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Irish economy set to grow by 3.4% in 2020, according to EY forecast

Accountancy firm EY has revised upwards its economic forecast for this year.

EY’s latest Economic Eye report said it expects to see GDP growth of 3.4% for 2020.

That is expected to moderate to 2.8% in 2021 and 2.7% in 2022.

Professor Neil Gibson, Chief Economist for EY Ireland, said they revised the forecast following the General Election, which delivered no clear result in terms of government formation.

Speaking on Morning Ireland, Mr Gibson said when the next government is formed, he expects to see an increase in government spending on infrastructure, which would further support the domestic economy.

“The contrast between economic growth and election results is striking, as the incumbent government could not secure a majority with headline growth rates of well over 5%. This speaks to a long standing disconnect between headline growth and the citizen experience,” he said.

He added that regardless of the shape of the next government, we are likely to see a focus on public services and quality of life.

In terms of jobs growth, the report states that the number of jobs will continue to increase, but at a slower pace.

Over the last five years, the Irish economy has added 320,800 jobs, and although this is expected to slow to 173,400 over the next five years, Mr Gibson said the labour market remains tight with firms facing increasingly tougher hiring conditions.

“The rate of job growth in Ireland has been hugely impressive, but the labour market is getting much tighter now, so we are increasingly having to look to new sources of labour,” he added.

EY forecasts suggest ICT, Construction, Accommodation and Food will lead the way over the period. 

Despite global trade wars and Brexit, the report states that Irish exports have been resilient. 

Mr Gibson said that while many believe the hardest part of Brexit is over, that is not the case. 

“One of our great worries is that although Brexit feels like some of the worst is over, actually the hardest year is going to be this year, in terms of negotiating what form of free trade agreement or what particular conditions will be applied to deal with the challenge,” he said.

In terms of the global economic outlook, the forecast reveals that the Coronavirus outbreak in China and the bush fires in Australia have stalled the slight improvement in the global economic outlook.

Mr Gibson said this reminds us that there are new priorities that take precedent over solely achieving economic growth.

“Economic growth is one thing but human lives are much more important. The hope is that the Coronavirus will only be a short-term blip, but it has been hugely significant for global trade volumes in the first quarter,” he added.

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Sterling rises as traders position for Brexit showdown

Sterling rose today in volatile trade as investors braced for parliamentary votes on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit’s deal that could decide on what terms – if at all – Britain leaves the EU in less than three weeks.

No breakthrough emerged from weekend talks between the British government and the EU.

As a result, in a vote tomorrow evening lawmakers are expected to reject – for a second time – the withdrawal agreement May negotiated with Brussels last year.

If that happens, she will face another vote on Wednesday on whether parliament wants to leave the EU without a deal, with a majority expected to refuse the “no-deal” scenario as economically disruptive.

A third vote would then be held on Thursday on whether Britain should request from the EU a “limited” extension of the March 29 Brexit date.

Analysts said that a delay to Brexit would be modestly positive for sterling, reflecting the reduction of the risk of hard Brexit.

However they said it would not completely eliminate the hard Brexit risk which could still come at the end of a delay or as a result of a second referendum.

Sterling was up 1% at $1.315 this evening after falling in the previous eight consecutive sessions. However it was down 1% against the euro at 85.5 pence.

Earlier in the session, the pound fell after a Sun Newspaper report said May would change tomorrow’s key vote on her Brexit deal to a less decisive provisional vote, raising the prospect of more uncertainty for the struggling currency.

May’s spokesman then said the vote would go ahead as planned.

Britain is due to leave the EU in 18 days and the pound has weakened in recent weeks as doubts swirl over how, or possibly even if, Britain’s exit will take place.

Most economists expect Brexit to be delayed by a few months and the two sides to eventually agree a free-trade deal, according to a Reuters poll.

Traders are expecting big swings in the currency around this week’s votes, according to a sharp rise in one-week implied volatility.

One-week implied volatility measures demand for options to hedge against big currency swings.

A higher percentage reflects greater expectations of currency movements over the next seven days.

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Extra capital needs behind high mortgage rates here

Mortgage holders here pay more for their loans than other borrowers around Europe, partly because of the high level of loss-making trackers still in the banking system.

That’s according to a report from the Department of Finance, which looked at the reasons for the disparity between mortgage rates here and elsewhere.

