Future of Northern Ireland Economy - Growth Strategies

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Notes on keynote given by Patrick Dixon for Ulster Bank – 2013 - with thanks to Richard Ramsey for help with data.  See also BBC Business News interview.

First we need to understand wider trends and their impact on the UK, Northern Ireland and the UK.  All big trends are related, and many big trends are changing predictably.  For example demographics and the ageing population which is a direct consequence of falling birth rates 20-30 years ago.  Or the fall of telecom and digital costs towards zero.  Or the increasingly joined-up global trading world – globalization – which will continue a relentless course despite recent interest in trade barriers.

Despite this, there are major uncertainties and the world can change faster than you can hold a board meeting.  That means forward thinking, having more than one strategy, being prepared for a variety of futures.

Northern Ireland’s economy will continue to be influenced profoundly by the Republic of Ireland.

In early 2013, the economic outlook appeared depressing but we need to look beyond the headlines.

Need a world-class keynote speaker for your event? Phone or e-mail Patrick Dixon now.

The story was as follows:

Private sector output levels 15% below 2007 peak.
Record level of companies becoming insolvent in 2012.
Unemployment rates at highest since 1998.
Youth unemployment 23% - double figure in 1998.
50% fall in property prices from peak.
Collapse in construction jobs.
No recovery in employment – unlike rest of UK.

So where will the next generation of jobs come from?

Before answering that question, here are issues to watch:

- Expect UK government to go on printing money.
- Expect Bank of England to abandon 2% inflation target.
- Expect Bank of England to be relaxed about fall in pound.

This combination will be seen as useful to erode the value of national debt, encourage exports, cut imports, and stimulate growth.

- Expect Asia to drive 40% of WDP by 2015 in purchasing power parity terms, with continuing momentum.
- Expect most UK exports to be to regions outside EU during 2013.
- Expect rapidly growing demand for premium products by new middle class in emerging nations.

And in Northern Ireland:

- Expect painful cuts in public services – offsetting some of the 26,000 new public sector jobs that were rapidly created after signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
- Women in public sector jobs are now being paid up to 65% more than for similar jobs in private sector. Expect this differentials to narrow with pressures to outsource jobs to private sector to save such salary costs.
- Expect gradual reduction in the equivalent of £20,000 of UK government subsidies per household in Northern Ireland.
- Expect rate of corporate bankruptcies to slow down in 2013, partly because every bankruptcy means less competition for those who remain.
- Expect rapid growth of chemicals, pharma, utilities, transport, communications, media and aviation.

Pointers to future centres of excellence can be seen particularly in aviation with the turbocharged progress of Bombardier wing manufacturing – using composite technologies.  Each wing is built in a vast pressurize chamber using space-age technology.

As Northern Ireland continues to evolve far beyond the sectarian conflicts of the past, we can expect further "peace dividends".  The political landscape is about to shift in a gradual but profound way, as the Catholic community (previously the minority) begins to exceed the Protestant community in size, a long term consequence of differing birth rates.  The two communities are almost equal today. In years to come, on current trends, the Protestant community will be significantly in the minority.

A key feature of Northern Ireland is the shared border with the Republic of Ireland – UK’s only land border with the Euro.  The two Island of Ireland economies are closely meshed together as we will see, yet this is not reflected fully in business or government strategies.

Here are examples of meshing / coupling:

- Exports from Northern Ireland (NI) to the Republic of Ireland (ROI) rose by 73% in real terms from 2001-2008. 80% of those gains were lost as the ROI economy collapsed.

- House prices fell sharply by 56% in ROI from peak in 2007, followed by a decline in 50% in NI – far beyond any house price falls in the rest of the UK.

- Despite the ROI crash, 33% of all foreign owned companies operating in NI are ROI-based.

- 25% of all NI exports are to ROI – which is more than the entire NI exports to all the rest of EU (outside UK) and Asia combined.

- 50% of all exports by small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are to ROI. (66% of all exports to NI are by SMEs).

