As I look back on the year and consider what happened in 2015, it’s time to take stock for an economic review.
The year has been rich in momentous changes: once-in-a-generation events like the Irish marriage referendum, events that shocked the whole world like the Paris attacks, tragic ones like the Berkeley Balcony collapse or even changed the course of a superpower, like the end of the one child policy in China. Still others were a watershed for a generation like the Syrian migrant crisis, or are paving the way for a most interesting new year like the US Presidential campaigns.
Personally, I remember a fantastic year when the Irish economy experienced highly welcome growth, the delight I took in writing many articles on a variety of topics on this blog, the numerous opportunities I had to speak to audiences all over the world, the amazing women I interviewed on our Savvy Women podcast series, witnessing the personal development growth of our staff, partners and collaborators within the company and of course, the launch of #SavvyTeenAcademy.
I was interviewed on the Sunday Business Show (Today FM) with Conall Ó Móráin to talk about what 2016 has in store. Listen to the podcast:
Here are 15 crucial economic trends that shaped
what happened in 2015:
1. The Wild Atlantic Way and booming Irish tourism
It was a spectacular year for tourism numbers and tourism spending in Ireland as people flocked to our shores to visit the Cliffs of Moher, the Ring of Kerry, the Book of Kells and so many more attractions, events and people as the Irish Céad Míle Fáilte has found itself again. This has been dramatically helped by the weaker euro and the 9% VAT rate but also by the genius idea of the Wild Atlantic Way which has given tourists (and this includes staycationers) a breathtaking pathway of scenery, gourmet food and cultural experiences along the West of Ireland. One of my own standout memories of 2015 was when I hosted a client on a visit to Ireland in the Burren. The hospitality, food, drink, variety of activity, rugged beauty and craic was truly memorable and my US visitors returned home telling me that “it’s going to be hard to beat this vacation.” In addition, Ireland has created the physical and human resources infrastructure that deliver a very high quality business tourism experience. For example, I was the opening keynote speaker in September at the ESOMAR (the global association of market researchers) Annual Conference and they brought 1000 delegates to the Convention Centre for a stunning experience on every single level.
It’s not just the numbers of people that came increased, but the amount they spent also. According to the latest figures from the CSO, “Total tourism and travel earnings from overseas travellers to Ireland increased by 17.5% between Quarter 3 2014 and Quarter 3 2015, increasing from €1,734 million to €2,037 million”. Interestingly, when one strips out the fares (aka what tourists “have to spend”) and simply look at their disposable spend, the level increases further i.e. “When fares are excluded, total expenditure increased from €1,303 million to €1,551 million, an increase of 19.0% over the period”. In 2016, Tourism Ireland expects tourism visitors to exceed 8 million and in particular, there is a significant investment and marketing drive behind the 100th Commemoration of 1916, “The Ancient East” and “Dublin – A Breath of Fresh Air”. Watch this space….
2. Generation Emigration: The Year of the Returner
Emigration has changed utterly in this country; both in terms of how many and why. According to the CSO, in the year to April 2015, 35,300 Irish nationals left our shores, representing a decrease of 5,400 (-13.3%) in comparison to the same period a year earlier and in marked contrast to the 50,900 who emigrated in the year before that. Further, if you ask why these people are leaving, reports are that “the majority of those emigrating were either at work or a student in the period prior to departing with fewer than 1 in 7 being unemployed”. Today, in in a high percentage of cases, those who are leaving are choosing to do so rather than being pushed by economic forces.
