While the Irish economy is performing very strongly on the surface, it is clear on closer examination that the country does have a significant concentration risk. Last week the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) highlighted this fact in a very vivid manner. The NCC expressed concerns that the sustainability of growth could be threatened by the heavy dependence on the performance of a narrow base of firms and economic sectors. It pointed out amongst many other statistics that the top 10 per cent of firms account for 87 per cent of value-added in manufacturing and 94 per cent in services; a third of total exports are accounted for by just 5 firms; and 39 per cent of corporation tax is paid by the top 10 companies.
The obvious risk is that if any of those companies or their sectors experienced a shock, then the Irish economic model could be quickly and cruelly exposed. Just as in the world of investment, having a diversified portfolio is crucial, in an economic context, having a broad-based and diversified economic model is very important.
While there is an inevitability in a small open economy that has based its economic development strategy on attracting foreign direct investment since the 1960s, that a small number of large companies would become very dominant and have a disproportionate impact on the economic and financial metrics of the country, it does create a vulnerability. The main problem and vulnerability for Ireland is the fact that those companies on which we are so dependent are foreign-owned multi-nationals and hence are very much outside of the control or influence of domestic policy makers. In other words, boardroom decisions in Palo Alto or Seattle can have a massive influence on areas such as Cork or Leixlip. We need to strive to ensure that our economic model is as broad and diversified as possible and that indigenous companies and sectors are given as much recognition and support as their foreign-owned counterparts.
There has been considerable speculation and comment recently about the appropriateness of the special 9 per cent VAT rate that applies to the hospitality sector. The Department of Finance research paper written about in this column last week clearly does not think it is a good idea; the trade unions for their own unique reasons do not like it; and Social Justice Ireland does not see much in the way of social justice in the tax mechanism. That body has an ambition to increase the tax take and reduce social injustice. How the abolition of the 9 per cent VAT rate could possibly achieve that ambition I have no idea.
The hospitality sector is the consummate indigenous sector that makes a very significant economic contribution to the whole economy, but particularly to rural areas where there might not be a lot else going on. It is also the most crucial element of the tourism sector. It is all well and good having heavy investment in tourism attractions and lots of beautiful scenery, but if this is not backed up with a high-quality hospitality sector, then tourism will fail. Hotels and restaurants are vital to tourism and should be operating in as supportive an environment as possible.
In 2017, expenditure by tourists visiting Ireland is estimated to be worth €5.3 billion and when spending by domestic tourists is factored in, this jumps to €8.8 billion. Fáilte Ireland estimates that 240,000 workers are employed in the tourism and hospitality industry. This is an incredibly strong economic contribution and acts as a serious counter balance to the small number of dominant firms in the economy.
Many of those businesses, particularly outside of Dublin, do very well during peak holiday season in July and August, but for much of the rest of the year, the environment is much more difficult.
If you tax something more, there will be less of it, and if you tax something less there will tend to be more of it. This fact should be remembered by those caught up in an often-ideological debate about scrapping the very important, supportive and sensible lower VAT rate of 9 per cent.