While the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK has been preserved post-Brexit, businesses still need to be compliant when it comes to work and travel permission requirements for employees, says Doone O'Doherty. Now that the UK has officially left the EU, many employers have started to see travel and work restrictions apply to certain employees who, before Brexit, could have travelled and worked freely within the EU. Employers need to ensure compliance for their employees and indeed for their own organisations. Ireland is in a somewhat unique position insofar as the free movement of UK and Irish nationals between both countries has been retained under the Common Travel Area agreement. There may be an assumption that Brexit really has no immediate impact on the people agenda for Irish employers and, for many organisations, this is the case. For others, however, particularly those with UK or EU national employees, Brexit throws up a completely new conundrum, with concerns over immigration and global mobility becoming something that employers may need to navigate, often for the first time.  Work permission required   The bottom line is that, since 1 January, freedom of movement of UK and EU nationals between the UK and the rest of the EU has ended. If you have either UK national employees who need to travel to another EU member state, or EU national employees who need to travel to the UK, these individuals are now subject to potential work permission requirements. There may also be restrictions and time limits on the activities they can carry out as business travellers. Where once a UK national could simply move to another EU member state at short notice, and vice versa, attention and planning now need to be given to such travel arrangements. Not only does consideration need to be given to any new movement of people, EU nationals already resident in the UK will have needed to secure their right to live in the UK under the EU Settlement Scheme. Similarly, UK nationals resident in the EU will need to secure their status and regularise their position under the specific rules for that country. Thorough review needed  Businesses need to undertake a thorough review of their workforce and identify any frequent business travellers or those who are likely to be affected by immigration restrictions. This includes building potential immigration requirements and robust pre-travel processes into their Global Mobility Policies. Communicating with employees is also important to make them aware of any new pre-travel requirements or steps to secure settlement that they may need to undertake. Consider the potential cost impact of obtaining necessary immigration clearance. There are two aspects to consider: social security and the application of Irish PAYE rules to short-term business travellers. Social security  The Social Welfare Order 2020 came into effect on 1 January 2021. Its purpose is to ensure that the social security rights and entitlements of Irish and UK citizens under the Common Travel Area arrangements are maintained post-Brexit and that social security need only be paid in one jurisdiction. One key aspect is that it applies to Irish or UK citizens only, who may work in either one or both territories. Thankfully, supplementary provisions were included in a new protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement on Social Security Coordination to ensure that EU or UK citizens who move between Member States will continue to be liable to pay social security contributions in one State at a time. Special provision is made for ‘commuters’, which provides that such individuals may be retained within their home country social security system. This is particularly welcome in the case of EU citizens living in the UK who commute or are posted to Ireland to work and who would not have been able to avail of the Social Security provisions above. Employers need to understand where their people work, their citizenship status and how to make the appropriate applications under the revised rules to the relevant social security authority. Irish PAYE and short-term business travellers  There is no change to the underlying tax rules in Ireland because of Brexit. However, there is likely to be increased short-term business travel between Ireland and the UK, largely due to our geographic proximity and the fact Ireland is the only English-speaking member of the EU.   One myth that often exists is the belief that, provided an individual spends less than 183 days in Ireland, there are no tax implications for their UK employer. This is far from the truth – Ireland has a comprehensive set of rules applicable to short-term business travellers/visitors (STBV) that can easily give rise to an obligation to operate Irish PAYE based on an individuals’ Irish workdays. Equally, it is possible to avail of some concessions in respect of STBVs whereby Irish PAYE does not need to be applied, but only if the appropriate due diligence is undertaken.  UK employers need to understand the travel patterns of their staff, the nature of the duties they are undertaking and the intended duration of those activities. Advice should be sought regarding the potential Irish PAYE (payroll withholding obligations) and whether there is a way to mitigate that obligation. Furthermore, the employer should implement a robust system of tracking an employee’s Irish workdays in order to mitigate any potential breaches. Doone O'Doherty is a Partner in People & Organisation at PwC.

Feb 26, 2021

In the past year, the way we do business has drastically changed – transitioning from face-to-face to virtual. With work practices moving online, what can businesses do to attract and retain clients? Mary Cloonan has the answers. In the last year, accounting firms have responded quickly to working remotely. Partners are zooming like never before. However, it’s also important to consider how new work can be developed in this virtual world. When we consider our tactics, the most important place to start is to view the world from our target audiences’ perspective. Right now, it’s a virtual perspective. Potential clients are looking for you online before they are doing anything else. Try this: clear your cache and search on Google for your name, your firm name and any other search terms you think your audience might use. Is your firm’s website, LinkedIn profile, social media accounts, etc., on the first page of results? The latest research from the US indicates that business to business buyers must see your message nine times before engaging with it, so it’s essential to make sure your name is prominently placed. If you want to continue to build your client base during this pandemic, there are a few steps you need to take. The ideal client Consider your preferred client in detail. They must be central to every business development action. Website development Your firm’s website is the cornerstone of your presence in the marketplace. It needs to be excellent; the quality of firm sites has increased in the last year and yours should be no exception. Think mobile-first, well-written brief content with visuals. This is critical to get right before activating your presence in the market. Don’t forget existing clients It’s important to stay in contact with the people who already rely on your services to retain and grow your business. Spruce up your LinkedIn profile Similar to your website, your LinkedIn profile is your professional persona. Make sure you are using it to the best of its ability to build your connections and stay in touch. Create an environment where you are easy to reach. Networking Since we are in a virtual world, this means virtual networking. Use LinkedIn to engage  with others, their posts, etc. Join in on Zoom events and expand your network. Post content on social media Encourage your team to write engaging and informative articles and blog posts to link back to your website. LinkedIn and other social media drive traffic to your site – sometimes up to 50% of all traffic comes from your social accounts. Pay attention to visuals and video Posts on social media must have high-quality visuals – ideally short but informative videos. Online video creator software is inexpensive and powerful. Be open to creating content for third-parties Seek opportunities with chambers, associations, town or regional groups online to provide educational content and insights to get your name out there. Run quick polls or surveys Running polls and surveys on your site are great ways to target a specific sector. Include specific questions to create great content for press and social media. Don’t forget SEO SEO is complex. It assesses site speed, design for mobile, content, Google reviews, external links, frequency of site updates, visits, average time readers stay on the site, structure, etc. If you want to be found online, work with experts to get SEO right. Use Google’s tools Google mapping and Google My Business Reviews are both important for your reader and SEO. Use both frequently. Google news alerts are useful for finding specific content that you could then share on social media or send to contacts. Understand Pay Per Click (PPC) Many firms have great success with pay-per-click advertising. Get external expertise if you’re going to go this route: it’s inexpensive and effective, but only if done well. Partner up Talk to non-competing peers about doing something jointly, be it webinars, podcasts, referrals, etc. You are now using the network of two people rather than just one. Publish a regular eZine Create a newsletter to go out to your clients and people who have expressed interest in your services. It’s a great way of keeping in contact regularly while promoting your business. Don’t forget about the phone Although our world is virtual, don’t forget to pick up the phone and chat with your clients and prospects. Having a good conversation is a great way to build rapport. Plan and repeat Ensure you are consistent in voice and timing. I see large and small firms start very enthusiastically, but only those who maintain focused will reap rewards. Most importantly, take some action, however small. Steps taken regularly and consistently is key to success. Remember, we are all in the same virtual storm, but in different boats. You don’t have to be an expert in any of the above, but it is essential to know what you don’t know and get short-term help to energise your firm. The core principle of people doing business with people they know, like and trust is still the same: they just need to remember you above anyone else in the virtual world.  Mary Cloonan is the founder of Marketing Clever.

Feb 25, 2021

Despite being seen as a back-office function, the payroll function has been strong through the pandemic. Therefore, it is paramount to consider your payroll's well-being during this extended lockdown. Bróna Grogan tells us how. With the onset of COVID-19, the payroll function has been pushed into the spotlight at a pace of overwhelming change. Before this, payroll was taken for granted – considered a back-office function. As we continue to navigate through various levels of lockdown, payroll leaders need to remain alert to their team’s needs and expectations, particularly their emotional and mental well-being, morale and motivation. It is not yet known what the economic, health, societal and environmental impact of COVID-19 will be long term, only that the disruption caused by the pandemic is devastating. Bearing in mind that the payroll community thrives on structure, standard operating processes and procedures, team collaboration and ongoing support, the steps outlined below should provide some guidance on supporting our essential workers during the lockdown. Check-in with payroll managers Managing a payroll team onsite is vastly different to managing a virtual one. Open up communications with payroll managers to ensure they have the technological, social and psychological supports and training to enable them to manage their teams. Coaching and mentoring Never before has it been more important to create a safe psychological space for team members to reach out if they are going through a difficult time. It is imperative a coaching and mentoring environment is fostered for the team when they need it. Conflict resolution Without the luxury of proximity to work through potential client and peer conflict, seek a commitment that issues won’t fester and agree on a virtual process for conflict resolution by appointing an escalation team where necessary. Cultivate trust and intimacy In the absence of face-to-face and “water cooler” conversations, establish a contract with your team about how you will communicate – how often, what time and what medium to be used. Create a daily ‘huddle’ for all team members to check in with each other. Payroll deadlines offer little room for casual chats, so consider introducing some sort of informality to help people relax and connect at a deeper level. Expect the unexpected With the vaccination rollout programme underway, it is expected this current pandemic will resolve itself soon, but we can be assured it’s not the last time that we will be exposed to unexpected events. Therefore, build some time into your schedule to consider “what if” scenarios to ensure you have factored in a contingency in terms of payroll service continuity. Keep technology simple Regularly ensure that all team members have the required access to perform their roles and that it is a straightforward process to log on to virtual servers. Implement clear escalation procedures in the event a team member is having IT issues. Lead by example Use the same tools as your payroll team and maintain a presence despite being remote. Be accessible and available to your payroll managers and team, actively listening to their concerns when needed. Considering the needs of a payroller, adopt a business-as-usual stance, but be honest with your team about any potential concerns. Roles and responsibilities With the transition to remote working, perhaps roles have been modified in some way. Re-define those with your team so that there are clear expectations around deliverables mitigating any role ambiguity. Virtual working with dispersed teams is likely here to stay, so finding ways to work effectively while channelling the collective energy of your payroll team is critical to individual and organisational success. Bróna Grogan is and Executive Coach and the Group COO at Payment Plus.

Feb 25, 2021

With spring just around the corner and vaccinations on the rise, everything seems more hopeful. Now is the time to reinvigorate your team and get them to engage in their work in a meaningful way, says Anna O’Flanagan. We’ve made it through a long winter, and while it may not feel like it yet, spring is just around the corner. Some team members may be coming out of hibernation and engaging more. Others have perhaps fallen off the radar altogether. This third lockdown has been rough, so people will be reacting differently as we ease out of it over the next few months. Regardless of where your team members land, in order to bring the whole team together, leaders will need to encourage engagement over the next few months. According to The Progress Principle, which promotes creating meaning in our everyday work lives, we need to find ways of working that foster progress while also improving our work life on a daily basis. Strangely, these two things are not mutually exclusive. Creating meaningful work So, how do we create work that has meaning? Set goals and KPIs Setting clear goals and having ways to measure and mark milestones is an excellent place to start. This will help your team to understand the ‘why’ of their work. They will start to recognise the benefits of the work being achieved and will become fully aware when a goal is reached. Prioritise and collaborate If a project is deemed critical to your organisation, demonstrate its importance by clearing the decks and relieving the team of other responsibilities for now. Progress is also more visible and rewarding when teams are given the opportunity to collaborate on parts of their work. Give acknowledgement Remember to recognise all contributions to a project and acknowledge each milestone as it is reached. This gives clarity and purpose, helping people connect to the shared vision and experience and giving them the drive to continue. Celebrate! Finally, when all the hard work is done, even on a short-term project, it needs to be celebrated. Enrich your team and keep them focused by recognising all achievements and setting time for “events” that uplift them. There doesn’t need to be a big party, but time does need to be allocated for this to happen in a thoughtful and authentic way. So, how about setting some time aside this week to figure out with your team how and when they would like to be recognised and celebrated? Make their work meaningful and it will be worth the investment. Anna O’Flanagan is Founder and Chief Squirrel at Red Squirrel Team Building.

