Budget 2014: what should Noonan do, and what must he avoid
Nick Webb, Tom Lyons and Roisin Burke talk to some of Ireland's smartest entrepreneurs and shrewdest business people to find out what they think should be done in this week's Budget
Tuesday's Budget will provide Finance Minister Michael Noonan with a real opportunity to introduce some ballsy game-changers and innovative ideas to help kickstart the economy.
But the policy wonks at the Department of Finance have come up painfully short in the past when it comes to fresh thinking and meaningful new initiatives. What must be done? And what must definitely be avoided?
"Job-creation initiatives are something that the Government may be looking at in more depth this year given that there appears to be some leeway in relation to the deficit-reduction timetable," according to Murtagh, chief executive of the €2.1bn-valued Kingspan – Ireland's biggest green-building material firm.
"One such possible measure, as recommended by the Society of Chartered Surveyors in Ireland, seems sensible and involves a reduction in VAT to 5 per cent on labour and professional services for home repairs, maintenance and improvements (RMI). There is anecdotal evidence of a thriving black economy in this area and such a move would encourage tax compliance whilst also boosting employment in an area that has been devastated in recent years.
"The evidence suggests that the VAT reduction to 9 per cent has had a positive impact on the hotel, restaurant and tourism sectors. A similar move in RMI should help create jobs and boost non-Vat tax receipts, such as income tax and PRSI.
"Elsewhere, although there is speculation of an increase in Capital Gains Tax (CGT), a move to reduce the rate may be more beneficial. There is a point at which the rate of CGT discourages people to realise gains made. A rate reduction would stimulate the release of such stagnant capital into circulation in the wider economy. The benefits to the economy from such a move would include increased reinvestment and expenditure of proceeds, which would also have a positive knock-on impact on other tax receipts such as stamp duty and Vat."
"Noonan should look at Capital Gains Tax (CGT). There should be a separate CGT from someone buying and flipping a building and for an entrepreneur starting a company. They are two very different things. With a start-up, you're just backing hot air, it's a completely different thing.
"It think it's fair that an investor in a start-up should get hit for 20 per cent CGT and maybe the founder should be allowed to take money off the table at 10 per cent. The British have something like this with their founders relief," according to Nolan.
"There should also be some kind of a break for companies training up tech employees to help counter the massive shortage of staff.
"It's going to take too long for people being trained at school to come through, so we need something now. If technology companies could train up someone – even someone with just an arts degree – they should get something in return, a contribution towards wages for the first six months."
Nolan also believes that austerity should be slowed down. "The writing is on the wall for a recovery. Why take all the pain for some kind of flag-waving exercise?" he says. Maybe take half of the austerity measures this year and if the economy recovers, maybe we won't need to take it next year.
"The single biggest initiative the Government should embark on is to drive the technology sector in Ireland. There are still enormous opportunities in this sector," says McCabe, one of Ireland's best known tech investors and former boss of pioneering Nasdaq-listed e-learning firm, CBT.
"Ireland has captured some of the biggest tech companies in the world. We need to capitalise on this. We also need to think deeply about the needs of the indigenous technology industry. This sector, I would argue, is equally important to our future.
"Right now the tremendous success which Ireland has created in technology risks being undermined due to a lack of people with appropriate technology skills. This skill shortage is being particularly acutely felt in the indigenous tech sector.
"Working in partnership with multinational tech firms based here and with leaders in the indigenous tech sector, the Government should immediately create an intensive six to 12-month recognised technology conversion diploma – teaching exactly the type of "real world" skills technology companies require. They should then select individuals who display an aptitude (irrespective of their background) to take this conversion training.
"Such government action would help reduce unemployment and ensure that Ireland's growth in this vital sector will continue into the future."
Declan Ganley, founder of Rivada Group, believes we should introduce a flat tax.
"Why a flat tax? Because a flat tax encourages growth through certainty.
"You don't need armies of accountants to explain the tax implication of a new investment or creating a new job – you can work it out in seconds.