“Trackers, which are still just over 40% of all mortgages outstanding, help explain why the average overall mortgage interest rate in Ireland is nearer 2.5% according to ECB data, with the European average at around 2.1%,” it says.

But the report says that while it is widely known that Irish borrowers pay more for home loans than others in Europe, what’s less well understood is that the lenders here must carry more capital per mortgage than banks elsewhere in the EU.

This, the study says, is the consequence of the very high level of historic losses in the financial institutions here.

In 2017 the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission described the Irish mortgage market as quite dysfunctional from both a competition and a consumer perspective.

It added that it did not believe there are immediate remedies that will reduce mortgage rates and fix the other dysfunctional aspects of this market.

In actual terms, the department’s analysis shows that banks must hold up to three times more capital on mortgages than their peers in Europe, and this difference results in interest rates that are up to half a per cent higher here.

When it comes to a new mortgage lent today, for example, a bank here may have to hold up to five times more capital than they would have on a similar loan issued 12 years ago.

This, the report says, is despite the lower risk attached to loans issued today, because of the more stringent lending conditions that are in place.

The knock-on effect, according to the study, is that lending margins need to be higher in order to achieve an acceptable return.

The report says that as Irish banks reduce their bad loans, the risk weightings on such loans will fall, allowing rates to fall.

But it cautions that performing loans will continue to carry a higher than average risk weighting for years to come, until the financial legacy of the crash works through the system.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has asked officials to probe whether any changes can be implemented which would result in the cost of the extra capital being reduced, so that interest rates can fall.

Trackers are not considered to be the only reason behind high mortgage margins here, with the Central Bank also pointing previously to the high concentration and low level of competition in the banking market here.

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Grocery prices rise with further increases likely

Grocery prices rose 1.5pc in the 12 weeks to February 24, and further increases are likely on foot of Brexit, according to market researchers Kantar Worldpanel.

Extra customs paperwork plus any tariffs that emerge will make British goods more expensive for Irish importers, Kantar’s consumer insight director Douglas Faughnan said.

It was the fourth period in the row where prices went up.

“While branded sales have remained resilient despite higher prices, growing at 3pc and accounting for 47.3pc of overall sales, continued inflation may drive Irish consumers to trade down to cheaper own label ranges which are already growing at 4pc in the latest 12 weeks,” Mr Faughnan said.

The figures showed Dunnes retained its position as biggest supermarket by market share, on 23pc. Tesco was second on 21.6pc while SuperValu was third on 21.3pc.

They will face a fresh challenge from the German discounters if inflationary pressure emerges.

“Shoppers may opt to save money by moving more of their spend towards the retailers they perceive as offering better value. Each of the five major supermarkets played host to at least two-thirds of the population in the past 12 weeks, demonstrating that Irish shoppers are already prepared to shop around for the best deals. Retaining the loyalty of their existing shoppers will be a key priority for retailers in the face of increased price pressure,” Mr Faughnan said.

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‘Memo to Safety Commissioner’

What kind of Online Safety Commissioner will the Government actually appoint? A powerful watchdog? A lame duck? Something in between?

Communications Minister Richard Bruton talks about an office with the power to fine Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, or even spark a criminal prosecution.

But to be effective a new commissioner has to do a few things.

The first is understand the technology. Too many senior figures in Ireland have digital literacy problems. The recent Momo hoax was a prime example of this. A good deal of energy (and, in some cases, credibility) was wasted chasing after a ghost. A safety commissioner needs to know a non-threat just as much as a genuine one – and to be able to step in to reassure an anxious public.

They also need to be pragmatic, even while talking tough. One of the biggest image problems the Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s office had in its early years was an impression it was too close to the big tech firms. One reason for this was that the office made itself available for ‘consultations’ with the Facebooks of this world. But while German privacy advocates sneered at us, this may have led to bad products being canned or changed before they were released, saving millions of people from a bad outcome.

As recently as last week, the current Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, reiterated this. Potentially harmful or unlawful services are ditched, she told me in an interview, because of consultative meetings with her office. (She mentioned one in particular that had been sent back to the drawing board following a meeting last month.)

A safety commissioner has to prioritise a better end result for kids, even if it means getting under the hood with big online firms. It is ultimately more effective than public relations optics or applause from Sunday radio show panels.