Feb 18, 2021

Negotiating is seen as an innate skill, something people are born with. This isn't the case, however; anyone can negotiate if equipped with the correct tools. Alan Nelson tells us how. Whether you’re negotiating with budget holders during the annual planning cycle, or worried about a difficult conversation on an audit assignment, negotiating has always been a key skill that accountants must acquire. For many of us, that has become more apparent during the recent lockdowns, with difficult conversations with suppliers and customers all being conducted under intense pressure. Many think that negotiation is a talent you either have or do not have, but nothing could be further from the truth. Negotiation is a process. You improve by learning key negotiation skills. What's more, there are some simple tools you can use that will help you learn how to negotiate, five of which are outlined below: 1. A bit of empathy goes a long way Try to put yourselves in the other person's shoes. Thinking about the situation from their point of view as well as your own will help you to anticipate their position, and find a solution that is a win for both parties. 2. Speaking, listening and understanding Successful negotiators employ three keys skills: speaking, listening and understanding. You must articulate your position, listen to the other party, and understand what they are saying and why. Very few people are good at all three of these skills. The key, however, is to reflect on your weaknesses. If you are a nervous talker, then prepare for negotiations by thinking about the words you might use. If you tend to talk too much, then prepare some questions. If you find it hard to understand what the other person cares about, make notes while they speak. 3. Understand the trades Negotiation is all about trading concessions. We start in one place and then we trade concessions. So, make a list of all the things you have to trade. Make sure you include everything; some things may be easy for you to concede, but could be of great value to the other party. 4. "If" is the hardest word Once you have your list of possible trades, think about phrases you could use that include the word “if”. For example: “If I could reformat the data to make it easier for you, could you get me your response a couple of days earlier?” "If we set this up so that you get your report before lunchtime every Tuesday, could you commit to this format for the next six months?" This will help to ensure that you don’t give anything away for free. 5. And finally: plan, plan, plan! Planning is something that finance people should be good at. Spend time before the negotiation planning your approach. The four tips given above provide a pretty good list of headings for your plan. In the end, always stay calm and professional, and try to remember that you want to work with these people when lockdown is over. Good luck with your negotiations. Alan Nelson is Managing Director of accountingcpd.net. He is the author of the course Negotiating Skills for Accountants.

Feb 18, 2021

With a digital revolution in full swing, how long will it be until our currencies go fully digital? Tristan Perrier examines what central bank digital currencies are and when we might expect to use them. The goal in creating retail central bank digital currencies (CBDC) is to give the public access to a digital currency that retains a certain number of the characteristics of physical currency. Like physical currency, and unlike bank deposits, retail CBDCs will constitute a direct liability for the central bank, eliminating, in principle, any credit risk for the holder. Depending on the selected architecture (direct or indirect account of the end-holder with the central bank, and/or a digital token that can be used online or offline, etc.), such currencies could offer similar advantages of portability and confidentiality to notes and coins. However, their immunity to different undesirable events would differ. For example, CBDC and physical currency would not be vulnerable to the same types of criminal activity. Despite this, it is very unlikely we will see a major country introduce fully functional retail CBDCs this year, although central banks, including some of the larger ones, seem to be speeding up their preparatory work. The People’s Bank of China, for instance, has conducted CBDC tests in several large cities in recent weeks, while the European Central Bank recently concluded a vast survey to decide whether it will launch a concrete project in the second half of 2021. While the US Federal Reserve’s communication on the subject remains more cautious, stating that there is no “need or urge to be first”, certain central banks of smaller countries are at a more advanced stage. What does this mean for banking systems? Economic agents holding domestic CBDC alongside bank deposits (which are also dematerialised but are liabilities of private sector financial institutions) raises the issue of the respective roles and interactions of these two asset categories. Central banks will, in fact, have to define the future terms of competition and plan for or prevent the changes that their coexistence could bring on banks’ cost of financing, risk profile, and the mechanisms by which they normally create currency. They will also have to determine the extent of the role of intermediary played by banks in giving the public access to CBDC (since central banks thus far have not been equipped to interact directly with individuals, it is generally envisaged that commercial banks would be given this role). These are complex issues that, in addition to the technical and operational aspects, warrant a cautious pace of progress by the authorities. A new instrument of monetary policy At present, no major central bank seems to view CBDC as serving a primary role as a new monetary policy instrument beyond the strengthening of the legitimacy and use of the official national currency. Nevertheless, many observers (including the central banks) are reflecting on such a possibility and its major implications. First, CBDC could lower the “effective lower bound” – point beyond which further monetary policy in the same direction is counterproductive – of monetary policy if, for example, they carried negative interest rates or, by contrast, increase it to zero if they constituted zero-rate assets which are less costly to hold (in terms of storage and security) than physical currency. Second, CBDC could, in theory, become a “programmable currency” whose possibilities of use (time-limited, restricted to certain expenditure, etc.) could be managed dynamically by the authorities. Other possibilities, such as new interactions between monetary policy and fiscal policy, are also envisageable. Visibility in this domain is as limited as the theoretical possibilities are vast. CBDCs could have many consequences, some of which would be complex and difficult to figure out. Considerable work and additional testing are vital before they are introduced. However, with the gradual reduction in the use of physical money and the rapid development of digital rivals for traditional currencies, it is very likely that we will see CBDC introduced within a few years. This could impact on many sectors of domestic economic and financial life, as well as international financial equilibria. Tristan Perrier is a Global Views Analyst at Amundi. A version of this article was originally published in The FM Report.

Feb 18, 2021

COVID-19 and Brexit have meant many businesses had to adapt to a different environment – fast. As 2021 progresses, what will the future look like and how can businesses seize new opportunities? Mairead Connolly explains. We are well into the new year and the business landscape remains dominated by COVID-19. Many companies, especially private and family businesses, are also battling with the post-Brexit trading landscape. However, times of change are also an opportunity to reshape, and we are seeing an acceleration of a range of trends that had been brewing. As businesses assess the new landscape, positioning for future growth should be a priority. Here are five key considerations for private businesses to continue to scale-up and become fit for the future.  1. Strategy for growth  It is important for businesses to reassess and set a growth strategy with clear targets. This should include sensitivity analysis for different levels of sales, products, month-by-month reports and geography. Headcount and training costs, along with new customers and markets you may target, should also be factors.  The old adage “cash is king” still holds resonance, and any additional funding requirements should be considered with plenty of time allowed to prepare projections and attend to formalities.  Don’t forget about sustainability in your planning. Adopting sustainable approaches can help differentiate and build confidence in your brand, as well as generating cost savings. 2. Upskill your people   Your people are critical to your growth and success. Availability of key skills remains a challenge for many businesses. PwC’s 2020 NextGen Survey, published prior to the pandemic, highlighted that a major concern for family businesses is gaining the skills required – with leadership and strategic thinking regarded as the most essential skills needed.  Upskilling the people you have and who understand your culture is critical for plugging any skills gap. Family or team members who have the potential and agility to help grow the business into the future should be identified. While formal training may certainly be warranted, the power of shadowing and mentoring should not be underestimated.  3. Digitise  Any business wishing to grow and scale must keep pace with technology, and the COVID-19 backdrop has brought home how this investment can pay dividends. We have seen many family and entrepreneurial businesses creating or expanding their online presence, initially as a lockdown survival strategy. Now positioning for post-COVID-19 growth, the same companies recognise that this pivot to digital is also an opportunity to futureproof their business.   Digitisation can also take place in smaller steps, however, starting with automated reporting or dashboards for real time financial data, for example. Levering technology to have meaningful information available at the touch of a button allows valuable management time to be spent on proactive strategy, rather than distilling and reacting to historic data.      Successful digital transformation will give companies the competitive edge they need to become world-class.   4.  Maximise cash flows today  As your business grows, it is important to ensure the controls you have around spending and other day-to-day decision-making remain robust. Rigorous debtor and creditor administration ensures that cash is available when needed, and can minimise the level of dependence on debt or other third party funding. Tax should be carefully considered, as well, with any available reliefs and benefits claimed. For those companies which suffered losses during the pandemic period, a review should be undertaken to ensure that loss reliefs are utilised to trigger refunds where applicable. 5. Protecting wealth for the long term  As well as strategising for the business today, developing a clear succession plan for the medium- to long-term should remain a priority for ambitious family businesses and SMEs. This is something that is overlooked by many businesses. Tellingly, PwC’s latest Irish family business survey highlighted that less than one fifth (18%) of respondents had a robust, formalised and communicated succession plan in place. Key elements include structuring for ownership transition, with/without retirement of key founders, ensuring governance frameworks are fit for growth, and identifying the correct next generation or non-family management to drive the business forward.    The succession journey is an opportunity to reinforce the broader business strategy, digital and upskilling objectives. If proactively managed, the “perfect storm” of disruption via COVID-19 and Brexit uncertainty could well become the accelerator for business and family success in the long term. Mairead Connolly is Partner of PwC Entrepreneurial & Private Business Practice.

Feb 12, 2021

Many businesses are wary of automation and artificial intelligence dehumanising client relationships. Larissa Feeney says, however, that embracing this new technology will lead to more meaningful and personal interactions with your customers. Many owners of small – and even bigger – practices feel that automation or artificial intelligence (AI) has no role to play in their workplace, worrying that it can lead to a dehumanisation of work practices that will result in a poor connection with clients. However, I believe that the introduction of digital practice management and ‘lean’ systems – minimising waste while maximising productivity –  can streamline and grow your business, as well as help build more lasting relationships with your clients. When we established our business 10 years ago, one of our aims was to systemise as many processes as possible, including tasks that used to be manual, such as emails to clients, record collection and payroll. We looked at every process to see what could be automated. At that time, there was a fear across the industry that automation and the use of AI could result in a less personalised service. The fear that robots will take over our jobs and clients will pay less for automated services is still prevalent even now; however, we have found the opposite – AI frees up the team to give better service to clients. Lean principles Over the past 12 months, we have implemented lean principles (value, the value stream, flow, pull and perfection) across our own business. This has cut down on the administration and support functions that are needed which means the core team can focus on servicing clients better. This freedom allows you to build a real and lasting relationship with clients, making you part of their team rather than an external service that could be completed by anyone. It creates a different relationship entirely; you become more like a trusted advisor rather than a bean counter processing numbers. Importantly, clients will like the fact that you are putting in more time thinking about their business strategically rather than spending time on processes that could be automated. How to implement a lean structure There are quick and easy savings to be made by implementing a lean structure for any business at any stage.   For instance, one of the processes we implemented under our lean structure was examining a simple task that would take three days over the course of the month to complete. We have now automated that process and it takes one member of the team one second to press one button. Another easy win has been the automation of emails to clients. I did struggle when we started to automate emails – and sometimes I still do. I wanted to keep that personal contact with each and every client. However, as the business grew, I knew it was impossible for that to continue; instead of spending all my time writing out personalised emails, I can spend time in other crucial areas of the organisation. Both simple automations outlined above have saved team members’ time that can now be focused towards building a personal, meaningful relationship with clients and putting their priorities first, which is the cornerstone of good customer management. Larissa Feeney is Founder and CEO at Accountant Online

Feb 12, 2021

What can SMEs outside of Ireland’s bigger cities do to prepare for a post-pandemic landscape? Linda Doran outlines a five-step plan.  The timetable for Ireland’s COVID-19 vaccination programme is firming up. No doubt there will be ups and downs. However, business owners and entrepreneurs are starting to realise that we are roughly two-thirds of the way through the crisis. It is essential, therefore, to think about a business plan for the post-pandemic business landscape. Outlined below are five keys points for a post-pandemic plan for small businesses outside of the country’s cities: Get ready for the ‘staycation’ Counties all over the country are known for their tourism, from the Wild Atlantic way to Ireland’s ancient east. It is important that businesses in all regions remember where its strengths lie, and for 2021 this will involve capitalising on ‘staycations’. Foreign travel looks unlikely and areas outside of Dublin are well-placed to attract strong domestic tourist numbers. Protect local jobs Unemployment is the biggest issue the county will face in the second half of 2021. We need to treat the cash flow boost from the staycation spend as the springboard that will keep as many local businesses afloat as possible. For the most vulnerable or worst hit businesses, this may involve a local Circuit Court examinership process or the Government’s new Summary Rescue Process, due to be introduced in the latter part of the year. One way or another, we need to protect the most vulnerable businesses in our communities. Get young people back into the workforce Protecting businesses will facilitate getting as many young people back into the workforce as possible. The younger generation have shouldered an enormous burden in the crisis, in terms of both educational and work opportunities. To avoid a lost generation, we need to do everything we can to bring young people back into the productive local economy. Look for sustainable recovery Looking medium-term, we need to be ready for the bounce back. However, we must avoid a Celtic Tiger-esque mini-boom. A sustainable recovery is required; we need to be wary of inflation and the increase in interest rates that inevitably follows, as the pent-up demand in Ireland is unleashed. Get ready for ‘2022 normal’ We need to be ready for what “2022 Normal” will look like. It is likely we will see more flexibility in terms of working from home arrangements, less business travel, more video conferencing, more online selling and less appetite for waste or non-productive areas of business. All small businesses need to adapt, evolve and be ready for these challenges. The light that we can finally see at the end of the tunnel should form the basis for a bright future for all counties, but only if the planning starts now. Linda Doran is the South East Partner in Baker Tilly.

