Wednesday, August 21, 2013

21/8/2013: Ireland's Potemkin Village (Knowledge) Economy

This is an unedited version of my Sunday Times article for August 18, 2013.


This week two news items offered significant implications for the framing of the budgetary policy direction for 2014-2015 and beyond.

First there was the revelation that the Revenue Commissioners are setting up a specialist unit to monitor the use of R&D tax credits by Irish and international firms. The second item was the publication of the Times Higher Education league tables ranking universities on their ability to attract corporate research funding. Both items are linked to the flagship of Irish economic policy that aims to establish R&D and innovation as the drivers of our future economic growth. Both touch upon our sacrosanct Potemkin village: the knowledge economy.


Since the Finance Act 2004, and throughout the crisis, governments have been keen on expanding Irish R&D activities amongst the indigenous enterprises and within the MNCs-dominated sectors. Over the last ten years, the main mechanism for doing so has been through the tax credits that allow the firms to claim R&D related spending. In Budgets 2012 and 2013, the current government significantly broadened the scope and the size of the scheme, and allowed new tax relief for key employees engaged in R&D activities.

Major consultancy firms providing supports for inward FDI, our state development agencies and business lobbyists – all have heralded these tax credits as visionary and imperative to making Ireland an attractive location for R&D.  Such framing of the policy debate makes this week’s news from the Revenue Commissioners significant. In truth, R&D tax credits are long overdue some serious scrutiny. The little evidence we do have suggests that the policy has failed to foster a pro-innovation culture in Irish economy after a decade long application of the scheme.

Firstly, tax credits-supported R&D activities remain too small to make any significant difference at the economy level. In 2004-2010 use of credits rose from EUR80 million to EUR225 million and at their peak, the credits amounted to less than one sixth of one percent of the Irish economy.

This is hardly a result of the scheme being too restrictive. In Ireland, firms are allowed to claim up to 25 percent of their R&D expenditure in credit. In the UK, the maximum is set at just 10 percent for the SMEs. The UK scheme is even more restrictive for larger enterprises. Furthermore, the UK applies strict criteria for SMEs that can qualify for such credits. Yet, UK R&D tax credits cover five times the share of GDP compared to Ireland.

Secondly, our tax credits scheme, along with the rest of the existent R&D and innovation support systems have failed to deliver any serious uplift in the R&D and innovation activities. Instead, these support systems have become a magnet for tax arbitrage by the multinationals and business cost optimization by Irish SMEs.

Take a look at the latest data on private sector R&D spend. Total R&D Expenditure by all enterprises in Ireland in 2012 stood at just EUR1.96 billion or 1.5 percent of our GNP. Between 2009 and 2012 this share of GNP has barely increased, rising only one percentage point, despite the large-scale increases in tax credits and other supports. The miracle of our 'knowledge economy' is, put frankly, quite feeble.

The achievements of 'Innovation Ireland' programmes are even less impressive when we consider what types of activities the R&D investments are being backed by tax credits. In 2007-2012 labour costs and current expenditures associated with R&D activities went up 29-31 percent, just as the economy was undergoing the alleged 'internal devaluation' normally associated with declines in these costs. In 2009-2012, costs associated with Payments for Licenses on Intellectual Property rose 357%. Total capital spending on R&D activities has fallen 30 percent over the same period. All in, CSO data shows that there might be significant cost shifting taking place via R&D tax credits being used to fund companies labour expenditures, as well as to optimise transfer pricing.


From economy's point of view, tax credits are one of the least efficient tools for stimulating investment in R&D and innovation. Research from the EU, published in February this year, examined the effectiveness of special tax allowances, tax credits and reduced income tax rates on R&D output. In assessing the quality of R&D projects, the authors looked at the R&D innovativeness and revenue potential. Using data on corporate patent applications to the European patent office, the authors found that a low tax rate on patent income is instrumental in attracting high quality innovative projects. In contrast, R&D tax credits and tax allowances were not found to have a significant impact on project quality.

International evidence shows that in general, all three forms of incentives are effective in raising the R&D activity. Ireland is one exception. Here, spending on R&D did not increase significantly in 2009-2012 period, rising in nominal terms by just EUR93 million for all companies and in real terms by 1.5 percent. The share of indigenous enterprises in total spending remained relatively stagnant at under 29 percent of total R&D spending. Total increase over 2009-2012 period in R&D spending by Irish-owned firms was only EUR14.5 million.

