Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rising electricity, gas & fuel prices - plus Carbon Tax?

The Sunday Business Post today reports that the ESB will be seeking an electricity price increase of at least 15% this autumn. Bord Gais already has a 19% increase proposal with the Energy Regulator.

High Petrol/Diesel prices, likely to continue to rise at the pumps, are also reflected in the price of home heating oil.

What political or public appetite exists for a set of new carbon taxes in this year’s budget?

With the media reporting gloom & doom, and all commentators in agreeemnt that house prices continue to fall, the feel-good factor is rapidly disappearing from the national psyche.

It’s hard to see the Govt making any meaningful move on carbon taxes, particularly as no-one will believe that they are intended to be revenue-neutral, given the large and growing exchequer deficit as other tax revenues fall short of projections.

On the other hand, unless something meaningful is done this year, there’s no hope of achieving the 15% emissions reduction target by 2012, as set out in the Programme for Govt..

Could this be the [very heavy] straw that breaks the Green camel’s back?

Wasteful Quangos

National Consumer Agency
The NCA should be renamed The National Survey Agency.
Since Biffo’s famous aside to Mary Coughlan, this agency has been revealed to be completely toothless when it comes to ensuring that the price benefits arising from the strength of the Euro are passed on to consumers.
Instead we’re offered the mind-blowing advice to “shop around” and reassured that the agency will continue to conduct and publish shopping surveys.
There may well be nothing the NCA can do. But, in that event, do we really need a separate agency to carry out such surveys? Surely this could be organised quite easily by the relevant Govt department, but with a substantially reduced overhead.

Financial Regulator
During the week, a Prime Time report involved some mystery shopping of financial institutions, using an 82-year old woman to seek advice about what to do with a substantial lump sum she had to invest. PermanentTSB landed themselves in hot water when one of their “financial advisors” gave her incorrect and misleading information.

Mary O’Dea, Consumer Director with the Financial Regulator was interviewed on Morning Ireland where it became clear that her agency don’t actually do any mystery shopping themselves. This is an extraordinary admission. Mystery Shopping is the most standard of techniques for a consumer agency, particularly where something intangible like “advice” is being sold.
It’s unbelievable that the Financial Regulator does not an ongoing programme of mystery shopping underway since its inception, providing regular reports to both the public and the financial institutions as to outcomes. This would serve to keep the institutions on their toes and provide some re-assurance to consumers.
Instead, they give us naff ads like “I don’t know what a tracker mortgage is”, and insist that all ads from financial institutions carry a long set of standard messages which, in reality, are virtually meaningless and are only there to remind us all that there is a Financial Regulator. But who actually reads that tiny fly-shit print at the bottom of a press or tv ad? Who actually believes Sean Moncrieff when he says “but no sneaky ones”? How carefully has he checked?

When it comes to enforcement, what exactly can the Financial Regulator do for consumers with a complaint against a financial institution that the Financial Ombudsman is not already charged with doing? I think it’s time to give Mary O’Dea the chop!

Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement

Then there’s the ODCE, which should have taken firm action against DCC & Jim Flavin following the Supreme Court decision that the Fyffes share sale had been a case of insider dealing. Instead, it was left to the IAIM to take a stand, and only then did ODCE do what is should have done years ago.

But what it does best is let the general public know it exists with a series of bloody stupid radio ads regarding the responsibilities of directors. The reality is that all these ads do is say “hey, we exist”.
Information regarding the responsibilities of directors would be best communicated through the appropriate industry bodies e.g. IBEC, ISME, SFA, through the legal and accountancy professions and through the companies office when a company is actually registered.
For a fraction of the cost of radio ads, detailed and relevant information could be delivered to the appropriate people.
The radio ads are just an ego-trip. Someone in the relevant Govt Dept should be asking “who gave these effers a marketing budget at all?”

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Carbon Taxes? I don't think so.

There seems to be little doubt now that we’re in a serious economic downturn. While it’s not a recession, the implications for Govt Income/Expenditure are quite significant and will require difficult political choices.

This week, Davy Stockbrokers has produced some dramatically revised economic forecasts
- GNP growth: 1% in 2008, 2% in 2009
- New houses: 45k in 2008, 25k in 2009
- Commercial construction: 10% reduction in 2009
- Unemployment: 4.6% in 2007, 6.1% in 2008, 7% in 2009
- Exchequer Deficit: €1.6bn in 2007, €8.3bn in 2008, €10.3bn in 2009
- House Prices: -10% in 2008, -7% in 2009

Net Result:
Reduced tax inflows, particularly as construction/housing market slows dramatically.
Reduced tax inflows and increased benefit outflows as unemployment rises dramatically (+50% in 2 years).

