Comment

Comment

Some of the commercial habits that are already being formed could serve us well once the COVID-19 crisis is over, writes Dr Brian Keegan.  By now, all businesses and institutions have taken some preventative and containment measures against COVID-19 for their staff, but the early adopters of social distancing won headlines and even kudos for so doing. They were the first to tell personnel to work from home, to block staff from hosting or attending large meetings or any type of gathering, and to have placed an embargo on international travel. Those early adopters had much in common. Typically they were large, multinational, and flourished in the online sales and services environment. By contrast, the indigenous SME sector often operates within a market segment where having people work from home is not practicable. The sector is now suffering the most from the collapse in demand caused by the pandemic. We have seen epidemics before, but how well did we remember the lessons of Zika virus a few years on? Or SARS? Or swine flu? How much better are we at defending ourselves? At the time, these were serious crises, but they seem to have faded from the collective memory very quickly. That may be simply because their social and economic impact was far less pronounced than that of the current scourge, but I’m not sure the reason is as straightforward as that. It may instead be because they left no lasting behavioural changes in most of the businesses and societies they affected. Societies that did remember how bad things could get were better prepared for COVID-19. Singapore is not the most open of jurisdictions, but they read the warning signs early. Also the isolation wards built there to tackle SARS in the early years of the century were still available to hold patients ill with COVID-19, and that in turn allowed the authorities to be more prescriptive about quarantining and testing. No business, nor even a country, can (or even should) sustain the kind of “just in case” procedures, buffers and Singaporean-style infrastructure to guard against once-in-a-century pandemics. This, however, is a crisis for all of us, and we should not waste an opportunity to take some insight from it. Some of the commercial habits that are already being formed could serve us well once this crisis is over. Because the situation is changing daily, I am hesitant to be too prescriptive and not all these behaviours will sustain or improve the bottom line. Nevertheless, there is already evidence that businesses are accommodating, and staff are delivering through, more flexible working practices. This is not just about working from home where that is possible, but about varied working hours, role definition and service delivery methods. In days when demand is in decline almost everywhere, the Institute sees an upswing in demand from members for resource materials and online training. This could be down to a desire to fill empty hours, or more positively, it could be down to a broader recognition that additional skills and tools are needed for future survival. Behaviour is the hardest thing to change. The reluctance to lend or borrow, an antipathy towards speculative development, overcautious economic policy and even the rise of the gig economy can be traced back to the downturn a decade ago. The legacy of the 2007/08 recession sometimes lingers less on balance sheets than it does in the collective memory. The businesses that bounce back the fastest could well be those who are the early adopters of the new business behaviours prompted by the crisis. Just like the last recession, COVID-19 is now creating memories of its own. We will need to hang on to the positive ones. Dr Brian Keegan is Director, Advocacy & Voice, at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Apr 01, 2020
Comment

It is important, and indeed useful, to remind ourselves about the business case for gender balance, writes Rachel Hussey. A lot of the recent discussion around gender balance and its importance in business presupposes that everyone believes that working towards and achieving gender balance is a good thing and that we all know why this matters. A large body of research demonstrates that diversity is good for business. Diversity leads to better decision-making, enhances the attraction and retention of talent and, most importantly, improves the bottom line. For example, McKinsey’s recent report entitled Delivering Through Diversity shows that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity within executive boards were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability. Investors are increasingly focused on gender diversity, and Goldman Sachs in February announced that it would only underwrite IPOs in the US and Europe of private companies that have at least one diverse board member. And starting in 2021, it will raise this target to two diverse candidates for each of its IPO clients. Closer to home, the Central Bank of Ireland has called out the specific need for diversity across senior decision-making levels based on evidence of increased standards in governance practices and a more balanced risk appetite. In many industries, a large part of the challenge around achieving gender balance is the small number of women who enrol for or graduate from the degrees relevant to the industry in question. For example, engineering companies find it more difficult to recruit women because of the small percentage of women who study engineering in college, which in turn is as a result of not enough girls taking STEM subjects in school. Furthermore, in law, over 60% of graduates are women, and in 2018 there were more women on the roll of solicitors than there were men for the first time. And this trend has continued. Data published annually by the UK’s Financial Reporting Council also indicates that the numbers of men and women opting for careers in accountancy are close to or at parity in recent years. In contrast, the overall profile of the profession is closer to one-third women and two-thirds men. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the position is somewhat better in Ireland. However, a gender imbalance remains, particularly at more senior levels. This makes the retention of women in the professions a key business opportunity if employers are to harness the full value of the available talent. A key lever in professional services firms is client demand. Clients are very focused on their diversity ambitions and they expect their service providers to be as well. Firms increasingly see tender documents with questions and scoring for diversity statistics and initiatives. It is not acceptable, nor prudent, to arrive at a beauty parade with an all-male team to discuss a proposal with what is usually a diverse team on the other side. And it is not only in pitch situations. Clients – and in particular, international or global ones – now frequently include requirements around diversity in their terms of engagement. Some conduct diversity audits and evaluate the composition of teams and the numbers of hours worked by both men and women. We ultimately need to focus within professional services on representing the increasingly diverse client base that we serve. Diversity is also important from a reputational perspective. The media – and the trade press as well – have a keen focus on gender balance and new partner announcements can be the subject of criticism and comment if there is a lack of gender balance, particularly on social media. Firms that make progress in this area, and are seen to do so, will have a real competitive advantage in what is an asymmetric market. Research carried out by the 30% Club shows equally high career ambitions across men and women. However, the same study also indicates less confidence among women regarding their potential to progress. This is perhaps a topic for another article, where we might also talk about the practices a modern professional services workplace needs to attract and retain talent – all of which will be tested as we work through the current challenges posed by coronavirus.   I was very pleased to be invited to write articles in this publication on gender balance in business. Since my first article the world has experienced, and continues to experience, unprecedented change and uncertainty and that looks likely to continue for some time. Businesses will have very different priorities in the period ahead and I am writing on the basis that we will return to (perhaps a different) normal and that we can resume the discussion on issues around sustainability (including diversity) in that new normal. Rachel Hussey is Chair of 30% Club Ireland and a Partner at Arthur Cox.

