Housing construction activity sees first slowdown since 2013

Activity in the construction sector declined for the third month in a row, the latest Purchasing Managers’ Index from Ulster Bank shows.

Ulster Bank’s Construction PMI showed a reading of 48.2 in November, up from 46.2 in October. Any figure under 50 signals contraction in the industry. 

The November slowdown included a decline in activity in housing, the first one recorded since June 2013, but activity in the commercial sector returned to growth for the first time in three months. 

Meanwhile, civil engineering activity declined for the 15th consecutive month and at the fastest pace in almost six and a half years.

Simon Barry, chief economist at Ulster Bank, noted that official “hard” data on residential construction, including housing starts and completions, continue to point to robust growth in the sector. 

“Indeed, this divergence between the relative strength of “hard” official measures of economic activity and the relative weakness of survey results is not confined to the housing sector,” the economist said. 

“We think that recent weakness in the Housing PMI is perhaps more reflective of large, adverse moves in business sentiment generally – likely related to acute Brexit uncertainty – than of marked weakness in actual underlying housing activity,” Mr Barry said.

“In this respect, we would not be surprised to see some reversal of recent Housing PMI weakness in the months ahead, though we do think that the recent trend in the overall Construction PMI is pointing to downside risks to the construction outlook as we head into 2020,” he added.

Today’s PMI shows that despite a slowdown in activity and new orders, construction firms increased their workforce numbers again during November. 

Ulster Bank also noted that the rate of job creation was the fastest in four months, with companies indicating that greater workforce numbers sometimes stemmed from company expansion initiatives. 

Meanwhile, amid widespread reports of greater raw material prices – including steel, insulation and fuel –  input costs rose sharply during November with the rate of inflation quickening to a seven-month high. 

Looking ahead, Ulster Bank said that business confidence was little changed from October’s three-month high, with around 29% of survey respondents anticipating activity to increase over the coming 12 months. 

Expectations of an increase in customer orders was among the reasons for positive sentiment, but the degree of optimism was below the series average, amid reports of Brexit uncertainty, Ulster Bank said.

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New car sales speed up by 1.8% in November – CSO

The number of new private cars licensed for the first time rose by 1.8% in November, new figures from the Central Statistics Office show. 

The CSO said that a total of 1,676 new private cars were licensed for the first time, up from 1,647 the same month last year.

Meanwhile, a total of 9,874 used or imported private cars were licensed last month, a rise of 16.3% on the same time last year.

The CSO said that in the first eleven months of 2019, 112,576 new private cars were licensed – down 6.5% on the same time in 2018. 

And the number of used private cars licensed increased by 8.5% compared with the same time last year. 

Today’s figures show that electric and hybrid cars accounted for 10.4% of all private cars licensed in the first 11 months of the year, an increase of 6.8% on the same time last year. 

Diesel cars accounted for 47% of all new car sales in the 11 months to November, compared with 54.3% in the same time last  year. 

The figures also reveal that Volkswagen was the most popular make of new private cars licensed followed by Skoda, Ford, Opel and Renault. 

Together these five makes represent 41.9% of all new private cars licensed last month.

The CSO said that licensing and registration are different processes. A vehicle is licensed when a valid motor tax disc is issued for the first time whereas registration occurs when a vehicle gets its licence plate (registration number) for the first time.

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NTMA says it will borrow less next year

The National Treasury Management Agency said it plans to borrow between €10 billion and €14 billion in 2020, down from a target range of €14-18 billion last year.

The NTMA said a pre-funding strategy had given it a projected cash balance in excess of €15 billion.

It said this gives it “significant flexibility” entering 2020 when it faces debt redemptions totalling almost €20 billion.

The NTMA said it will issue a statement at the beginning of each calendar quarter outlining the bond auction plans for that quarter. 

It also intends to hold at least one syndicated bond deal during the year.
In a statement, it also said it will continue to issue Treasury Bills during 2020 and further details will be contained in the quarterly announcements.

Frank O’Connor, the NTMA’s Director of Funding and Debt Management, said the agency’s opening cash balance is projected to be in excess of €15 billion.

He said this means that despite facing redemptions totalling almost €20 billion, its funding requirement is lower than in previous years.

“2020 marks the last year in which redemptions of significant scale – the debt chimneys that we have faced – fall due. Post 2020, our annual debt redemptions will be lower,” he said. 