I attended a ConnectIreland breakfast this year and Norah Casey spoke about 2015 being the “Year of the Returner” and how right she was. On the 18th December, I received an invite to the CPL launch of “One Tribe”. It’s an online resource and concierge service providing information on how to come home, how to find a job, how to find a place to live and how to manage the finances around the move”. On the 23rd December, the TV cameras headed for Dublin Airport to film emotional reunions of loved ones, but one sign caught an Irish Times journalist’s attention which led to the headline “KPMG tries to recruit Irish emigrants at Dublin Airport” as the Big Four company espouses the hashtag #ComeHomeToOpportunity. Watch this space…
3. The fundamental changes to Irish employment
Ireland sighed with relief this year as job announcements became the norm again on our radio bulletins and they appeared to flow in from both indigenous and FDI sectors. We began to see industrial relation issues develop around pay rises and a lengthening of the average working week reflecting the gradual increase of hours being offered to employees. As you delve into niche areas of employment, there are some very big changes across the labour landscape. In their November Employment Monitor, Morgan McKinley noted, there were 9% more professional opportunities were available in November 2015 compared to the same month last year across the country. On the supply side, there was a 6% increase in the number of professionals entering the jobs market, compared to November 2014, but 10% less job seekers compared to the previous month, reflecting the seasonal slowdown. In addition, they highlighted the language change in recruitment for highly sought after niche skills. “Counter offers” are now a feature of the IT market as companies endeavour to keep top talent as skilled IT professionals currently have on average three to four job opportunities available to them. Finally, they note how Ireland is participating in the global lifestyle change as companies are becoming mindful of candidates needs and are offering flexible working environments to secure them.
However, if we look at what industries are providing the new employment, the Construction Industry Federation are keen to point out that “Last year 45% of all additional jobs created in the Irish economy came directly from the construction industry… bringing the total number of people employed in the sector now to 127,400.” This is still less than half the number at the 2007 peak. As the CIF post their “23 steps to 20000 construction jobs” and the urban areas cry out for infrastructure, hotel and housing supply, there is a lot of capacity left in this trend. Watch this space…
4. The rise and rise of Fintech
One of the notable feel-proud-of-an-Irish-company stories of the year was the €115 million sale of Realex to Global Payments. The Irish Times featured the delighted Colm Lyon stood against the graffiti patterned wall flanked by his six fellow senior management team colleagues with their hands in their pocket as the Twitterati expressed its admiration for what this entrepreneur and his team achieved. I chaired a panel discussion around the future of financial services at the Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin Castle in November. At that event, Colm (now “CEO and Founder, Fire”) shared his ambition to disintermediate financial services and to bring the verb “fire” (i.e. I will fire the money across to you) into our mainstream lexicon as we pay via QR code on our phones in future.
To get an insight into the potential growth of this area, take a look at the litany of achievements that CurrencyFair , Dublin have recorded in 2015 (summarised with the quote “customers have transferred over €2,600,000,000, saving a total of €152,000,000 in the process”). Also, Barry Dowling from TransferMate, Kilkenny told thejournal.ie that “amounts it had handled so far were a drop in the ocean compared to what’s out there” and “as long as 95% of businesses and individuals still use a bank, there is almost limitless potential in this market”. I examined this Peer-2-Peer (P2P) currency industry in depth on the blog in 2015 and I think we will talk about this again and again in years to come. Watch this space….
5. StartUp Gathering
The recession pushed several people towards either realizing a dream of setting up their own business or else down the road of involuntary self-employment. This had several palpable consequence and both public and private sectors needed to respond. “Startup Gathering 2015” took place in October with over 410 events nationally with the theme ‘Start, Scale, Succeed from Ireland’. I was MC at the last event of the week-long marathon in association with IIBN and it was a most interesting, refreshing and honest session where anybody who was interested in starting or who already had a business truly learned a lot.
The Irish business landscape welcomed a noteworthy number of startups to the enterprising arena. At a recent count, there were 17,304 new businesses and companies formed in 2015 with the expectation that the number would rise above 18000. Christine Cullen, Managing Director of Vision-Net told the Independent that “we may have a record year in that it will be in the top two or so since the year 2000 ….. it would also mark a notable increase since the figure of 15,662 recorded in 2013.” Some of these companies will run their course, some will stagnate, some will create lifestyle self-employment and some will reach for the stars. Watch this space…
6. The collaborative economy becomes more
I attended DevLearn (an industry conference spanning technology and learning) in Vegas this October and a thought leadership keynote speaker spoke about how the Consumer2Consumer (C2C) economy was spreading into so many parts of our lives. For example, as an individual, I can pay another individual to rent a room in their house, to get a lift somewhere in their own car, to borrow their clothes, to run errands for me, to use their unused phone credit, to buy their unwanted goods, to lend me money and so on… and on… and on. On my return home, I researched this area comprehensively and published an in depth piece on this blog where I demonstrated just how impactful this phenomenon is having on the existing business to consumer paradigm and the forces that are driving it.