Feb 12, 2021

Patricia Barker outlines red flags for audit and risk committees as they continue to navigate the coronavirus pandemic and the fallout from Brexit. It’s hard to imagine audit and risk committee members as frontline workers in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, time will undoubtedly show that the guidance of a good, active audit and risk committee was a pivotal oxygen tank for companies as they stumbled through these difficult times. In providing effective oversight, the audit and risk committee’s contribution must be responsive to the additional risks and uncertainties arising from COVID-19 and Brexit. The radar is picking up new bleeps, which include the following. New risks on the risk register It is vital to identify new risks, the appetite for those risks, and mitigations that can be put in place. These risks include, but are not limited to, failure of suppliers or customers due to economic pressures; invocation of force majeure clauses to avoid performance of contracts; reputational damage caused by a failure of staff to comply with Government guidance; a cluster outbreak of COVID-19 among staff; insufficient funding; and health and safety failure on the premises. Going concern All audit and risk committees will have to conduct a deep dive into the appropriateness of using the going concern concept for the 2020 financial statements. This work must be completed in advance of the arrival of the external auditors. Business continuity plan Audit committees should be very familiar with the robustness of the business continuity plan. They should also be satisfied that it has been rigorously tested to cope with the potential crashes that may result from the black swan event that is the COVID-19 pandemic. Procurement There are high risks associated with rushed procurement practices, which were necessary due to the emergency nature of the pandemic. Audit and risk committees should create a schedule of any instances where management had to speed up or bypass procurement practices due to the need to procure for the pandemic. They will need to be satisfied that all material exemptions from procurement regulations have been appropriately applied and authorised. The exemptions provided for in legislation include situations of extreme urgency, where there is a genuine emergency due to events that could not have been foreseen in situations that were not controlled by the company. It would seem that the pandemic (although not Brexit) complies with these conditions, which would permit the procurement of goods or services in a fast-tracked way outside the standard procurement policy. However, the current question for audit and risk committees is how long it can reasonably be assumed that COVID-19 is an emergency that could not have been foreseen. Control of government supports There are high risks associated with the very rapid deployment of government resources to a vast range of beneficiaries. To the extent that such resources have been claimed by the company or on behalf of staff, the audit and risk committee should be happy that appropriate controls were put in place to ensure that the claim was made in accordance with the terms of issue, that the funding was applied as stipulated, and that anti-fraud measures were appropriately applied. The external auditors will likely examine the transparency and governance associated with benefits drawn down, such as: Grants; Subsidies; Liquidity loans; Credit guarantees; Short-term compensations; Payroll support; Tax alleviation; Additional human resources deployed; and Tax losses carried back. Economic fraud and cybersecurity robustness There have been significant incidences of cybersecurity and IT failures due to opportunistic frauds arising from COVID-19 such as email compromise, investment scams, and phishing scams. In an Economic Crimes Survey conducted by PwC in 2020, 18% of organisations surveyed reported that they had incurred losses due to fraud in excess of €800,000 and 13% said they had incurred losses in excess of €5 million. These costs do not account for the losses arising from remediation, fines, brand damage and reputational damage. Economic crime dealt with by the European Commission Crime Bureau includes the following: Cybercrime; Customer fraud; Asset misappropriation; Money laundering; HR/employee fraud; Deceptive business practice; Intellectual property theft; and Accounting fraud. Audit and risk committees must seek evidence that economic risks were explicitly addressed and closed off by the company, including assurance that such risks are adequately insured. Third-party risks Focusing on internal risks is only part of the challenge; the risks associated with outsourced goods and services also need attention. These risks are elevated as our direct controls change due to virtual working. The risk attack field related to external service providers is as varied as stationery, security, catering and HR, resulting in additional risks of fraud and cyberattack. According to PwC’s Global Economic Crime and Fraud Survey 2020, one in five respondents identified vendors and suppliers as the source of their most disruptive external fraud. Half of the respondents lacked a mature third-party risk management programme, and 21% had none at all. Audit and risk committees should address this issue with the leadership team to ascertain the extent of the vulnerability and the potential need to seek professional assistance. Remote working Audit and risk committees must be proactive in implementing robust health and safety and human resource protection policies to safeguard employees working from home and safeguard the company’s assets. Issues raised should include health and safety mechanisms to ensure that staff have suitable stress management supports; good ergonomic working conditions; and reasonable boundary control over working hours. Furthermore, where company assets such as docking stations, laptops and other equipment have been taken home, mechanisms should be in place to control those assets and to appraise valuations and impairments. Appropriate protocols should also be in place to ensure that employees are fulfilling their contracts. GDPR policies will need to be stress-tested to assure the audit and risk committee that there have been no breaches of the regulations. The audit and risk committee will also need to confirm that the company’s insurance policies cover the changed working theatre. Risk of redundancies If it seems likely that squeezed resources will lead to redundancies, the audit and risk committee will want to see an assessment of this risk, the mitigations in terms of spreading the load, the policy on the redundancy payment matrix, and budgetary planning. Provision of ad hoc board support During the emergency, the audit and risk committee should be willing to convene to conduct deep dives, specific investigations, or advisory analysis as may arise due to unforeseen issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic or Brexit. All in all, this is a busy time for audit and risk committees, and we will likely look back on this period and determine that committee members provided a highly professional, emotionally intelligent, and effective service to boards. It is unlikely that citizens will stand on their doorsteps and applaud them, but at least they will know that they did a good job.   Patricia Barker chairs the audit committees of the Marine Institute and Tallaght Hospital and is a member of the Ethics and Governance Committee at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Feb 09, 2021

Although significant challenges remain, the north-west region can look forward to better days ahead, writes Dawn McLaughlin. After one of the most challenging years in business, 2021 provides some cause for optimism in the north-west city region. The vaccination rollout across the globe gives us the best chance to get back to normal and truly get our recovery efforts underway. As a Chartered Accountant in practice and in my new role as President of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, I have seen first-hand the extreme pressures on businesses. Cash reserves are depleted, cash flow is becoming a major concern, and confidence is gone. After a year of COVID-19, the strains on entrepreneurs and businesses of all shapes and sizes are only increasing. The need for a government-led recovery strategy, developed in collaboration with business, is greater than ever. However, I also see reasons for positivity on the horizon. While the double blow of the pandemic and Brexit seriously affected local businesses, I believe we can recover and rebuild better in 2021 and beyond, given the opportunity and support to do so. One of the rare highlights of 2020 was the announcement of the Graduate Entry Medical School at Ulster University’s Magee Campus in Derry. Representing the culmination of years of hard work and campaigning, the new medical school, which will welcome its first students in September 2021, illustrates the strength of the north-west’s higher education offerings. In the new post-Brexit world, cross-border cooperation and collaboration will be as important as ever. In collaborating with our neighbours in Donegal and beyond, we are working to make the north-west city region a more robust economy and the best place on the island to set-up a business. An Taoiseach’s new Shared Island Initiative provides the opportunity to maximise the tangible benefits of all-island cooperation. Committing €500 million over five years for cross-border projects, we are making a strong case for investment to fund infrastructure projects like the A5 Western Transport Corridor, funding to expand Ulster University’s Magee Campus and other cross-border research projects. Along with the full rollout of the City Deal project, the Shared Island Initiative can unlock our city region’s full potential and drive the post-pandemic recovery. By giving our leaders and businesses the tools to rebuild and create a more thriving and bustling regional economy, we can attract new investment and create new, secure jobs. But, in the short- and medium-term, this will require serious commitment and courage from the Northern Ireland Executive, the UK Government, and the Irish Government to get our struggling businesses on the whole island through this rocky period and ensure that they survive and thrive. With institutions like Ulster University Business School, North-West Regional College and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, the north-west is fertile ground for world-leading research and development, attracting more students to our region. Chartered Accountants in the north-west should prepare for this regional growth, and look to our local further and higher education institutions to provide a stream of high-calibre students who might well be the next generation of Chartered Accountants. Dawn McLaughlin is Founder of Dawn McLaughlin & Co. Chartered Accountants  and President of Londonderry Chamber of Commerce.

Feb 09, 2021

Having read the 1,246-page Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which was agreed to “in principle” by the EU and UK on Christmas Eve, Cróna Clohisey shares her thoughts on the critical elements causing concern and highlights areas that warrant further work. In recent weeks, there has been as much discussion about what the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) reached between the EU and UK on Christmas Eve doesn’t cover as what it does. The deal, spanning some 1,246 pages, threw up some surprises and certainly left a lot for discussion between the two sides in the months ahead. The main areas covered in the document include trade in goods and certain services, energy, aviation and road transport, fisheries, social security coordination, law enforcement, digital trade and intellectual property. Certain big-ticket items, including decisions relating to equivalence for financial services, the adequacy of the UK’s data protection regime, or an assessment of the UK’s sanitary and phytosanitary regime were excluded, however. These three areas, in particular, are unilateral decisions of the EU and were never subject to negotiation. The TCA does not govern trade in goods between Northern Ireland and the EU where the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland will apply, bringing a whole other set of rules – not least in customs and VAT. Implementing, applying, and interpreting the TCA falls to the newly created Partnership Council. This political body will be co-chaired by a European Commission member and a UK government minister, and decisions will be made by mutual consent. Several specialised committees, including a trade partnership committee, will assist the Partnership Council. Therefore, it seems that negotiations between the EU and the UK on their future relationship are set to continue long into the future.  In this article, I will look at the TCA elements that are causing concern or require further work. Trade in goods and customs The real test for cross-border trade between the UK and EU is really just beginning, given that traffic at ports and borders is generally quieter in the weeks after Christmas. Still, problems with paperwork (which could never be removed by a free-trade agreement), health checks and systems were reported by many companies in the first few weeks of the year. We have heard reports of large retailers reporting shortages on their shelves with retailers in Northern Ireland significantly affected given the customs declarations required for goods brought into Northern Ireland from Great Britain – a requirement that seems to have taken some by surprise.   The TCA’s chapter on rules of origin is particularly cumbersome and has already hampered, and is expected to continue to hamper, existing supply chains. The ‘zero tariffs, zero quotas’ headline celebrating free trade is not all it seems, particularly when only eligible goods qualify for this approach. Rules of origin determine a product’s economic nationality and where products ‘originate’ is the fundamental basis for determining if tariffs apply. The TCA says that for products to benefit from zero tariffs and zero quotas, goods must be wholly obtained from, or manufactured, in the EU or UK or be substantially transformed or processed in the EU or UK in line with the specific origin rules that apply to the product being exported. Minor handling, unpacking and repacking won’t qualify as sufficiently processed. There could be issues for goods not wholly grown, farmed, fished or mined in either the UK or EU.  The amount of non-originating materials (i.e. materials not originating in either the EU or UK) that a product can have in order to still benefit from the TCA differs depending on the product. The annexes to the TCA set out the product-specific rules, and you will need to identify the commodity code as a starting point. Some products allow a maximum level of non-originating content (e.g. 50% of the ex-works selling price), but again this varies from product to product. If, for example, products are processed in the UK, the TCA states that EU origin materials and processing can be counted when considering whether UK exports to the EU meet rules of origin requirements. There is a qualifying production level, for example, called ‘cumulation’. Another nuance is that some rules of origin require that non-originating inputs used in the production of a good must have a different tariff heading, while some rules require a specific operation to take place in the UK for the goods to be classed as being of UK origin. For certain chemicals, for example, a chemical reaction must occur in the UK. It’s also important to remember that when goods are exported from a customs territory, origin status is lost (preferential origin status can only apply once). Take leather shoes originating in Spain as an example. When the shoes move from Spain to Great Britain and are then shipped to Ireland, they lose their EU preferential origin status when they leave Great Britain. Because they haven’t been processed or altered in Great Britain, they don’t have UK origin. Therefore, unless the goods move under a special and complicated customs procedure, duties arise on the goods entering Ireland. The now infamous case of Marks & Spencer’s Percy Pig confectionery is an example of this issue. These issues add to supply chain headaches and give rise to hidden costs. The rules are undoubtedly complex and don’t suit the UK’s significant role as a distribution hub. Business travel Free movement of people between the EU and UK ended on 1 January 2021. Of course, Irish and UK citizens are still free to live, travel and work in either country under the rules of the Common Travel Area (CTA). Beyond this category of people, immigration requirements – including securing permission to work and restrictions on the activities that can be performed as business travellers – are now a key consideration for UK nationals moving throughout the rest of the EU, including UK citizens residing in Ireland. Similar policies are in place for EU nationals seeking to travel to, and work in, the UK. The CTA allows short-term business visitors to enter either jurisdiction visa-free for 90 days in any given six-month period, but there are restrictions on the activities that can be performed. Activities such as meetings, conferences, trade exhibitions, and consultations are allowed. However, anything that involves selling goods or services directly to the public requires a work visa. The specific business situations where a visa is required are set out in the annexes to the TCA. The environment In a first for the EU, the fight against climate change has been included as an “essential element” in a bilateral agreement with a third country. This effectively means that if the EU or the UK were to withdraw from the Paris Agreement or take measures defeating its purpose, the other side would have the right to suspend or even terminate all or part of the TCA. The TCA paves the way for a joint framework for cooperation on renewable energy and other sustainable practices, as well as the creation of a new model for energy trading. However, it allows both sides to set their own climate and environmental policies in areas such as carbon emissions/carbon pricing, air quality, and biodiversity conservation. Divergence from respective environmental and climate laws will be monitored, but this area is not subject to the TCA’s main dispute resolution mechanism. It will instead be governed by a ‘Panel of Experts’ procedure. Time will tell how effective this will be. Data transfers Many businesses rely on the ability to transfer personal data about their customers or employees to offer goods and services across borders. A company based in Belfast, for example, might outsource its payroll processing to a company based in Galway. In this case, any restriction on this data’s ability to flow freely would act as a trade barrier. The EU and UK haven’t concluded a deal yet to allow data to continue to flow freely across borders, but the EU has committed to a decision on the adequacy of the UK’s system (UK GDPR) by 30 June 2021. Until then, the UK will be treated as if it is still part of the EU on data protection grounds, and data can continue to flow freely between jurisdictions. If the EU doesn’t reach an adequacy agreement (although reports suggest that a deal is close), provisions such as standard contractual clauses may be needed in future transfers of data between the UK and EU. Financial services Currently, the UK has identical rules to the EU in terms of the regulation of financial services. Supplementary documentation published with the TCA states that the UK Treasury and European Commission aim to sign a cooperation agreement covering financial services regulation by March 2021. The EU has already deemed the UK equivalent for a time-limited basis in clearing and transaction settlement, while the UK has provided the EU with specific findings that would enable EU member states to conduct such business in the UK. Many other areas of the TCA will be digested and interpreted in the weeks and months ahead. Trade deals are predominantly about trade. Only time will tell if they go far enough in other areas such as environment, security and intelligence, or healthcare, for example. Let’s hope that in the long run, a deal is better than no-deal. POINT OF VIEW:  Barry Cullen, Silver Hill Duck Silver Hill Duck is a perfect example of a cross-border business and the various challenges posed by the new trading relationship between the EU and the UK. Silver Hill Duck is a duck manufacturing company based in Emyvale, Co. Monaghan, with operations in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The company controls all aspects of the breeding, farming, production and packaging of its famous Silver Hill Duck breed. Established in 1962, it has supplied the best Chinese restaurants in the UK for the past 40 years. During this time, the company has expanded its customer base to include retail and foodservice, including a range of raw and cooked products. Barry Cullen, Head of Sales at Silver Hill Duck and President of the Irish Exporters Association, shares the background to his company’s commercial decisions. “The UK was historically our largest market, and we took some steps before 1 January 2021 to avoid the expected delays that were predicted at the ports. This involved setting up a Northern Ireland company with the appropriate VAT and EORI numbers, and a customs clearance agent to handle the paperwork. Silver Hill also had to source a warehousing partner in the UK that could hold frozen stock for our UK customers. Trading with our fresh retail customers was suspended for the first few weeks in January due to the uncertainty around delays at ports and the documentation required. The first few weeks of 2021 has shown that this was a prudent decision, as it has become apparent that the UK is nowhere near ready for the new trading requirements. There are major delays at Holyhead with hauliers unable to access the Irish market due to incorrect paperwork and a COVID-19 testing regime that has exacerbated the problem. It’s a case of learning on the job as our sales team feels its way through the many documentation requirements to send a pallet of product to the UK. For example, despite having done due diligence for over three years, we were not aware of the REX system and the need to be registered to self-certify our goods. Even though there are no actual tariffs, the customs clearance costs are high at approximately €120 per order, regardless of size, if you act as exporter and importer for the UK customer. This will make much retail business commercially unviable and will have a significant knock-on effect on small- and medium-sized enterprises in the coming months. There will undoubtedly be a settling-in period for the new trading requirements, but the cost for traders, hauliers and suppliers is as yet uncertain.”   Cróna Clohisey is Public Policy Lead at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Feb 09, 2021

