Thursday 14 November 2019

Richard Curran: EU tax payback for Brexit help could be bigger threat than Trump

UK Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier
UK Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

'Better an honest enemy than a fake friend' is how the old saying goes. When it comes to the global reform of Corporate Taxes, it isn't at all clear who our enemies and friends are.

US President Donald Trump appears to be an enemy given that he wants to repatriate profits, jobs and taxes from US multinationals back to the US, in a way that could be damaging to Ireland's economic interests.

In reality, he is succeeding with very little in his presidency and this stated aim may not impact on Ireland much at all.

Meanwhile, closer to home, our EU friends are wrapping their arms all over us on the Brexit issue. Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier seems as familiar with the finer points of the Monaghan/Armagh border as your average fuel smuggler.

But will there be a price to pay for Ireland from all of this European solidarity? Just as Barnier is solidly in our camp on Brexit, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker wants to see greater tax harmonisation across Europe which using qualified majority voting (QMV), which would see an end to the member state veto on tax rules for multinational corporations like Facebook and Amazon.

Seamus Coffey, chairman of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, said during the week corporation tax harmonisation plans across the Eurozone pose a bigger threat to Ireland than Brexit. It has been suggested that Ireland could lose around €4bn a year in Corporation Taxes. More significantly it would undermine our investment case for future Foreign Direct Investment which in turn could cost us a lot more in the long run.

Ireland has a veto, so in theory it can just keep saying No. Finance minister Paschal Donohoe said last week that he would not give up that right to a veto on such important matters as taxation.

We will not be alone in this stance, and will be backed up by EU 'heavyweights' like Luxembourg! The UK's exit from the EU could be a serious blow to Ireland's ability to avoid the bigger, more influential EU members simply ganging up on us, or deciding to press ahead with greater Eurozone integration on their own.

'More Europe' and not less of it, is the emerging tone in the aftermath of the British referendum and that means greater economic integration, Eurozone budgets and greater harmonisation. That might be all good stuff, but our EU friends have a serious eye on the corporate structures we have facilitated here.

These are very worrying developments for Ireland. And yet there is a genuine moral and social argument to be made about all of this. Global corporations are not paying enough tax and the tax avoidance industry, backed by governments, has allowed this to happen.

If Ireland wants to be to the forefront of developments in reforming that, well and good, but Ireland will not want to go it alone, or adopt a tax regime from which it can only lose taxes, investment and jobs without gain.

As the country with the most to lose from Brexit, we need as much help as we can get from Brussels on the British withdrawal. That's what friends are for. But sometimes they want a favour in return, one that might be very painful to deliver. Paschal Donohoe will need all of his diplomatic skills to navigate two storms - Brexit and a push for greater Eurozone tax harmonisation.

Time is ripe for new Eir investor

Former state telco Eir has come a long way since its examinership in 2012. The group of hedge funds, banks and equity investors who own the business have been eyeing an IPO for some time.

It would be a chance to cash in some shares, given that they took a bath on their debts in the restructuring of five years ago.

For others, who have come on board or built up their stakes more recently, such as Anchorage, it would be a chance to realise some of the gains from the painstaking work of rebuilding the business.

This week Eir reported its ninth successive quarter of growth and appears to be on the right course - trajectory might be putting it a bit too strongly.

However, reports that it could be the subject of a takeover bid from Xavier Niel, the French billionaire majority owner of Paris-listed telecoms company Iliad, might have been a little premature. Eir confirmed that it had an approach about a significant stake being taken, which would be held "alongside them" (existing shareholders). If indeed this is Niel it could be good news all round.

Eir has been owned by private equity investors, hedge funds and other institutions for 18 years now. Having an industry player on the share register would be no harm.

Niel has been described as the godfather of French tech. He has built up an extraordinary mobile phone business with 13m mobile subscribers, or 18.3pc of the French mobile market, in less than five and a half years.

Iliad represents the most successful launch of a fourth mobile player in a market anywhere in Europe.

Iliad has acquired assets which will give it a fourth-place market position in Italy where it hopes to launch shortly. The group has built its success on a low cost, low price model. Its arrival triggered price wars. It even launched free mobile in France before successfully migrating customers to more lucrative post-pay monthly plans.

Niel is clearly a great marketer.

However, Eir would be too big for him to take out at this stage given Eir's equity value of around €1.2bn and ebitda of €520m.

The puzzling thing about the takeover speculation has to do with growth. Niel clearly wants high-growth plays and while growth has returned for Eir in this market, it cannot be stellar in such a mature competitive market.

However, some institutional investors in Eir may be getting itchy feet and don't want to wait for an IPO, followed by another few years after that for a full exit.

Data centre opportunities stuck

The headlines about how Ireland could lose out on a $1bn Apple data centre planned for Co Galway don't look good. 'Shortage of judges, growing bureaucracy and power constraints could prove too much for iPhone maker…' was how one publication put it.

Having a planning system that gives a strong voice to objectors is one thing, but holding up valuable investments because of a shortage of judges, or lack of investment in power capacity, is another.

Irrespective of the concerns of objectors who are worried about lots of things, including the impact the centre could have on badgers in the area, dragging out a process because of entirely fixable problems is much worse.

Apple announced plans for the data centre in 2015 and expected to have it built in 2017. That now looks like 2019, if it happens at all. Having made a good start on data centre location in Ireland, the Nordic countries are overtaking us.

Business is booming in Norway, Sweden and Denmark where they have garnered $3bn data centre investment in the last 18 months alone.

Data centres use enormous amounts of electricity, so they are looking for renewable energy sources nearby. Facebook has placed data centres more than 300,000 sq ft just inside the Arctic Circle in Sweden, powered entirely by renewable energy. There is a six-storey data centre in an abandoned mine in Norway. Yet, 40pc to 50pc of Europe's data centres are in the UK.

Super-sized data centre investment is set to double in the next two years. Ireland's role in that expansion isn't so much going down a mine, as stuck in a boghole.

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