Tuesday 22 October 2019

'Combative' fiscal chief who speaks truth to power


Direct: IFAC boss Seamus Coffey 'has ended Paschal's prudence claims'
Direct: IFAC boss Seamus Coffey 'has ended Paschal's prudence claims'

Donal O'Donovan

The Finance Minister's carefully cultivated image as Prudent Paschal has taken an unmerciful wallop, from which he'll struggle to recover.

The metaphorical slap was delivered by economist Seamus Coffey, appointed as chair of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (IFAC) in 2017.

Coffey is an increasingly high-profile player in Irish life. Last week, he told the Oireachtas Budget Oversight Committee that Donohoe's long-term spending plans "lack credibility" and "look unrealistic".

A week earlier, the IFAC, chaired by Coffey, warned of "echoes of policy mistakes of the past" in Donohoe's 2019 Budget.

The directness of Coffey's language helped the point to resonate with the public, something his more soft-spoken and wonkish predecessor as IFAC chair, Prof John McHale, had struggled with.

"He's ended Paschal's prudence claims," was one leading economist's summary.

Coffey's unpolished style - he has the die-hard countryman's unbrushable hair and an ability to look homespun even suited and booted for an Oireachtas hearing - is a contrast to the typically smooth-tongued, pin-striped, economic expert.

"He can be a bit grumpy, he can be combative, but he's very data-driven and very sure-footed," said one peer.

He's also accessible, eschewing economic theory in favour of hard evidence.

Coffey's day job is lecturing in the Economics Department at University College Cork - where he teaches the gamut of classes from Arts and Commerce undergraduates to the Master's in Business Administration programme.

Coffey, from Cappamore, Co Limerick, studied at Cork himself in the late 1990s - as an undergraduate and subsequently gaining a Master's in Economics. His specialisms include macro-economics - the study of the economy as a whole - and corporation tax.

Unusually for a senior academic these days, he doesn't have a PhD, nor show any inclination to get one. His focus tends to be practical, including deep dives into the increasingly rich and available data thrown off by the Irish economy.

Married with young children, he lives outside the city, and from his base in Cork he's been happy to remain at a remove from today's version of the policy, politics and academic clique that in a previous generation was dubbed the Doheny & Nesbitts School of Economics.

He is just as likely to be seen back in Cappamore for Junior B hurling as at an economics workshop - giving rise to one of the more unusual headlines ever about a top Irish academic, in the 'Limerick Leader' earlier this year.

'Limerick man minds the Irish economy - and the net - as he bags a county medal.'

That newspaper interest reflects Coffey's profile. He was selected by the Government in the wake of the EU's Apple tax ruling to prepare a Review of Ireland's Corporation Tax Code.

It was a sensitive task. Ireland's tax treatment of multinationals goes down like a lead balloon, even with some of our closest allies. And at home Minister Katherine Zappone insisted the tax regime be reviewed before she'd support Fine Gael's decision to hand back Apple's €13bn.

The Coffey Report, in the end, found the corporation tax system in Ireland was fair, though it recommended some changes to bring the regime here better in line with international moves to stop profit shifting.

He was also one of a high level group of economists tapped by the Central Bank to find a better way to measure the size of the Irish economy and to filter out the effects of so-called Leprechaun Economics.

At the IFAC, Coffey is in the third year of a four-year term on the council, which was set up after the crash as an independent watchdog to provide expert analysis of the sustainability of the national finances.

Sources close to the council - made up of five independent members backed by six permanent staff - say it doesn't want to be seen as making a predictable annual call for fiscal caution. The IFACs response to Budget 2018 had been fairly positive, making this year's criticism more unusual - and more pointed.

In fact, in classic Junior B style, Coffey eased himself quietly into the role before letting fly with a belt of the hurley when the chips were down.

Irish Independent

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