“This follows our programme of extending the average maturity of Irish government bonds, which has increased to close to ten years and is now one of the longest average maturities in Europe,” he added.

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Republic likely to be in firing line as EU to consider tougher tax haven listing

A group of European Union countries is calling for the bloc to cast a wider net when listing tax havens and to consider imposing stricter sanctions for countries facilitating tax avoidance, according to an EU document and an EU official. The move is likely to spark some fear in Government circles.

The document, prepared by the Danish government, urges a discussion on whether “current criteria provide sufficient protection against tax avoidance and evasion” and pushes for “strengthened” standards and sanctions. Germany and France were among its backers.

It also calls for a discussion on how member states deal with the issue, asking “Do we internally have sufficient safeguards against tax avoidance and evasion?”

This potentially sets up a dispute with the Republic and other EU members including Luxembourg and the Netherlands, which widely use low tax and other sweeteners to host EU headquarters of foreign firms, depriving other EU governments of tax revenues from profits that corporations make on their territory.

At a meeting of EU finance ministers on Thursday, several EU states backed the Danish proposal, one EU official said, naming Germany, France, Spain and Austria among the explicit supporters.

Croatia, which holds the EU chair from January, said the review of the current criteria would be discussed during its six-month presidency, the official said. The review was likely to take place in February or March, the official added.

After revelations of widespread tax avoidance schemes used by corporations and wealthy individuals to lower their tax bills, the EU set up a blacklist in 2017, but its definition of tax havens was narrow. For example a 0 per cent corporate tax rate is not a sufficient condition for being listed.

It also screens only non-EU countries, saying its 28 states were already applying high standards against tax avoidance.


Foreign jurisdictions are blacklisted if they do not meet EU standards on tax transparency and regulation. Countries that commit to changes are included in a so-called grey list until they deliver, and if they miss deadlines, they end up on the blacklist.

The listing has pushed more than 60 countries to pledge changes, but only eight jurisdictions are currently blacklisted. They are mostly Pacific and Caribbean islands with little financial relation with the EU.

The Republic, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were listed in a report by International Monetary Fund researchers in September as world-leading tax havens, together with Hong Kong, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Singapore, the Cayman Islands, Switzerland and Mauritius. None of them are on the EU list.

The EU Commission supported the Danish initiative, the EU official said. Tax commissioner Paolo Gentiloni has publicly pledged to work for sanctions against blacklisted jurisdictions, which now face only reputational damage and curbs on small EU funding, but no heavier penalties by member states. – Reuters

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Changes to flat-rate expense regime pushed out to 2021

Changes to the flat-rate expenses regime have been pushed out to 2021 as the State’s tax collector awaits results of a review by the Department of Finance.

Flat-rate expenses are those that cover the cost of equipment you need for work and Revenue had planned to change how the scheme works

Following parliamentary pressure, Revenue has decided to examine policy in this area. A comprehensive review of the regime has been under way for the past 18 months and it is scheduled to conclude soon.

More than 150 categories of employee, many of them working in the services and health sectors, automatically receive the deduction to reflect costs incurred to do their job.

This includes things such as the cleaning of uniforms and purchase of tools. You must incur these costs in the course of your duties, and the costs must be directly related to the nature of your employment. The reliefs on offer for these job titles range from €121 for a shop assistant, to €750 for an actor.

While the extent of the changes were not made clear, sectors expected to lose out under the changes were agricultural advisers, cardiac technicians, journalists, professional valuers in the valuation office, freelance actors in employment and shop assistants.


Chartered Accountants Ireland said the sectors outlined above would see the automatic entitlement removed for more than 80,000 workers. But Revenue has said it is looking at every sector eligible for the relief, so the number affected could be more than 600,000.

Revenue’s review has so far highlighted a number of inconsistencies, however. That includes different treatment between the self-employed and employees and the nature of expenses claimed.

The Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe wrote to Revenue chairman Niall Cody on Tuesday noting that the review has raised further issues where “policy consideration may be warranted”. Mr Cody subsequently confirmed Revenue’s decision to defer implementation of the changes until January 1st, 2021. It had planned to start advising taxpayers of the imminent changes on December 9th.

The issue will now be dealt with in the aftermath of a review by the tax strategy group within the Department of Finance.