If you want global proof, let me give you three statistics from that piece;
- Airbnb has the more accommodation capacity now than the largest hotel chains in the world
- Uber has a valuation that exceeds $50 billion, based on its recent funding round
- 50% of online transactions in China are in the consumer 2 consumer realm
Watch this space…
7. Euro zone unlimited QE
As part of my BSc Financial Maths & Economics degree, I studied quantitative easing (i.e. expanding the money supply) as a monetary policy tool and government response when it was running out of options. The case study always referred to Japan in the early 90s after their housing crash. Today’s economics students can simply look at the previous week’s headlines to see who has announced it, how long it’s (initially) set to last and count how many zeros are after the decimal point.
After a variety of announcements, Draghi pushed policy into its most unprecedented yet on the 9th December. There are stronger and stronger attempts to push capital into the real economy from the ECB’s point of view, yet the markets have been underwhelmed this year as they wait for the “big bazooka”. Let’s consider where a bank can do with excess deposits at the moment;
- Depositing them at the ECB will involve a charge of 0.3%, so that’s not very attractive
- Lending them to other banks will also involve a charge, unless the time period is at least nine months (which will earn you 0.004% as per the EURIBOR, at the time of writing) and hence, that doesn’t offer much either.
- Investing them in low risk fixed income securities offers meagre returns as the hunt for yield has run out of road
Assuming a bank wants to be profitable, then the few things left to do is actually lend money to people who want mortgages and businesses that want to expand if and only if, they meet stringent criteria and have a strong, demonstrable capacity to repay. Further, there is €60 billion entering into the sovereign and municipal bond market, on a monthly basis for at least another 15 months, so the supply of capital is only going to grow. The ECB has one objective; to maintain inflation at or below 2%, but with anemic growth across the Eurozone, the market is highly cynical this target will possible at all in the next decade. The question for 2016 is what else can Draghi do? Watch this space…
8. The decline in the Euro
During 2014, the euro almost reached $1.40 and it slid all the way down to $1.05 at one point in 2015. This was partly due to the divergent economic performance of the blocs that straddle the Atlantic Ocean and partly due to the divergent monetary policy responses of same. We read about wave after wave of higher nonfarm payroll (i.e. employment) reports while Janet Yellen cautiously chose her words about rising interest rates. On the other side of the ocean, we saw events like the Greeks voting “Oxi” as Tspiras asked them if they wanted the latest EU bailout in July and Mario Draghi abandoned any limit to the extent of lowering interest rates or expanding the money supply.
As a company that generates non euro revenues, I’ve been delighted to see this devaluation of the euro. Exporters who operate in the single currency have either become more competitive and hence can sell more to international customers or else, their sales are worth more when they repatriate them home as a result. The macro impact of this is that our balance of payments current account, (aka a measure of Ireland’s financial flows with the rest of the world) noted a €2.7 billion surplus in the second quarter alone, which was a huge increase from the €1.8 billion surplus in the same period last year. As you break this down, it’s comprised of a €7.9 billion rise in merchandise exports, a €3.6 billion services exports and a spectacular increase of €11.9 billion of direct investment in Ireland. These CSO reported figures influence and are influenced by the aforementioned tourism growth, the employment landscape and Ireland’s position as a European technology hub. Watch this space…
9. TTIP Controversy
I attended a number of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership briefings this year as the impact of this EU-US trade agreement will be immense for business, agriculture, migration and so many other elements of our lives. If one stops and thinks about the gradual, incremental effect the EU has brought about, one immediately realises the importance of truly understanding the nuts and bolts of this legislation. However, you’re as likely to hear about protests as you are about trade negotiations when these four letters are being discussed in the media. I summarised the key issues at the crux of the matter earlier this year in a post.
