Lack of pension debate shows our priorities are wrong

As has been the case on a very consistent basis over the past couple of years, the overwhelming majority of short-term indicators of economic activity continue to evolve in a positive manner.

In May, the unemployment rate fell to 7.8% of the labour force and the seasonally adjusted number of people who are willing and able to work and who cannot find a job fell to 169,700.

This represents a decline of 38,300 over the past year and is 157,700 lower than the peak level of unemployment in December 2011.

The unemployment rate that month stood at 15.1% of the labour force.

This represents very solid progress and despite reservations about the nature of some of the employment being created in the economy, the labour market is clearly continuing to develop in a positive manner.

It is interesting to note that, in May, the unemployment rate for males stood at 9.2%, compared to 6.2% for females.

Male long-term unemployment is a structural problem in the labour market, and one that requires a very targeted intervention.

Retail sales data showed a year-on-year increase of 2.5% in the value of sales and 5.1% in the volume of sales in April.

In the first four months of the year, the value of sales was 5.6% higher than the first four months of 2015 and the volume of sales expanded by 7.7%.

These are good numbers, but when car sales are excluded the value of sales expanded by a more modest 3.5% in the first four months and the volume of sales expanded by 5.7%.

The continued wide gap between the value and volume metric shows that consumer-facing businesses are still finding it challenging to convert volume sales into value.

The consumer sector is still finding life challenging and is still very resistant to price increases. The lack of significant growth in earnings is still a big issue for many. Reflecting this, the ESRI’s consumer sentiment index fell to its lowest level in 14 months in May.

Issues such as Brexit and the deeply unsatisfactory domestic political situation are clearly having some negative effect on how consumers view the future prospects for the economy.

Retailers will be hoping that the recent relatively modest deterioration in consumer sentiment does not translate into weaker consumer spending.

While these short-term indicators are mostly consistent with ongoing economic recovery, another data release this week points towards less favourable developments on the pensions front.

After a long gap, the CSO released an update on pension coverage. In the final quarter of 2015, 47% of workers aged between 20 and 69 years had a pension, either occupational, personal or both.

This is down from 51% in 2009 and 54% in 2008. Just three out of 10 self-employed persons had pension coverage. Just 73% of workers had an occupational pension, down from 77% in 2009.

Of those with an occupational pension, 54% had a defined contribution scheme.

The proportion of Irish workers who expect that the State social welfare pension will be their main source of income after they retire increased from 26% in 2009 to 36% in 2015. This is not a positive trend.

These pension findings are worrying and disappointing, but not terribly surprising. For many workers struggling since the downturn, financial survival rather than pension coverage has been the priority.

However, issues such as the private pension levy — which was effectively legalised theft by the Minister for Finance — the complex legislation surrounding pensions, charging structures and the undecipherable jargon that permeates the overall industry, are certainly contributing to the serious shortfall in pension coverage.

Quite simply, the subject of pensions is about as much popular here as the music scene is in North Korea.

Another issue of concern is that while we now have data on the level of pension coverage in quantitative terms, we know little enough about the qualitative nature of the pension coverage in place.

It is one thing knowing how many people have pensions, but how adequate those pensions might be when retirement arrives is a different matter entirely.

I suspect pension coverage for many people is inadequate to meet income expectations post-retirement.

This is a major longer-term economic and fiscal challenge that gets nothing like the level of attention that it deserves.

Instead, we are willing to debate ad-nauseam about a level of water charge that is relatively tiny. We have a strange sense of priorities.


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