International financial services: resilience meets ambition

Mar 26, 2021
Barrie O’Connell considers how Ireland can achieve continued success in international financial services after three decades of momentous growth.

As a semi-senior auditing investments and subscriptions in the offices of Chemical Bank on Lower Abbey Street in the late 1990s, I knew little of the influence international financial services (IFS) would have on my career as a Chartered Accountant.
Ireland has built a thriving IFS industry over the last three decades. This success can be measured using several metrics, some of which are outlined in Table 1.

IFS-table-1

So, what are the factors behind this success? In my view, Ireland’s strategic approach and talent have been the two key enablers. Chartered Accountants have played – and will continue to play – a key role when it comes to talent.

The ‘Ireland for Finance’ strategy

In 2019, the Government of Ireland launched the Ireland for Finance 2025 strategy. The strategy was developed by the Department of Finance, with input from a range of stakeholders, and is part of the current Programme for Government. It contains four pillars:

  1. Operating environment;
  2. Technology and innovation;
  3. Talent; and
  4. Communications and promotion.
The Ireland for Finance 2025 strategy is aligned with other key Government strategies, including the National Development Plan and the National Digital Strategy. A refresh of the strategy will likely be undertaken after the COVID-19 pandemic to account for the permanent impact on the future of work, the changing operating environment, and the intense competition from other IFS investment locations.

Each year, the Department of Finance also publishes an action plan and an update on actions. This allows each action to be measured and provides accountability, as each action has an owner. The IFS team within the Department of Finance plays a significant role in supporting the strategy’s implementation.

There is also a dedicated Minister of State for IFS at the Department of Finance, which ensures continuing focus on the sector. Coincidentally, the current Minister, Sean Fleming TD, is a Chartered Accountant.

Operating environment

Ireland has enjoyed great success as an IFS location for a long time. With new entrants relocating here due to Brexit, there is the prospect of more to come. This will remain the case while there is uncertainty around UK firms’ ability to achieve financial services equivalence and, thus, access to EU markets post-Brexit.

However, the environment for IFS is increasingly competitive. Industry participants continually face pressure to optimise their business by delivering new and innovative products and exploiting process and location efficiencies. They must deliver on these issues while serving their customers’ needs and ensuring the global financial system’s continued stability.

The industry is more technology-intensive than ever, and artificial intelligence (AI) and automation present both opportunities and challenges for Ireland. We must continue to position ourselves as a location that is open to providing an innovative, supportive, and dynamic environment for companies that seek to leverage our expertise and history in technology and financial services.

After COVID-19, other countries will redouble their efforts to attract investment. As IFS is a mobile sector, Ireland must be agile and adapt quickly to the new environment. The IFS sector has been remarkably resilient over the last year, and I am impressed by how the sector adapted to remote working and continued to deliver for customers. This resilience is a key differentiator, and the collective ability to solve issues gives Ireland credibility and trust in a global marketplace – something that is noted internationally.

Track record

The IDA and Enterprise Ireland have both contributed to the development of the country’s IFS industry. I am continually impressed by the IDA’s work with overseas companies and Enterprise Ireland’s work to create opportunities for indigenous companies to operate successfully from Ireland. Indeed, these organisations are the envy of many other countries globally.

Irish Funds is another excellent example. It works relentlessly at an international level to promote Ireland as a funds location, and the quality of the content at its events is compelling and demonstrates some of the best qualities of ‘Team Ireland’. Meanwhile, the European Financial Forum, usually hosted in Dublin Castle, was hosted virtually this year. It is another superb showcase of what Ireland offers in IFS to companies operating globally and is supported by an effective regulatory environment with a fully independent Financial Services Regulator.

The development of the “IFS Ireland” brand has been a crucial first step in building an integrated offering across different sectors. We must now market Ireland with consistency and in new and innovative ways. 

The secret sauce

Ireland’s key asset is its people and talent. Ireland has a well-educated, highly-skilled, flexible, internationally diverse and multilingual workforce. Our demographics are favourable, with 33% of the population less than 25 years old and over 50% of those between 30-34 holding a third-level qualification. Chartered Accountants’ skills and attributes are a good fit for this sector, and I am aware of so many Chartered Accountants Ireland members who have cultivated successful careers in IFS – not just in Dublin, but throughout Ireland.

The executive and senior management teams in IFS in Ireland, many of them Chartered Accountants, are a vital ingredient in our competitive advantage. They advocate with head office, look to develop and grow the offering based in Ireland, and are prepared to manage global operations from Ireland – and often exceed expectations when they do. Many have very senior global roles in large IFS organisations, and we don’t always acknowledge them and their relentless focus on expanding their organisation’s footprint in Ireland enough. For example, the recently announced acquisition of GECAS by AerCap, headquartered in Dublin, is a fantastic transaction that demonstrates Ireland’s position as a world leader in aviation finance.

Caution needed

Now is the time for Ireland to redouble its efforts. Some commentators suggest that the future of work will alter the relationship between talent and location, but I am inclined to challenge this hypothesis. In my view, where the executive and senior management teams are based will continue to be a key consideration for an organisation’s location.
With accelerating disruption and digital transformation impacting the IFS sector, Ireland must be aware and adapt accordingly. In the coming years, protecting existing jobs may well be as important as growing the number of those employed in the sector.

Ireland must therefore invest in education and training to ensure that workers stay relevant and productive and harness the strengths of Ireland’s technology sector to position Ireland as a leader in technology-based financial services and platform development. Chartered Accountants Ireland’s FAE elective in Financial Services is a welcome development in this regard.

Action Plan 2021

The IFS Action Plan 2021, which is available to download at www.gov.ie, outlines several priorities in this regard, including sustainable finance and fintech. These areas have huge growth potential and present an opportunity for Ireland to take a leadership position globally.

Sustainable finance and environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria are strategically important to all companies. It is fitting that the Minister highlighted both as critical areas of focus for 2021 and beyond.

Ireland’s recently enacted Investment Limited Partnership (ILP) legislation was an objective in the action plan for several years and has the potential to deliver significant growth in the private equity area. The Central Bank of Ireland also issued a stakeholder engagement consultation in recent weeks, and this will be a key focus for the 2021 action plan.

Cause for optimism

IFS is a vital element of Ireland’s overall economic strategy. Like all strategies, the strategy for IFS must be continually reviewed and adapted as the world evolves. Given our talent, flexibility, and drive, there is much cause for optimism while resisting complacency.

It is incredible to see what started in the IFSC now present in every corner of Ireland, from Killorglin to Letterkenny.

Yes, IFS in Ireland will need to change, adapt and continue to improve. But for newly qualified and experienced Chartered Accountants alike, the opportunities in IFS are almost limitless. Go and explore them for yourself.

Barrie O’Connell is Partner in KPMG and Chartered Accountants Ireland’s representative on the Ireland for Finance Strategy 2025 Industry Advisory Group.