Three Chartered Accountants talk to Accountancy Ireland about what worked and what didn’t in 2020, and the changes they have made to ensure success in both their work and personal lives in 2021. As we moved into 2021, so did the pandemic, lockdowns and working from home. Three members of Chartered Accountants Ireland – Larissa Feeney, CEO of Accountants Online; Maeve Hunt, Associate Director at Grant Thornton; and Kevin Nyhan, Credit Manager at AIB – describe what made their 2020 difficult, how they overcame those challenges, and what they hope to change this year. Goal-setting and disconnecting Larissa Feeney, founder and CEO of Accountant Online, has found that making realistic goals and not loading up her task list has kept her going during the pandemic. As a company, we were lucky when the pandemic hit as we were accustomed to remote working and automation, but adapting to working from home during a lockdown is challenging for everyone. I put a routine in place from early on: get up at 6.30am to do some reading, yoga and meditation before going for a walk. I am ready for work at 9am. If I keep to that routine consistently, it keeps me focused for the day and on an even keel.  Every Sunday evening, when I am relaxed, I set out all my weekly goals – both work and personal – and there is a great satisfaction to ticking those off during the week. At the start, I tried to motivate myself by putting lots of things on the list but that only served to make me feel stressed, overwhelmed and anxious, so I ensure the list is realistic and follows SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) principles. All my weekly goals contribute towards my monthly goals, my annual goals and my five-year goals. I know that I have higher energy in the early part of the week, so I take on the harder tasks during those days.  I have three children at home, so homeschooling means that you can’t give both home or work life 100%, but we are all doing our best. We have to go easy on ourselves and know that we cannot operate at the same level as before the pandemic, but we will get back to those levels one day.  To disconnect, I read in the evenings – but books that are good for the soul, rather than the business and leadership books I read in the mornings. Walking and getting out in the fresh air always helps. At home, a different person makes the lunch and the dinner every day and we take turns to pick a family movie to watch together.  Apart from ‘getting back to normal’, what I would like to change this year is the further evolution and development of the team and further investment in automation and innovation. Personally, I will continue to work on the home/business divide, which can always do with improvement. Stick with a routine in 2021  Maeve Hunt, Director of Audit and Assurance at  Grant Thornton, first thought the same day-to-day routine would get her down, but it has proved to be a winning habit.  When the pandemic hit last March, we scrambled to leave our offices and head home with monitors under the arm (quite literally) to enter this new way of working. For many, it was a balancing act of working at home in shifts and looking after children. For others, it was an isolating moment in time with no one sharing their working environment. What we needed was a new ‘routine’ of working. Is there a word that is more uninspiring and dull than ‘routine’?  It is a word we want to escape from. We want to travel the world and hide from routine, and seek exciting new opportunities. Can we be creative if we are in a routine?  If we have learned anything from the last year, it’s that routine may be dull, but it is familiar and dependable. A good routine has been key in order to live a somewhat enjoyable and productive working and personal life through the pandemic.  What worked for me was starting my working day earlier, taking an extended break in the middle of the day to ensure I homeschool my five-year-old and play with my two-year-old.  Inevitably, this meant working at night but I found that the shorter, focused periods of work I was completing actually made me more productive. That became a good motivator for me. What I found most challenging in that first lockdown period was how easy it was to go from day to day without talking to another member of my team. I quickly realised that the part I loved most about my job, and missed most during the health crisis, was collaboration.  Scheduling a daily chat with a member of the team has really helped with this. These social calls have helped me disconnect and give me energy for the rest of the working day.  So where do we go from here? There are many things I would change about the last year, but I think I’ve learned a lot about the importance of sticking to a routine that offers a bit of variety. It may not be the traditional working day in the office, but it is all about balance.  It is ensuring you disconnect in the day and take extended breaks. The beauty of working at home is the ability to get back time, cutting out commutes, inevitable down time and unproductive moments in the office. Use this time! Use it to clear your head, go for a walk, read a book, play with the kids. You will be all the more productive for it. A few tweaks to that dreaded routine, which we believe kills all imagination, might end up providing us with enthusiasm and energy for our daily life.   The importance of connections and disconnection  Kevin Nyhan, Credit Manager at AIB, has gone into 2021 wanting to reconnect with his colleagues and knowing the importance of leaving work behind at the end of the day. I was fortunate in that I had been able to work from home a few days each month before the COVID-19 crisis, so it wasn’t a completely new experience to me. However, there’s a big difference between doing it occasionally and working remotely on a permanent basis.  From the start, I’ve made sure to form and try to keep a daily routine, similar to what I did when I was in the office. I get up at the same time each day, try to start and finish at the same time, as well as taking breaks and lunch around the same as I would have done in the office. I have found that really helps to maintain some sort of difference between work and home.  Working on my own all day, I do miss the social interaction of work. At the start of the pandemic, like most, I tried group zoom calls and quizzes but, as we all know, it’s hard to have group discussions via video call. Instead, I now make the point of scheduling a short video call each week with a colleague or friend to have a coffee and a chat and that does help keep in touch with people. I’m fortunate to have a spare room to work from so I can close the door in the evening and try to leave work behind. However, it can be difficult to switch off when you’re just walking from one room to another at the end of the day. The commute between the office and home was useful to disconnect from work-mode and I do miss that break between home and work. I now take a short walk in the evening after I finish work. That 20 minutes really helps me to disconnect. Plus, my dog is delighted with all the walks he is getting these days.

Feb 09, 2021

Do ultra-low interest rates justify ultra-high stock market values? Cormac Lucey shares his thoughts as US tech stocks continue their astonishing rise. Are we experiencing a stock market bubble? The question arises because of the startling rebound in global stock market indices since last March and, in particular, because of the astonishing rise in value experienced by US tech companies. Since their March lows, the Nasdaq has nearly doubled, the NYSE FANG+ Index has risen by 150%, and Tesla has risen to an astounding 12.2 times its starting position. The other factor that suggests we are in the middle of an equity bubble is valuations. The best measure of underlying long-term valuation is the Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings (CAPE) ratio. It overcomes the weakness of the traditional Price Earnings (PE) ratio, that cyclically inflated earnings can make a cyclically inflated price look reasonable, by replacing one year’s earnings with average earnings over the previous 10 years, adjusted for inflation. The US CAPE is currently 35. That level has only ever been seen before as the Nasdaq bubble peaked in 2000. After that, the US tech index fell by three quarters before eventually bottoming in early 2002. On one hand, Jeremy Grantham, founder of the GMO fund management group in Boston, reckons that US stock markets are in the final stages of a speculative bubble worthy of comparison with the dot-com bubble, the Great Crash of 1929, and the South Sea Bubble. On the other, Martin Wolf, a Financial Times columnist, doesn’t believe that we are currently experiencing a stock market bubble. He contends that equity prospects depend on the future course of corporate earnings and interest rates. He concludes that, provided the former are strong and the latter ultra-low, stock prices look reasonable. There’s the rub. Do ultra-low interest rates justify ultra-high stock market values? And how long will interest rates remain ultra-low? On the face of it, the value of equity assets should rise as interest rates fall. Interest rates are a vital component of valuation models in general, and the Capital Asset Pricing Model in particular. When interest rates fall, the discount rate used in these models decreases and the price of the equity asset should appreciate, assuming all other things remain equal. Today’s interest rate cuts by central banks may therefore be used to justify higher equity prices and CAPE ratios. But John Hussman, a fund manager and former professor of finance, argues that when people say extreme stock market valuations are “justified” by interest rates, they’re actually saying that it’s “reasonable” for investors to price the stock market for long-term returns of nearly zero because bonds are also priced for long-term returns of nearly zero. “What’s actually happening today,” he argues, “is that investors are so uncomfortable with near-zero bond market valuations that they’ve priced nearly every other asset class at levels that can be expected to produce near-zero, or negative, 10-12 year returns as well.” I agree with Hussman: US stocks are in a bubble. While equities may appear reasonably valued relative to bonds, in absolute terms their ultra-high valuations today suggest ultra-low investment returns over the coming 10-12 years for those who buy them now and hold onto them for several years. However, just because stocks are in a bubble doesn’t mean that they are about to fall. As the then-Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said in 2006: the boom can get boomier. What should investors do? First, expect significant growth in short-term stock market volatility. The recent one-day 25% drop in the price of Bitcoin may be a straw in the wind. Second, the final market top may coincide with central banks allowing long-term interest rates to rise in the face of rising inflation expectations, perhaps in 2022. Until then, enjoy the boom getting boomier. Cormac Lucey is an economic commentator and lecturer at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Feb 09, 2021

