Tuesday, February 18, 2014

18/2/2014: Wither Irish manufacturing? Not so fast! Sunday Times, February 2

This is an unedited version of my Sunday Times  column from February 2, 2014

The news flow was mixed in recent days when it comes to covering Irish economy.

After a massive boost of consumer confidence and a maelstrom of media spin extolling the expected rebound in Christmas season sales, December retail sector statistics came in as a disappointment. Over the entire Q4 2013, core retail sales (excluding motors) were up just 1.1 percent year on year in terms of volume and down 0.5 percent in value. Profit margins in services sectors have shrunk once again in the third quarter and with them, non-financial services sectors activity also slumped in the five months through November 2013.

One bright spot, however, was the return to growth in industrial production. Based on 5 months data through November, in the second half of 2013 industrial output was up 1.2 percent year on year in Traditional sectors and up 3.3 percent in Modern sectors.

This latter bit of news highlights the potential for the sector to play a more active role in delivering long-term source of growth in Irish economy.

Over the second half of 2013, using data through November, Irish manufacturing activity rose 3 percent in volume and 0.1 percent in turnover terms. The improvement in output was largely driven by the MNCs-dominated modern sectors. However, it was also supported by positive performance in domestic sectors, such as food, basic and fabricated metals, and capital and core consumer goods. All in, H2 2013 marked a positive break in the previously negative trend across a number of manufacturing sectors. And this change was even more substantial when one takes out downward pressures exerted on the 2011-2013 figures by the pharmaceuticals, where patents cliff continues to cut into output and revenues of major MNCs operating from Ireland.

Adding to good news, capital goods sectors growth signaled the restart in domestic and international investment cycle. And this confirmed the earlier data on capital acquisitions in the industry.

The latest data is now starting to feed through to official forecasts. This week, the Central Bank upgraded 2014 and 2015 outlook for Irish economy. Specifically, the Central Bank is now projecting investment growth of 8.9 percent in 2014 against 0.1% estimated growth in 2013. Crucially, investment in machinery and equipment, having declined 10 percent in 2013 is now forecast to rise 7 percent in 2014.

The news of the quiet out-of-media-sight stabilisation in the Irish manufacturing is welcome because our exports and economy at large are still heavily dependent on industrial and manufacturing sectors activity.  This news is also positive because manufacturing sectors are responsible for high quality jobs creation and hold a significant potential for Ireland in developing a long-term sustainable economic growth model in the future.  In 2013, weekly earnings in industry were the third highest of all private sectors in Ireland and carried a premium of 33 percent on average private sector earnings.

Beyond the above reasons, there are two basic arguments as to why the latest manufacturing trends are encouraging in the context of sustainable economic development.

The first one is a push-factor, driving Ireland in the direction of the new manufacturing.

Worldwide, we are witnessing a new trend in manufacturing. In the commoditised manufacturing geared toward mass-market supply, global supply chains continue to drive down margins and costs, necessitating ever-increasing degree of automation and labour cost reductions. This trend covers a wide range of goods, such as generic consumer goods and intermediate goods production, ranging from textiles and clothing, to consumer electronics, and basic materials industries. Here, robots are increasingly displacing workers. For example, the McKinsey Global Institute study published this month projects that by 2025 up to 25 percent of the tasks performed by industrial workers in developed countries and up to 15 percent in developing countries will be at a risk of replacement by automated systems.

Meanwhile, highly specialist, customised manufacturing, where the businesses processes are dominated by user-unique design and/or proximity to customers, are seeing development costs and time-to-build lags becoming the main points of competition between producers. Actual production in these sectors is based on high precision and skills flexibility and these drivers are pushing for on-shoring of these sectors to the economies with requisite skills and talent infrastructure. The examples of such manufacturing sub-sectors are also numerous, spanning customised precision equipment manufacturing, professional equipment design and production, medical devices, customised medical equipment, individualised or specialist medicines, technology-intensive and complex machinery, but also high value-added consumer goods. Ireland has some limited experience in this area, with companies such as Mincon and Mainstay Medical, Outsource Technical Concepts and others. And we are witnessing growth in design-rich consumer goods areas, such as homewares, personal accessories and higher value-added foods.

I covered these trends in my recent presentation at the TEDxDublin in September 2013 and over the last three months, major consultancies, such as McKinsey and the Institute for Business Value, IBM have written on the topic.

The second factor is the pull-factor of the opportunities presented by new manufacturing.

The crucial point for Ireland is that this trend offers smaller economies a comparative advantage over larger manufacturing centres, as long as the smaller economies can create, attract, retain and enable core human capital.

The competitive advantage of skills-intensive manufacturing is anchored to traditions of high quality specialist production in the country, and to the innovative and entrepreneurial capacity of the economies. Here, examples of Switzerland, Northern Italy, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland offer a significant promise for countries like Ireland.