That said, one thing the new safety commissioner should not worry about is offending the tech firms. There is a trope that officials have to be nice to Facebook or Google for fear of offending their investment plans here. In my experience reporting on the sector over two decades, this is largely illusory. No big tech firm will make a decision to pull 5,000 or 10,000 people out of a country’s headquarters because a safety commissioner talks tough. They will especially not do this if they believe that modifying a product, service or online process will prevent further problems in other European countries. That’s not the way these big companies think. Especially on non-tax issues.

That said, there are going to be quite a few frustrating limitations.

Domain is one. The new office will have a direct line into Google (YouTube), Facebook and Twitter. They’re all headquartered in Dublin. But many popular platforms aren’t. Snapchat is the prime example – it remains the most-used social network by teens and kids with around a million accounts here.

The safety commissioner also surely needs to have a strategy to deal with smaller – but growing – platforms such as TikTok. (If you haven’t heard of this but have kids, look it up.)

Then there are some platforms with controversial histories, such as, which was at the centre of a storm over bullying and suicides a few years back.

Will a commissioner simply shrug his or her shoulders and say it’s not in their geographical domain?

Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, repeatedly referenced by Bruton last week as a potential comparison to Ireland’s proposed body, says clearly that it is often geographically limited. For example, in the instance of intimate or compromising images posted as revenge or an act of harassment, the Australian body says it can only help in cases where both victim and aggressor are resident in the country and the image is hosted there, too. Ireland’s online safety commissioner needs to have a strategy to deal with that.

So who fits the bill?

Someone like Johnny Ryan of the privacy web browser company Brave might do a good job. One of Ireland’s undisputed internet experts, he recently showed a lot of effectiveness in challenging Google and the Interactive Advertising Bureau on the topic of targeting vulnerable individuals with ads.

Some working in the field of internet safety, such as Simon Grehan, might also be a natural candidate. As would those who currently lead childrens’ safety organisations, such as Childrens’ Rights Alliance boss Tanya Ward or Cybersafe Ireland’s Alex Cooney.

A really innovative choice might be Dylan Collins, one of Ireland’s most experienced and knowledgeable tech founders who is currently growing his successful ‘kidtech’ firm SuperAwesome. Unfortunately, because that company appears to be doing well building products which protect children from being targeted by online ads, he would be very unlikely to consider the post.

(None of these people are friends of mine, by the way – I mention them solely based on professional interaction and reputation.)

To be fair to the Government, the time is right to do this.

Facebook knows which way the wind is blowing, if last week’s ‘privacy first’ memo from Mark Zuckerberg is anything to go by. YouTube does too. Two weeks ago, it announced it will soon ban all comments on all videos which show young children. The subsidiary of Google said it was doing this because of “predatory” comments being left on the videos, which sometimes acted as a resource for paedophiles.

This is an unprecedented move – the biggest I can remember in covering social networks and online video platforms.

It shows that there’s an open door for a decent Online Safety Commissioner to effectively protect kids in a way which hasn’t been done before.

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BOI prepares sale of up to €800m in bad loans

Bank of Ireland is planning to sell up to €800m worth of non-performing loans this year as it moves to bring its balance sheet in line with European norms.

The bank had consistently ruled out any loan book sales – until CEO Francesca McDonagh switched her stance last July. At the time she said that the bank’s view on loan sales had to change “because the regulatory environment has changed” and stated that it was open to all options in relation to a reduction of bad debts.

Now, Bank of Ireland has earmarked between €600m and €800m worth of buy-to-let mortgages that will be either sold or put up for securitisation. The news was in the bank’s presentation to investors last month on its 2018 performance.

Bank of Ireland reduced its non-performing exposure (NPE) ratio to 6.3pc of its overall loan book last year, the lowest level of any of Irish bailed-out banks.

The bank’s level of NPEs dropped by 24pc last year to €5bn. It intends to reduce that ratio further to 5pc by the end of the year through a mix of sales, securitisation, and other methods.

A spokesman for the bank told the Sunday Independent that it expects to reduce its NPEs this year by between €1bn and €1.2bn. AIB is also in the process of an NPE sale.

Credit analyst at Davy Stephen Lyons said the impending loan sale was off the back of continued regulatory pressure from the European Central Bank (ECB).