Dr Rodney Irwin explains how Chartered Accountants can fulfil their professional duties by strengthening company value through environmental, social and governance criteria. The COVID-19 pandemic has its origins in nature, and through poor biosecurity, it made its way into the human population. Everyone has been impacted to some degree, but how many have considered the pandemic an issue of sustainable development and, perhaps, only the tip of an iceberg? Sustainability is sometimes seen as a cost, but this is not the case. A report by the Business & Sustainable Development Commission estimates that at least $12 trillion in business opportunities would come with the realisation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) by 2030. So, it is not hard to understand why many companies are setting ambitious strategies and targets to reap the benefits. Examples include PepsiCo pledging net-zero emissions by 2040, Stora Enso issuing a €500 million green bond, and Unilever building its successful strategy around making sustainable living commonplace. Companies are increasingly shifting towards more sustainable strategies and stakeholder capitalism by moving away from short-term shareholder primacy. Financial and accounting systems influence decision-making, the assessment of corporate performance, and the value attributed to it. Therefore, financial and accounting systems play an important role in helping management and others evaluate a company’s ability to identify and manage environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks and create sustainable value over time. As accountants, we are expert in financial capital, management information, and accounting standards. But I would strongly argue that the stocks and flows, impacts and dependencies of other forms of capital are equally – if not even more – important in the 21st century to understanding value creation. I argue that we are not accounting for sustainability, value, equity and, ultimately, survival. Sure, we might be compliant with the letter of the existing rules as professionals, but we have a duty to act in the public interest, and I feel that today, we are failing in this fundamental duty. With that in mind, what can we do in our day-to-day lives to fulfil our professional duties? Keep abreast of the ever-changing landscape 2020 marked the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement and UN SDGs, and the three-year anniversary of the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). These are fuelling many governments to set out expectations for companies to adopt accounting, financial and reporting approaches designed to support the transition to a more sustainable future. For example, the EU’s non-financial reporting directive (NFRD) update is planned to be adopted by the European Commission in Q1 2021. In a significant move, Canada, New Zealand and the UK are looking to make climate disclosure mandatory for large companies and financial institutions. Work is also underway to harmonise the so-called non-financial reporting landscape: the big voluntary standard makers announced their intention to work together; the World Economic Forum launched streamlined ESG indicators; and the IFRS and IOSCO expressed strong interest in taking a role in sustainability. Chartered Accountants must stay ahead of the curve to ensure that compliance does not create a burden, but unlocks insights into the company’s ability to create value for all stakeholders. Identifying risks, opportunities and strategies Companies need to understand and manage ESG-related risks. As well as maximising the potential for $12 trillion in business opportunities, we have seen companies issue profit warnings and file for bankruptcy due to ESG-related events. BASF issued profit warnings due to low water levels in the Rhine river, which affected transportation and production in 2018 impacting Solvay, Shell and many other companies as well. Said to be the first known climate change bankruptcy, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2019 following California’s drought and forest fires. However, 44% of companies show some alignment between what they say is material in their sustainability report and what they disclose in their legal risk filings. In practice, this means relevant risks are not being properly disclosed or considered in strategic decision-making. As trusted advisors, Chartered Accountants must provide decision-useful information for both management and investors to make the right resource and financial allocations. Focusing on materiality The misalignment in reporting mentioned above is just one indication of the dilemmas companies and others face in determining which ESG matters represent sufficiently serious impacts and dependencies, and over which time-scales, to threaten corporate performance. The concept of materiality is developing. The EU has introduced its double-materiality that takes account of the significance of ESG issues affecting the company’s development, performance and position (sometimes known as “outside-in” materiality) and the significance of the impact of the company’s activities on the environment and society (sometimes known as “inside-out” materiality). We are in a crucial position to ensure that both types of material information get captured, managed, and demonstrated to our key stakeholders. Providing robust information The number of signatories to the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) grew to over 3,000 globally in 2020. Strengthening the investment case, several studies have shown no negative impact of including ESG considerations in the investment selection criteria. Furthermore, companies are likely to generate better returns when they manage ESG issues well. With these trends, we must ensure that the ESG information produced is of high-level, decision-useful quality for internal and external decision-making and that our companies can profit from a lower cost of capital due to more robust management of risks like ESG. Accounting for ESG matters is not a rejection of traditional accounting. It builds on concepts such as accounting for externalities, which have been in circulation for a century. Many studies in the public domain criticise accounting (at a corporate and national level) for mismeasurement, using deficient metrics that ignore ecological and social depreciation and amortisation. However, the IASB has made it clear that we have existing tools in our armoury of standards to account for ESG risks. This is a new chapter for Chartered Accountants. We need to embrace the ESG agenda, skill ourselves sufficiently to be competent and honour our profession’s call to act in the public interest. We can be architects of the future, building on our heritage and developing a new accounting language so that new knowledge will emerge to secure both reward and survival. We should, and we must, enhance and share our unique and important skills to help decision-makers understand and act on this new reality. Ensuring sustainability information is decision-useful: new guidance coming on assurance Investors are increasingly looking for third-party assurance of sustainability information. The problem is that, unlike auditing financial statements, the market for sustainability assurance is unregulated and practice is inconsistent – even though standards do exist. To strengthen practice, the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB) is developing guidance to assist practitioners with the critical challenges in assuring sustainability information. A primary focus is on report users’ needs to ensure that they can use the information with confidence. The IAASB expects to issue its final guidance in March after an extensive consultation process. Once launched, the guidance will be promoted through the global network of over 170 professional accounting bodies, which are required through the International Federation of Accountants’ membership criteria to follow international standards. The World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has been instrumental in driving greater credibility in sustainability through its assurance project. In addition to working with the IAASB, WBCSD has produced the freely available Buyers’ Guide to help companies procuring external assurance, guidance on internal controls over sustainability information, and a study of investors’ needs when reviewing sustainability assurance. These tools aim to help practitioners, companies and investors have greater confidence in sustainability reporting so that the information, regardless of what report it appears in, can be relied upon for decision-making. Practical steps to integrate ESG to ensure long-term value creation As the prominence of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) is growing, companies need to meaningfully integrate ESG into mainstream business processes to ensure long-term profitability and resilience. To do this, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a global and CEO-led organisation of over 200 leading businesses working together to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world, has created strategic and practical steps to understand and manage relevant ESG matters: Step 1: Understand key risks, opportunities, impacts and dependencies by assessing the broader range of your impacts and dependencies by using the Capitals Coalition’s Natural Capital Protocol and the Social & Human Capital Protocol. Also, build your company’s resilience with the COSO-WBCSD guidance on applying enterprise risk management (ERM) to ESG-related risks in conjunction with our diagnostic tool to understand your level of ESG integration. Step 2: Report strategically by building effective disclosure with the help of our ESG Disclosure Handbook, and uncover good practice and sustainability reporting trends through Reporting Matters. Step 3: Give investors decision-useful information by exploring the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) Preparer Forum’s good disclosure practices. Strengthen your understanding of investor perspectives and dialogues and improve your data quality and credibility through the Buyer’s Guide to Assurance on Non-Financial Information. Step 4: Prepare for change by modernising corporate governance by understanding the relationship between sustainability and governance and ensuring robust internal controls, using the latest guidance on improving ESG information quality for decision-making. For the full list of steps and access to the resources referenced above, visit www.wbcsd.org. Dr Rodney Irwin FCA is CFO/COO of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

Feb 09, 2021

Despite the challenging business environment, Prof. Anne Marie Ward and Nadine O’Kane have identified several competitive advantages that credit unions in Northern Ireland could and should promote as they seek to bolster the sustainability of their business models. There are 146 credit unions (CUs) in Northern Ireland, with 592,171 adult member accounts and 104,906 juvenile deposit accounts, according to the Bank of England’s Q2 2019 Credit Union Quarterly Statistics. In some communities, CUs are large, are open six days a week, and provide a range of sophisticated products and services. In others, CUs are small and offer simple products and services to a small number of members, sometimes opening for only a few hours each week. Irrespective of their size or sophistication, CUs have become increasingly important over the past decade, which has seen the flight of bank branches from small towns, for nurturing sustainable, healthy societies. Financial exclusion is a continuing problem and CUs are a solution. In January 2020, Grant Thornton Northern Ireland and Ulster University hosted a workshop in Grant Thornton’s Belfast office to facilitate the exchange of knowledge between various stakeholders in the CU sector in Northern Ireland. The day focused on the themes of sustainability, corporate governance, diversity and regulation. The first of these themes, the sustainability of the credit union movement, is the focus of this article. The workshop included short presentations by experts, round-table discussions, and question and answer sessions. The experts were: Patrick Darcy and Sinead O’Neill, Grant Thornton; Gordon Smyth, Ulster Federation of Credit Unions; Matthew Howse and Damien McElholm, Eversheds; Martin Fisher and Marianne Cushley, Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU); and Nadine O’Kane and Prof. Anne Marie Ward, Ulster University. Marianne Cushley from the ILCU’s Communications Department (Northern Ireland) began the workshop with a presentation on sustainability. Marianne works with individual CUs to develop marketing strategies and campaigns to help with their sustainability and growth. She explained how CUs are concerned about ageing memberships, a highly competitive lending market, reduced loan demand, high savings levels but with restricted investment opportunities, increased regulation and compliance, lack of electronic services, low returns on investments, and difficulties in attracting volunteers. In concluding her presentation, Marianne asked attendees to focus on challenges in three areas: accessibility, relevance, and competition. It was clear from the discussions that the challenges were not homogeneous across CUs. Accessibility challenges Loan application processes and policies A major concern of attendees was that their loan application processes and policies needed to be quicker to meet the demands of today’s networked society. While representatives from the larger CUs explained that they have automated lending software systems enabling same-day and next-day lending, several of the smaller CUs do not. Their loan application processes need to be streamlined and made available and easily accessible online. Another stumbling block noted by some CU representatives was the prerequisite 13-week saving period that some smaller CUs still enforce before allowing a new member to borrow. It was generally agreed that loans should be provided based on ability to repay, and not savings records. Finally, some CUs noted that staff were reluctant to authorise loans. Therefore, loan requests had to go to the credit committee, which increased the time between a member making a loan inquiry and receiving the funds. It was advised that loan officers be appointed, trained, and delegated powers to lend money up to a certain threshold. This would allow the credit committee to focus on larger loans and problem accounts. Opening hours and location Most participants in the workshop concurred that the location of CU premises can be a challenge; the ideal scenario is where the CU is located within its community and where footfall is plentiful. In addition, free on-site car parking would improve access and be popular with members. Finally, all agreed that accessibility is improved with flexible opening hours, including Saturdays and evenings, though this may not be possible due to resource implications. Digitalisation It was generally felt that online services are important to each CU’s future sustainability, though cost is an issue. The larger CUs have sophisticated IT support systems and are more concerned with keeping up-to-date with the latest digital technology and applications. The smaller CUs, on the other hand, are concerned about their inability to provide even basic digital services. It was advised that CUs should work with their trade associations, IT providers, or with a neighbouring CU to obtain cost-effective solutions. Several representatives from larger CUs flagged big data and data analytics as a challenge. In particular, they focused on how to use member information and publicly available data to drive strategy, operational activity, and marketing. Readers should note that this workshop took place a few months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which accentuated the importance of online services and systems to cater for members’ needs when physical access is not possible. Most CUs provided phone support when premises closed due to pandemic restrictions. Relevance challenges Attracting new members As well as increasing accessibility, it was agreed that engaging with online services and providing new services, such as debit cards, will increase the relevance of CUs. However, participants also felt that emphasising the unique characteristics of CUs was the best means of attracting new members. In that context, CUs: Specialise in non-business customers, although some are beginning to explore business lending to corporate members; Have a presence in many towns; Are community-based and provide social benefits for their communities; and Focus on member wellbeing. The promotion of these attributes will differentiate CUs from other financial services providers. Engaging with current members In general, participants agreed that a formally structured survey of members every two or three years would enable the board of the CU to prioritise the development of certain products or services, knowing they are responding to members’ needs. Several CUs had undertaken surveys and argued that it demonstrates a willingness to engage with members, provides evidence for the regulators that the board is responding to members’ needs, and can also inform the business plan. However, it was noted that a survey should only ask about services that the CU can realistically deliver and that it is important to report to members on survey findings as it shows that the CU is listening. Competitive challenges CUs operate in a fiercely competitive lending market where they must compete with high street banks, challenger and online banks, doorstep lenders, and alternative lenders such as supermarkets, as well as each other. Two competitive challenges were discussed at the workshop: reaching non-members with their message, and differentiation from other lenders. Reaching non-members Participants shared their experience of the challenges in communicating the CU message to potential members and the comparative competitive advantage of other lenders with large marketing budgets. Suggestions for extending the reach to non-members included widening the ‘common bond’ (i.e. the range of people eligible for membership) and building on current relationships with primary schools to attract younger members. CUs should also engage with local groups and organisations, communicating the benefits of CUs and what they can do for people. In doing so, they could use several promotional activities and channels. Options include direct marketing, targeted outdoor advertising, social media and digital marketing, visits to local secondary schools and colleges, running personal financial management classes, raising funds for community events, and sponsorship of local initiatives, which would meet social objectives while gaining publicity. Differentiation It was noted that competitors can provide a wider range of products and services. Updating the specific legislation governing CUs would allow them to better compete in the marketplace. Examples of new services suggested to attract members and potential members include: An overdraft with a revolving credit facility; and Increasing loan interest rates to 3% per annum so that CUs can provide differentiated higher-risk, higher-return loans to people with poor credit ratings – for example, students with mobile phone debt (though this suggestion was controversial). Conclusion CUs face many challenges. It was generally agreed that trade associations and the wider CU family should focus more on CUs’ comparative advantages over other financial institutions and not try to label themselves as banks. They should focus on and communicate their unique attributes and offerings. CUs in Northern Ireland currently enjoy strong member loyalty and are seen as trustworthy. They have a skilled workforce and, due to high levels of savings, have readily available funds for lending. CUs focus on the welfare and sustainability of their members and respective communities. For example, capital retentions are used to improve a CU and ensure that it has strong capital and solvency ratios; office supplies and maintenance technicians are sourced locally; and excess surpluses are returned to members. This is a competitive advantage that should be exploited when promoting CU products and services. Prof. Anne Marie Ward is Professor of Accounting at Ulster University, and Nadine O’Kane is a PhD Researcher at the Department of Accountancy, Finance and Economics at Ulster University.  

