Tax policies will play big part in future of the country
As president of Bank of America Merrill Lynch and also president of American Chamber of Commerce, Peter Keegan is an important voice on our economy, writes Peter Flanagan
MOST of us have a stereotype for the investment banking executive, whether it's the brash City Boy or the Gordon Gekko type with sleeked back hair and a fat cigar.
Peter Keegan doesn't fit that mould. As the head of Bank of America Merrill Lynch he is in charge of close to 1,500 staff in Ireland, dealing in matters as diverse as credit card services to foreign exchange trading.
In addition to his job as head of one of the biggest financial services firms in the country, Mr Keegan has taken over as president of the American Chamber of Commerce, making his one of the most important voices in the debate over tax and the future direction of the economy.
Given his profession – he is a qualified accountant – and his position, the tax regime is an obvious priority for him and the Chamber. Perhaps surprisingly though, he does not appear overly concerned about our corporation tax rate. For him, the key at the moment is personal tax rates.
"Maintaining our corporation tax is the cornerstone, of course, but we need to look at the whole tax regime and that means the integrity of the tax regime and Ireland is a very open and transparent system and it needs to be seen to be that as well," he says.
"Things that make Ireland attractive are the 68 double tax agreements with other countries, the capital allowances regime, and income tax.
"The top rate of tax at 52pc which kicks in at just €35,000 is as high as it should go. It's a tax on employment and a tax on talent that is where we are coming from.
"Look, we know that in certain levels of the economy such as high end ICT and languages, we need to be able to attract people into Ireland to work, and we also want to be able to hold on to the homegrown talent we have.
"Income tax rates play a very strong role in whether that is possible. Everyone understands the government has a difficult path to walk at the moment but income tax rates are about as high as they can go."
Income tax is an important point for sure, but it has not been grabbing the headlines in recent times. Beyond the bottom line corporation tax rate, we have seen more and more countries kicking up about multinationals avoiding tax through perfectly legitimate means. That has led to accusations from people in high places such as US senator Carl Levin that Ireland is some sort of "tax haven". It is a point Mr Keegan is quick to pounce on.
"A tax haven has very clear characteristics such as a lack of transparency. Ireland is certainly not that. It complies with all OECD agreements and you have to remember that the effective tax rate here is very close to the head line rate.
"Other countries are looking at their tax regimes as well and for specific sectors there are tax regimes that give special treatment to certain areas. In Ireland what you see is what you get and the effective tax rate is just under 12pc."
"Ireland should play its part and comply with whatever rules are imposed by the EU, but its important there is proper tax compliance and everyone pays the right amount of tax. Sometimes we are far too defensive about our tax regime. It is a competitive advantage just like any other country could have," he claims.
Mr Keegan travelled a well trodden path to London in the 1980s, heading to The City after a spell with PwC in Limerick. He joined the investment Merrill Lynch in 1995 and moved back to Dublin soon after the firm incorporated a bank here (Merrill Lynch International) and opened its doors.
It's clear he looks back on those days fondly.
"When I came here in 1996, we had about 40 or 50 staff. At its peak there are about 800 staff employed by MLI. It's an operation that has done very well."
Already a senior banker here, Mr Keegan rose steadily through the ranks to become country manager in 2009. By that stage of course, Merrill Lynch was no more.
If everyone remembers the pictures of Lehman Brothers' staff carrying their belongings out of their offices after it collapsed in September 2008, a lot of people forget that Bank of America bought Merrill Lynch which was about to to collapse that weekend.
Staff left work on Friday September 12 working for Merrill Lynch, and came in the following Monday working for Bank of America.
If Merrill was a hard charging New York investment bank, Bank of America had a reputation as a rather staid commercial bank from South Carolina that had famously taken a bath in investment banking and then got out of the business altogether. It's clear there was a culture change for Merrill staff but Mr Keegan claims that was a positive.
"At the time Merrill employed about 60,000 to 70,000 people, while Bank of America probably had as many as 300,000 so you can see the difference straight away.
"What you have now is a blending of the two cultures. Bank of America probably brought more discipline, process and control around what you do, while Merrill had international reach and nimbleness of an international business so it has worked well on the whole," he adds. As someone at the coalface of international finance, Mr Keegan is well positioned to discuss the state of the Irish economy.
"Our reputation has definitely changed since say 2009 or 2010. In financial services, we have a reference point and as a firm we look at the different measures, be they credit default swaps, spreads against bunds or government bond yields and things have clearly improved by those measures.
"When we entered the recovery programme we stopped digging and showed we were smart enough to get out of the mess we were in and people are giving us a lot of credit for that and especially for the social cohesion we have maintained.
"There have been tangible rewards as well. At their peak our 10-year bonds were at 14pc. Now we are borrowing five-year money at 3.5pc.
"There is a lot less emotion in financial markets and that has been seen in the numbers.
"At the same time we have to be very careful and can't take our eye off the ball. We have to make sure we do don't do any more damage than necessary though, and that is very important," he adds.
Mr Keegan has been in the job three years at this stage but it is clear he still has a voracious appetite for his role.
"We've done a lot here, and the business has evolved tremendously. As a company we have to continue to take things forward and I intend to do that".