“We saw this pressure last year where, as part of the ECB’s review of Bank of Ireland’s capital models, the bank was told to set aside more capital for its mortgage portfolio,” Lyons said.

“We are now seeing further regulatory pressure, whereby Bank of Ireland is being told to start increasing on an annual basis the money that it sets aside for bad loans, to a level beyond what the bank believes is required, which thereby encourages the bank to resolve these loans as soon as is possible.”

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Govt publishes strategy for future needs of business

The Government is publishing details of a new approach to the future needs of businesses and workers.

Called Future Jobs Ireland, the aim is to prepare people and companies for coming technological changes and the move to a low-carbon economy.

The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation says the policy is needed to ensure there is no complacency or repeat of past mistakes when it comes to dealing with major shifts in the way the economy is structured, such as artificial intelligence and the digital economy.

Billed as a whole of Government approach, the Future Jobs programme also addresses issues such as work-life balance and social infrastructure such as childcare, as well as raising skill levels for workers and managers and increasing productivity, particularly in SMEs and the construction sector.

The long-term policy is based around five key themes or pillars: Innovation and technology change; improving SME productivity; boosting skills and attracting talent; increasing workforce participation and the move to a low-carbon economy.

An immediate aim is to double the “lifelong learning” rate to 18% in six years time.

Raising participation in the workforce – a growing issue as the economy moves closer to full employment – is to be done through several initiatives, including a public service to assist people returning to work, particularly mothers; incentivising employers to provide early learning and childcare facilities, and reviewing income tax arrangements for second earners to incentivise return to work.

It will also urge employers to hire more people from under-represented groups such as older people and people with disabilities.

To ensure business takes the most advantage from new technologies seen as vital in improving productivity the policy will experiment with the establishment of what it calls “Top Teams” groups of experts from the private and public sector to exploit opportunities for the economy.

The three initial “Teams” will concentrate on Renewable Energy, Artificial Intelligence and GovTech (marketable technology solutions for delivering Government services).

The document also calls for the development of national digital, AI and advanced manufacturing (Industry 4.0) policies.

There is a particular emphasis on improving the SME sector, such as establishing “clusters” of similar or linked industries around the Institutes of Technology around the country, and developing investment funding to scale up Irish owned businesses.

Leadership and management skill development will be a particular feature.

Delivering the Deliverables:
The Future Jobs programme is a set of policy initiatives, grouped under five main headings or “pillars”.

Within each pillar are sets of “ambitions” or targets, and these are to be reached by annual “deliverables” – effectively check lists of things to be done each year.

Progress on implementing the checklists – or “delivering the deliverables” – will be monitored quarterly by a group of senior officials, with a report going to cabinet twice a year. This will also be published.

Key deliverables for 2019 under each pillar include:

Pillar 1: Embracing innovation and technological change
Deliver important policy initiatives including an Industry 4.0 Strategy, a National Digital Strategy, and a National Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
Form Top Teams to progress areas of opportunity for Ireland beginning with Artificial Intelligence, GovTech and Offshore Renewables.
Develop Ireland as a centre for developing and testing new technologies by, for example: extending the EI/IDA Irish Manufacturing Research Additive Manufacturing technology centre to include Collaborative Robotics (cobotics) and Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality,progressing the Advanced Manufacturing Centre,expanding the Tyndall National Institute,commencing the development of a National Centre of Excellence on High Performance and Nearly Zero Energy Buildings,commencing the development of a National Design Centre.
With NESC, develop a strategy for Transition Teams to help the transition of vulnerable enterprises and workers.

Pillar 2: Improving SME productivity
Deliver a new female entrepreneurship strategy.
Develop a new investment funding facility to assist indigenous Irish companies in scaling their businesses.
Encourage the growth of clusters where enterprises can grow and help each other and deepen linkages between foreign and Irish owned businesses.
Increase the impact of Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs) and increase SME take-up of Enterprise Ireland (EI) and LEO productivity supports.
Drive productivity growth in the construction and retail sectors.

Pillar 3: Enhancing skills and developing and attracting talent
Offer career advice to workers through the Public Employment Service.
Engrain lifelong learning and offer career enhancing opportunities to workers.
Ensure our economic migration system is responsive to our labour market needs.
Promote flexible training options.
Provide training in emerging technologies.