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EU agrees steps towards tighter money-laundering supervision

European Union finance ministers today backed plans for greater powers to combat money laundering after a series of revelations about large amounts of dirty money flowing through European banks.

The EU last year experienced its largest money-laundering scandal when it emerged that €200 billion in suspicious payments were made between 2007 and 2015 through Danske Bank’s tiny Estonian branch. 

Several other cases have emerged since then, the latest involving Malta’s largest lender, Bank of Valletta, which the European Central Bank said had for years failed to address dirty-money risks. 

Ministers called on the European Commission to explore the possibility of transferring supervisory powers to an EU body and to amend rules to strengthen coordination among national authorities.

Despite criminal organisations frequently laundering the proceeds of their illegal activities abroad, the fight against financial crime in the EU is currently mostly handled by national authorities, which do not always cooperate fully.

Ministers said an EU body “with an independent structure and direct powers” over banks should be considered, reversing opposition to such a move last year.

They also urged a fresh overhaul of EU rules to fight dirty money, only a year after the bloc adopted the fifth revision of its anti money-laundering rules. 

Last year’s reform was watered down by conflicting interestsamong EU states, and quickly appeared insufficient as new scandals emerged. 

Before the meeting, some of the EU’s largest states, including Germany, France and Italy, said powers should be transferred to an EU authority because national watchdogs had proved incapable of tackling financial crime.

They went as far as saying there was a risk of some national supervisors “being influenced directly or indirectly bysupervised institutions or interest groups”. 

Smaller states, such as Luxembourg, Malta, Cyprus and the Baltic countries, have been accused of lax controls which have allowed repeated cases of money laundering. 

Most ministers supported the joint statement at a public session of their meeting today, but some, such as Luxembourg, did not join the discussion, leaving it unclear whether they would back the reform. 

Malta’s finance minister, Edward Scicluna, said he fully backed the overhaul. 

He faces a criminal probe over money laundering in which he denies wrongdoing. 

The Maltese government has also confirmed support for state-owned Bank of Valletta after its dirty-money shortfalls emerged last month.

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Minister to discuss US tariffs on Irish goods

The Minister of State for European Affairs, Helen McEntee, will discuss the imposition of US tariffs on Irish goods at a series of meetings in Washington this week. 

She is due to holds talks on Capitol Hill and with the American Chamber of Commerce. 

In October it was announced that a range of goods from the EU were to be subjected to US duties including Irish butter, cheese, liqueurs and pork products. 

Irish whiskey made in Northern Ireland was on the list of goods but whiskey made in the Republic of Ireland was spared. 

Now however there are growing concerns that Irish whiskey could be affected. 

The tariffs were announced in retaliation for EU aircraft subsidies and earlier this week the World Trade Organisation said Europe had not complied with obligations to remove subsidies to Airbus. 

In response, the office of the US Trade Representative said it is considering increasing the tariff rates and subjecting additional EU products to the tariffs. 

Speaking in Washington, Helen McEntee described tariffs as short-sighted and counterproductive and that she will be raising the issue in her meetings this week. 

She also urged the EU and the US to sit down for talks. 

“From an Irish point of view, we’ve always tried to advocate engagement and to bring people around the table to resolve this,” she said. 

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Euro zone growth curbed by trade, retail sales slowdown

The euro zone economy grew at a modest pace in the third quarter with a negative impact from trade, while retail sales fell at their sharpest rate this year in October, data showed today. 

Gross domestic product (GDP) in the euro zone was up 0.2% in the three months from July to September.

This was the same figure as the flash estimate released in October and unchanged from the second quarter. 

Retail sales in the euro zone in October fell by 0.6%, double the amount expected in a Reuters poll, and were up a modest 1.4% year-on-year. The monthly decline was the steepest fall of 2019. 

The data confirmed a sombre outlook for the single currency bloc, which is facing threats and uncertainty over Brexit and rising global trade conflicts. 

Britain had been set to exit the European Union at the end of October, a deadline since pushed back until the end of January. 

In trade, the US outlined the first phase of a deal to end its conflict war with China in October, but the two are still arguing about the details. 

Year-on-year, euro zone expansion was 1.2%, also the same figure as in the second quarter of the year. 

The bloc’s largest and third largest economies, Germany and Italy, grew by just 0.1% during the quarter, while in France, the second largest economy, growth was 0.3%. 

