Saturday 25 May 2019

McWilliams is a real self-made man - he invented himself

Liam Collins

Liam Collins

DAVID McWilliams, the man who did not invent the phrase 'Celtic Tiger', has managed to dine out on the term for the last decade, and more recently become the embodiment of the era he didn't name.

He's young (well, sort of), confident, brash, and has an enormous capacity for self-promotion. He's also probably wealthy, given that he lived in trendy Dalkey and Killiney, and he's rarely out of the news, investing vast amounts of energy in newspaper columns, books and, more recently, a television series which reflects on "the state we're in".

But when you strip away the clever catchphrases, the cliched buzz words and the soundbite economics, what's left?

As close observers have noted, he's usually wrong in his predictions, a condition that is quite common in the more strident media pundits, from Bob Fisk to Vincent Browne. Of course, when did being wrong ever stop an economist, or even give one a moment's pause for reflection? The art of the "dismal science", as it's known, is to wait long enough and, eventually, you will be proved right.

Now, all that David McWilliams needs is for the Irish property bubble to burst and he'll be canonised. He can dine out for a decade on the story of how he was the first to say it would all end in tears.

The constant theme of his writings, over the last decade, has been the imminent collapse of the Irish property market. He has filled many column inches with dire predictions. A quick (very quick) trawl through his website reveals an article written in October 2000 in the Sunday Business Post, comparing the Irish and Japanese economies.

"What scares me is that the Japanese model of two economies fits Ireland. . . today's Ireland looks, smells and feels like Japan in the late Eighties," he wrote.

But six years later, Ireland hasn't become the new Japan or the victim of a long-term economic slump. If the people who are devouring his book, The Pope's Children, had taken his advice they would have passed on the "two-up, two-down in Stoneybatter" back in 2000, and now have to pay twice as much to get on the much-sought-after property ladder. According to David McWilliams's website, as an investment banker with UBS, Europe's largest bank, he was appointed the youngest director ever at the age of 27.

"One wonders why, given all this apparent success, his next career move took him into such a financially unrewarding area as journalism," wonders one investor who has followed the markets and Mr McWilliams's musings.

There is an old maxim in journalism (and business) that you should never knock another man's racket. That's fine, but when people start treating someone like David McWilliams as if he was somehow anointed, and his media predictions will save the country from ruination, than you begin to wonder exactly where did it all go wrong.

Now 40 years old, David McWilliams, "economist, journalist, broadcaster and commentator", was born in Dublin in 1966 (he's mysteriously born in 1968 in the newly published Who's Who, thereby shaving two years off his age - a significant five per cent drop). Educated at Blackrock and Trinity College and Blackrock, he studied economics and journalism.

He and his wife Sian Smyth have a "nuclear family" of one son and one daughter.

According to his website and to Who's Who, he was "the first economist to predict the Nineties boom in Ireland", and between 1999 and 2002 he was "global strategist" with Rockwest Capital, the New York-based hedge fund.

Of course, there are others who think that John FitzGerald and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) were already predicting an upswing in the Irish economy. Mr McWilliams also says that, as an economist with the Central Bank, he "helped draft the Irish submission to the Maastricht Treaty and advised the authorities during the exchange rate crisis in the early 1990s".

Whatever about Maastricht, the general consensus after the exchange rate crisis is that the Central Bank made a total mess of it. They refused to devalue day after day, insisting there would be no devaluation of the Irish pound. Then, after losing several billion pounds, they turned around and conceded to the economic reality by devaluing the Irish currency.

But with so much experience behind him, why hasn't David McWilliams joined the new elite - the really rich? If he is so certain about his economic predictions - like "the price of oil will rise" - why is he not out there dealing in oil or money, or other commodities that would make him so rich he would be up there with his former employer Denis O'Brien, or such wealthy figures as Mick Bailey or Sean Mulryan?

Of course, maybe David McWilliams prefers the limelight to the money. He runs his journalistic endeavours through Iconic Media Limited, which has a healthy balance of ?238,833 in shareholders' funds (down from ?284,690 in 2004). But he obviously has a hankering to make more money - ironically in the property business.

In July 2006, he and businessman Kevin O'Shaughnessy established Saval Villas Limited, based in Dalkey, the principal objects of the company being the "development and selling of real estate".

As a matter of interest, the man who did invent the term 'Celtic Tiger' in 1994 was a financial analyst with Morgan Stanley in London called Kevin Gardiner.

Why don't we hear a lot more about him?

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss