Wednesday 22 November 2017

The Punt: Peeling away at our mandarins

John Moran, General Secretary at the Department of Finance
John Moran, General Secretary at the Department of Finance

THE Punt has always had an admiration for the unnamed mandarins in the public sector who toil away every day and get little public recognition for it.

It is fashionable to criticise civil servants, although at times it may be with good justification.

It is even more fashionable because they tend not to fight back.

But now the leading figures in the Department of Finance have been put centre stage. It has revamped its website and published a list of its senior officials, complete with photographs and biographies.

Top of the pile is secretary general John Moran, above. He's probably reasonably well known to those who follow financial news in Ireland.

But the list also includes several other senior figures in the Department who, interestingly, have experience outside of the civil service, with some of the assistant secretaries general coming from banking sector backgrounds.

Civil servants by their nature tend to keep to the background and let the respective minister front the department.

But it is interesting to know who is at the helm of one of the most powerful government departments.

BROKER BOOST FOR INSURER FBD

GOOD news for poor old FBD. Merrion Stockbrokers has initiated coverage of the insurer, the only Irish-listed player on the market, with the release of a very positive broker note. There's "significant scope for payment of special dividends", wrote analyst Ciaran Callaghan.

We're sure 40-something chief executive Andrew Langford (below) is pleased. His company has come by lots of negative press recently, perhaps unfairly, after the insurer unexpectedly announced bad weather at the end of 2013 would hurt its earnings.

But Mr Langford runs a tight ship -- he wasn't voted analysts' favourite young Irish executive in 2012 for nothing -- and a bit of bad weather is no match for FBD's cushy role as the dominant insurer among Irish farmers. It has an estimated 80pc of this market.

It always surprises us that lots of people don't know that the company's name actually refers to farming -- it's an abbreviation of Farmer Business Developments. "Its strong sector linkages effectively create a barrier to entry," said Mr Callaghan. Or, as we'd put it, other insurers don't have a hope.

Farm insurance offers a lucrative, low-cost and reliable source of income -- and things look set to only get better. The sector should receive a boost in 2015 when the European Commission quota system is abolished, triggering expansion in the industry as farmers move to increase dairy production.

EIRCOM PLANS MAJOR DATA HUB

The Punt is a sucker for a good read, so has just been perusing the environmental impact statement that has accompanied Eircom's planning application to build in Dublin what would be one of the country's largest data centres, with a price tag of up to €200m.

The 519-page document may not be appearing on a best-seller list any time soon, but it does tell us that the telco -- in which US private equity group Blackstone is now the majority owner following Eircom's exit from examinership in 2012 -- plans to start construction of the first phase of the data centre in Clondalkin by the middle of this year. Building of the second phase won't start until 2017 at the earliest, it tells the council.

About 60 staff will be employed full-time at the centre when it's complete, while up to 250 will be involved in the first phase of construction, which will take about 15 months.

"The proposed development of a state-of-the-art data centre, if successful, would maximise the use of this site and make it a substantial asset in the ongoing recovery of both the local regional and national economy, particularly in light of the emergence of Ireland as a 'Digital Hub' for Europe," note Eircom's planners. At least they're not modest.

Irish Independent

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