Monday 17 December 2018

Richard Curran: Hard to see Apple investing any of its $200bn spare change here

Apple doesn’t look like it plans to invest much more in Ireland, given the data centre debacle, yet it has no reason to scale back here either.
Apple doesn’t look like it plans to invest much more in Ireland, given the data centre debacle, yet it has no reason to scale back here either.
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

The US taxman looks set to take a big bite out of Apple's $252bn of overseas cash. The iPhone maker announced that it expects to pay around $38bn in tax to the US, which will be owed regardless of whether it repatriates some, none or all of that money under new tax laws.

The company didn't actually say how much money it would bring back to the US. Investors wanted to hear about special dividends or share buybacks, but Apple didn't mention them at all. The share price gained slightly on the news to hit $179 per share, valuing the company at $920bn, suggesting the numbers were already priced in.

So what happens now? Apple made a big $30bn announcement of expansion plans in the US, which played well with US president Donald Trump's America First idea.

However, a closer look at the figures suggests its US investment and spend on American suppliers may not be much higher than it would have announced anyway without the tax reform.

It also pledged to build a new US campus and hire 20,000 staff. However, many of those new hires will be in technical support, which is a fancy word for call centre-type operations.

So none of this has much bearing on Ireland, except in one regard. Now that Apple looks set to hand over $38bn to the US tax authorities (15.5pc tax on overseas profits held abroad regardless of whether the money is moved back or not), it does leave less money abroad to invest around the world.

But when you take the $38bn from $252bn, it still leaves $214bn of fully paid-up taxed cash looking for a home.

One option would be to pay down some of its $100bn debt and then increase the dividend or engage in share buybacks. This would be good for investors but would diminish the investment pot for further overseas investment, outside the US.

But clearly the company has the cash to do all of the above if it wants.

The simple truth is that Apple doesn't look like it plans to invest much more in Ireland anyway, given the data centre debacle, yet it has no reason to scale back on its 6,000-employee Irish operation.

But as other US giants repatriate profits and pay the 15.5pc tax on them, it does reduce the pot of offshore US cash available for further FDI. That is something we will have to be on our guard about.

Tracker scandal costly for everyone but bank executives

The greater the cost of resolving the mortgage tracker scandal, the more pressing the questions about why nobody has lost their job over this shambles. Central Bank governor Philip Lane gave an update during the week on the progress of the redress scheme, and the bill is heading for around €900m. This is divided into €600m of redress and compensation and around €300m in costs.

Park the appalling ethics of this debacle for a moment and just look at it as a management farce. The banks will spend €300m of their own money on the cost of giving back to their customers €600m of customer money together with compensation.

What a bad piece of business this really was. Of course, in purely financial terms, if they had got away with it, the banking sector would be €900m better off. And we have to consider that they may have come quite close to getting away with it.

The Central Bank has got stuck into this problem, but only quite late in the day. It took a concerted campaign by advisers to victims, media and then finally Oireachtas committees to put a fire under the banks.

If that had not happened it is debatable whether the Central Bank's redress programme would have yielded the same results. I doubt it very much. Or at least it would have taken a hell of a lot longer.

While people have talked about possible criminal investigations into banker behaviour, it seems highly unlikely that charges will flow from this. However, the reality of what happened is quite ugly.

Bank executives pursued a course of action against their own customers which was morally bankrupt, extremely expensive and hugely damaging to reputations.

Yet, not even one tracker resignation has followed.

Brexit is no IFSC game-changer

Concerns that Brexit might not lead to a major jobs bonanza for the IFSC were more or less confirmed by Deutsche Bank during the week. Its CEO John Cryan said Deutsche jobs would indeed be moving to Frankfurt, Milan, Paris and other places from London but the numbers would be quite small.

He talked about "several hundred" jobs going. There have been suggestions of around 400 Deutsche Bank jobs moving. The group employs 8,600 in the City of London, which points to a job shift of around 4.6pc.

None of these were expected to go to Dublin anyway, but Ireland has done reasonably well so far in terms of financial services announcements. Let's take that 4.6pc as a guideline figure. There are 300,000 financial jobs in the City of London. If 4.6pc of them moved, it would see around 13,800 jobs up for grabs for EU cities.

If Ireland was to secure 15pc of all job movements you are talking about 2,000 jobs coming to Dublin. If we hit 20pc, it would be around 2,760.

Not bad, but not a game-changer.

We'll take the health insurance price cuts while they are going

We shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but how come VHI is announcing further cuts in health insurance premiums? It is very welcome news because as the market leader, it will put further pressure on the other two operators to follow suit.

VHI says the cuts will average 5.5pc and apply across a majority of its plans. Some plans will see the premium reduced by 2pc while for others it is as high as 14pc. This follows previous cuts by VHI which began in the second half of last year.

Before that, as recently as March 2017, it was still announcing price increases. VHI caught its competitors on the hop last year when it announced its first round of cuts for some time. Prior to that, prices had simply been rising and rising.

It is a little puzzling because the reasons given for the price hikes of recent years all seemed structural.

They were blamed on rising medical costs and higher charges for use of public hospitals. It is hard to see how any of that has come down.

However, a couple of things have changed. Economic recovery and higher employment rates mean more people taking out health insurance.

Plus, Irish Life merged two rival players into one, which reduced the number of health insurers in the market to three. Given the financial muscle behind Irish Life (owned by Canadian giant Great West Lifeco) VHI may have decided to change tack.

It is very hard to gauge the real level of competition in the health insurance market, because there are so many plans and product offerings from so few players.

However, when you see prices coming down, something is working for the consumers. VHI made profits of around €56m last year and increased its reserves to over €770m. Perhaps health insurance pricing policy has become a marketing battle.

Cut prices, generate positive publicity and grow market share in the short term. They may start going back up again next year.

Even so - we'll take it while it's going.

Sunday Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business