Feb 09, 2021

Joanne Hession explains the concept of positive leadership and shares five strategies to help you develop this increasingly vital skill. I remember the financial crisis of 2008. I remember scrambling to try to keep my two businesses afloat. I remember thinking, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney, if I can get through this, I can cope with anything. Across the world, businesses were faced with incredible challenges. It was difficult for everyone. Employees took wage cuts, worked long hours, found new markets, and sought innovative solutions to keep their businesses going until things picked up. Some businesses did not make it while others did. Thankfully, we weathered the storm. Why did some businesses survive while others did not? There are many reasons, but a couple of years ago, I came across research conducted by Dr Fred Kiel in Harvard Business Review (as well as in Dr Kiel’s book, Return on Character). In 2015, Dr Kiel looked at whether business performance has any relationship with the CEO’s character. He asked employees in over 100 organisations to rate their chief executive on integrity, compassion, forgiveness and responsibility. Based on respondents’ feedback, he gave the CEOs an overall score, which he called their ‘character score’. Then, he looked at the return on assets (ROA) of the companies they led to see whether there was any relationship between character scores and business performance. The categorical answer was: yes, there was. The CEOs rated highest for their character score invariably led the companies with the best performance. The five highest-ranked leaders led companies with a ROA of close to 10% over the period. The companies of CEOs with a medium character score had an average ROA of about 5%. Interestingly, the leaders with the lowest character scores had ROA rates of around 2%. For me, this finding echoes the work of psychologist, Prof. Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan. Prof. Peterson carried out an analysis of the common factors among US soldiers who returned from difficult tours of duty with higher resilience levels than others. As he analysed the data he noted that, aside from resilience, soldiers who progressed to leadership positions in the military also had the highest scores on ‘strength of character’ indicators such as honesty, hope, bravery, industry, and teamwork. These traits seemed to be most important in progressing to positions of leadership in the military. This research resonated with me deeply. I have always believed that the most important aspect of leadership lies in character, and both Dr Kiel and Prof. Peterson confirmed this. But more importantly, Dr Kiel’s research demonstrated that positive character attributes directly correlate with better leadership, all the way down to the bottom line. The central point is this: when things are really difficult, as they were in 2008, character is central to how people respond. Little did I know back then just how much more challenging the world would become 12 years later, and just how vital positive leadership would be. The role of influence Leadership is an interesting concept. Ask most people to name a leader and they will invariably choose a CEO, politician or perhaps a team captain. Whatever the context, it will almost always be the person at the top. Bottom-line results are often why one person is chosen over another: X was in charge when Rabona United won the league; or Y was the CEO when Tech Co. Inc. increased its share price three years in a row, for example. There are undoubtedly great leaders among these positional leaders. Yet I cannot help thinking that this notion of leaders as those at the top of their environments misses the point about what leadership is and where we can find it. Leadership is influence. If you influence others, you are leading them. Positive leadership is therefore about positive influence. Whether it is termed ‘authentic’, ‘transformational’, ‘charismatic’ or ‘servant’ leadership, positive leadership is influence that emerges because someone cares, empowers and supports others and because their behaviour or character provides an example that others use to forge their futures. I have been in the privileged position of running several businesses for over 20 years now. As founder and CEO, I have, in a literal sense, led those businesses. But just as importantly throughout those 20 years, numerous others have led me. When one of my staff saw a potential niche market, offering and explaining his findings, I was influenced to change our business direction slightly. When one of our technical experts saw a more efficient way to allow our teams to collaborate, I followed her lead to progress the overall business vision. In purely business terms, I may be founder and CEO, but I am well aware that there are times when my role is to lead, and there are times when my role is to take my lead from others.  This is a liberating and empowering idea. It doesn’t matter what our role is, and it doesn’t matter whether we are running a business or are the newest recruit through the door. Every one of us leads at certain times and follows at others. We all encounter moments every day when our actions, words, or behaviour might influence others. When this happens, others are effectively taking their lead from us, and we are leading them. Equally, we are all influenced by others and, regardless of our seniority, we need to maintain the humility to recognise that leadership is a shared endeavour. When everyone within a business understands that how they act will potentially influence and lead others, and when they are given the space and permission to exercise this leadership role, the benefits are immeasurable. Employee satisfaction increases as strict hierarchical structures gain flexibility; individual ownership and responsibility for behaviour and performance rise; and the sense of mutual collaboration within teams and across departments and functions grows exponentially. Beyond the professional realm, we can be leaders in all walks of life. In our families, we might have children, siblings, or parents who are influenced by us. Among our friends, we are constantly influencing and being influenced. This places a responsibility very squarely on our shoulders – if we are continually being asked to lead, how can we ensure that we are leading well? We all need an understanding of what good leadership should look like. What ‘good’ leadership looks like Good leadership has nothing to do with control or power. We can say that we are leading well only when we have exerted positive influence, whether we are aware of it or not. Even if we are not in a leadership position, we should aim to provide a positive example in how we lead ourselves and potentially influence others in a positive direction also. We cannot force others to follow us; we can only try to behave in a way that others will choose to follow. This means focusing on building our character in order to develop our leadership capacity. As a good starting point in building positive leadership, it is worthwhile to consider five main areas: 1. Reflect on your values. Positive leaders are clear about what they stand for. To develop your positive leadership capacity, you must understand your values. Make this a written exercise. Dig deep. What is it that matters to you? What are the boundaries that you will not cross, regardless of the pressures you might be under? What do you want to contribute to your business, community and family? Take time to reflect on your values because they are the yardstick by which others will measure you, and you will measure yourself. 2. Reflect on your behaviour. Few things are as powerful as seeing someone with deep integrity, who has the courage to be accountable and is willing to stand up for what they believe in. Unfortunately, few of us are as consistent as we would like to be. We all fall below the standards we expect of ourselves occasionally. Allow yourself to reflect regularly on your behaviour in light of your values. Be honest with yourself. Do you have higher expectations of others than you do of yourself? Have you judged others by their actions, but judged yourself by your intentions? Review your actions and behaviour over the previous days or weeks. How do you feel you have lived up to your values? Have you led as positively as you intended? How has your behaviour impacted on your team, colleagues, and those around you? 3. Reflect on your relationships. To influence another, for them to choose to take their lead from us, we must create a real and meaningful connection. People respond to genuine connection. If we want to build our positive leadership, we have to focus on the most basic (but frequently, the most difficult) things: to truly listen to what others are saying; to genuinely understand their perspectives or concerns; to treat everyone with respect and fairness. Assess how you have performed here. What could you do better? 4. Decide how you can improve. One of the most inspiring leadership characteristics is seeing someone who makes the most of what they have and works to maximise their abilities. Unless we learn to give our best and work to improve continually, we have little authority to influence or lead others. When you reflect on your behaviour and identify where you have fallen below your own standards, set yourself a finite and measurable action that will force you to address that shortcoming, even if it is only in a small way. Hold yourself accountable. 5. Repeat. Building positive leadership character is like going to the gym. It needs to become a part of your life to have a meaningful and lasting impact. Don’t try to change overnight. Instead, focus on making the steps above part of the fabric of your routine. Just like ‘peace’, in Yeats’ poem, change “comes dropping slow”, but small actions done consistently can create great change. Joanne Hession is Founder and CEO of LIFT Ireland, a not-for-profit initiative to increase the level of positive leadership in Ireland.

Feb 09, 2021

Julia Rowan answers your management, leadership and team development questions. Q. I do my best to bring my team together on calls, but it’s a one-way street with me doing all the talking. In general, we all get on well enough together. How can I get everyone to contribute? First of all, congratulations on noticing this (not all leaders do) and wanting to change it. Team meetings are often the only time the whole team is together, and they are a vital tool for building the team you want. There are many reasons for silence and non-participation at meetings, but you say that team members get on well. So, I wonder if you and the team have fallen into a pattern where you call and run the meeting, share information, get through business – and they sit and listen. Think about how you want your team to develop. Do you want colleagues to be more proactive? More collegiate? More strategic? Then, reflect on how you use the team meeting to achieve that. Changing established patterns takes time and discipline. Prepare great questions to ask your team – a great question leads to a great discussion and doesn’t necessarily have a ‘right’ answer. It would help if you also let go of the pressure to talk. This is a tough habit to break, especially when there’s silence. Invite the team to share their experience of the team meeting – what they find more and less valuable or how the team meeting could be more useful. Working from home provides you with a great reason to do that, so give the team some notice and invite them to share what they like and what they don’t. Listen to the feedback without responding, other than to say “thank you”. Explaining and justifying sends a clear message that we’re not really listening. Then, act on the feedback and check-in after a few meetings. Ask about what has improved and what still needs work. This reaffirms the idea that talking about how we work together is good. Q. One member of my team is outstanding at most of his job, but poor in one aspect. I’ve given him lots of feedback – positive feedback about what he does well and honest feedback about where he needs to improve. He always listens and agrees, but nothing changes. This is common, and it sounds like you’ve fallen into a comfortable pattern: you give feedback, he listens, nothing changes, you give more feedback, and so on. Patterns can take on a life of their own, but they need to be broken if they’re not working. You must change the pattern. Instead of (yet again) giving your team member feedback on the one aspect of their job they are poor at, say: “John, I’ve given you feedback about (aspect), and I notice that (aspect) is continuing. Can we talk about why that’s happening?” This leads you to quite a different discussion. When giving feedback, it’s useful to describe (e.g. “your report was two days late”) rather than judge (e.g. “you don’t care about this project”). This is difficult as our brain automatically interprets (judges) behaviour and concludes what it means! So “you don’t care about this project” may appear to be the truth, but it’s not – it’s your story. The truth is that the reports are late. Paring back from judgement to description takes preparation. Julia Rowan is Principal Consultant at Performance Matters, a leadership and team development consultancy. If you have a question, email julia@performancematters.ie