Pillar 4: Increasing participation in the labour force
Conduct a national consultation on extending flexible working options.
Develop guidelines for employers on flexible working options.
Develop a return to work service (e.g. for women returning to the workplace) as part of the Public Employment Service.
Improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities.
Provide incentives for people who wish to work longer.

Pillar 5: Transitioning to a low-carbon economy
Position Ireland as a centre in research, development and innovation, for smart grids, buildings and renewable technologies.
Review the regional dimension of the economic and employment implications of the transition to a low carbon economy.
Promote electric vehicles and achieve over 10,000 electric vehicles on the road by the end of the year.
Deliver a national deep retrofit programme for existing housing stock.
Develop and implement green procurement policy.

Over the past decade we have become used to a whole string of international organisations – notably the IMF, OECD and European Commission – publishing country reports that point out weaknesses in the way the economy is set up. They usually say that not addressing these issues will result in slower growth over time, and possibly far worse – missing the boat on the coming big technology shifts and all the social problems that would come along with such a failure to adapt: rising unemployment that becomes harder to deal with as the labour force would lack the skills needed for the newly emerging situation, notably digital skills and management skills.

The Future Jobs policy is an attempt to fill in those holes in the system, and try and get ahead of the issues before they start to become entrenched problems.

Many of the issues listed for action are well known and long-running – the problem of management weakness, particularly in the SME sector, has long cried out for action. So too has a more thorough approach to lifelong learning and reskilling of workers. Such is the pace of technological change that this is really not an option anymore. And the war for talent is global, so going abroad to hire is becoming less of an option all the time (and that’s before we get to the problem of where to house people, be they locals or incomers). Local talent has to be nurtured, skilled and reskilled as needed. Incentivising firms to do what is in their own best interest may smack of corporate welfare but it may be justified in the big economic picture, of an Ireland that keeps moving ahead by being nimble and moving ahead.

That means trying to solve the long-running weakness of the Irish “boss class” – their preference for investing the profits of their SMEs in villas in Portugal rather than back into their own businesses. And encouraging them to merge several small firms to make one medium firm, that might even grow into a large firm. This is long term, complex stuff, and it will take lots of policy tweaks to encourage it, from the classic “incentives” , perhaps aided in their design by behavioural economics insights, not just the usual interest group lobbying, to direct funding arrangements perhaps, as others have suggested, doing things like paying direct grants to firms for research and development, rather than encouraging this vital activity through tax breaks.

Raising the amount of resources devoted to R&D from 1.5% of 2.5% of GDP is essential if Ireland is to ease its dependence on the multinational sector for growing the high value, high skill jobs we want and need. Its also going to be needed to deal with some of the unstoppable megatrends that are happening now: Artificial Intelligence will rock your world, whether you want it to or not. And decarbonising the economy or failing to decarbonise will have a profound impact on the way work and leisure is organised on this island, and pretty much everywhere else on the planet too.

Over the last decade, all the focus has rightly been on recovering the jobs lost in the great recession. We have now reached an all time high in the number of people in work in the State. But keeping them in work and adding to their number will require a new policy emphasis. And it has to be one that challenges both businesses and individuals to think ahead, and look out for the coming waves of change.

Above all the document warns about complacency something that was a notable feature of Ireland during its pseudo-Celtic Tiger era in the first decade of this century. Then the Irish economy was famous for blowing its own trumpet for its leveraged property market and buying the most Playstations per capita in the whole world passed off as a workforce with digital skills.

Now the emphasis is on real work, albeit of the “work smarter” variety. Raising productivity, particularly in Irish owned firms, is key. Hence all the talk of digital skills, advanced manufacturing and becoming known as technology leader is certain fields by setting up demonstrator centres and pioneering new ways of doing things. One of the ideas is to position Ireland as a leader in the testing of autonomous (self driving) vehicles on roads.

Again, post crash we have been hearing about the need to build resilience in the financial industry and the Government finances. But there is also a need to build resilience in employment and that means having firms and workers that can withstand the shifts and shocks that are coming, and be in a position to profit from them.

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Workers priced out of housing market by cash-rich investors

First-time buyers are facing stiff competition from housing associations, investment firms and State bodies when trying to buy homes, a new report says.

Known as non-household buyers, they now make up 22pc of purchases for newly built homes, up from 7pc in 2010.