Apr 01, 2020
Comment

Cormac Lucey helps you turbo-charge your ability to identify and absorb relevant information in three easy steps. A close friend of mine is a retired journalist. We were in school together for several years in the 1970s. He went into journalism; I went into accountancy. In sixth year, our school won the Leinster Senior Schools cup in rugby for the first time in decades. My pal kept a copy of the following day’s Irish Independent, complete with match coverage. It disappeared under the mountain of detritus we are all at risk of gathering. Then it re-emerged after both parents had died, and the family home was put up for sale. What struck Peter, in the early part of this century, was just how thin that 1978 edition of the Independent was compared to the bulky newspapers we have today. Ironically, our newspapers are bigger and better than ever before, even as they face going down under the online onslaught. In 1978, nobody was at real risk of information overload. If anything, we suffered from information poverty back then. Today, however, we are forced to deal with an abundance of information. Separating the informational wheat from the chaff is critically important today, as each of us could be submerged in the flow of information pouring our way. I read a lot – both online and in print – and have three key rules for managing the information flow I face. Rule 1: Learn to speed read and put it into practice The average best-seller we might take with us on holidays has about 400 words on each page. It is said that President John F. Kennedy could read 2,000 words per minute, equivalent to five pages per minute. I find that hard to believe. But with a disciplined approach, it should be possible to read at speeds of 500-600 words per minute regularly. What are the core elements of speed-reading? Here is a speed speed-reading course: a) Develop the good habit of reading in a smooth rhythm; abandon the bad habit of disrupting that rhythm by occasionally going back to reread a passage; b) Instead of visually absorbing single words, get into the habit of absorbing several (three to five) words with each glance; c) Measure your reading speed when you’re reading a book and focus on getting that speed up; and d) Practice reading some trashy material at an incredibly fast pace. Then, when you read regular content, you’ll find yourself chomping at the bit speed-wise, just like when you come off the motorway and chomp at the bit at the outrageously slow speed limits then imposed. Rule 2: Focus When you read something, you are reading it for a purpose. Be deliberate about that purpose. If I’m reading a newspaper, I want useful information and I want entertainment. I also want to limit the amount of time I devote to reading the paper. I am certainly not going to read all of it. The paper owes you a duty – you owe the paper no duty. Similarly, just because you have started to read a book does not mean you are duty-bound to complete it. Our time and attention are limited. If a book is boring, tedious or just getting you down, discard it and choose another. That book may deserve the dismissive review: “Once I put it down, I couldn’t pick it up!” Rule 3: Discriminate among preferred providers I follow several financial websites closely: RTE.ie – click on “Business”, “Broker Reports” and “Goodbody” and you will be directed to a comprehensive review of the previous day’s business and economic news refracted through the prism of its implications for corporate value. Google “McKinsey on finance” and you will be directed to the website of the management consultants’ quarterly report on corporate finance themes. Each quarter, five or six issues are considered in a succinct and intellectually well-founded manner with a focus on drawing actionable conclusions. Google “Damodaran online”, and you will land at the website of Aswath Damodaran, Professor of Finance at the Stern School of New York University. This site features models, including lots of detailed valuation models; data, including important sectoral cost of capital data; and Damodaran’s blog, where he analytically considers important current financial topics. Cormac Lucey FCA is an economic commentator and lecturer at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Apr 01, 2020
Comment

