Thursday 21 February 2019

Despite the risks, there's lots to look forward to in 2018

New Year’s predictions: Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary might have something to announce this time next year. Photo: Bloomberg
New Year’s predictions: Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary might have something to announce this time next year. Photo: Bloomberg
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

Perhaps it is sage advice to 'never make predictions ­- especially about the future' but sometimes we can't help ourselves. As we begin 2018, there is a lot to be positive about and my overall prediction is that the economy and business should stay pretty much on track this year.

Years that have even numbers always sound more positive to me, but when it comes to economic performance it isn't always the case. In the last 20 years there have been 10 times when an even year followed an odd year. In seven of those 10 occasions, economic growth was lower in the even year than it had been in the previous odd year. Perhaps we are due a higher growth year in 2018.

Here are 10 things to watch out for in the next 12 months:

1 Brexit

The Brexit situation is looking a lot better than it did this time last year when it comes to the possibility of a soft Brexit, with a transition period and commitments on the smooth operation of the Border. Brexit has always been about British domestic politics rather than economics.

As things stand Theresa May looks likely to remain in office longer than anybody predicted simply because none of her Tory rivals feels assured of carrying an election. Having backed down on several key Brexit policy goals, the British prime minister should be a sitting duck, at least for Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to have a right go. Yet he has failed to land a significant blow in recent weeks, which highlights his own ambivalence about Brexit and the EU.

More housebuilding will boost construction jobs but fail to tackle the growing crisis. Stock photo
More housebuilding will boost construction jobs but fail to tackle the growing crisis. Stock photo

Expect more of the same but a gradual steady disintegration of the hard Brexiteers at the negotiations with the EU.

The big danger for Irish businesses in 2018 regarding Brexit is the damage it is now doing to the British economy. Consumer confidence is at a four-year low as real incomes fall against a rising cost of living. This will start to bite even harder next year, especially for Irish exporters. But it may help steer the UK towards a softer Brexit in the talks.

2 Trump, Tax and Impeachment

Each month that passes appears to take President Donald Trump that little bit closer to impeachment.

Bitcoin will implode due to increased competition from rival cryptocurrencies
Bitcoin will implode due to increased competition from rival cryptocurrencies

If it doesn't happen for the Russia scandal then don't rule out a backlash over possible conflicts of interest. The tax reform package passed on Constitution Hill in Washington before Christmas will add a perk to US consumer spending. What it will do longer term to the US exchequer deficit has not been fully analysed.

On the corporation tax front, the reforms shift the ground rules somewhat around the attractiveness of Ireland as a destination for US foreign direct investment. US corporations with hundreds of billions of dollars held overseas are likely to repatriate a large chunk of that to avail of a special 15.5pc tax rate. They are likely to use it for dividends and share buy-backs rather than enormous capital investment in their businesses at home. This should be a boost in the short term for the US economy which may simply accelerate interest rate hikes in time. Don't expect an exodus of US FDI out of Ireland any time soon, but in the longer term it may influence the number of new investments.

3 AIB share sale

It is tempting for the Government to sell down more of its shares in AIB but it is likely to be politically sensitive.

If the share price holds up at current values, there is a case to be made for taking more money off the table. However, the controversy over what to do with it, other than pay down national debt, could make it more political trouble than it is worth. Paschal Donohoe will make the call, with one eye over his political shoulder.

4 Housing crisis

There is no real evidence that the housing crisis will improve dramatically in 2018. Rents remain staggeringly high with no real political will to tackle the problem.

A relaxation of planning rules on apartments should encourage more new builds but owners of development land are not in a hurry.

More houses will be built in 2018 which will be good for construction jobs but not enough will be built to seriously dent the social cost of the housing problem.

Some improvements are coming, but broadly more of the same.

5 Ryanair

An extraordinary year for Ryanair should be followed by something even more dramatic - operating as a unionised company.

This will pose enormous challenges for the management team and not least chief executive Michael O'Leary.

Even if he wanted to leave the company (because it doesn't relish dealing with unions) going now would impact his legacy at the airline. His contract is up in September 2019. Lead-in times are lengthy for that kind of job.

He might have something to announce this time next year.

6 Bitcoin

Expect Bitcoin to truly implode this year. Not because cryptocurrencies are defunct before they even get started, but because there are so many rivals now vying for investors to take a punt on them. Bitcoin has become the classic bubble. Who knows, it may even survive into the future as an online currency, just not at the valuations it has seen in 2017.

7 Sean Quinn's legal action

Could 2018 be the year the IBRC liquidator, presumably backed by the Government, does a deal with Sean Quinn and his family over their multibillion euro legal actions against the State? The State in turn is suing Sean Quinn back, relating to Quinn CFD losses in Anglo and the family's subsequent scheme to put assets beyond reach.

Settlement talks in 2015 came to nothing. The cases cannot be heard until after the criminal cases against former Anglo Irish Bank bank chief executive David Drumm are concluded. These criminal cases are pencilled in for next month and are expected to last six months.

Sean Quinn jnr told Shannonside Northern Sound Radio during the summer, the door remains open and has "never been closed" to IBRC in terms of negotiation talks in relation to the family's legal action against Anglo Irish Bank.

The Quinn legal actions will never be heard. Expect a settlement.

8 The Programme for Government

This is scheduled to run until after next year's Budget. The stand-off over Frances Fitzgerald, and the standing of Fine Gael in the polls, suggests there is a strong chance of the minority government lasting until that Budget in October.

If the Exchequer finances go to plan, the Government will have a lot more money to give away in that Budget which will be teed-up as an 'election Budget giveaway'. All the more reason for Fianna Fáil to pull the plug before it happens. Expect the political heat to be ratcheted up in the summer and political action in early autumn.

9 Hotels, Hospitality and VAT

The special 9pc rate for the hotel and hospitality industry has been very effective and helped generate employment. With the hospitality and tourism industry heading for another great year, the 9pc Vat rate won't last beyond the next Budget.

10 Criminal Action Over Tracker Mortgage Scandal

The scandal over tracker mortgages is likely to cost the banks more than €1bn to fix.

Shapes are being thrown about the possibility of criminal action against individual bankers. This won't happen in 2018, or 2019 or 2020.

Sunday Independent

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