Inside the world of business

Perry finds himself cornered at small firms conference

MINISTER OF State for Small Business John Perry thought he was home and dry after delivering a cookie-cutter speech to 250 small business owners at a Small Firms Association conference in Ballsbridge, Dublin yesterday.

He played it safe, devoting, oh, roughly 14 minutes out of his 15-minute slot to plamásing entrepreneurs, and he repeated his mantra that small business is the engine of growth until he had lulled most of the room into a state of placidity. But just as he was wrapping things up, he was snaffled by conference chairwoman and journalist Olivia O’Leary, who unleashed her trademark brand of unyielding politeness upon the unsuspecting Minister.

Blocking his escape route, she asked whether Perry was in favour of SFA chairman Ian Martin’s suggestion that the cuts to the employer’s rebate on redundancy payments should be reversed in the next budget.

The Minister tried to dodge, saying he would prefer not to discuss redundancy, but he hadn’t reckoned on O’Leary’s persistence. She put it up to him again – “Ian has specifically asked that you reverse that in the next budget. Are you in favour?” – earning the most heartfelt applause, up to that point, for her efforts.

Looking increasingly hot under the collar, Perry reverted to the Government’s stock answer number one – that Ireland was “under very tight management under the IMF deal” – adding that many of our European neighbours gave no redundancy rebates. The issue has been brought to the attention of Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, he added.

“Is that a ‘no’ or a ‘yes’?” O’Leary asked (cue more applause).

“I genuinely believe this country is returning to growth.”

“So it’s a maybe?”

“It’s a ‘We’re listening very actively’.”

With that, the Minister fled the stage and departed the room post-haste, just about resisting the urge to break into a trot.

Markets will not buy Monti proposal

MARIO MONTI’S time at the European Commission was clearly not wasted, judging by his latest proposal for European support to prop up the ailing Italian economy.

The technocrat and former EU commissioner, to whom his country has turned after the unfolding fiasco of the Silvio Berlusconi era, put a proposal to this week’s G20 meeting for the euro zone rescue funds to start buying the debt of “distressed” European states.

The Italian proposal foresees tapping the €440 billion temporary European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and the €500 billion permanent European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to buy bonds of countries such as Spain and Italy in the secondary market to help bring down bond yields and lower refinancing costs.

Both funds have the power to buy sovereign debt, but so far only the ECB has been active in purchasing bonds of stricken states.

“The idea is to stabilise borrowing costs, especially for countries who are complying with their reform goals, and this should be clearly separated from the idea of a bailout,” Monti told a news conference at the end of the G20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico.

“Compliant states should not suffer abnormal spreads,” he added.

The point, of course, is that markets are far from convinced that Italy and Spain are compliant. The chance that they will see such assistance as anything other than a bailout is unlikely in the extreme, regardless of how the Italian premier may parse it.

Nor is it clear why either country should be ranked among the virtuous ahead of, for instance, Ireland, which is much further down the road of reform but is entirely shut out of the sovereign debt markets.

Supercharged demand for lithium ahead as consumer appetite grows

THE SEEMINGLY insatiable demand for lightweight computers, iPads and other tablets, mobile phones and hybrid cars has some investors looking behind the screens and under the bonnets for potential investment opportunities.

One common feature in both cars and computers is the growing popularity of lithium batteries, and investors from

JP Morgan Chase to BlackRock seem to believe there’s money to be made from the conductive metal.

According to reports, prices for lithium, the lightest metal in the periodic table, have tripled since 2000 in a market estimated to be worth nearly €800 million a year.

As both car and computer firms seek to lighten their respective products while maintaining or improving performance, lithium batteries seem to be the favoured power source at present.

In the motor trade, the early wave of electric cars has washed up without much public interest, but new models on the way promise better range that will likely give them a far greater share of the car pool.

Most of the current crop of cars feature a nickel-metal hydride battery pack, but the latest Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid model contains a lithium-ion battery supplied by Panasonic and lithium will feature in new hybrid models from a host of car firms due for launch over the next three years.

Meanwhile, the global market for tablet computers is growing faster than expected, with Apple’s iPad widening its lead as consumers’ top choice. Worldwide shipments of tablets this year will be 107.4 million units, analysts say.

Some analysts are already predicting that lithium demand will double by 2020.

“Anywhere between a doubling and a tripling of demand in the next 10 years is absolutely our view,” Peter Oliver, chief executive of Talison, the biggest producer, said in an interview this week.

Chile, the second-biggest producing country behind Australia, last week said it would award 20-year concessions to exploit lithium brine in salt lakes.

Concerns about lithium batteries potentially overheating remain, but until an alternative lightweight energy source is found, demand for lithium seems to be intrinsically linked to the public’s appetite for mobile electronics and hybrid electric cars.

A Eurogroup meeting of finance ministers from across the euro zone takes place in Luxembourg

Quote of the day 

We may have overextended ourselves a bit with the pace of our portfolio and geographic expansions

– Procter & Gamble chief financial officer Jon Moeller explaining why the company is cutting forecasts for the second time in three months

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