Rising Energy Prices
Driven by global demand/output e.g. oil @ $135 and on a rising curve, Northern Ireland Electricity has announced a 14% price increase for July 2008, and BBC reports a further 15% increase expected later in the autumn (partially driven by weak sterling).
However, we too can expect rising electricity and gas prices, to go with the already rising petrol/diesel prices.
This will all add to inflation - pushing up the costs to households, business and increasing wage demands.

Expect a winter of discontent from the public sector, who already feel aggrieved that their previous national agreement failed to keep pace with inflation, compounded by the failure of Benchmarking Phase II to deliver anything for most public sector employees (excluding the cabinet).

The insatiable demand from that perennial black hole that is the Health Service is unlikely to abate. A permanent political banana skin.
And the perpetual under investment in the school infrastructure, exacerbated by a rising rather than falling intake in primary schools, will only add to the Govt’s woes.

Carbon Taxes?
Against that background, how likely is it that Biffo will be willing to add to the electorate’s woes by introducing Carbon Taxes, particularly against a background of already rapidly rising fuel/energy prices? With rising domestic bills and industry struggling, how much can the public bear?

But if Biffo does introduce Carbon Taxes, I’ll wager they won’t be “revenue neutral” , as promised by the Greens.
Biffo will see them as a way to reduce the projected Exchequer Deficit (€10.3bn 2009) by adding such carbon tax revenues to the general taxation pot, safe in the knowledge that the Greens will be a political lightning rod for most of the inevitable public backlash.

Green Party reaction?
How will the Greens react to such a(nother) betrayal?

Recent opinion polls show falling support for the Greens, the glás has gone off their early poll ratings in Govt. An early election, with little tangible achieved in Govt but many core policies & principles sacrificed, could be catastrophic for them.

I suspect they’ll swallow hard and perform another policy u-bend (they’re long past u-turns, it’s now flushed straight out of the system) to stay in office at any cost.

An interesting year ahead.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

It's time we had real Farmers' Markets

On last night’s RTE Questions & Answers, the woman panellist from the Farming Indo/Ear to the Ground said that Minister for Food, Trevor Sargent, was only focused on the 1% of farmers engaged in organic farming, he’s doing nothing for the other 99%. Minister John Gormless defended Sargent on the basis that this is official Green Party policy. What else did farmers expect?
Official Message to 99% of the farming community from the Green Party: “Go f*ck yourselves!”

Farmers’ Markets:

Why can’t we have proper farmers’ markets, as they do in France, for example.
Every town/village there has a market at least once a week. Dozens of stalls, many local producers, some professional who tour the markets, some amateurs who only attend their local market. Stalls with a wide range of seasonal fruit and vegetables at competitive prices. Ordinary working people, living on a budget, buying their weekly supplies of same. Some specialist producers charging premium prices for organic etc, but the majority are pitched at thrifty housewives.

In the larger French towns/cities there are permanent halles, with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of stalls catering for every taste and every pocket. A fantastic variety of fresh and cooked foods to suit all palates and purses.

In Ireland, on the other hand, “Farmers’ Market” means elitist, lifestyle shopping for the better off.

There’s a busy “farmers” market every Sunday in the Peoples Park in Dun Laoghaire. A couple of stalls sell spotty, over-priced organic vegetables. But the majority are expensive artisan food stalls, some ethnic food sellers and a couple of knick-knack sellers.
How many of these stalls are actually run by real farmers? Very few would be my bet!

The market is well attended, mainly by the affluent middle classes and their offspring. It’s a Sunday outing combined with a bit of life-style browsing/shopping to make themselves feel better, mingling among a better class of green. Then they load up into their Chelsea tractors and head off to meet their friends for a bottle of chablis, with no thought as to whether it’s organic, just make sure it‘s chilled.

If you want to experience Green Food Policy in action, this is what it represents.

Let’s ditch the elitism and get real farmers selling non-organic produce at competitive prices to ordinary customers.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Biffo's threats and waffle

The media has focused on Biffo's use of the “f-word”, but the serious example of unparliamentary language was Cowen’s series of explicit threats to have the leader of the opposition shouted down in the Dáil.

That was completely unacceptable, particularly coming from a Taoiseach. He should have been severely reprimanded by the Ceann Comhairle, made to retract it immediately and apologise to the Dáil. (He should now withdraw the threats and apologise on his next appearance in the Dáil. There would be no problem if he’d confined himself to asking Kenny to keep his hounds in check.)

