Two sides to the COVID-19 coin

Nov 30, 2020
2020 was nothing short of a disaster for many people, but a constellation of emerging factors can give us hope for 2021 – from an economic standpoint at least, writes Annette Hughes.

For the Irish population, COVID-19 has in many ways been a double-edged sword over the past nine months. The recent transition from levels two and three to a nationwide level five lockdown caused a significant number of businesses to close once more and pushed the number of those in receipt of government wage support through the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) up by 50% month-on-month from 228,858 on 11 October to 342,505 on 9 November. However, this is still well below the 5 May peak of 598,000. EY’s labour market forecasts suggest that, for November, this represents approximately 14% of those in employment. Kerry and Donegal suffer most, with about one in five workers in receipt of PUP at present, possibly due to their dependence on tourism.

The reality for the fortunate segment of the population that managed to hold on to employment is quite different. The Central Bank of Ireland has reported that household deposits increased by 10.9% year-on-year in September 2020. This is indicative of a general trend of reduced consumption and increased savings since the beginning of the pandemic, as the measured savings ratio reached an unprecedented 35.4% in Q2 2020 with a quarterly increase in savings of €10 billion for Q2 2020. This suggests that there is a section of Irish society that is broadly unaffected, has money, and is merely waiting to spend.

Results from a recent survey conducted by EY indicate that the world mood is anything but black and white. The impact of COVID-19 on consumer behaviour has led to diverse spending patterns globally. In the October release of our Future Consumer Index, 26% of consumers noted that they were unaffected and unconcerned for the future, while 31% stated the antithesis, commenting that they were struggling and worried about what is yet to come. A lack of job security, family health, and discomfort around a premature return to societal norms are foremost in the minds of those who believe the COVID-19 impacts will remain in the medium- to long-term. The remaining consumers surveyed classed themselves as either okay but adapting (30%) or hard-hit but optimistic (13%).
Retail in Ireland is a mixed bag of late. The CSO release for September proves the lockdown ‘banana bread, work-from-home, DIY’ hypothesis with sales of hardware, paint and glass up 31.3% year-on-year while food, beverages and tobacco also increased by 12.4%. Meanwhile, sales for fuel have reduced by 10.2%, with stationery, books and newspapers also down by 11.6% as large swathes of workers, particularly those working in multinational companies, no longer commute to Ireland’s urban centres.

EY expects that economic recovery will resume in 2021, with GDP forecast to rise by 3.5% after a 3.9% contraction in 2020. The current accumulation of deposits, which are earning meagre interest in the banks, combined with reduced reliance on PUP and projected employment growth of 6.5% should significantly support consumer spending next year and act as a catalyst for increased economic activity.

Annette Hughes is a Director at EY-DKM Economic Advisory.