The latest housing monitor from the Irish Banking and Payments Federation says the rise in purchases by the institutional and State buyers comes as the figures show a decline in the number of cash buyers.

Cash buyers include people with spare funds who purchase a buy-to-let with their savings.

Back in 2010, non-household buyers represented only 4pc of all purchases of residential properties, both newly built and second-hand ones.

But this had climbed to 17pc by last year, according to the banks.

And the number of housing units being bought by the likes of institutional investors such as US fund Kennedy Wilson and housing charities is set to rise, according to the housing report.

Beverly Hills-based Kennedy Wilson has told its shareholders “billions” of dollars are poised to be invested in apartment projects in this country.

“Given the growing importance of involvement from institutional investors and higher social housing output in the short term, it is likely that a higher portion of the new housing units in the coming years will be accounted for by these segments,” said Banking and Payments Federation economist Dr Ali Uğur.

He added that institutional investor transactions should not be confused with pure cash sales.

“Institutional investor or non-household sector transactions should not be confused with cash transactions as these require financing to a certain extent, as opposed to pure cash sales or sales not financed with a mortgage,” he said.

He added that the statistics show the percentage of pure cash sales has fallen from 33pc in 2017 to 28pc last year.

The banks also revealed there was a fall in the number of buyers approved for a mortgage in January.

Some 3,037 people were approved to borrow to buy a home in the first month of the year, down 3.4pc on the same month last year.

Just shy of 49pc of the approvals were for first-time buyers. An approval does not always turn into a mortgage draw-down, especially if the potential buyers are outbid or cannot afford properties in the area they want to buy in.

The value of approvals over the past three months was flat. This is the slowest growth rate since April 2016.

Figures from the banks show the typical deposit a first-time buyer has is now €37,000, up 1.4pc from last year. For movers, a typical deposit is €95,000.

In Dublin, the median deposit is close to €54,000 for first-time buyers and €140,000 for movers.

The approvals figures are at variance with results from stock-market listed homebuilder Glenveagh Properties, which reported strong demand and forward sales.

Economists said potential buyers were being restricted by the Central Bank-imposed rules that people who do not get an exemption can borrow only three-and-a-half times their income.

Conall Mac Coille, an analyst at Davy Stockbrokers, said the fall in approvals could also be a sign that Brexit uncertainties were weighing on transactional activity.

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Bolder than expected: ECB pushes out rate hike and showers banks with yet more cash

The European Central Bank pushed out the timing of its first post-crisis rate hike until 2020 at the earliest and offered banks new rounds of multi-year loans in a bid to revive the currency bloc’s slowing economy, it said on Thursday.

The bolder-than-expected move showed ECB was having to revisit plans to dial back its unprecedented stimulus measures as a global trade war, Brexit uncertainty and simmering debt concerns in Italy take their toll on a fragile euro zone.

While investors had long stopped pricing in an ECB rate hike this year, few were expecting the bank to change its policy message, causing yields on government bonds and the euro to fall after the announcement.

“The Governing Council now expects the key ECB interest rates to remain at their present levels at least through the end of 2019, and in any case for as long as necessary,” the ECB said in a statement.”

It had previously said rates would remain at their record low levels through the summer.

In addition, the ECB launched a third Targeted Long-Term Refinancing Operation (TLTRO III) consisting of two-year loans partly aimed at helping banks roll over €720bn in existing TLTRO and avoid a credit squeeze that could exacerbate the current economic slowdown.

Commercial banks have indeed already started restricting credit in the face of falling industrial output and exports, threatening to reinforce the slowdown.

As reported by Reuters, the new loans will carry a floating rate tied to the ECB’s main refinancing operation, currently set at zero.

“Like the outstanding TLTRO programme, TLTRO-III will feature built-in incentives for credit conditions to remain favourable,” the ECB said.


Thursday’s announcement comes four years to the month since the ECB launched an unprecedented asset purchase program known as quantitative easing (QE) to prevent sub-zero inflation from further hitting an economy still reeling from the euro zone debt crisis.

In total it spent some €2.6 trillion buying up mostly government but also corporate debt, asset-backed securities and covered bonds — at a pace of €1.3m a minute.

The ECB’s move to extend the horizon for steady rates was likely to be perceived as a policy reversal for the central bank that only ended its bond-buying programme in December and has signalled an interest rate hike for later this year.