At the time of writing, efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus are undoubtedly the focus of attention for society and business across the island. This is a very serious and fast-evolving situation, and Chartered Accountants Ireland will adhere to the official advice provided by our respective health services and governments. The safety and health of our members, students and staff are paramount, and that principle guides the decisions taken. The Institute is reviewing its programme of activities in respect of members, students and external stakeholders. We will be in contact with everyone concerned to advise them of all decisions made. I would like to take this opportunity to commend businesses across the island for their responsible attitude to their employees and customers in following official guidelines. Such decisive action will, we hope, effectively curtail the spread of the virus. Paschal Donohoe T.D. At the start of March, we were honoured to host Minister for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe T.D., who addressed an invited audience of Institute members and guests. Inevitably, coronavirus featured prominently with the Minister predicting that the Irish economy would be impacted by the global slowdown associated with the outbreak. He said: “Many, including the OECD, outline that this outbreak has the potential to slow global growth to its lowest rate since the financial crisis just over a decade ago. To what extent, it is too early to say, but it follows that weaker growth will affect our short-term outlook and my department will update its projects in April”. Turning to Brexit, the Minister argued that while the post-Brexit world will present significant challenges, if managed correctly, Ireland’s reputation as an open, adaptable yet stable economy also presents opportunities.  Engagement with US members and politicians At the time of writing, the Institute’s Director of Advocacy & Voice, Dr Brian Keegan, and myself are currently meeting with members and politicians in the USA. The programme has involved meetings in New York with Northern Ireland Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, and Consul General of Ireland, Ciarán Madden, before moving on to Washington DC for various events including the Irish Business Leaders’ Lunch, the Irish Funds dinner and the NI Bureau breakfast. Throughout the visit, we have had a very warm welcome from members based in the US and some really useful engagement with political representatives from both sides of the Atlantic. Institute signs climate change pledge In February, our Institute announced that it is one of 14 accounting bodies worldwide to become signatories to a call to action on climate change issued by Accounting for Sustainability (A4S). The memorandum of understanding signed by Chartered Accountants Ireland states that signatories will commit to providing the training and infrastructure that accountants need, as well as supporting initiatives and providing the necessary evidence to take action on climate change. In signing the memorandum, Chartered Accountants Ireland recognises that climate change is an economic, social and business risk and that accountants must take action collectively as a profession and individually as professionals working in the public interest. The 14 accounting bodies signed up to the agreement represent a total of 2.5 million accountants and students worldwide. Annual Dinner Finally, this is my first comment section since our Annual Dinner at the end of January. I would like to record my thanks to the 900 guests who supported the event; to our event partners Dublin Airport, Bank of Ireland, PeopleSource and Toyota; to our special guest, Lochlann Quinn FCA; and, most particularly, to the many corporates who supported the event by hosting tables. For me, it was another great demonstration of how Chartered Accountants are at the heart of our economy, driving Irish business. Conall O’Halloran President 

Apr 01, 2020
Comment

Economic forecasting can be a difficult business, especially when you consider the ‘unknown uncertainties’ the world is currently facing, writes Annette Hughes.  Businesses do not like uncertainty but, at present, that is the prevailing economic theme. An uncertain political situation, ongoing Brexit negotiations and the recent coronavirus outbreak remind us how vulnerable the economy can be to external shocks. Those in the business of economic forecasting understand this vulnerability very well. The purpose of an economic forecast is to measure the impact of ‘known uncertainties’ on future economic performance, but the future is unpredictable and this is further complicated by the ‘unknown uncertainties’ we now face.  Economists, in making their projections for economic growth in 2020, would not have been aware of the coronavirus outbreak until the first reports of a cluster of cases were identified on 31 December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The rapid and continuing escalation of COVID-19 has led economists to revise their economic forecasts downwards, as the initial output contractions in China begin to be felt around the world. It remains unclear what the full effects will be on the movement of people and goods, and economic activity, while the response of policymakers is evolving on a daily basis. Global economy In early March, the OECD reported on the considerable human suffering and major economic disruption that had resulted from COVID-19. OECD global growth in 2020 was revised downwards, by around 0.5 percentage points to 2.4%, from an already weak forecast of 2.9%. The adverse impacts on confidence, financial markets, the travel sector and disruptions to supply chains were all factors contributing to the downward revision. However, without knowledge of the full impact of the virus, the OECD acknowledged that, should the outbreak be more intense and last longer than predicted, global growth could drop to 1.5%. Economists at Oxford Economics believe that the virus will result in Q1 2020 being the first global contraction since Q1 2009, with overall growth of 2% for the year, the slowest pace in the last decade. Irish economy The OECD forecast for economic growth in the euro area was revised downwards by 0.3 percentage points to 0.8% in 2020, although, given that the spread to Europe did not materialise until February, this forecast is likely to be subject to further downside risks.  Ireland has an open economy reliant on international trade and global markets to support economic growth. Ireland and its economy accounts for just 0.4% of global GDP and 0.06% of the world’s population. However, it still remains vulnerable to the impact of the COVID-19 virus.  Economic growth in Ireland will definitely be weaker than projected should the virus spread for an extended period. The main impacts are likely to be felt through supply chain disruptions, travel and tourism restrictions, and reduced mobility (affecting consumer spending and workers staying at home). There have already been reports of delays in the delivery of imported products in the construction sector, according to the Ulster Bank Construction Confidence Index. It has been acknowledged that Ireland will likely follow a pattern seen in other European countries and the Taoiseach’s measures to minimise the spread of COVID-19 could be significant, but much less than the economic and social consequences of acting too late. The flexibility that Irish businesses have demonstrated in dealing with evolving economic, political and social trends are acknowledged in EY’s February 2020 Economic Eye. EY Chief Economist, Neil Gibson, correctly pointed to the coronavirus outbreak as likely to damage global growth in 2020, but as a rapidly evolving situation, it is difficult to predict the full economic impact on the island of Ireland. The closure of many public institutions and private businesses in the Republic of Ireland will no doubt further slow growth across the island, but the sectoral and regional impact will vary greatly. It important to remember, however, that this is first and foremost a human crisis, and we must think about people first. Moving away from GDP numbers, we must look at what business, governments and individuals can do together to help get us get through this incredibly difficult period.  Clearly, these are unprecedented times and taking such developments into account makes economic forecasting a difficult business.   Annette Hughes is a Director at EY-DKM Economic Advisory.

