Business Week: housing crisis and Brexit key issues for new Cabinet

Rents skyrocket, household debt declines, beef is dropped from Mercosur deal

George Osborne: Brexit referendum had already delayed investment. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

George Osborne: Brexit referendum had already delayed investment. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

 

The faces may have changed but the challenges remain the same. The new members of the Cabinet have received their seals of office, but the chosen ones will have to hit the ground running as their in-trays must already be swelling.

By all accounts, the most pressing issue remains the housing crisis, and there was more cause for alarm this week as new figures showed rents have exceeded boom-time heights. Nationwide, rents climbed an average of 2 per cent in the first three months of the year, while the annual increase is up to 16 per cent, according to daft.ie.

The national monthly rent in March was €1,006. It is the first time since May 2008 that the average has been above €1,000. The website also said there were fewer properties to rent nationwide at the beginning of May than at any point since records began.

The figures were quickly followed by yet more bad news as a survey from online broker 123.ie found almost 20 per cent of Irish adults who do not own their own homes believe it is beyond them to do so.

The reasons given included high rents, tighter Central Bank mortgage lending rules, and other supply factors. Of those living in rented accommodation, 14 per cent said they had missed a rental payment over the last year because they didn’t have the money.

For those with a home, there was some respite as AIB cut its standard variable rate mortgages, with KBC also trimming its fixed rates and some of its variable products. On top of that, both are offering €2,000 towards professional fees for potential mortgage switchers. All that means that AIB’s lowest SVR is now 3.1 per cent while KBC’s lowest fixed one is 2.99 per cent.

Sustainable living is the name of the game as it also emerged Irish household debt fell by 1.1 per cent in the fourth quarter of last year, with borrowers focused on repaying loans. The latest figures from the Central Bank showed household debt per capita of €32,269. It is now at its lowest level since Q1 2006.

Cutting debt is one thing, but consumer sentiment on saving money dipped in April to its lowest level in six months. When it came to feeling positive about putting money aside, those under 50 recorded a decline of 46 per cent compared with March. Over 50s who felt good about the amount of surplus cash they could save also dropped. Overall, the Nationwide UK (Ireland) Savings Index recorded a decline of 113 points from 131 in March.

Foreign investors continue to feel good about Ireland.The National Treasury Management Agency raised €750 million on Thursday morning from the sale of bonds which mature in 2022. The notes were priced to carry a market interest rate, or yield, of 0.157 per cent, slightly lower than the 0.186 per cent rate at which similar bonds were trading in the market before the bond auction closed.

The debt agency has now fulfilled more than 90 per cent of its minimum full-year bond sales target after returning to the market for the first time since the Government was formed. Fitch, the credit ratings agency, warned that plans to tackle mortgage rates and further protect family homes could have a negative impact on banks.

While broadly welcoming the formation last week of a Government, Fitch noted that previous “fiscal policy settings” would be largely maintained by Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s minority administration.

One key piece of news that will strengthen the Republic’s position economically, and have new Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed doing handstands, is that the European Commission has removed beef from its proposed trade deal with South America.

The deal between Europe and Mercosur, the trading bloc which includes Brazil and Argentina, encompassed €115 billion in annual trade, and had been expected to include a more preferential tariff regime for beef imports from Mercosur countries.

The Republic exports more than 90 per cent of its beef output to Europe and is uniquely vulnerable to competition from South America. It was removed at the last minute following a determined campaign by several member states and farming organisations.

The first week in the job involved no such plain sailing for new Minister for Jobs Mary Mitchell O’Connor however, as an interim examiner was appointed to Debenhams. The chain operates 11 stores in the Republic and the move affects the jobs of 2,265 people, of whom 1,415 are directly employed by the business.

Some 500 staff work in concessions within Debenhams stores, with a further 320 are employed in cosmetics.

Now that the business of government is underway, preparations can begin in earnest for the possibility of a British exit from the European Union when voters go to the polls in June.

How seriously is the Government taking the threat? “It is at the very top of the new Government’s agenda,” one senior official said this week. “Nothing is more important,” said another. Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the campaign was “entering a critical phase” and that it was “critically important” the Republic’s voice be heard.

The doomsayers who suggested a Brexit could lead to a domino effect across the bloc can point to a survey by Ipsos Mori that found half of respondents in Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden believe their own country should hold a referendum on whether or not it should remain in the EU. Four in 10 said there would be a reduced EU by the end of the decade.

However, a Brexit may not be all bad for the Republic. British chancellor George Osborne has warned of “tens of thousands” of potential job losses in the financial services industry, claiming that 285,000 jobs in the sector are linked to business with Europe.

If financial institutions do decide to up sticks , a new home on the banks of the Liffey may beckon. Earlier this year, Swiss bank Credit Suisse chose Dublin over London as the hub for the bank’s prime services business in Europe.

Mr Osborne said the referendum had already caused businesses to delay investment in the UK. “Decisions that have been delayed will go ahead, and you will see investment flowing into the country,” he said. “If we vote to leave, those delayed decisions will be cancelled.”

For its part, the Government is targeting banks including Standard Chartered and Royal Bank of Scotland as it seeks to lure finance jobs to the country should the UK opt to exit, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Sources said IDA Ireland, the foreign investment agency, has already pitched to UK and international lenders including Standard Chartered about relocating hundreds of traders and support staff. Towns such as Shannon, it says, could be ideal for administrative employees with its low costs and ample office space.

There would be no such consolation prize in the North however – a region touted as likely to be hit worst by a vote to leave. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, three out of four senior businesspeople there have said they will vote for the UK to remain.

New economic forecasts from Danske Bank suggest the North’s economy is likely to grow at a “slower pace” in 2016 because of the uncertainty. It said it has “dampened local investment levels” in the first half of the year.

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