Later, Cowen followed it up with some waffle about what his Government is doing to ensure consumers are getting the benefit of the euro exchange rate from retailers. He clearly didn’t believe his own spiel, even assuming that the relevant minister was actually doing something, because he felt it necessary to tell her, in the widely reported language, to get the finger out.

The opposition and the media need to identify and highlight all the waffle answers that are given by Government, both inside and outside the Dáil. The FF/PD axis has kept power for the past 11 years, largely on the basis of perceived competence, lacquered by the huge tax inflows of the Celtic Tiger period.
In tougher economic times, this is likely to be a fairly incompetent administration - in Health, Education, Transport etc. and it’s vital that the electorate actually realises this.

The message needs to be hammered home - repeatedly.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Did Cowen mislead the Dáil?

Did the Taoiseach deliberately mislead the Dáil?

Answering a query from Eamon Gilmore regarding the failure of retailers to pass on the exchange rate benefits of a strong euro, he assured the house that his Tanaiste was taking active steps to clarify/resolve the situation.

Then when Brian sat down beside Mary C, he’s overheard saying "Ring those people and get a handle on it will you...bring in all those f***ers..."

That suggests the Taoiseach thought that Mary Coughlan needed to be ordered to do something about the situation, i.e. that he didn’t believe the story that he had just told to the Dail.

Cancer care in Mayo, Sligo & Donegal.

There are 8 cancer care centres “of excellence” planned in the National Cancer Strategy. To cater for the complete absence of any centre north of a line between Dublin & Galway, a satellite centre will be established in Letterkenny. It’s intended that all initial diagnostics and surgical management will take place at the cancer centres.

Professor Tom Keane has reluctantly accepted that an exception had been made for Letterkenny, but believes that the best and most logical solution would have been a cross border centre in Derry.

I agree with Prof. Keane with regard to cross-border facilities for those in the Derry catchment area of North Donegal, assuming that Derry would have a sufficient case-load to meet his centre of excellence requirements.

So instead of having a satellite centre in Letterkenny, why not have it in Sligo instead? Many residents of Co Donegal would be as close to Sligo as they are to Letterkenny.
The concept of having a satellite centre has been accepted, so its location should not be a major bone of medical or political contention.

A Sligo satellite could serve people from Sligo, South Donegal, North Mayo, Leitrim etc..
South Mayo could go to Galway, North Donegal to Derry or Sligo.

The National Cancer Strategy would still be intact and the major political problem would be defused.
No face would be lost on any side with such an honourable and logical compromise.
This one is free.

Biffo & Mary Coughlan - The Touchy & Tetchy Show

After yesterday’s Dail performance, the Indo’s Fionnan Sheehan has christened Biffo & Mary Coughlan as “The Touchy & Tetchy Show“. He concludes by wishing them both a “Welcome to the big leagues“.

(Mary Coughlan was tetchy with Sheehan when he pointed out to her that she was wrong, twice, about the number of EU commissioners the larger countries area entitled to.)

Will Touchy & Tetchy be a hit? Could they be our entry in next year’s Eurovision or are they just another pair of turkeys?

I heard another commentator on radio suggest that Biffo was only speaking to Mary in language she’d understand. Is she really a bit of Donegal rough?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dustin plucked & stuffed in Belgrade

A suitably chastened and unusually subdued Dustin was interviewed on RTE’s Morning Ireland, following last night’s ignominious failure to achieve a top 10 finish in the Eurovision semi-final.

That failure came as no surprise , as the song was greeted with some booing in the Belgrade venue, something I hadn’t heard before. Unfortunately, this semi-final wasn't broadcast on BBC, I was dying to hear what, if anything, Terry Wogan would have to say about the song's reference to "Terry Wogan's wig". Now we'll never know.

I was surprised by Dustin’s downbeat demeanour this morning, I can only put it down to a hangover. He surely couldn’t have rated his chances that seriously? He sounded gutted, plucked & stuffed, with none of his trademark cheek and quick-fire smart comments. There wasn't even the slighest chance of a "go on, ya good thing!"

Anyway, there’s some consolation for him - he’s in good company with last year’s turkeys Dervish and John Waters. And the previous year’s young sibling duo , whose names escape me (and most of the rest of the population, I suspect).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Credit Crunch hits Dublin PPP developments?

Shock and horror in Dublin as Bernard McNamara, one of the country’s biggest builders/ developers, pulls out of 5 Public Private Partnership development projects in the city. Under the deals, McNamara was to redevelop existing corporation housing sites, creating a mix of public and private housing/retail.

