Friday, March 6, 2009

Irish Boardrooms in Denial

This is an unedited version of the article published in Business&Finance Magazine, February 26, 2009, pages 30-31

Almost a year ago, I warned in this column that Irish companies are going to face a tough recession, with rising bad debts, tighter payments collections and accelerating rate of insolvencies. A recession that is likely to last through 2009 and a good half of 2010. Figures for 2008 show us on track to fulfil these predictions with more than doubling of the number of corporate insolvencies in one year. By all possible indications, 2009 is going to be even tougher than the already abysmal 2008. And yet, when it comes to a realistic assessment of business conditions there is a strange sense of denial of reality taking hold in Irish boardrooms.

First consider recent evidence. Two weeks ago, CSO recorded the first drop in industrial output in Ireland since 1982. A combination of collapsed construction sector activity, decimated domestic consumer spending and ever-shrinking global demand, exacerbated by the overvalued Euro all have contributed to this trend. Even more significantly, these forces’ impact on Irish producers, exporters and service providers is getting stronger by the day.

Exporters under pressure
2008 slowdown in output was primarily due to traditional sectors of the economy – down 4.7% in y-o-y terms, with multinational companies expanding their production by an anaemic 1.7%. There is little hope that this latter trend will not continue through 2009 and into a good part of 2010. More ominously, December figures show broadly based collapse in industrial activity with output contracting by more than 10% m-o-m in both multinational sector and amongst domestic companies. 26 out of 29 broader industry categories recorded contractions in output. Figure below highlights this, while removing some of the seasonal volatility.
Source: CSO

This is broadly in line with international experience. Last week figures showed that in 2008 Europe posted its biggest trade deficit in 10 years – a whooping €32.1bn. This marked a deterioration in the trade balance to the tune of €48bn in y-o-y terms. According to the majority of the analysts, coming months will see severe recessionary pressures for eurozone exporters. Irish exports are particularly vulnerable, given the falling consumer demand and business investment activity in the US and UK, as well as in the emerging countries. Exports to the UK, the main destination for the region’s products, dropped 3 percent in the 11 months through November 2008. Exports to the US, the second-biggest buyer of euro area goods, fell 5 percent. In the case of Ireland, the two countries account for more than 36% of the goods exports flow by value and some 50% of all Irish trade is linked to either the Dollar or Pound Sterling.

The end result – our core industrial exports are facing a decline, as illustrated in the figure below, precisely at the time of already collapsed domestic consumption. Our services exports are also facing decline with financial services and tourism struggling to stay afloat, while broader business services exports are feeling the same pressures of currency overvaluation and high cost of credit as our goods trade.Source: CSO

The expectations are that the 2008 growth sectors – ICT and pharma – might be also hard hit by a slowdown in global demand this year. In particular, ICT is sensitive to households and business investment demand. Lack of new investment in plant and equipment, software and operating systems in the US and across Europe is taking its toll on the likes of Dell, Intel and smaller hardware and software suppliers. By all estimates, this sector is not going to see a significant recovery until the earliest second half of 2009. Dell alone accounts for some 6.5% of Irish exports.

At the same time, pharma sector is likely to face mounting cost pressures in the US, a significant decline in demand for higher-end drugs from the emerging economies, plus a stronger generics competition. A recent study by the International Pharmaceutical Policy Council has shown that traditional pharma and bio-pharma sectors are facing significant cuts in research spending and employment, with recession undercutting public and private spending on universities-affiliated research. In the mean time, last week, Israel-based Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., the world's largest maker of generic drugs, said it expects the deepening global recession to spur demand for generics – bad news for the likes of Big Pharma that dominate Ireland’s exports statistics. In other words, even the so-called ‘recession-proof’ pharma companies are starting to feel the heat.

Yet to face the music
Which brings us back to the corporate boardrooms perceptions of the near term future. Last week’s InterTradeIreland Quarterly Business Monitor sheds some light here.

A comprehensive survey of some 1,000 companies north and south of the border has revealed that businesses are more pragmatic in their assessment of the past than they are about the future. In other words, Irish companies are feeling the pain, but are potentially deluding themselves into believing that the first half of 2009 will turn out to be economically stronger than the consensus forecast predicts.

In terms of the current conditions, roughly four out of five businesses indicated that they have experienced an adverse impact on trading conditions in recent months. This is hardly surprising, given that the biggest problems reported by business leaders were impacting their core parameters: tighter cash flow (68%) and decline in demand (66%). Some 87% of businesses noted a fall-off in consumer spending. 61% of the Republic of Ireland businesses saw a fall in turnover as opposed to 44% in the North.

Nonetheless, when asked which policies the Government can undertake to help business,
• 27% cited the need for improving access to borrowing (most likely indicative of the severe pressures on debt-laden businesses to raise new credit and roll over maturing short-term debt),
• 9% called for reduced levels of VAT and 7% for reduced taxation,
• 7% named assistance for SMEs, and 6% identified financial assistance for distressed companies.
The low numbers supporting consumer confidence improving tax reductions measures suggests that majority of businesses are not perceiving the current downturn to be demand-driven. Instead, there seem to be a much stronger conviction that the recession is a function of the credit cycle. Yet, 61% of business in the South (as opposed to 44% of those in the North) reported declining turnover.

