independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Richard Curran: A wish list for Irish business in 2014

NICE GOING: Michael O’Leary is putting new emphasis on customer relations, but the changes will take months to assess. Photo: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

Here are five things I would like to see happen in business and the Irish economy in 2014.

1. Stop tax discrimination against start-ups

So much good work has been done at government level to attract foreign multinationals to Ireland, especially during the bad times. Equally, many larger Irish exporting firms are doing very well.

The Government keeps banging on about enterprise and entrepreneurs but isn't doing enough for them. The medium-term economic strategy, published before Christmas, was full of platitudes about enterprise, but short on detail.

Why not start in 2014 by levelling the playing field a little for the small guys. We have all this guff about encouraging entrepreneurship when the self-employed are getting crucified. They don't get the PAYE tax credit of €1,650, which means they are paying €32 per week more in tax than an employee. PRSI kicks in at a lower level for the self-employed. Employees pay no PRSI if their income is under €352 per week but the self-employed pay 4 per cent, carrying a minimum charge of €500.

Then of course when things go wrong, they don't qualify for the same social welfare entitlements as PAYE employees.

It would be good to see Michael Noonan move beyond rhetoric on these issues. The problem is that the Government genuinely wants more enterprise and entrepreneurs but it has been reluctant to change policy that costs the Exchequer money. The economic strategy document signalled a possible change of policy when things go wrong for start-ups. We will have to wait and see.

2. Collect some proper taxes from betting

The massive reductions in betting tax over the last eight years were bizarre and not really justified. Keeping the tax on bets, which are already VAT-free, as low as 1 per cent when essential public services have been cut, is indefensible.

Betting duty collected by the Exchequer in 1990 was €37.2m. By 2000 it had reached €58.8m as more affluent Irish began betting more. Several cuts to the betting tax rate from 10 per cent in 1990 to just 1 per cent from 2007 onwards, meant the betting tax take for the Exchequer was just €27.1m in 2011.

Bookies maintain it is unfair that they are the only ones paying the tax. And they have a point as online bets are not taxed. They argue that the switch to online betting is hurting their business.

Yet Paddy Power and Boylesports, both of which have good online operations, have been buying up betting shops. Just before Christmas, Paddy Power bought another nine shops from Hacketts.

As of November, Paddy Power had opened nine new outlets in Ireland in 2013. So, betting shops can't be going all that badly!

Plans to tax online betting have been stalled for about four years and are still not in place. Based on 2011 figures, increasing the betting tax to 2 per cent while also capturing online bets at the same rate, could have increased the tax take from €27m to €66m. That would be an extra €39m per year going to the Exchequer.

3. Michael O'Leary's nicer strategy works

Ryanair has become the template for how to run a successful truly low-cost airline. Its customer service model appeared to run out of runway a little when it issued a profit warning this year, and chief executive Michael O'Leary admitted it had some image problems.

Changes to the Ryanair website, along with cuts in some charges, have formed part of a new emphasis on customer relations.

Some alterations have already been made but it will take a few months into the New Year to really assess the difference. Ryanair's share price is still lower than in October when O'Leary first began talking about aspects of the company's image, but it is up nearly 30 per cent since the start of 2013.

There is a lot more to Ryanair's share price and performance than its website or allowing a second bag on board. But I would like to see the new approach succeed and yield results. If it does, it will affect the attitudes of other low-cost airlines and prove an important lesson in how even very successful companies treat their customers.

4. Start some kind of banking inquiry

Long overdue and likely to disappoint, we still need to see some kind of banking inquiry up and running in 2014. Plans are afoot, but they have been "afoot" for a long time.

In 2003 Irish banks really began to sow the seeds of the crisis. Asking bankers 11 years later about what things were like at board meetings back then, is stretching it. Nevertheless, with the Troika gone and a residual bank bailout debt of €62bn, we still need some answers.

5. Let's see some Irish IPOs

After some pretty tough years, all is not lost at the Irish Stock Exchange when it comes to its role in helping companies to raise money. Since last summer, it has been estimated that close to €1.3bn of new equity finance has been raised through the stock market in Ireland.

Bank of Ireland and Independent News & Media both raised money, as did Minco, the drill bit maker which floated on the exchange. It would be great to see one or even two more IPOs in 2014. A number of smaller companies in recent years have opted for the London-AIM market but Shannon-based Minco chose to stay at home.

Equally a raft of bigger Irish plcs has shifted their primary listing to London, which has made sense for them but hasn't helped the overall position of the stock market in Ireland.

Too many founders of excellent Irish companies sell up too early, often to international acquirers. It is hard to say no when someone offers both a very big cheque and a chance to grow the businesses even more. However, it would be good if more of these companies hung in there and decided to see how far they could go in becoming Irish multinationals.

Access to finance is one issue for some of them, but floating is a way to access new capital, while retaining management control and a chunk of the equity here in Ireland.

Irish Independent

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