Thursday 26 April 2018

Richard Curran: You can keep your plans and your strategies - give me luck every time

NAPOLEON'S DICTUM: 'I have plenty of clever generals - but just give me a lucky one.'
NAPOLEON'S DICTUM: 'I have plenty of clever generals - but just give me a lucky one.'
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

It has been a pretty extraordinary year in Irish and international business. The turnaround in the fortunes of the economy has been speedy and dramatic.

What had begun in 2013 and improved in 2014 gathered real pace - and positively affected more people this year.

There has been a raft of high-profile Irish corporate deals - most notably the sales of UTV Television and TV3, plus Denis O'Brien's sale of Topaz. The commercial property market really took off as more international investors snapped up assets, while some bottom fishers took an early profit and cashed out.

It was the year that gave us some real surprises - such as Nama suggesting it might make a €2bn profit when it wraps up or Michael Noonan bagging over €3bn more in corporation tax than he had expected.

Naturally, some things didn't surprise at all, such as the Sean Quinn family legal action against the State not going ahead yet, AIB not getting its IPO out of the blocks yet and the Banking Inquiry descending into near chaos.

Abroad, 2015 was the year that gave us the 'defeat device' - and I'm not talking about Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party, but the piece of dodgy software put into millions of Volkswagen cars to cheat emissions tests.

The Volkswagen scandal didn't only show us that even the straight-laced Germans can be dodgy when it comes to business, it shattered any last remaining veneer of belief that corporations will act with honesty in the face of regulation.

Out of the 2015 business cocktail of shocks, predictability, cock-ups and brainwaves, I have chosen a few good news developments from the year and a few real disappointments. First, the good news.

Mortgage lending cap

It was late January 2015 when the Central Bank took the very controversial step of introducing new rules aimed at controlling mortgage lending. The move was widely condemned as a negative influence on the market, which would collapse prices again. One year on and the measures appear to be doing exactly as the Central Bank had intended.

At first, they slowed down growth in house prices in Dublin and as the year finishes figures show that house prices in capital are falling, while outside the capital they continue to grow.

Before the rules were introduced, house prices in Dublin were shooting up at over 12pc per year. Now they have consolidated those gains and are beginning to drift back a little. Outside Dublin, house prices are gaining, having been very slow to take off in the early days of economic recovery in 2013 and 2014.

The Central Bank could not have hoped for better. It's a tough solution for people but one that was needed.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

The rate of unemployment was just over 15pc back in Christmas 2010. It is now heading rapidly towards 8pc in 2016. Among the mix of jobs created in the last five years, the flow of inward investment through IDA-backed employment has been the most encouraging. Enterprise Ireland continues do extremely well in fostering indigenous jobs but it will always have to accept the fact that success is harder to measure when building an entrepreneurial culture and economic base from the ground up.

In the first six months of this year, IDA Ireland approved 110 investment projects, which are expected to lead to 9,000 direct jobs this year and over future years.

To put it in perspective, back in 2012 IDA Ireland set a target of having 132 investments in the whole of 2013. This year it has bagged 110 in just six months.

Lucky generals

The other piece of really positive news is that Ireland has been incredibly lucky on the economic front - and just when we needed it. A sustained period of low interest rates has made money cheaper, which has encouraged inward investment. It has also kept down the cost of raising billions of new debt for businesses and the State, which has re-financed older, more expensive debt.

As an exporting economy, the low value of the euro has boosted our exports to such an extent that Ireland's GDP is higher now than it was at the height of the boom.

And the collapse in oil prices in mid-2014 came at a great time in lowering the cost of doing business here.

These bonuses won't last forever but we could get another two good years out of them.

On the downside, unfortunately, there was still plenty of disappointing bad news around. Three things I would highlight are:

We can't do housing

During the last building boom, we built too many properties in the wrong places. We did it as developers made billions, only to lose it again in the crash. This time around, having come through a massive property crash, we can't seem to build enough suitable houses.

Building too few houses has led to a rental and homelessness crisis. Minimum apartment sizes are set to shrink again, just in time for the next building boom - ensuring another shoebox generation.

The Central Bank mortgage lending cap is achieving what it set out to do, but with a lack of supply, unfortunately it is having a negative effect on the rental market.

The housing market was dysfunctional in the early 2000s, dysfunctional in the crisis from 2008-2013 and is still dysfunctional, but just in slightly different ways.

We can't do inquiries

The Banking Inquiry descended into a shambles. It came too late; it was too restrictive; it was not forensic enough in its approach; and it shouldn't really have been conducted by politicians.

It went down several cul de sacs, such as considering taking video evidence from David Drumm, before imploding as members of the inquiry tried to completely re-write the draft report against a tight deadline.

The Banking Inquiry debacle highlighted most profoundly how Ireland still lacks suitable investigative mechanisms for certain matters of significant public interest.

Tribunals are too long and too expensive. Commissions of Inquiry are not conducted in public and appear to have issues around banking confidentiality. Oireachtas inquiries are legally hamstrung. White-collar criminal inquiries take too much time and vast amounts of garda resources.

We may well end up getting some kind of Banking Inquiry report but its credibility and authority have been greatly diminished.

The only way is up, up, up

Having crashed to earth with a bang in 2008, tough decisions had to be taken by employers, employees and Government. One good thing to come from it all was that we got some economic competitiveness back.

The early Noughties were the bloated years. With the recession, we went on a crash diet and emerged fitter.

Unfortunately, we now run the risk of eroding that competitiveness all over again.

Tourism is on a record high but hotel prices, particularly in Dublin, are rocketing. We have allowed the cost of insurance claims to go up, which in turn is pushing up premiums.

Wage demands and expectations are on the rise again. Profitable companies should share the benefits with their employees but knock-on pay claims are emerging everywhere, including in the public sector.

There is a real danger that after incredibly tough years and some good fortune in recovering, we are still capable of blowing it all again in the future.

Sunday Independent

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