Feb 09, 2021

‘Employability’ refers to the skills, knowledge, experience and personal qualities needed to gain and maintain fulfilling work during an individual’s career. In this article, Dr Mary E. Collins discusses the importance of employability from an employer’s perspective and provides practical strategies to help organisations focus on the issue, whatever their size. Over the past year, the employment market has experienced extreme volatility. Certain sectors have been hit particularly hard, with tens of thousands of jobs in the hospitality and tourism sector the first to feel the full impact of the COVID-19 restrictions. In other sectors, there has been a spike in job openings and, indeed, an employment boom due to the global pandemic. Research from Glassdoor has shown that coronavirus-related job postings have increased in recent months: government, pharma, healthcare and non-profit sectors in the US have all tripled their hiring efforts in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The trend is similar internationally. In Ireland, we have seen increased job vacancies in health, IT and communications, logistics, procurement and insurance. Professional services employment trends remain stable. One certainty in this dynamic, volatile employment market is that talented people always have choices. In fact, the war for talent heated up in the past year with the explosion in remote working. Many roles that were once limited by geographical location can now be fulfilled from anywhere with decent broadband connectivity. What is ‘employability’? The Institute of Employment Studies in the UK defines employability as the “capacity to move self-sufficiently within the labour market to realise potential through sustainable employment… for the individual, it depends on the knowledge, skills and attributes they possess, the way they use those assets and present them to employers.” Employability is the ability to be employed from three perspectives: Gaining initial employment: the ability to get started in a career, leveraging education, careers advice and so on to ensure one has core, marketable skills. Maintaining employment: the ability to keep a job and make transitions between new roles within the same organisation, adapting to new job requirements. Obtaining new employment: the ability to succeed in the labour market and manage employment transitions between and within different organisations. The business case There is now a strong business case for employers to make explicit commitments to employees about supporting them in becoming, and remaining, employable; that working with the organisation will make them more employable for future roles. We have seen a cultural shift whereby younger generations look to their employers for purpose and meaning in an increasingly unpredictable world. Employers who care about their people’s future employment opportunities demonstrate a commitment to the broader ‘covenant’ between employer and employee. The younger generations in the workplace are generally known as Millennials or Gen Y, who were born between 1980 and 1998, and Centennials or Gen Z, who were born from 1999 onwards. These generations hold the balance of power in recruitment, so employers must be aware of their expectations. A new approach is required to attract, engage, and retain them. This includes the provision of: Good work/life balance; Work arrangements with flexible locations and hours; Clear personal development routes; Clear promotion opportunities; Meaning and purpose in work (making a meaningful contribution to society); Support around personal wellbeing; and Commitment to their employability. Some commentators on the future of work predict that Gen Z will change jobs 15 to 20 times in their careers. Regardless of age, the concept of ‘a job for life’ is practically redundant and most people will hold positions with a variety of employers over the course of their working lives. Increased flexibility in working patterns means people need to be prepared to change jobs. It also means better opportunities. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will replace many roles, while new roles are emerging that never existed before. Employability should be a core element of your employer brand, defined by CIPD as “a set of attributes and qualities – often intangible – that makes an organisation distinctive, promises a particular kind of employment experience, and appeals to those people who will thrive and perform best in its culture.” The CareerEDGE Framework of Employability Developed by Lorraine Dacre Pool and Peter Sewell in their 2007 article, The Key to Employability: Developing a Practical Model of Graduate Employability, the CareerEDGE Framework of Employability suggests that once individuals develop the essential EDGE components (experience, degree subject knowledge, generic skills, and emotional intelligence), this paves the way for the development of the “higher-order” areas of self-efficacy, self-confidence, and self-esteem that are critical in developing employability. Investing in people’s employability The challenge is for employers to focus on investing in the employability of individuals rather than maintaining roles that could eventually become redundant, thereby prioritising an inclusive and lifelong approach to skills development. Using the CareerEDGE Framework, here are some practical steps for employers to consider. Career development Provide access to mentors in the organisation, as this is an excellent way to support development at all stages of employees’ careers. Have career development conversations at least once a year as part of the performance management process. Seek external opportunities for coaching and mentoring from relevant government agencies, professional bodies, and initiatives (for example, the 30% Club Mentoring Programme to improve the female talent pipeline).  Experience A core part of supporting employability is providing appropriate work experience to support personal and career development. Every role should include some ‘stretch’ assignments, which are work projects that provide growth opportunities and challenge in a supportive way. Where possible, allow employees to work in different parts of the business to gain new and diverse work experience. Degree subject knowledge, understanding and skills In the CareerEDGE Framework, this refers to the knowledge and technical skills a graduate gains from their degree course(s) relevant to their career trajectory, and upon which they can continue to build their employability. Employers must support their staff in their continuous professional development and ensure progression to higher levels of attainment. Opportunities to sponsor and co-fund educational activities should be encouraged as a core element of supporting employability. Generic skills Dacre Pool and Sewell present a set of generic skills that employers expect to have been developed in graduates (see Figure 1). Employers should seek ways for employees to develop in all of these generic skills. It is important to note and record skills development as part of the performance planning process. Emotional intelligence Emotional intelligence (EQ) continues to grow in impact and importance. Daniel Goleman defines it as “the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships”. Employers can support EQ development in the workplace by ensuring that leaders are role models in terms of self-awareness, managing their emotions, showing empathy, flexibility, and – crucial in these times – demonstrating resilience and optimism. Most leadership development programmes incorporate some element of EQ skills development. Self-assessment profiles, such as the Emotional Capital Report (see www.rochemartin.com), can be useful when working with a coach or mentor to develop these core skills from an early career stage. Dr David Foster, Director of Career Development and Skills at University College Dublin and Director of the UCD Careers Network, takes a holistic view of employability. “We’ve used the CareerEDGE Framework at Careers Network as a model for about five years now, and it’s been great as we aim to enhance students’ self-confidence and self-efficacy in all we do. We feel self-confident people can better unlock their mental energies and abilities to negotiate their personal and professional development, which we think leads to employability.” In conclusion, employability is core to the contemporary covenant between employers and employees and has become an important facet in attracting, developing and retaining talent. Even in recessionary times, talented graduates and professionals have choices, especially in a world that has embraced remote working. Focusing on supporting the employability of employees at all stages of the career lifecycle will greatly add to a positive culture where people want to give their best and stay longer, even if it isn’t a job for life.   Dr Mary E. Collins is Senior Executive Development Specialist at the RCSI Institute of Leadership.

Feb 08, 2021

Alan Johnson, President of the International Federation of Accountants, shares his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing the profession, and the priorities for his presidential term. 1. When you joined the IFAC Board in 2015, did you envisage at that time becoming President? Absolutely not. In fact, I didn’t know much about IFAC until 2011 when I was approached to consider joining the Professional Accountants in Business Committee, which I served on for five years. In 2015, ACCA, my member body, asked me whether I would consider putting myself forward for the board and quite honestly, I had never thought about that – partly because I wasn’t sure I would know what to do given that I didn’t have much knowledge of IFAC beyond my Professional Accountants in Business work. But then, having thought about it, I realised that I probably knew enough. I also realised the value of being a volunteer and giving back to the profession, a profession that had given me a good life and a good career internationally, so I decided to go for it. I knew it would be competitive, and I didn’t honestly expect to get it, but I was selected to my pleasant surprise. Then, when the call came out for board members to put their names forward in January 2018 for the Deputy President position, I didn’t put myself forward because I genuinely believed that other members of the board deserved to become President and would do a better job than me. But things developed by mid-2018 and I was again asked to consider putting myself forward. It was quite late in the process, but I put my hat in the ring. As they say, the rest is history. I was appointed Deputy President and the more I learnt about the role, the more I felt confident in the role so that, by the time the election for the presidency came around, I felt I was ready. So, that’s what happened. It wasn’t planned or envisaged. I never expected to get on the board of IFAC, let alone become Deputy President or President, but sometimes things work out. 2. And how has the work of IFAC changed over the five years of your involvement? The profession faces many challenges, as do all professions today. Number one, we have the scrutiny of the regulators concerning the quality of audit. Sadly, corporate failures will always bring the spotlight onto the audit profession, whether we like it or not. Failures – and I would not necessarily call them audit failures because it is not as if the audit itself failed – arise for various reason, including for example when management deliberately keeps information away from auditors. Now, that is not a good enough excuse to the public because every corporate failure leads to significant loss of jobs, loss of livelihoods, loss of value to investors, and damage to the society in which businesses operate. So, I don’t want to minimise corporate failure; it’s quite serious, and we have an important role in helping prevent it as part of a broader ecosystem. We also have to demonstrate that we operate ethically, that we act independently, and we do our best to provide independent, high-quality assurance on financial statements. We, therefore, spend a lot of time reinforcing the importance of ethical behaviour, independence and judgement. There’s a firm commitment to operate with sound and robust independence in what we do. The other thing I would say is that we talk about the auditors when it comes to corporate failure, but we should also think about the professional accountants in the business who are responsible for performance, oversight, risk and governance. We must look at ourselves from within the corporate entities and ask: where are we as professional accountants, and is this a situation where we should blow the whistle? That’s where the profession plays a vital role and that’s why the Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants, which covers not just accountants in practice but also accountants in business and the public sector, are essential as we support our professionals and encourage them to speak out when that is needed and necessary. You know, we talk a lot about the public interest, but if you asked me 30 years ago, when I was CFO of one of Unilever’s subsidiaries, if my job was a public interest role, I probably would have said no. We have a big role to play in explaining what public interest really means. I think the auditors get it, but I’m not sure whether professional accountants in organisations understand that they have a critical role in protecting the public interest. Yes, they are employees of an organisation. Yes, they are paid by the organisation. And yes, their careers are often dependent on those organisations. But since I got involved with IFAC, I have become aware that I’ve always had a “public interest” role. I always acted in the public interest, but I would not have defined that part of my role as it needs to be clearly defined, especially today in a world of multi-stakeholder capitalism. So, we have a significant role to play through our member bodies to ensure that our professional accountants understand their unique roles in protecting the public interest. And part of that is making sure that private enterprises operate correctly, ethically, within the law, and do everything that is right for society – not just what is right for shareholders. 3. For many professional accounting organisations, volunteers tend to come from public practice. Given your extensive background in industry, what does the perspective of an accountant in business bring to IFAC’s standard-setting and industry-convening roles? It’s an interesting question because that was precisely what I had in mind when I had concerns about whether I would be of any use on the IFAC board. Having said that, in all the roles I have had in business, I have always interacted with the profession. I was on the other side of discussions with auditors for many years. I was on selection panels to select auditors. I was the Chief Audit Executive at Unilever for six years and in that time, I engaged regularly with our external auditors. Even though I don’t come from that part of the profession, I understand what they do, what they need, how they operate, their challenges, and their critical role in society. And that’s why I have been able to contribute to the discussions in the Monitoring Group – because I understand the role standard-setting boards play as part of building trust and confidence in financial markets. When I joined the IFAC board, many colleagues came from the audit and assurance side of the profession. Today, we have a much better balance of people from business and the public sector while retaining expertise from the audit and assurance profession and improving the level of representation for small- and medium-sized practices (SMPs) on the standard-setting boards and IFAC’s advisory groups. If there is one thing we should feel proud of, it is how much more diverse the board is today. I thrive in working with diversity. As a person, you learn a lot more; you become a better leader; you become a better person. By the way, diversity of thought, views, expressions and debate around the table will, more often than not, improve outcomes. 4. A feature of Chartered Accountants Ireland’s membership is the relatively high proportion of our members working overseas. What supports should professional accounting organisations offer to their overseas members to encourage loyalty to their qualification while maintaining standards? I worked extensively in Europe, Africa and Latin America during my career, but I always had a strong affinity with Ireland through my early career in Unilever when I visited Dublin and other cities frequently. It’s a unique country that has always been a top talent provider around the world and Chartered Accountants Ireland is no exception. The Chartered Accountants Ireland qualification is highly sought-after, so it’s no surprise that there are so many Irish Chartered Accountants working worldwide, either because their companies have moved them or they sought opportunities abroad. When I look at where we are today, the three things that stand out for me are ethics, leadership and governance. Professional accountancy organisations need to equip their members with these skills wherever they are in the world because reputation takes years to build but can be lost in a flash. We need to protect the profession’s reputation, which boils down to ethics, leadership and governance. It’s also about courage and confidence. So, when I look at what our member bodies need to do, they not only need to support their existing members, they also need to attract the brightest, best and most committed people into the profession because we are a profession of people. Robots and machines might help us be more efficient in some areas, but most of what we do is people-centred and requires good judgement. It’s essential, therefore, that we remain an attractive profession for the next generation. If I look back at my memories of the profession, I think of long hours, hard work, no work/life balance, travelling a lot if you’re in audit and assurance, terrible for families, terrible for working mothers. Your career might pause if you’re a working mother and you take maternity leave or time away to look after young kids – that role that is still more typically assumed by women, although that is changing. As a result, the accountancy profession is not a natural first port of call for the next generation who want better work/life balance. So we must find new ways of doing what we do – not only more efficiently, but doing different things and often in different ways to make our profession attractive. I think accountancy remains very attractive and when I look at the statistics, we are a growing profession. Many young people in many countries are coming through the professional qualification so we can attract them, and that’s great – but we also have to retain them. Purpose is a critical element in achieving that. Young Chartered Accountants want to work for an ethical company, as we all do. It’s is not just about rapid career advancement; they want to see the purpose and the impact their organisation – and by extension, they themselves – can have on society. Young people are thinking about purpose much more than I did 40 years ago. It means much more to them, and they will form their views about whom they want to work with, where they want to work, and what work they want to do based on the ethos and the purpose of organisations. And to go back to the point about the public interest, if we can make it clear why our profession is truly a public interest profession, we will remain a very attractive profession in the future. 5. Your predecessor, Professor In-Ki Joo, described the Monitoring Group’s challenges as “among the most difficult circumstances” in his memory. What opportunities do you see for IFAC as the Monitoring Group’s work takes effect? As you know, the Monitoring Group is a group of international institutions and regulatory bodies that are working to advance the public interest in areas related to international audit standard-setting, audit quality and ethics. The initial Monitoring Group discussions started in May 2015, before I joined the IFAC board, and it remains a feature today.  Today we’re in a much better place, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. There will be some changes to the structure of the standard-setting boards and the process to select standard-setting board members. But whatever the outcome is, I think there is a clear recognition that the profession has developed high-quality standards for auditors, professional accountants and the public sector. The question is how we move forward in a changing environment with more agility, more speed, and more diversity – that’s what we’re discussing now. IFAC and its member bodies will continue to play an important role in the standard-setting process. Why do I say that? First of all, we have the knowledge and expertise. We are either the preparers, users or assurers, so we must have a role because we understand what good standards look like. That’s accepted by the Monitoring Group and the other players, including the PIOB (Public Interest Oversight Board) and the standard-setting board chairs. We also have to play a critical role in adopting and implementing international standards. A standard-setting board can write excellent standards, go through the due process, get them developed and get them approved – but indeed international standard-setters have no force of law. Standards need to be adopted and implemented by national standard-setters. That is where our profession comes in and why the profession has to stay connected to the standard-setting process, provide good quality resources to the standard-setting board and the technical teams that do the work, and – an even bigger job – facilitate adoption and implementation in jurisdictions around the world. IFAC will clearly have a very important role in standard-setting and an even more important role in making sure that the standards get used. A standard is worth very little if it’s never implemented; sometimes we forget that.  I am much more confident today that we have the right framework in place to have proper and fruitful discussions. There is also the right understanding of each player’s relevant and relative roles, and there is an acceptance that we all have important roles to play in delivering high-quality international standards that are adopted across the world. That’s the objective of all of us, and there is no argument or disagreement about that. 6. IFAC is actively promoting the development of coherent standards for ESG. Are there pitfalls as well as opportunities for accountants as these standards are developed? First of all, we need a truly international approach to ESG standards. At the moment, we have fragmentation with five or six bodies working on different elements of ESG standards. It isn’t joined up, and there’s no mandate to deliver. Like audit and assurance standards or accounting standards, we need a framework and structure to develop international ESG standards. Some time ago, we concluded that the IFRS Foundation had a role to play because it has credibility, capacity, resources, and a proven track record in delivering internationally accepted standards. IFAC put out a call to action in September, which outlined the importance of one body taking responsibility for setting standards. It cannot continue to remain in the hands of five or six independent bodies without the capacity, resources, funding, and authority to deliver. The paper called for a new sustainable standards-setting board under the umbrella of the IFRS to take responsibility for developing credible, international sustainability standards that can be adopted widely across the world. Why? Because there’s an increasing demand for all organisations to report against a consistent set of high-quality standards. The demand from society, investors, stakeholders, suppliers, customers and employees is that companies deliver against a set of high, internationally comparable standards. It goes back to the point of purpose. Whether in our profession or other professions, the next generation will want to work for companies that take this seriously. It’s one thing to say that we will deliver against the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but the hard truth is: how do we know we’re getting there? Where’s the measurement, and against what measures? Are they consistent measures? How do we know that what a company is reporting is authentic, is accurate? That’s where our profession has an important role to play on both sides, both as preparers who help organisations implement the necessary processes and as accountants in practice who provide independent assurance over, and audit, what is reported to give credibility. As a profession, the pitfall will be if we aren’t up to the mark in helping organisations implement the reporting regimes to meet the new standards. If we don’t do that, somebody else will. That might be a pitfall, but I see it more as an opportunity – not necessarily a commercial opportunity, more an opportunity for our profession to play our rightful role in ensuring that organisations become more sustainable and helping society, in general, become more sustainable. This all links back very strongly to the concept of the public interest, which I have mentioned several times. Wherever you go, you will find a link to our role in the public interest – and this is a critical public interest role we must fulfil. That’s why I see it as an opportunity, but a pitfall if we fail. And if we fail, we have not fulfilled our public interest mandate and therefore don’t have a right to speak out on issues. 7. What other areas of focus would you like to bring to bear during your tenure as IFAC president? Beyond the important points I’ve already discussed, I have canvassed intensely for increased professionalism in the public sector. I was on the board of the UK Department for International Development for just over two years and during that time, I chaired the Audit and Risk Assurance Committee. That period really shaped my awareness of how higher levels of professionalism, particularly in terms of the accountancy profession, could make a massive difference to the public sector. It was an ‘aha’ moment for me, and I want to drive that agenda much harder during my presidency. And we are starting from a position of strength, as we now have great public sector representation on the IFAC board. When I joined I think there was one public sector member; we now have four out of 22 and many more on our advisory groups. Another area of focus is what I call ‘Save the SMEs’. Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are critical to every economy, large or small. Big corporates get lots of attention, but we often forget that big corporates not only rely on SMEs, but a significant part of their supply chain is also made up of SMEs. The largest employer worldwide is the SME sector, so we need to save the SMEs by ensuring that they have access to high-quality professional accountants. We can do that by advocating to ensure that they employ professional accountants, and ensuring that the SMPs that support them have a high profile on our agenda. Who is Alan Johnson? Alan Johnson became IFAC President in November 2020, having previously served as Deputy President from 2018-2020 and as a board member since November 2015. He was nominated to the IFAC board by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). Alan is a former non-executive director of Jerónimo Martins SGPS, SA, a food retailer with operations in Portugal, Poland, and Colombia, having completed his board mandate in 2016. He is currently the independent chair of the company’s Internal Control Committee. Previously, Alan was Chief Financial Officer of Jerónimo Martins from 2012 to 2014. Between 2005 and 2011 he served as Chief Audit Executive for the Unilever Group. Alan also served as Chief Financial Officer of Unilever’s Global Foods businesses and worked for Unilever for 35 years in various finance positions in Africa, Europe and Latin America. Alan was a member of the IFAC Professional Accountants in Business Committee between 2011 and 2015, a member of the ACCA’s Market Oversight Committee between 2006 and 2012 and chair of the Accountants for Business Global Forum until 2018. He was a member of the board of Gildat Strauss Israel between 2003 and 2004. Alan is the chair of the board of governors of St. Julian’s School in Portugal and chairs its Finance and Bursaries Committees. In October 2016, he was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the International Valuation Standards Council and chairs its audit committee. Between July 2018 and September 2020, he was a non-executive director of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and chaired its Audit and Risk Assurance Committee. In January 2021, he joined the board of Imperial Brands plc as a non-executive director. Source: The International Federation of Accountants.