McNamara’s stated reasons, for withdrawing from the PPP developments, related to the increased costs created by (a) new regulations concerning minimum apartment size imposed by the City Council and (b) significantly increased insulation standards for new builds, imposed by the Dept of Environment.

Clearly both will have a material impact on the construction cost/price of individual units.

However, McNamara made no reference to the credit crunch, which might be an equally important consideration in arriving at his decision if not, in fact, the main one.
McNamara has been a major property/development investor in recent years e.g. his massive site at Merrion Road, hotels etc..

You’d have to speculate that perhaps
(a) he’s borrowed heavily to fund those investments.
(b) he has a lot of unsold units, which he’d anticipated would be unloaded long ago.
(c ) Cashflow/credit availability are likely to be constricted in current market conditions.

So my guess is that Bernard McNamara has looked at his cash flow projections, his revised P&L projections for the PPP builds and his lines of credit and he’s decided to cut his cloth to suit his measure.
Something had to give and the PPPs were the obvious first candidates.

From a PR perspective, best to blame some external interference e.g. Govt/City regulations, than admit that his bank manager was getting cold feet. That might trigger concern among his suppliers and sub-contractors, putting even more pressure on cash flow.

But if the choice is between delaying construction or accepting Zoe Development-type shoeboxes, then my vote is for the former every time.

Waterford Wedgwood: the ultimate in unused wedding gifts?

The Government has, rightly, decided not to guarantee a €39m loan for Waterford Wedgwood.

Sir Anthony O’Reilly and his brother-in-law, Peter Goulandris, are reported to have invested up to €300m in the company in recent years, and are committed to investing a further €100m+ under current plans. The share price is currently just over 1c, which means the stock market values the entire company @ just €54m, so the two boys are nursing a very substantial loss.

It’s hard to see the light at the end of this particular tunnel, though Waterford Glass itself is probably viable. The millstone is the china division which includes several “iconic” brands e.g. Wedgwood, Rosenthal etc..

The investment rationale for this particular enterprise stems from Sir Anthony’s conviction of the value of quality brands with worldwide recognition. However, it seems that some “quality” brands have more historic than future value.

While the glass division has, in the past decade, taken many steps to produce more contemporary designs which might be used regularly by buyers (how many of you have [or your parents have] pieces of Waterford at home which still display those little green stickers?), you rarely find yourself seated in front of a place setting of fine bone china.
Perhaps the new slogan should be “Waterford Wedgwood, the ultimate in unused wedding gifts.”?

Peter Goulandris can at least console himself with this thought: Thank God Pan Am had already gone to the wall before his brother-in-law took off on this “brands” flight of fancy. Now that really would have been a black hole!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Bev's chance of a quick promotion?

It’s been announced that Seamus Brennan has advised incoming Taoiseach Brian Cowen that he wishes to resign from the cabinet, due to ill health.

This means that Brian Cowen now has 2 voluntary vacancies at the cabinet table to fill. This will inevitably result in a general shuffle upwards within FF.

I believe that, of the entire FF parliamentary, there are only 3 members who don’t currently have some “position” e.g. minister, junior minister, chair of committee etc. etc.. Those are Jim McDaid, Ned O’Keeffe and the recently re-admitted Beverly Flynn.

Assuming that neither Bertie Ahern or Seamus Brennan want any of those lowly jobs, Cowen will probably have to “promote” 2 of these 3 misfits to some position, however menial.
Which duo will he choose? Will that “class act” Bev get the nod and, if she does, what message will it send out regarding standards under Cowen ?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Time to tax aviation fuel.

Why are there no duties/taxes on aviation fuel?

I understand that the traditional argument was that aircraft were flying between different jurisdictions with differing tax regimes. Thus, imposition of a fuel tax in one country would result in aircraft refuelling elsewhere, and might even deter airlines from offering services to a tax-levying destination.

We now live as part of the wider EU community, with most of the flights from airports within the EU travelling to other EU destinations (have a look at Aer Lingus & Ryanair websites). Therefore an EU-wide initiative to tax aviation fuel should not result in any competitive disadvantage.

The majority of flights to non-EU destinations are long-haul. Perhaps aircraft on such routes would maximise the fuel fill at the tax-free end of the route, but presumably much of their potential saving would be offset by the fuel burnt in carrying the extra weight long-distance. In any event, there would be no additional loss to the exchequer, as there are currently no taxes/duties levied.

The additional costs, passed on to the passenger, would probably be no greater than the current baggage charge, or the credit card “handling charge”, though undoubtedly Michael O’Leary would be apoplectic at such a proposal.