Do the companies underestimate the extent of the collapse in consumer confidence at home, demand for exports abroad and the extent of their exposure to debt markets? Judging by the main policy priorities listed above, the answer is yes. The same answer is supported by the fact that few companies so far have taken significant cost-cutting measures. Only 30% of the Republic of Ireland companies (19% in the North) have reduced their workforce to the end of 2008. This is reflective of the fact that just 18% of businesses expected the downturn to have a severe adverse impact on their business in the next 12 months. Majority (63%) still think that this recession will be a moderate and short-lasting one.

And this is despite the fact that forecasters virtually unanimously predict 2009 to be worse than 2008 when it comes to trading conditions. For example, McKinsey Global Economic Conditions Survey last month has shown that 71% of global businesses expected general conditions to worsen in Q1 2009.

Chart below shows that Irish business leaders pessimism about the future has increased only marginally between the end of 2007 and the end of last year, despite the rapid deterioration in Irish economic conditions.

Potential Impact of Economic Downturn, 12 months forward
Source: InterTradeIreland, 2009

Optimism amongst businesses, although having abated in 2008, remains relatively high. Only 39% of all Irish businesses anticipate a decrease in turnover in Q1 2009 as opposed to 52% of global businesses in McKinsey survey. Similarly, for profitability – only 35% of Irish businesses expect a decline in profitability in Q1 2009, against 67% for the global sample.

Thus, only 14% of businesses across the island (18% in the Republic of Ireland) expected more layoffs and redundancies in Q1 2009. This is well below 29% of the global sample firms that were planning layoffs for this quarter.

In short, consistent with the findings on employment, turnover and profitability, the Intertrade Ireland results suggest that Irish businesses, both sides of the border, expect a mild recession to last no longer than 6-8 months. At the same time, global business leaders expect “a battered but resilient economy …[that] implies a recession of 18 months or so”, much in tune with the forecasts by the EU, IMF and the OECD. One side of the sea is clearly foolin itself here…

Box-out: IFSC Liabilities

A research note from the Davy Stockbrokers last week attempted to clarify the issue of the banking sector liabilities in Ireland. According to the Bank for International Settlements data, in Q3 2008 banking liabilities of the Irish-owned banks totaled €575bn, or 309% of GDP – the third-highest in the euro area. The Irish government has guaranteed €440bn (or 237% of GDP) of this. At the same time, the liabilities of all financial institutions resident in Ireland were €1,424bn, or 839% of GDP. But €849bn of that “…is not in any way a liability of the Irish government,” says the Davy note.

Well, sort of. €849bn might not be a liability under the Government guarantee scheme (although it remains to be seen how the foreign banks deposits and loans by and to Irish residents will be treated in the case of default) but from the economy’s point of view – some share of the €849bn debt represents a potential risk exposure for the state.

Here is how. Recall the good old days when our country leaders trotted the globe telling everyone that IFSC is a flagship of our knowledge-based modern economy? How come we now conveniently shrug off any liability inherent in having IFSC on our soil? IFSC is an asset to Ireland: a major contributor to the exchequer, a large employer of Irish workers and a significant purchaser of associated business services, including the services of the stockbrokers.

Now, imagine if excess debt exposure of IFSC-based companies was to drive them out of business. Where would that leave the State, not to mention the economy? A rough guess – ca €700mln in Exchequer revenue, plus the returns from employment of ca 20,000 people, plus commercial rents returns and VAT returns due to business activity. The total state take from the IFSC can easily exceed €1.5bn. If the risk of losing this dough is not a liability for the Irish state, what is?

Davy is correct in the strict sense of listing the actual figures. However, ignoring the IFSC-held liabilities creates an illusion that somehow Ireland Inc is independent of what is happening in the Docklands and beyond. It is not. Just as in good times we reaped the benefits of the IFSc, we must, at the time of challenges acknowledge its liabilities as being at least in part our own.


Paul MacDonnell said...

With regard to the view from the boardrooms it seems that corporate Ireland has outsourced its policy thinking to IBEC / the social partners in the same way that IBEC provides HR legal services to companies. I've lost count of the number of people I've met who say 'It's all a question of perception - a temporary liquidity or credit problem'. It ain't. It's a We-Have-Poor-Productivity-And-Unless-We-Fix-It-We'll-Be-Much-Poorer Problem. Tax increses are necessary? The dumbest policy response since the 1980s from the people who brought you - er - the 1980s.

Myles Duffy said...

Constantin, I share your passion on this and have written about Irish Nationwide Building Society on my blog. I heard your suggestion on 'It Says in the Papers'about swopping the € for the $. I think we would have a total convulsion were that to gather pace! /M