As the evolution of the Brexit process lurches from one crisis to the next, we have been reminded again over recent days just how vulnerable sterling is to the vagaries of the whole ludicrous process. Since the middle of June, the UK currency has weakened from 87.3 pence to the euro to just under 90 pence at the moment. Not a dramatic move by any stretch of the imagination, but when viewed in the context of where the currency has come from over the past few years, it does represent a significant move. The sterling/euro exchange rate averaged 72.63 pence in 2015; 81.92 pence in 2016; 87.64 pence in 2017; and 88.1 pence so far in 2018. For Irish companies exporting to the UK, this represents a significant deterioration in the terms of trade over the past four years. It says something about the resilience and flexibility of such companies that they continue to trade successfully with the UK, but the challenge is a very real one and could become much more intense over the next couple of years.
We are still none the wiser about how the Brexit process will unfold from here, but from a currency perspective it seems apparent that sterling’s near-term future will be driven by the Brexit process. Simply put, if a ‘hard Brexit’ were to appear the most likely outcome, sterling would weaken further and vice-versa.
In every sense, Brexit does represent a very significant challenge for the Irish economy, as do global corporation tax trends and the anti-trade agenda being pursued by President Trump. Unfortunately, there is not a lot we as a country can do to influence the outcome of any of these three threats. Hence, we need to ensure that we exert as much benign influence as possible over the things that we can control.
From my perspective it is all about competitiveness. In recent weeks the National Competitiveness Council has published two important reports about trends in Irish competitiveness, namely Costs of Doing Business in Ireland 2018 and Ireland’s Competitiveness Scorecard 2018. Both of these reports should be required reading for policy makers and all other stakeholders in the Irish economy.
Competitiveness is not a straightforward concept to define neatly as it encompasses a wide range of factors including all costs of doing business; the quality of public services such as health and law and order; the cost, quality and availability of housing; the physical and IT infrastructure; the tax environment; the quality of the labour force; regulation; the legal system and much more besides. All of these factors combine to create the environment in which the economy and its citizens can thrive and prosper.
The Council begins its analysis with the premise that as a small open economy, Ireland is very vulnerable to negative price and cost shocks that are outside the influence of domestic policymakers. These shocks could include negative exchange rate developments, higher international energy prices, imported inflation or an interest rate shock. Hence the necessity to manage those factors that are within our control. Not surprisingly, the Council is particularly concerned about the inordinate dependence on a small number of firms who are responsible for driving productivity in the economy.
The Council warns that at the moment competitiveness is being eroded again by rapid house-price inflation, transport congestion, failure to meet climate change obligations, failure to invest sufficiently in Research & Development, and the funding crisis in the higher education system. The costs of residential property, labour, credit, energy and services such as insurance and legal are given special mention.
Ireland is described as an ‘expensive location in which to do business with a price profile which could be described as high cost and rising’. The advice given is that policymakers should not pursue domestic policies that would contribute to overheating and that competitiveness should be placed at the head of Ireland’s Brexit response.
The utterances of the National Competitiveness Council were largely ignored in the build up to the crash in 2008. It is imperative that we do not make the same mistake again. Populist politics is really the enemy of sensible and prudent policy making and the electorate should reject those politicians who pursue naked populism. Some chance!