Irish

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Heralding bank deal fudge, bailout exit, off-shore oil and Lotto jackpot

Business Editor Nick Webb gazes into his crystal ball to predict what may happen in business in 2013

Nick Webb

Published 30/12/2012|05:00

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Boy, did we have our Weetabix this time last year. We said that the eurozone crisis would rumble on for another year without resolution. And guess what? It still isn't fixed.

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We were on the button with the economy, forecasting a grim time for certain sectors but that the food and export sector would boom.

When it came to big deals we were bang on the money with the predicted buyout at Cove Energy topping the pile. We also said One51 would sell out of ICG.

But we also nailed the things that didn't happen. The sale of semi-state assets would be fudged and any disposals would be kicked to touch. We also predicted that former Irish Nationwide boss Michael Fingleton wouldn't give back his bonus. The coming year will see some jaw-dropping deals and more than a bit of intrigue and scandal.

Europe and the eurozone crisis

Yay! A bank deal will be done. But it'll be utterly rubbish. The promissory note due on March 31 won't be paid. . . at least not directly. It'll be parked and a supremely complicated arrangement will be announced as Ireland basks in the European presidency.

However, when the small print is examined, the penny will drop. It'll make a bit of a difference but not enough.

A movement for a better bank deal – with actual write-offs of debt – will gather momentum as the year progresses. The German elections in the autumn will see us get a bit of a lashing. The 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate will come under further sustained attack by our comrades in Europe.

With friends like this, who needs enemies?

The Irish economy

Having sucked the last bit of spare cash out of the economy in the Budget from Hell, Michael Noonan and the rest of the Cabinet will wear surprised looks for much of the year as the domestic economy contracts even further.

Retail will have a savage year. The ongoing eurozone crisis and increasingly wobbly British economy will hit the export sector leading to much weaker tax receipts. This means that the Budget in December may need to be far harsher than expected.

Taking another €3.1bn-plus out of the economy will be ridiculously difficult. The €20bn spent on benefits will come under massive scrutiny.

Will Ireland still have the highest dole rates in the developed world or be the only bust country to continue paying child allowance to millionaires?

Unemployment will remain stubbornly above 14 per cent. . . God help us if there's a potato famine.

Telecoms

It'll be a year of high drama in the telecoms sector. Eircom's new owners Blackstone may realise that having Meteor and eMobile doesn't make an awful lot of sense. Meteor will be quietly put up for sale.

At the same time Telefonica's debt issues will see further moves around its O2 mobile business here. Hutchison Whampoa, owner of Three, will try to buy one or both of these mobile operators. Sky and UPC will also make a major play for mobile customers.

Buyouts

There'll be a decent level of activity as many of the big Irish firms have been paying down debt and bomb-proofing balance sheets. But for all the predators, there'll also be some victims.

C&C will be in demand as the consolidation of the global drinks industry quickens. CRH may also be in play but there will be real consideration given to splitting the company up by spinning off its valuable US unit from the low-growth European divisions.

Private equity may take another sniff at Greencore. Charles Gallagher may decide to reheat moves for listed home-builder Abbey.

The bailout

The bailout programme will end and Ireland will announce that we can independently raise finance from the bond markets. Franklin Templeton will pay its star trader Michael Hasenstab a truly mega-bonus.

But behind the scenes other things will be happening. A precautionary line of credit or a new scheme to underwite Irish bond issues will be arranged. It'll be so complicated that only Karl Whelan will actually understand it. Much will depend on the strings attached.

The banks

Richie Boucher and his fellow board members will face a torrent of abuse and maybe even an egg or two at the Bank of Ireland agm. The bank will have continued to hike mortgage rates and cut savings interest rates.

AIB will keep smiling and pretending that nothing horrible is happening as it starts to mow through its arrears book.

ECB rates will remain low but the number of people in difficulty with their mortgages will rise, albeit at a lower level than before. The banks will make noises about needing a possible extra bailout to cover mortgage losses. It won't be called a bailout though.

The banks still won't be lending anything, leading to the arrival of more specialist lenders for both personal and business borrowers. Hedge funds and other cash-rich financiers will team up with local players to lend to Irish companies.

The Irish Life sales process will kick off again but the chances of getting €1.3bn are nil. The country's biggest life company will be sold for less than a billion.

Oil

The resources sector will be the raciest thing in town. Providence Resources' Barryroe oil find will fuel an awful lot more activity and excitement in the sea off Ireland.

Providence Resources will be taken over for close to €900m with a new Asian owner. There'll be moves for Providence's partners too. Fastnet Oil and San Leon Energy will come into play. Once again cash-rich Chinese oil companies such as CNooc will be linked with moves for Aidan Heavey's Tullow.

Oil services will also be massive with Kentz involved in a major, major transaction mid-way through the year.

Scandal

There's always a bit of scandal in corporate Ireland. Expect red faces at one of the country's bigger audit firms as a major fraud is uncovered by accident. As usual it won't be the auditor's fault.

Several listed companies have real problems in the boardroom with some extremely sour relationships. Expect a big-name departure.

There'll also be a bit of how's yer father going on. . . but we won't be allowed to print it!

Technology sector

There'll be more activity in the technology sector with offers for the likes of Datalex, Openet, Lincor and Realex.

Colm Piercey's Digiweb will bulk up through acquisitions and there'll be some sexy new arrivals in the sector as the IDA keeps the pipeline busy.

State assets

The licence for the National Lottery will be sold off during 2013, raising slightly less than had been expected. And the winner will be. . . An Post. The taxpayer-owned post office will end up snagging the licence for the taxpayer-owned lottery as Camelot and Australian outfit Tatts look on in dismay.

The financing of the lottery bid will be even more complex than the promissory notes but not a single public sector job will be shed.

New Era will really ramp up activity during the year and while Bord Gais, Coillte, Dublin Port, Aer Lingus, DAA, Nama, CIE or RTE won't actually be sold in any shape or form, a small plot of land owned by a state agency will be offloaded as the Government insists that its programme for orderly disposals of state assets is on track.

A new quango will be set up to monitor the ongoing disposals programme. Three Fine Gael donors, two former Labour Party campaign insiders and a poor innocent will be appointed to the board.

Property prices

The urban/rural divide will widen as property prices outside the main urban areas continue to head south, dropping by close to five per cent in the year.

However the market will be brighter in Dublin, where certain leafy suburbs will actually see some minuscule price rises as cash buyers pick up red bricks at historic lows.

And finally... Michael Fingleton's bonus

Unfortunately it won't be given back in 2013.

Sunday Independent

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