We are facing into an era of carbon taxes, where the cost of motoring, heating & lighting your home etc are all going to rise significantly. Why should that burden not be at least shared by the airline industry (and it’s passengers), which is widely recognised as one of the major and growing sources of carbon emissions?

It’s time this was tackled as a matter of urgency on an EU-wide basis. There’s much less potential benefit/impact from trying to do this on a unilateral basis, though that may be worth pursuing if getting an EU-wide environmental tax proves impossible.

Last year a BBC reporter became their “green man” for a year, measuring his family’s carbon footprint and doing everything he could to reduce it. This included selling the family car. After a year of “deprivation”, insulation etc., they took a family holiday and that single flight more or less wiped out the benefit of the family’s effort in the year before.
Worth thinking about as we hear of Govt plans for new building standards, insulation initiatives, heating systems etc.. and, of course, carbon taxes.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Boris Johnson elected Mayor of London

So Boris Johnson has beaten the incumbent Ken Livingstone in the election for Mayor of London.
I saw Boris's old man interviewed tonight on BBC - before the final result was in. He re-assured viewers that Boris was a serious candidate, on the basis that he had given up drink for the past 3 months. Johnson Pere pointed out that anyone who would make such an onerous sacrifice was (a) serious about the political quest and (b) worthy of consideration as a weighty candidate. Clearly idiocy doesn't skip a generation.

Which of them would I want go for a pint with? Boris.
Which would I want as mayor of my city? Ken.

Cameron should remember the old adage "be careful what you wish for". Cos if Mayor Boris turns out to be the same old buffoon we're all familiar with, he'll be Labour's trump card at the next general election.

But at least the Green candidate (3.15%) beat the BNP candidate (2.84%). I'd bet that an SUV candidate would have hammered both.

Brian's priorities

In deference to the Greens, this is a (weak, old) joke recycled. No animals have died in the conversion.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s office phone rings.
'Hello, Taoiseach? This is Jimmy Murphy, the special branch man assigned as security to your home.
'Yes, Jimmy. What can I do for you? Is there a problem?'

'Ah, I was just calling to advise, Taoiseach, that your greyhound has died.'
' My greyhound? Dead? Which one? Not The Bertie Bowler, the one that won the Shelbourne Derby?'
“That's the one.'
'Jaysus! That's a bummer! That dog would have been worth a fortune at stud. What did
he die from?'

'From eating the rotten meat, Taoiseach'
'Rotten meat? Who the hell fed him rotten meat?'
'Nobody. He ate the meat of the dead horse.'
'Dead horse? What dead horse?'
'The steeplechaser, Taoiseach'
'The chaser is dead? The non-resident one I got from JP as a tax-free inauguration present? '
'Yes Taoiseach, he died from all that work pulling a cartload of water barrels.'

'Why the hell would he be pulling anything?
'We needed the water to put out the fire, Taoiseach.'
‘What fire ??'
'The one at your house, Taoiseach! A candle fell and the curtains caught
on fire.'
'Jaysus, are you saying that my house has burnt down, because
of a candle?'
'Yes, Taoiseach.'

'But we use Gormley’s bloody CFL lightbulbs in the house! What was the candle for?'
'For the funeral, Taoiseach.'
'Your wife's, Taoiseach. She came home very late and let herself in without turning on any lights. I thought it was a thief, so I hit her with the hurley you keep in the trophy cabinet. Afterwards, your daughter told me that she never bothered turning on the lights when she came in late because they take so bloody long to light up properly.'

'The hurley I got from Brian Whelehan, the one he used in the ‘98 All Ireland Final?'
'Yes, Taoiseach, that’s the one.'

SILENCE........... LONG SILENCE..........

'Jaysus Jimmy, if you broke that hurley, you really are in deep shit!'

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Bertie's address to Congress

I thought Bertie delivered his speech well, including some pertinent advice for the US on the need for a multilateral, rather than unilateral, approach to international action. And, thankfully, no pompous, self-serving references from greek mythology.

However, what impact had the speech in the US itself, rather than here in Ireland?

On Morning Ireland, a Washington-based reviewer reported that the print editions of 3 US papers, which included the Washington Post and USA Today, carried no report whatsoever of the event.

There was some coverage on internet editions, but these are probably less read in the US and may indeed have been “international” rather than domestic online editions, accessed from Montrose.

Ditto with Bertie's 2007 Westminster address. While it was shown live on RTE, no UK channel broadcast it and it received very limited media coverage in UK, despite the blanket media coverage here and all the positive plaudits showered on Bertie for the speech content and his delivery of it.

There's a lesson for us in this: we shouldn't always believe our own hype.

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