"A flat tax is the definition of fairness – the more you earn, the more you keep. A flat tax improves politics – politicians using the Budget to reward some groups and punish others. We treat everybody the same, and give everybody the same opportunities.
"Think it's a pipe dream? Look at Hong Kong. A country that, like Ireland, is an open, trading economy; an economy that lives off its ability to attract inward investment; that has positioned itself as the premier trading hub of the Far East.
"Ireland can become the Hong Kong of Europe – and the fact that we are English-speaking increases the potential benefits hugely. We have the people and skills. All we need now is to free our people from the annual show of Bryan Dobson trying to explain how the Budget affects people this year. You can't lobby with a flat tax. You can't reward your friends. We can't be accused of encouraging 'special deals' by envious foreigners. You treat people fairly, and give them certainty, and you reap the rewards."
"I would love to see something in the Budget, perhaps some kind of grant, that would help to ensure women stay in the workplace," says Barron, who runs hot start-up Viddyad.
"While I don't have children myself, I see my peers having to make decisions about creche fees and the cost of working. Financially I do think something should be done on this.
"I took part in the recent Global Irish Economic Forum and we spoke about how few senior women there are in business. I was the only woman out of 100 entrepreneurs to receive money from Enterprise Ireland in 2011.
"Particularly for female entrepreneurs, it's a struggle to set up a business with no maternity benefits and few financial supports to help them make a vital financial contribution to the economy."
ABP Food Group
"Five years of austerity budgets have taken their toll across all government departments, but as the IFA has argued in its pre-Budget submission, the Department of Agriculture has been particularly hard hit. Given the massive contribution agricultural exports are making to the economy (almost €2bn of exports in the beef sector alone), it's vital that we don't cut programmes that support growth," says Finnerty, who runs Larry Goodman's ABP Food Group.
"I've been calling for a €100m investment in the national suckler herd, which through a multiplier effect would deliver possibly four or five times that amount back to the Exchequer.
"Looking beyond the agri-business sector, I have welcomed the Government's resistance to call for an increase in the rate of employer PRSI, which would be a clear barrier to job creation. I also believe that the €600m reduction announced last week in the targeted €3.1bn adjustment should be focused around further investment in education and training, with particular focus on German and UK approaches to investment in apprentice/ training/ graduate schemes to help youth unemployment."
"Confirmation from Minister Noonan in recent days that the Government isn't seeking to reach the target of €3.1bn through cuts and taxation measures is to be welcomed. While there is no doubt that this will still be a difficult Budget, the fact that it is scaled back from the higher figure that has been in circulation will help to boost fragile consumer confidence," says Halpin, who runs multinational computing group Dell's Irish operations.
"Over the course of the recession, Ireland has become an attractive location for business travel. Dell has held a number of global meetings here in recent years as room rates and the 9 per cent VAT rate ensure that Dublin city competes well with other international conference locations. We should seek to protect and nurture this kind of business as it provides a steady regular income stream into the economy.
"The Government's commitment to the 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate is welcome. This is important for all companies operating in Ireland – multinational and indigenous. I would urge the Cabinet to be cautious about introducing any measures which might impact on Ireland's competitiveness – either from an export or a foreign direct investment perspective. Income tax and PRSI increases over the past number of years have all impacted significantly on employer costs. Any short-term gains delivered through a widening of the bands or by increasing the rates will be offset by the loss of potential investments or possibly through reductions of activity at existing firms.
"I'd also call on the Government to protect investment in education as much as possible. Investment is required across the public sector in order to support the transformation agenda but the priority has to be in the area of education. We need to look at innovative ways to get more technology into more schools – this is an investment in the future generation and in ensuring that we develop a sustainable economy."
"Do reduce the CGT on entrepreneurs. One of the challenges in encouraging entrepreneurs to start and grow a business here is the high rate of capital gains tax. In Ireland you pay 33 per cent CGT should you be fortunate enough to make a gain on sale of your company's shares.
"By comparison, the UK rate, subject to certain conditions, is only 10 per cent. If we are serious about encouraging people to employ others and to build scalable Irish-based companies then we need to address this issue. Given the potential dynamic effect, it will cost nothing and bring plenty of benefits.
