Tuesday 19 November 2019

Brexit will be the new Y2K bonanza for consultants

FEAR FACTOR: No sooner had David Cameron won Thursday's UK election when he re-affirmed his commitment to an 'in/out' referendum on EU membership
FEAR FACTOR: No sooner had David Cameron won Thursday's UK election when he re-affirmed his commitment to an 'in/out' referendum on EU membership
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

British politics will be dominated by the question of an EU referendum until 2017. It is a worrying development for Ireland - and a rich vein for consultants.

No sooner had David Cameron totted up his numbers at the UK election count when he re-affirmed his party's commitment to an 'in/out' referendum on EU membership.

Pre-election promises can be broken, watered down or put in cold storage once the heat of political battle is over. But not this one.

A British exit or "Brexit" from the EU could spell trouble for Ireland. One think-tank suggested that without a specific bi-lateral trade deal to replace it, Ireland could permanently lose the equivalent of 3pc of GDP or €5.5bn. Even with a trade deal, you are looking at a €2bn hit, plus the enormous setback of the return of an economic border from Dundalk right round to Inishowen in Donegal. Then there are the additional costs of exporting to our biggest trading partner when it is not in the single market.

The really bad news is that Ireland can do very little about it. Britain's relationship with Ireland is valuable for them, but not significant. Lobbying politicians in London is useless, because you can't really influence the decisions of the British public.

It almost doesn't matter what Cameron himself thinks. Once described by a British newspaper columnist as "R2D2 made of ham", he has let the EU genie out of the bottle. His own Conservative Party could split when it comes to deciding whether it will back EU membership in a referendum campaign.

Much of the action in the coming 18 months will be around what the EU can do to make the British happier. There is very little scope for negotiation here, because the EU has already said that new treaties by 2017 are not on the cards.

Every exporting Irish company will examine its options and contingency plans in the event this happens. It will become the new Y2K issue as consultants make a packet analysing the impact for Irish companies and helping them put contingencies in place.

One senior bank executive told me a few months ago, in his bank's view, there was a 15pc risk of a Brexit and it would have to be studied. That is a pretty big percentage risk and after Friday's election, it has just gone up.

The British economy could suffer in the run-up to the referendum as it dominates politics. This could be further bad news for Irish exporters. Exchange rates with the British pound will be very hard to predict, as the poll date gets closer.

If you didn't stay up all night on Thursday to watch the British results, you may want to on the night of the EU membership poll.


Bank non-execs finally have something to do

Bank of Ireland chief executive Richie Boucher made one of the few interesting points to emerge to date in the banking inquiry.

He said that insufficient credit risk information had been provided to the board in relation to the bank's exposure to certain sectors or types of lending.

The question is why? Was it oversight at several banks? Did the executives think it wasn't necessary or did the board members just not ask for it?

At any board meeting of any company, the management executives around the boardroom table have access to more information than the non-executives.

After all, they are the ones running the place every day. There can even be a game of cat and mouse, at boards, where some non-executives sometimes feel they are not getting the full picture. Some just aren't that bothered.

Boucher's comments raise the possibility that in several banks, directors didn't question their bank's over-exposure to property because they didn't have a full picture of it. Presumably they didn't ask.

Perhaps they were too busy discussing golf, rugby or the temperature of the starter at the board lunch. We tend to presume that board members know everything about what goes on in a company. They don't. But they are paid to ask for information that is important. What could be more important at a bank than risk information?

Not all banks operated in the same way. Robert Gallagher, former head of corporate lending at Ulster Bank, told the inquiry that big developer loans didn't necessarily go before the Ulster Bank board. They went to its parent company, RBS instead.

Ulster Bank board meetings must have been deadly dull.

Gallagher said that if he had known back then, what he knew now, of course he would have done things differently.

Who wouldn't? But nobody has a crystal ball, not least the bank economists who appeared at the inquiry during the week.

The point is, what precautions does a bank take based on the simple fact that it doesn't actually know what is going to happen? That is the essence of managing risk. It has been around for thousands of years and formalised for hundreds of years from the earliest days of shipping insurance. Even bookies lay it off.

Boucher said the difference between boom-era practices and now, is like night and day. So bank boards actually now have something to do.


IAG isn't into Aer Lingus for the short haul

While politicians beat their breasts about retaining Aer Lingus access to the UK, the airline's short-haul passenger numbers continue to tumble. Aer Lingus's growing dependence on transatlantic routes for growth, raises questions about its future position in the short-haul market if IAG does not succeed in its takeover bid.

Figures published during the week show that in April the airline carried 710,000 short-haul passengers. Total short-haul passenger numbers for all of 2014 came in at 8.4 million, down 460,000 on the figure in 2011.

In fact Aer Lingus carried 100,000 fewer short haul passengers in the first four months of 2015 than it did in 2014. This is despite the fact that trips abroad are up and foreign visits to Ireland are also up during the period.

Last year there were 300,000 more trips abroad by Irish people than in 2011. Trips by visitors to Ireland were 1.1m more than in 2011. Yet, short-haul has been shrinking for Aer Lingus.

It's in stark contrast to low-cost airlines which have continued to grow passenger numbers. Ryanair is very different because it isn't just exposed to routes into and outside of Ireland, but its load factor is running at 91pc. Aer Lingus's has grown but is at 76pc and is also exclusively exposed to the "fastest growing economy in the EU".

Perhaps the future for big former flag carriers is long-haul, with low-cost operators doing short-haul distances to those bigger hubs.

Either way, it isn't surprising the Aer Lingus board took a "nanosecond" to say yes to Walsh's IAG offer. The politicians are taking a little longer.


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