“A sign of panic or an attempt to get ahead of the curve?,” ING economist Carsten Brzeski wrote in a note to clients. “The European Central Bank surprised almost everyone.”

At his post-meeting news conference, ECB President Mario Draghi will read out new economic projections for the next three years, which are expected to show inflation holding well short of the ECB’s target of almost 2pc, implying further stimulus may be needed.

Central banks around the world are reversing course, led by the U.S. Federal Reserve, which has signalled a pause in rate hikes and said it will stop shrinking its balance sheet.

That leaves the ECB with the familiar role of having to prop up sentiment in the 19-country euro zone, where growth is sub-par and export-driven and there is little room for government spending.

But much of the slowdown is imported and thus outside the ECB’s control. It also has a limited policy arsenal given years of stimulus and rates still deep in negative territory.

“While the ECB still has some ammunition left, its arsenal lacks ‘easy’, cost-free options,” BNP Paribas said in a note to clients earlier this week.

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More women holding top roles in Ireland – but gender balance action ‘must not be rushed’

More women are holding senior management roles in Ireland but, while gender balance at the top level is still a way off, the strategy to address the issue must not be rushed according to the head of Grant Thornton in Ireland.

Grant Thornton International’s latest Women in Business report ranks Ireland eighth out of 35 countries globally in terms of the percentage of woman in these leadership roles.

The new research, published ahead of International Women’s Day, found the number of global businesses with at least one woman in senior management increased in the last year to 87pc from 75pc.

The proportion of businesses with women involved in senior management is at its highest level in the 15 years since Grant Thornton started tracking data.

“Would I like to get this done quicker? Yes. But everyone needs to feel that they are on this journey together and it needs not be rushed which would create a different sort of issue,” said Grant Thornton’s Mick McAteer.

“It takes time to fix something that has been this way for centuries.”

Specifically to Ireland, businesses said that 23.32pc of the overall employee count participate in the management of the organisation, with around one-third (34.88pc) of those women.

Meanwhile, 22pc of firms here said that they have no women in senior management. However, there have been significant changes over the last two years as this compares with 39pc in 2017 and 41pc in 2016.

Francesca Lagerberg, global leader at Grant Thornton International, said that the latest “encouraging” figures have been driven by external factors including increasing organisational transparency, gender pay gap reporting and highly visible public dialogue like the #MeToo movement.

“Despite the strong business case in favour of gender diversity, change at the top has been slow until now,” she said.

“Hopefully, the sharp increase in the representation of women in senior leadership we’re seeing this year is not purely a knee-jerk reaction to the current social climate and we’ll see similar progress in the coming years.”

Grant Thornton Ireland’s head of diversity, tax partner Sasha Kerins, agrees that the deliberate action of leaders within an organisation will be critical in order to continue this upwards trend of female representation in senior positions. “It’s not enough to just sit on the wall; in order for real change you need to work with human resources (HR) and look at policies – work flexibility, recruitment and training bias, career development – and determine the key things that must be focused on to drive that change,” she said.

“And when you’re adopting a new initiative, it can’t be simply a nice-to-have, it needs to be impactful, something that you can track and measure.”

The detail of the roles held by women were also analysed in the new report, which found that, of those holding senior management positions in Irish businesses, more than half (56pc) filled the human resources slot while almost a quarter (22pc) take the helm as CEO or managing director.

Most companies researched said that they are creating an inclusive culture in the workplace but 30pc said that they are taking no action to improve gender balance at all.

Similar to the overall global response, time constraints – for both men and women – has been cited as the biggest barrier to reaching senior management level.

In terms of the analysis of the statistics, Mr McAteer said it was important to dig deeper into the data as often the “full picture” might not be easily transparent.

He said that he would hope that legislation for Gender Pay Gap Information, which is currently before Dáil Éireann, would offer the transparency that the pay-parity analysis requires.

“If your senior management is mostly male and a pay-parity analysis is done across all levels, this analysis is going to be skewed.

“Bad decisions can be made based on headline numbers,” he said.

“It’s a complex area and peers need to be likened with peers; quite often the headline pay does not reflect the reality of the situation.

“For example, working mothers on a three-day week compared with men on a five-day week. They may be on the same salary but the initial numbers might not reflect that.”

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