Apr 01, 2020
Comment

With advice comes responsibility as almost all advice has consequences, writes Des Peelo. As a Chartered Accountant, whether in professional or commercial life, our qualification is relied on by others for knowledge and experience when we provide advice. Advice brings responsibility, as almost all advice has consequences. A course of action undertaken, an investment made, a decision taken, a matter rectified, a risk addressed, and so on. The accountant can sometimes be unaware that somebody has interpreted a comment or course of action as advice. Even responding to a casual enquiry can be an everyday hazard in a complicated and regulatory world. Letter of engagement I, in common with other professional advisers, have experienced clients or circumstances where it is later claimed that advice was wrong or inadequate. Thankfully, none developed into legal claims – though I have acted as an expert witness in many such cases. Common factors in these claims included allegations that the client subsequently raised an issue that was not within the original remit, or did not take the advice, or varied its implementation to suit a different purpose. It may not always be possible in everyday commercial situations, but it is invariably wise to have a clear letter of engagement (LOE) signed as accepted by the client in advance of undertaking the work. The real relevance is that the LOE can avoid any later claim of misunderstanding or ambiguity. The LOE can also state in advance what is to be excluded in the advice, as explained below. Create clarity In my experience, it is increasingly necessary to ensure that the recipient understands what the advice is not, as well as what it is. For example, that it is not legal advice, that it is not tax advice as may arise, or that the advice cannot be taken as reassurance to a third party (such as a bank or fellow investors) as to the standing or validity of the circumstances relating to the advice. The advice is for the recipient alone, and there is no responsibility to third parties. The subsequent written advice to the client may then state: “This advice is provided in accordance with the signed letter of engagement (LOE), dated 1 April 2020. For good order, a copy of the LOE is attached to this letter”. Chinese walls Experience suggests that most professional indemnity claims for negligence arise through allegations of omission. In other words, some aspect was overlooked or understated by the adviser and should have been appropriately addressed. This, of course, enters into the grey area of opinion of which there is little legal definition beyond a simplistic analysis as to what your peer group would have done in the circumstances. In the ordinary course of events, a Chartered Accountant is unlikely to face a conflict of interest in giving advice – although a wary eye is necessary for Ireland’s relatively small business network. Others may, however, experience conflicts of interest in a different way, as explained by a straight-faced story from the rarefied world of high art dealings. In a frank memoir, a retired director of a major auction house in London explained  ‘Chinese walls’ as follows: on one side of the auction house, the potential seller of a painting is reassured as to this being the best time to sell a painting. On the other side, in the same auction house, the potential purchaser is reassured as to the wisdom of investing to future advantage in the same painting. Be brave Good advice is always worth it, but the advice might be unexpected. A senior politician, for example, battered by the vagaries of the world, remarked to me that if you are ‘being an eejit’, the best advice sometimes comes when the adviser tells you so in plain terms. And how much should one charge for all this great advice? A wise PR lady, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, once told me that advice should always be reassuringly expensive. Des Peelo FCA is the author of The Valuation of Businesses and Shares, which is published by Chartered Accountants Ireland and now in its second edition.

Apr 01, 2020