In fact, our immediate neighbours industrial policy platform is now firmly focused on enhancing the connection between industrial design, consumer innovation and manufacturing. This is well-anchored in the UK’s Design Council initiatives and in the Government programmes aiming to systemically increase the role of industrial design in the UK manufacturing. Most recently, Government report “Future of manufacturing: a new era of opportunity and challenge for the UK”, published in October 2013 stresses the importance of merging skills, design and technological innovation in driving the future industrial policy in the UK.

To deliver on this potential, our industrial policy needs to be enhanced further to stimulate growth in entrepreneurship in manufacturing. We also need policies that more closely align product, process and design innovation and R&D, especially within indigenous and traditional sectors.

Skills training in manufacturing should be boosted via a targeted apprenticeship programme that develops key expertise and provides support for training both in Ireland and abroad. Our supports for development of manufacturing clusters in traditional industries need to become more pro-active, providing shared sales and marketing platforms for smaller producers.

We can start by consolidating various promotional agencies under the cover of Enterprise Ireland in order to reduce trade and investment facilitation bureaucracy, while increasing resources available on the ground in the foreign markets. Aligning Enterprise Ireland’s pay and promotion systems with tangible longer-term outcomes for indigenous entrepreneurs and exporters should be considered. The overall thrust of reforms should be on reducing duplication and complexity of the system.

Recent report by the Entrepreneurship Forum, published earlier this month outlined a number of measures aimed at helping the unemployed and underemployed to transition into entrepreneurship. These include reducing the eligibility period for the Back to Work Enterprise allowances and creating an entrepreneurship internship programmes. Beyond this, focused incubation and co-working centres targeting manufacturing entrepreneurs can help develop new capabilities and generate new startups. Aligning these programmes with vertical market access accelerators set up in key cities can help enhancing growth potential of indigenous high value-added entrepreneurship. The above programmes can also stimulate inflow of key talent into the country from abroad, including entrepreneurial talent. One of the core benefits of high value-added manufacturing is that the jobs created and capital investment made in this sector are much better anchored in the economy than comparable outlays undertaken in services sectors.

To simultaneously enhance incentives to undertake entrepreneurial activities and to invest time, effort, talent and funding in such activities, employee stock ownership should be encouraged. Over the recent years, this column has repeatedly argued for a reform of tax codes applying to employee share ownership in startups and SMEs. The Entrepreneurship Forum report echoed these ideas.

Driving growth across the design-rich and R&D-intensive manufacturing will also require managerial talent. Looking across the sectors, Irish management skills are the strongest in the externally trading traditional industries, such as food, beverages, and building and construction services. Here, the pressures of global competition, coupled with the acute need to build exports bases have driven management to adopt lean and effective M&A and organic growth models. Management track record of companies such as CRH, Glanbia, Kerry Group and Ryanair presents the best practices in their sectors that can and should be brought to enterprises in much earlier stages of development.

The encouraging signals from Irish manufacturing suggest that we can put our indigenous economy on an evolutionary path toward ever-increasing reliance on radical technological innovation, design and creativity. This path is closely aligned with the need to develop new models of entrepreneurship that combine disruptive technologies with cultural, managerial and skills-rich talent. The key to success here will be in developing greater agility and flexibility of all systems: from crowdsourcing networks for new product development, to training and education, to data analytics for gauging new demand and to new market access platforms.


This Monday, in its monthly report, Germany's Bundesbank stated that in future crises, countries requiring international assistance should first impose a one-off capital tax on net assets of its own citizens, before any international assistance can be extended to them. In the view of the Bundesbank, a capital tax reflects the principle that "tax payers are responsible for their government's obligations before solidarity of other states is required". These latest musings about the need for a capital or wealth tax come on foot of October 2013 IMF report that estimated that reducing euro area's debt levels to 2007 levels will require a 10 percent tax on net wealth of the euro area residents. Neither the IMF, nor Bundesbank identify explicitly specific assets to which the tax should apply. Alas, past experience with Cyprus suggests that such a tax will most likely take the form of a levy on household deposits. Logically, all other assets held by the households are already either heavily taxed, or illiquid. Property taxes are in place in majority of countries and it is hard to imagine every household being able to come up with cash to cover 10 percent levy on their assets values without being forced to sell their homes. Equity and investment funds are de facto illiquid, as a large scale sell-off of these assets in a distressed economy will trigger a crisis hardly any better than the one the levy will be trying to cure. Business equity is notoriously illiquid. Which leaves deposits as the only readily available cash sitting on captive banks balancesheets. In short, Bundesbank and the IMF might be talking about 'capital levies' and solidarity, but all they really mean are deposits bail-ins and loading pain onto taxpayers. That's one way to underwrite inherently faulty and unstable common currency zone.

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