Broadly speaking, the business community is in favour as it would open up access to bigger markets with less bureaucracy. The agricultural position depends on produce; beef producers are worried they would have to compete with lower quality (and cheaper) meat but dairy farmers would be delighted with the opportunity to bring their (now quota free) offerings into the massive US market. Unions are concerned with labour laws and standards. The debate has striking echoes of the NAFTA discussion in the early 90s and will continue to form EU Commission agendas on many occasions in the year ahead. Watch this space…
10. Capital Markets Union
In April, I was invited to participate on a three day economists briefing in Brussels and among many presentations, I listened with huge interest to the embryonic ideas behind the “Capital Markets Union”. In essence, it aims to move capital more freely around the European Union which would increase the efficiency of the money, create more competition between traditional and non-traditional finance providers, solidify the resilience of the bloc and engage more SMEs in the process of selling equity as a fundraising measure at appropriate stages of the company’s life.
As a CFA charterholder, I’m fascinated by finance and as an entrepreneur; I’ve daily experience of the interaction between revenue, profit and cashflow. This development, when it becomes a reality, could be a structural change in how businesses, projects and investment interact. I will be publishing some in depth analysis of this proposal in 2016. Watch this space…
11. Collapse of the oil price
I often start my presentations by saying that things will have already changed by the time I finish speaking. An example of this was when I gave a Market, Sector and Fund Outlook at PwC Malta in December when the OPEC meeting was being held. The fall in the oil price was a big story in 2014, but the same drivers behind this decline are not just still in force, but gathering momentum. There are three elements at play;
- Global demand has been robust, but isn’t set to grow at levels seen in the past. To be precise, the International Energy Agency reported that “World demand growth of 1.2 million barrels per day is forecast in 2016, as first signs of a slowdown appear”. If fewer people are demanding it (holding supply constant), then price is naturally going to fall.
- However supply isn’t constant. It’s nowhere near constant, but ballooning! The aforementioned agency notes that “inventories are expected to swell by 300 million barrels” particularly since the sanctions on Iran are lifted. There isn’t a worry about storage capacity as of yet because they say “much of the excess oil will be soaked up by 230 mb of new storage capacity additions, while US inventories are only 70% full.”
- OPEC, the price setting cartel, can’t collectively agree to slow production (which ironically means as a group, they’re driving prices down). Algeria, Angola, Nigeria and Venezuela, have been calling for production cuts with a view to eating into the supply glut but the larger countries want to crowd out the producers with a high cost base as part of the “Saudi strategy”
The fall in this commodity price has dramatic consequences. Any energy intensive project is delighted with this boon i.e. a family with children that need to be brought and collected to all sorts of extra-curricular activities, a haulage company or manufacturing plant. Companies in the oil industry have made dramatic employment cuts and have radically cut their R&D capital investment programs. However, if you take a look at the ripple effect outwards, these companies creditors are also getting nervous. The FT reported recently that a trio of US regulators warned “There are now five times as many oil and gas loans in danger of default to the oil and gas sector as there were a year ago”. In that same article, it quoted OPEC that “the price of crude would not return to the level it reached last year, at $100 a barrel, until 2040 at the earliest”. Watch this space…
12. Slowing Growing China
We manage VectorVest Europe’s stock market seminars in Belgium and Netherlands and I haven’t seen customers look as frightened throughout the year as they did in August when the world questioned if the Chinese economic miracle was over. The Shanghai index lost 8.49% of its value on Black Monday (24th August) followed by a further fall of 7% the next day.