Tax credits are also reducing the overall transparency in the Irish economy when it comes to our firms performance and Government policies. Irish Government routinely references R&D tax credits as an example of pro-growth enterprise-focused policies. Yet there is no evidence directly linking economic growth, employment and enterprise outcomes to the tax credits.

In a welcome departure from our usual group-think, New Morning IP, the intellectual capital consultancy firm, recently published a report that argued that data shows no link between the introduction of the R&D tax credit and increased patenting activity by indigenous Irish companies. New Morning IP went on to state that “in our experience this tax credit has been used as a way of getting 'free money'…" It was a rare moment of truth in Ireland’s policy Byzantium, where interest groups routinely game the system for quick fixes, subsidies and protection, while ritualistically claiming unverified successes for such policies.

More distortions to the assessment of R&D tax credits effectiveness are induced by the fact that more than three quarters of R&D spend in Ireland is carried out by the MNCs. In some international studies, world-wide R&D investments by MNCs-based in Ireland are counted as if they take place here. One good example is the EU Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard which ranked Ireland in top 10 EU countries for R&D investment in 2012. Per report, Ireland was host to 14 of the top-spending companies for R&D, but 11 of these were foreign companies and these accounted for 88.5 percent of all R&D spending attributed to Ireland.

In contrast to such reports, the European Patent Office data for 2012 put Ireland in 26th place in terms of total number of patent applications and in per-capita indigenous innovation terms, right between New Zealand and Cyprus. Not quite the achievement one finds promoted in Irish Government speeches and promotional brochures extoling the virtues of ‘Innovation Ireland’.


The above data on R&D investments and patenting activities in Ireland, correlates with the poor performance by the country academic institutions in attracting private sector research funding. The two problems are conjoined twins, born out of the lack of real innovation culture in Irish business.

This week's study by the Times Higher Education, ranked Ireland at the bottom of global league table in terms of private sector funding per academic researcher. Irish academics get an average of just over €6,000 from business research grants and general funds, or 12.5 times less than the world leader, South Korea. These numbers, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. Lower rankings for Ireland, as well as for a number of other countries, can be in part explained by much broader academic research taking place in our universities, as well as in the bias in funding volumes in favour of specific technical disciplines. They are also reflective of the anti-innovation ethos of Ireland’s domestic enterprises. However, it also highlights the simple fact that Irish academics are often lacking policy and regulatory supports necessary to attract larger research grants.

The main point of all the data is that Irish policy supports for these high value-added activities are excessively focused on targeted tax incentives and are insufficiently aligned with the needs of the innovation-intensive sectors, businesses and entrepreneurs. Over-stimulation with targeted tax credits and exemptions is no substitute for the creation of a real culture of entrepreneurship and innovation.

To develop such culture, Ireland needs more flexible, more responsive public policy formation capable of supporting knowledge-intensive and rapidly evolving sectors, such as biotech, stem cells research, content-based ICT, remote medicine, human interface technology, customizable design and development technologies and so on. While we do have a benign corporate taxation regime, we also need a benign income tax regime to attract and anchor professional researchers and investors in innovation. Equally important are active state policies promoting start-ups and early stage enterprises. These require agile state systems for helping enterprises with issues relating to access to markets, IP, legal and regulatory matters and so on. Last, but not least, Ireland requires more streamlined and investor-friendly equity funding systems, tax laws and regulations and more open systems of IP and business ownership.



Box-out:

The latest report on the European construction industry, published this week by the German Ifo Institute shows that the residential construction sector in Europe will remain on course for further cutbacks with activity expected to hit a 20-years low in 2013-2014. The Institute forecasts show no pick up in residential building sector in Europe until 2015 and the market for new construction bottoming out at 45% below the level in 2006. The proverbial silver lining in the report comes in the Ifo forecasts for Ireland. Ifo experts see residential construction sector here switching to a 5.5% growth in 2014, followed by a 10% expansion in 2015. According to the report, “…it is encouraging that Ireland, which also had to overcome a major crisis in residential construction, is no longer a problem child.” Lets put these seemingly rosy forecasts into perspective. Currently, residential construction in Ireland is down 93 percent on peak year activity, marking the largest drop of any country in the EU. If the Ifo projections hold, by the end of 2015 Irish residential construction sector will be returned to the activity last seen in 2011. Not exactly encouraging, is it?

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