EU

average income levels and is losing cost competitiveness requires a continued

shift in the economic structure towards higher value added activities. From this

perspective the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), which has been instrumental in attracting FDI to Ireland, has recently changed its focus towards investment that is higher value added and requires high skill levels. As well, Enterprise

Ireland has encouraged similar changes among indigenous companies. Their

stated strategy is to promote investments that are innovation rather than production oriented, and which provide a better link to an increasingly sophisticated

business environment. Economic activities with these kinds of characteristics may

justify higher wage levels and so allow Ireland to maintain economic growth in the

absence of a strong labour surplus it has had until recently. This strategy, however,

necessitates greater efforts in upgrading the skill levels of Irish workers as well as

research capacity.

Enhancing welfare

Ireland still suffers from the legacy of policy that was oriented towards

protecting producers’ interests at the expense of consumers’ welfare. That consumer interests are only weakly represented in the social partnership process is

telling in this respect. A challenge for policy is to dismantle this legacy. Many of

the regulatory reform initiatives currently underway should put consumers’ welfare at their central focus. The National Policy Statement on Regulation, which is

currently under preparation, should set out principles that should anchor the

regulatory system firmly in competition policy.

That legacy can also be detected in environmental policy, where interests

of producers of pollution, be they firms or households, are sometimes protected.

© OECD 2003

Adjusting to slower growth and ensuring prosperity


Ireland has adopted a promising policy approach, including the extensive use of

economic instruments, in many areas of environmental protection. But weak

resolve of policymakers in fighting special interests and insufficient advocacy

activities have raised the costs of compliance born by the rest of the economy.

Notable examples include continued use of peat in power generation, non-charging

of water use by households, and the absence of taxation of excessive fertiliser


© OECD 2003


Consolidating the public finances

Gradual adjustment of public finances to slower growth

The public finance position has deteriorated markedly from the period of

large surpluses recorded in the late 1990s and 2000. The slowdown in the economy in 2001 and 2002, particularly in real GNP, which may better reflect the economy’s base for income and taxation purposes, has led to lower revenue growth,

while spending continued to expand at a high pace. The public finance out-turns

for 2002 showed the general government balance moving into a small deficit (see

Figure 7).

In recent years forecasting public finance out-turns has become particularly difficult mainly on the revenue side. The benign state of the public finances

Figure 7. Evolution of Irish public finance

Per cent of GDP



Gross public debt


(left scale)









Net lending

(right scale)










1. OECD preliminary estimates for 2002.

Source: OECD.

© OECD 2003











OECD Economic Surveys: Ireland

in the high growth era facilitated substantial changes to the tax parameters, and

this has added potential sources of forecast error during the on-going transition

period. Significant recent changes include the introduction of a system of tax credits, individualisation, harmonisation of corporation tax rates and a move to a calendar tax year. There was an additional difficulty of forecasting economic growth in

an increasingly uncertain global environment. On the expenditure side, on the

other hand, while there was a non-negligible over-run in 2001, spending was

contained within budget in 2002.

The preparation of the 2001 budget was based on the assumption of

continued high growth. The entire package of tax cuts and expenditure increases

was assessed at that time to be roughly neutral by the OECD (OECD, 2001) or

expansionary by at least 0.5 per cent of GDP by the European Union (Council

Opinion on the 2000 the Stability Programme). The pertinent question was

whether any injection of fiscal stimulus was appropriate for the Irish economy at

that juncture. This was the main concern of the European Union, and its dispute

with the Irish authorities revolved around the fundamental uncertainty about what

economic stage Ireland was at.

The 2001 budget, however, introduced a special savings incentive scheme

that could have a dampening effect on inflationary pressures present in the overheating economy at the time, even though the primary objective of this measure

was to encourage people to save a larger part of their disposable income in the

longer term to partially redress the problem of undersaving for retirement and

other foreseeable contingencies (see Box 2 for a description of this scheme and its

take-up and possible cost to the Exchequer out to 2007). It however remains to be

seen to what extent the scheme has reached the objective, that is, encouraging

more savings in the economy, while costs to the Exchequer could be large. This is

because of non-negligible probability that individuals switch savings from other

saving instruments to the new scheme rather than actually saving additionally.

The 2002 budget was aiming at providing a modest fiscal stimulus to the

economy. The general government surplus was forecast to decline from 1.4 per

cent of GDP in 2001 to 0.7 per cent in 2002. But there was a marked slowdown in

projected tax revenue growth, and the expenditure measures announced were

considerably more generous than previously anticipated. Total spending was forecast to rise by 11.6 per cent. Current spending undershot, but undershooting of

revenues was greater. The depressing impact of the Special Savings Incentive

Accounts (SSIAs) on income tax receipts was particularly notable.

The 2003 budget marked a return to a more orthodox mix of tax increase

and spending growth restraint. The downward revisions in forecast economic

growth has meant that, unlike previous years, it was no longer possible to increase

expenditure while at the same time reducing tax rates. The budget outlined a

number of additional spending initiatives to those contained in the annual Public

© OECD 2003

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Figure 6. Decomposition of growth in labour supply

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