13% of the world’s poor live within Chinese borders and the economic strategy of the last quarter of a century revolved around producing things at a low cost and selling them to richer countries. China has made extensive use of its exchange rate to ensure competitiveness. In parallel, they borrowed extensively to employ people in capital projects i.e. building roads and houses. If you decompose the Chinese GDP, over 50% has been dedicated to investment over a protracted length of time. The country now has a huge surplus housing stock and now real estate accounts for 20% of their GDP. Now China has to effect a national psyche change; rather than borrow and build as well as manufacture cheaply, create tertiary industries and encourage the growing middle class to spend their disposable income. How will they do it? Watch this space…
13. The UK election leading to the Brexit
I followed the UK election agog with interest as the various twists and turns of the story evolved. There were a number of key developments that were particularly memorable; the overall majority win of the Tories which led to a guaranteed Brexit referendum, the seemingly unstoppable reign of the Scottish National Party which could have been interpreted as an opportune democratic outcry for a second Scottish referendum; the destruction of the Liberal Democrat party, the resignation of Nigel Farage that was subsequently rejected, the laserlike accuracy of the exit polls at a minute past ten and the open door to a new Labour leader who turned out to be Jeremy Corbyn.
However, the Brexit question is likely to be the real legacy of that election. I’ve been asked to speak on numerous occasions across the island of Ireland; North and South of the border about the potential implications of the plebiscite (that are already happening) and I published my early analysis this year on the blog. There are huge questions to be asked that will have global consequences; what relationship can Cameron negotiate with the EU to sell a “stay in” result? What would happen the Northern Irish border? What would the independent UK’s relationship with the EU post Brexit considering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty states “the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it”. What would the shape of the UK look like post Brexit if Scotland and/or Northern Ireland wanted to stay in? What about EU non-nationals in the UK? What about UK citizens living in the EU? Watch this space…
14. US Fed interest rate lift-off
I delivered a CPD approved session (and accompanying 3500 word article) called “Investing Strategies in a Low Interest Rate Environment” for the Institute of Bankers in Cork on Thursday 5th November. This was the same day as “Super Thursday”; aptly named due to the barrage of monetary policy news that emerged from the Bank of England. I told the audience that evening that if the employment figures released from the US the very next day exceeded 100,000 jobs, the markets have priced in an over-the-odds chance of a rate rise. On Friday 6th November, 271,000 jobs were announced.
As expected, on the 16th December 2015, Janet Yellen briefed the world on the decision to rise rates by 0.25% but the language describing the move was cautious. This “dovish hike” wasn’t about to set off a precedent of further rate rises, we were told. Fed officials will pore over the inflation and employment data (as they have a dual mandate in contrast to the ECB’s single inflation target) in the coming months as history will digest the aftermath and cast its verdict on whether it was the right decision or the right time or both. Further, Mark Carney, Mario Draghi and other central bankers need to develop their own proactive approach in reaction. Watch this space…
15. The Paris Agreement
At the very end of the year, one of the most (potentially) influential developments of our time occurred when a truly global conclusion was reached by 197 countries. They made a collective agreement of reaffirming the goal of limiting global temperature increase well below 2 degrees Celsius, while urging efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees and establishing binding commitments by all parties to make “nationally determined contributions ” (NDCs), and to pursue domestic measures aimed at achieving them. The historic momentousness of the occasion wasn’t lost on Francois Hollande as he exclaimed “In Paris, there have been many revolutions over the centuries. Today it is the most beautiful and the most peaceful revolution that has just been accomplished – a revolution for climate change.”
However, it’s important to mention that the outputs don’t include granular measurable targets or sanctions for not putting actions behind these words. As I write this economic recollection of what happened in 2015, I’m cognisant of the unseasonably mild weather this Christmas as well as those people who are currently despairingly trying to sweep water out of their houses after yet more flooding. This global announcement is hugely significant, but the follow through action is what will really make the difference. Watch this space…
There you have it!
It’s been a great year full of activity, developments, memories, opportunities and poignancy. While the national, supranational and worldwide trends have kept us talking, listening and thinking in 2015, let’s ensure that we don’t forget that behind every statistic is a human story rich in nuances and contrasts. While the Irish economic story is bursting with positives, we still have almost 5000 people who don’t have somewhere to call home, there are still regions scarred with ghost estates and closing down sales, the banks are still nursing their wounds and household debt is still very high.
Friday offers a new start for us all. Set and commit to your New Years Resolutions. Look forward to it with vigour and enthusiasm. Register for the monthly newsletter and let me take you through the economic, financial market and entrepreneurial stories of 2016 and always, always, always “Focus on what you can do!”
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