Household spending was the strongest overall contributor, boosting euro zone growth by 0.3% percentage points, followed by government spending and capital investment at 0.1 points.

However, the contributions of trade and of inventory changes were negative, in the case of trade for a second consecutive quarter. 

In the October retail sales figures, non-food sales declined, particularly online and mail order sales, although these tend to pick up in November and December ahead of the Christmas period. 

Eurostat also said that the growth of employment in the euro zone slowed in the third quarter to 0.1% from 0.2% in the second quarter. 

Year-on-year the figure was also softer at 0.9% from 1.2% previously.

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88% of Irish SME food companies expect revenue growth in 2020

A new survey shows that 88% of Irish food companies expect revenue growth in the year ahead, with 34% of these companies expecting revenue growth of over 10%. 

The SME Irish Food Barometer was carried out by PwC and Love Irish Food.

It also reveals that while companies are optimistic about the growth prospects for their own businesses, they are less certain about the future performance of the economy. 

Almost all respondents – 96% – confirmed that they are planning some form of capital investment next year in order to develop their business, with 10% saying this investment would be in excess of €3m.

But just 16% of SME food firms believe that economic growth in Ireland will improve in the year ahead, 50% say it will remain unchanged and 34% say it will decline. 

As a small open economy, this is not surprising given external uncertainties, PwC said.

Today’s barometer also shows that just 6% of Irish food companies expect to achieve price increases in current trading conditions. 

PwC said this suggests that margin improvements will be derived from advances in technology and operational efficiencies.

The barometer shows that key challenges curtailing growth prospects include availability of labour (43%), trade wars and tariffs (37%), operational costs such as energy, insurance and rates (28%), volatile commodity prices (21%) and embracing the sustainability agenda (17%).

84% of companies confirmed that they have an environmental sustainability plan in place to make improvements in 2020.  Key areas for this investment are energy consumption, reducing plastics and water usage. 

On Brexit, just 31% of companies surveyed said they had delayed investment in the organisation due to the UK’s planned departure from the European Union. 

Any delayed investment was mainly in areas such as production capacity, operational resources innovation and marketing. 

Grace McCullen, Senior Manager at PwC Ireland Retail & Consumer Practice, said the survey highlights optimism about the future growth potential for Irish food companies. 

“They are also keen to seek operational efficiencies through innovation and technologies to improve margins, cost competitiveness and satisfied consumers,” Ms McCullen said. 

“With the domestic market being the priority for growth prospects, expanding  into new markets and new products should not be ignored. The UK will exit the EU at some point and that will give rise to new opportunities for manufacturing food products in Ireland that may have been supplied from the UK,” she added.

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Euro zone business growth near-stagnant, but some hopeful signs evident – PMI

Euro zone business activity stayed near stall speed last month, with manufacturing seemingly continuing to act as a drag on the bloc’s dominant services industry as well as the economy as a whole. 

Despite some optimistic signs in today’s survey, that picture is likely to disappoint policymakers at the European Central Bank.

In September, the ECB relaunched a €2.6 trillion asset purchase programme designed to stimulate growth and inflation. 

IHS Markit’s final euro zone composite Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), seen as a good gauge of economic health, held steady last month at October’s 50.6. 

That beat a preliminary estimate of 50.3 but remains uncomfortably close to the 50 mark separating growth from contraction. 

The headline figure “still indicates a near-stagnant economy,” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit. 

The data pointed to fourth quarter GDP growth of 0.1%, with manufacturing continuing to act as a major drag. 

“Worryingly, the service sector is also on course for its weakest quarterly expansion for five years, hinting strongly that the slowdown continues to spread,” he said. 

A Reuters poll last month had predicted growth of 0.2% this quarter. 

Offering glimmers of hope, an index measuring demand climbed to the breakeven mark having spent two months below it, firms increased the pace of hiring and optimism was at a four-month high.

The new business index was 50 compared to October’s 49.6.

“New orders have not shown any growth since August, underscoring the recent weakness of demand, with sharply declining orders for manufactured goods accompanied by substantially weaker gains of new business into the service sector,” Chris Williamson said. 

Overall services industry activity stuttered. Its PMI dipped to 51.9 from 52.2, although edging above a 51.5 flash reading. 

Still, reflecting some level of increased optimism, firms increased headcount at a faster rate. The employment index nudged up to 53.2 from 53. 

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