"Don't increase the cost of employing people. Getting as many people as possible working in the economy is the most pressing of the Government's objectives. Every extra individual at work reduces the strain on welfare budgets. Provided the remuneration is sufficient, it also increases the tax take – not just in terms of income tax collected but also due to the beneficial effect of the various consumption taxes paid as a result of spending the income."
"To stimulate the retail sector through Budget 2014, I would recommend a series of actions. A tax-incentive scheme for home improvements would encourage sales in the homeware industry.
"Such schemes have been introduced in a number of EU countries in recent years, resulting in bossed expenditure and have "formalised" the black economy. It is vital that we tackle the black market," says O'Gorman, who runs one of Ireland's best-known retailers.
"I'd recommend that the Government do maintain existing measures such as the Jobs Initiative, which is due to expire at end of 2013, and look at introducing further tax incentives for companies increasing their employee numbers, for example, reduced employers' PRSI.
"We must not increase taxes. Vat should remain at 9 per cent for hospitality and tourism services, nor should we increase government-controlled costs such as Employers' PRSI, sick pay, rates, etc.
"Finally, we should consider paying a portion of welfare/state payments through a debit card that can only be used in Ireland."
San Leon Energy
"Last year, Ireland used 4.5 billion cubic metres of natural gas and 47 million barrels of oil, most of it imported. But what Minister Noonan should remember this week is what we export to pay for it: €1bn for gas and €4.1bn for oil, or €11m each day for oil alone," says Fanning, who heads up the listed shale gas explorer and producer.
"Listening to the green opponents of shale gas and off-shore drilling off Ireland is like starving to death in a bakery. The only alternative to gas heat in Ireland is paving the country with wind turbines, especially difficult to do if the wind turbines are exporting electricity to the UK so that we can afford to send them money to pay for gas.
"Even worse, this is empty money. If we can produce our own energy, the Exchequer would get at least 25 per cent of any domestic production, €1.25bn to put into the credit column.
"Perhaps we'll be unlucky and it's not there. Not even looking costs jobs and money invested in exploration. Let's go!
"Some people fear shale gas exploration would increase traffic in Ireland. They're right: shopping centres will be full when money earned at home is spent at home.
"But whatever we do, I would suggest leaving the 25 per cent tax alone for starters. Don't carve up the golden goose before it's cooked."
Kildare Hotel, Spa & Country Club
"The hospitality industry can play a huge part in the recovery of Ireland. We have always been known for our warm welcome and tourism experience and we need to build on this talent once again.
"The hospitality industry both directly and indirectly employs several hundred thousand people in this country. If we are to compete on an international level against other major cities and destinations, we must offer quality service, product and experiences and exceptional value.
"Leaving the current Vat rate at 9 per cent will allow us to do so. Any increase in the Vat rate will only price us out of the international market and it will jeopardise jobs and once again disrupt consumer confidence.
"There is a huge shortage of skilled hospitality workers in this country, and with the establishment of the new education and training boards, this will represent a wonderful opportunity for up-skilling and training chefs and hospitality workers for the future."
"Since the crash, we in Ireland have been left with half-finished infrastructure and planned but undelivered capital projects. One of the key and pressing areas of unrealised capital expenditure is the schools infrastructure.
"It'd be a useful catalyst to introduce a government school bond, similar to the SSIAs launched by Charlie McCreevy in the Nineties.
"The difference would be that the Government would specifically target the schools upgrade projects currently on the books but which require urgent funding.
"Subscribers could be invited to participate up to a given limit – say €100,000 – to raise funds for listed and approved schools upgrade projects.
"The Government would offer a fixed interest rate of, say, 5 per cent for a five-year period on these subscriptions on the basis that they would not mature for five years. Section 23-type relief would be offered to all subscribers as an added incentive.
"The Government would then use this construction bond fund exclusively to upgrade the schools sector. It would give employment to thousands of construction workers, it would upgrade the schools sector and it would provide an attractive rate of return for subscribers.
"It would kickstart the Irish economy through its most vital sector – construction. It'd be win-win for everyone."