Economists are not known as 'dismal scientists' for nothing: for the past two years the public has witnessed a virtual competition among them to see who could deliver the most dire prognosis for growth in the months and years ahead.
Last week, however, the two main, independent economic forecasters, the ESRI and the Central Bank, both talked about the end of a recession being in sight, and we also saw the publication of the Bord Snip Nua report, which set out a pathway to returning government spending to a more sustainable level.
So maybe it's time to take stock, not of the problems facing the Irish economy, but about those things that might, just might, bring us back to some kind of economic growth.
First, our export performance has been nothing short of outstandingly good, especially considering how strong the euro has been, and how badly world trade has collapsed. For the first four months of this year, exports actually rose by more than 3% relative to the same period in 2008. That's in sharp contrast to the performance of most other economies: US and eurozone exports were down close to 20% during that period. So bad as things undoubtedly are, our export sector is continuing to do extremely well in a relative sense.
Second, the government is at least making the right noises about dealing with the huge fiscal deficit. It has already reduced public sector pay per employee by about 7.5%, through the pension levy, and is now equipped with the recommendations of An Bord Snip Nua to go much further and cut anything up to another €5.3bn, or 9.3% of day-to-day spending, which would cut the deficit by roughly a quarter if the report were to be implemented in full.
Third, the private sector is clearly cutting costs on a large scale. Wages are declining in some areas, and prices are falling across the board. This will certainly help the competitiveness of the economy, as well as boosting the living standards of those on fixed incomes, often the poorest in society.
Fourth, the banking system has been stabilised. We can argue forever about the way in which it was done, and how much it will cost the state eventually. We can debate whether the banks should now be nationalised, or indeed whether this should have happened months ago. We can worry about whether bank executives are feeling enough pain following their bad decisions. But at least we don't have to worry about whether our banks will go bust tomorrow. The importance of this should not be underestimated.
Certainly, there are caveats to the above. There is no guarantee that the report of An Bord Snip will be implemented in full, or indeed at all. The strength of the euro may damage exports in the next few months. The world economy could take another dip. And – perhaps most importantly of all – the cumulative 9% increase in the effective top rate of income tax, PRSI and levies since the end of last year could have a serious negative impact.
But let's not forget the potential positives, as well as the potential negatives. Also note the long-term structural factors that have largely been overlooked recently, but are still in place for the economy, such as our low corporation tax rate, our well-educated workforce, and our membership of the EU and of the eurozone.
All in all, while there is no reason to get excited about growth over the next year or so, there are at least some reasons to think that we might be moving in the right direction, and that if policy makers make the right decisions, a timeline out of this economic crisis could become clearer. The light at the end of the tunnel isn't always an oncoming train.
Eoin Fahy is chief economist with KBC Asset Management. The views expressed are his own