Feb 08, 2021

Neil Gibson predicts fast growth, both for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. But lessons must be learnt, he warns. What a year 2020 was across the island of Ireland! Both economies faced severe disruption from the twin pressures of Brexit and COVID-19 that few could ever have imagined. Citizens, businesses and governments were tested and reacted at pace, with little planning. We saw amazing displays of resilience, adaptability and ingenuity as firms pivoted to new ways of working and into new products and services, while our public services responded to both the health and economic crises swiftly and effectively.Looking purely at the economic impact, it is heartening to see areas of real progress. The pandemic experience created skills and attitudes that will hopefully drive the economy forward in new, inventive ways. But before we get to those positives, let us first review economic conditions across the island at the start of 2021.How is the island economy performing now? Remarkably, the Republic of Ireland could end up being the world’s fastest-growing economy in 2020. That depends on Q4 data due in March, but with growth of 8.1% in the year to Q3, income tax receipts down just 1% on the year and corporation tax receipts up 9%, this suggests a high level of insulation from COVID-19 impacts. No such table-topping performance is evident in Northern Ireland, sadly, where the economy is expected to contract by around 12% in 2020, on a par with the UK and towards the more severe end of recorded contractions. Why the divergence? There are technical reasons, notably the way real government spending is measured. Also, Northern Ireland is predominantly a consumer and public sector-led economy, while the Republic of Ireland is more export-oriented. Key exports in the Republic of Ireland include pharma, ICT and food – the best sectors you could wish for during a pandemic. It is more accurate to say that the Republic of Ireland had a level of off-setting growth that Northern Ireland did not, rather than saying it was insulated. The domestic effects were very similar. Perhaps surprisingly, the labour market data look weaker in the Republic of Ireland than Northern Ireland. The published COVID-19 adjusted unemployment rate in the Republic of Ireland peaked at 30.4% and stood at 20.4% in December 2020. No equivalent measures exist for Northern Ireland. This measure is likely to be an over-estimate (again, for complex statistical reasons), but the true rate may well be north of 10% in the Republic of Ireland. Today, an estimated 460,000 people   are in receipt of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP), with 323,200 on wage subsidy as of 31 December in the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, more than 68,000 were on furlough as of 31 October. EY analysis shows that if we include self-employed support, the level of disrupted jobs (jobs lost or falling under full or partial government support) has been very similar, peaking at close to 40%. Government support has protected incomes to a large extent, and limited spending choice has created a considerable build-up in savings. Savings ratios for the UK and the Republic of Ireland (roughly speaking the amount of income available to save) rose to a historic high in the Republic of Ireland of 35.4% and 27.4% in the UK during 2020. Will this money flow back into the economy in 2021 when restrictions ease? The data from last year suggest that it will, but there may be a desire to save more and spend on imports like foreign holidays. However, the potential for a consumer boom is very real, a subject to which we will return.A word for the busy Much commentary in 2020 focused on those unable to work and the sectors most disadvantaged by the pandemic. It is important to also remember the sectors under colossal pressure, and for whom 2020 was one of the busiest ever – health workers, delivery drivers, agri-food workers and the pharma sector, for example. These workers are suffering different challenges, fatigue being the obvious one.A boom coming? There are many reasons to expect a very strong economic recovery in 2021. Government supports have protected incomes for many and there will be a surge back to eating out, sport, hairdressers and gyms when it is safe to do so. The evidence of last summer and autumn supports this hypothesis, which should be further bolstered by the vaccine rollout. The build-up of savings means there will be money to spend. The resilience of both stock markets and housing markets further support the consumer boom theory. Though both governments will need to address the escalating deficit, that will not be a major priority in 2021. There is plenty of global capital seeking good businesses to invest in, and many firms are looking to upgrade their systems and equipment – more positives for economic growth. Residual Brexit-related problems are impacting the island economy. Although many are expected to ease over time, disruption to supply chains and increased paperwork also produce opportunity and demand that will spur a degree of growth in 2021. Projecting the level of growth is something of a fool’s errand without knowing the length and depth of restrictions or the scale of fall in 2020. A growth rate of 5-7% is expected in Northern Ireland, which may well be higher than in the Republic of Ireland. However, that is simply a feature of the scale of 2020 contraction from which Northern Ireland must recover. Forecasters previously predicted unemployment rates settling at above 10%, but now the consensus appears to be moving closer to 8%. This is encouraging following disruption of such scale.Does every cloud have a silver lining? It is often joked that economists can find the cloud in every silver lining. Sadly, the prospect of a consumer boom does cause economic alarm bells to ring. My main worries for 2021 surround prices, debt, discipline, and inequality. A consumer boom, along with a fixed supply of products or services, could lead to price increases. In a high-debt environment, this is not necessarily bad if it does not become endemic (i.e. people start demanding pay rises to meet rising costs), but it does create inequality issues. Rising prices can be very damaging for those outside the labour market, and could exacerbate the ‘K’ shaped recovery, widening the divide between the ‘have’ and ‘have-nots’. There may be difficulties getting the same output for a given spend for both governments with ambitious plans for infrastructure spending and a clear need for health spending. Rising oil and commodity prices are further reasons to suggest that the end of very low inflation may be near. The Republic of Ireland deficit is projected to be around €19 billion. This is much lower than expected, but will nevertheless act as a headwind for spending. In the UK, the deficit could rise to £400 billion, an eye-watering amount creating much stronger headwinds for UK spending decisions in the March budget. Emerging from the last recession was very difficult across the island; austerity took a severe toll on citizens, public services, and society. However, what it does bring is a sense of discipline and focus on budgets and spending. The concern of the pandemic experience for longer-term prospects is the perception that money can be borrowed or, in the UK’s case, printed in any quantum for any issue. The Republic of Ireland’s fiscal council has already warned of several spending increases that are hard to trace back to ‘emergency need’. A consumer boom leading to rising prices and governments’ inability to switch quickly into countercyclical mode are the main risks for the second half of 2021.What should the approach be? There are counter views around policy plans – cut spending, raise taxes, or grow fast to balance the books? More radical solutions are being mooted about writing-off COVID-19-related debt, but this proposal faces reluctance given the precedent it sets for future challenges. Rapid cuts in spending would be unwise given the number of people either out of work or relying totally on government support to remain in employment. Cuts in public services would be counterproductive. That said, a serious national conversation is required in both economies regarding the cost and funding of public services. What can be done more efficiently? Who will pay? And who is best-placed to deliver the services? Encouraging consumer spending is unlikely to be needed, so I would not advocate any further cuts to rates or VAT reductions except, perhaps, for focused and time-specific local spending incentives. Investment will be required in re-training and re-skilling to ensure that the digital revolution creates more than it destroys, particularly for retail and other negatively impacted workers. As such, unemployment levels will still require policy attention. Supporting fast, tax-generating growth would be the most sensible approach. However, careful attention will be required for signs of escalating prices. To paraphrase a famous US economist: “Don’t worry about inflation until you can see the whites of its eyes”.Resetting, refreshing and refocusing In an era of bad news, it seems churlish to focus on problems in a boom that has not yet happened, so let us end on a more upbeat note. The experience of being shocked by the outcome of votes and elections should be a lesson that citizens (voters) do not view the world through the same lens as economists. P&L to a citizen means something very different from what it means to a corporate. It is as much planet and lives as profit and loss. The last year further focused the mind on what really matters: family, health, safety, and an understanding of what can be done. Rapidly developing vaccines, pivoting to new ways of working and living, lowering emissions and congestion – these are trends we will likely want to keep. There will be a reset in how we think about governments and the choices they must make. Perhaps now, the conversations about affordable childcare or healthcare reform and funding can happen in a less adversarial way. We must all realise that, although the saying is that the best things in life are free, the sad truth is that some are not. We may have to pay more or consume less, but we can now better understand what is at stake. The plan for both the UK and the Republic of Ireland will be to grow rapidly to solve budget problems, rather than revert to tax rises or spending cuts, so getting out and spending may be both a public duty and fun. We accelerated digital progress by a decade in certain organisations, and we can see its potential for ways of working. Equally, we have felt the importance of human contact as the period of isolation for many has been extended. A digital and personal future is in store, a hybrid model that will see many office workers adapt how and where they work. The outlook is for a strong rebound. As Brexit frictions settle and COVID-19 hopefully becomes less disruptive, 2021 will feel very different from the terrible year we have just endured. There will be fresh challenges to face – there always are – but somehow, dealing with fast growth and excess spending seems rather more pleasant.Neil Gibson is Chief Economist at EY Ireland.

Feb 08, 2021
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