So the arguments are overwhelming that if business in NI wants to see the future, take a good hard look at the gradual recovery in ROI.  Take a look at the huge number of untapped opportunities that still remain in ROI, despite the downturn.

Growth opportunities

Here is one such huge opportunity: wage difference between Belfast and Dublin.  Companies are often paying a 50% premium for the same worker doing an identical job in Dublin – that is despite the recent fall in wages.  The contrast became even greater in early 2013 as the pound slid further against the Euro.

In any other part of the world, 50% price differentials tend to produce rapid changes in business.  People move to the higher paying city.  Or if they are put off by culture, language and higher living costs, jobs move the other way.  They may move physically, as companies relocate part of their teams across a border, or virtually, by employing people to work at home or in small centres, in lower cost locations.

While these trends are happening to some degree, there is plenty of opportunity for more, which will benefit NI economy.

Companies, workers, governments both North and South of the border tend not to think about these options, as much as similar companies in other nations with such border differences.

If you try to Google data on comparisons between NI and the reset of the UK, you will find vast numbers of listings.  The same searches looking at NI and ROI comparisons will yield relatively little.  That is because researchers, government officials, analysts, bloggers, tweeters and youtube video-makers tend to be traditional, local-minded.  Content that is created tends to focus on NI as part of the UK (almost as if ROI does not exist), or on ROI as part of the EU (almost as if the UK does not exist.

But this is a bizarre state of affairs in the light of the realities of close economic coupling as we have seen above.  Even more so when you consider the geographical realities.

The entire combined population of all those who live on the Island containing ROI and NI is very small in comparison to the lists of around 200 other nations in the world.  The island is relatively unpopulated, farm and forestry dominated, with many natural and beautiful resources, situated on the outer fringes of mainland Europe. To the West there is nothing until you reach Canada or America.  To the North, nothing until Iceland. To the East, a boat trip takes you to yet another Island – England / Scotland – which is itself geographically and culturally set apart from the mainland.

Cut corporation tax to Republic of Ireland level

In the light of all this, it is obvious that there has to be alignment in big business factors such as corporation tax which is only 12.5% in ROI and more than twice that in NI.  So a company can save a fortune in the 1.5 hours it takes to drive from Belfast to Dublin.

Foreign Direct Investment in ROI reached a 10 year high in 2011, and a similar peak in 2012, as the international business community gave a massive vote of confidence to the ROI economy.  Labour costs are down, tax is low, labour force is eager to work, infrastructure is good, other companies in the area are great to have nearby.

There has been a precedent with Air Passenger Tax which was only a few Euros in ROI and over £100 a passenger in NI for transatlantic fares.  There was a risk that Belfast would lose all direct flights to America as a result.  Common sense prevailed and the tax was cut to equal levels, rescuing the situation.  

It is hard to be sure what the actual cost would be of equalizing corporation tax.  If there was no benefit to government revenues from increased investment and jobs, then it could be as high as 4% of all public spending.  But most business leaders believe (as I do) that the net cost would be less than zero, so long as the tax changes were phased in gradually.

Help for small businesses

However, attracting big companies into NI is only part of the answer to growth.  The rest will need to come by cultivating new generations of entrepreneurs to start and grow their own SMEs.  We also need to support viable companies that are struggling, not because of bad products or services, or because their prices are too high, but because they cannot raise sufficient cash to manage day to day.

There are over 100 sources of funding / grants etc for SMEs but navigating these is difficult.  Assistance can be offered here to match grants with the right companies.

In addition to lowering corporation tax and measures to support SMEs, expect new initiatives on a wide range of fronts, led by INVEST Northern Ireland.


In summary, there are many opportunities for growth in Northern Ireland, and there will be even more as the economy in the Republic of Ireland recovers (as it will).  Much depends on investor confidence, whether of the CEO of a medium sized company with healthy balance sheets, who has been afraid to burn cash that might be needed in a new downturn, or the leader of a new start-up who is wondering about the wisdom of seeking a loan which is tied to the equity in the family home.

Need a world-class keynote speaker for your event? Phone or e-mail Patrick Dixon now.



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