Belfast Telegraph

Chicago group's arrival may help Ulster's own rags to riches story

By Carl Whyte

The genius of 1980s films can often be forgotten. Many of us associate the decade with economic decline, division and strife.

But looking back who can forget John Candy's genius in Planes, Trains and Automobiles? Or Tom Hank's early promise in Big? And Eddie Murphy fans will of course remember his double-act with Dan Aykroyd in the comedy classic Trading Places.

The film, set in the world of commodities trading which was born at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, depicts a swap from prince to pauper which sees the hapless Aykroyd fall from grace and onto the street, with the homeless Murphy making the journey in the opposite direction to take the top job in an international commodities trading firm. With hilarious results, one man's nightmare is juxtaposed with another man's dream.

With the announcement that CME Group (the new name for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) is setting up in Belfast, does this put the Northern Ireland economy on the road from pauper to prince like Murphy? Or does the wider world economy mean we're still on the road to the bottom like Aykroyd's hapless character Louis Winthorpe III?

Firstly, Invest NI are to be congratulated on their success in the technology sector. From home-grown companies like First Derivatives, to international PLCs like NYSE, Belfast has become a beacon for IT and technology firms nationally and internationally. Dublin's early growth in financial services was led by fund administration - could an era of growth led by reduced corporation tax be kicked off by our advanced IT and technology sector?

While high speed cables can put us in the fast lane, anecdotal evidence suggests that, amazingly, there are already a shortage of graduates in the sector in Northern Ireland.

No doubt there are many media studies graduates who would gladly trade places with our limited pool of IT and technology graduates so steps must be taken to ensure access to suitable training is provided to those without traditional degrees.

A shortage of labour leads to demand for increased salaries, which, while good for the individuals involved, is bad for the wider sector. Demand for higher wages has a negative effect on the productivity of firms - it was the twin evils of banking and a decline in productivity which sent the Republic's economy on the elevator to the bottom floor, just like Dan Aykroyd's character.

One swallow doesn't make a summer however and Northern Ireland needs the same success we see in IT and technology replicated in other sectors. Pharmaceuticals north of the border sector pales in comparison to the Republic and Belfast seems to have missed out on the social media bonanza which is taking place in Dublin.

The fair city's hat-trick of Twitter, Google and Facebook is the envy of Europe.

A silent stalwart of our economy is agri-business. With an estimated increase in revenue of £540m from £3.2bn in 2009 to £3.7bn in 2010 the sector has become a bulwark against the choppy economic seas.

The Common Agricultural Policy invests £300m in farms and rural communities here annually, with a year-on-year increase in revenue which outstrips this investment, the sector passes any cost/benefit test with flying colours. What's also impressive is the much quoted but often maligned multiplier effect - the fact is that this sector has a strong record with three jobs created for every one position thanks to spillover effects.

The world likes our IT and technology graduates, but an ever growing population seems to like our food and food products also.

Commodities trading started with agricultural products and in Trading Places, the plot concludes with a speculative bet on the price of frozen orange juice. Hapless Murphy and homeless Aykroyd join forces to rise to defeat the Duke brothers and they triumph, making themselves millionaires.

With our newest company derived from pricing in one of our oldest industries, it's a message that shouldn't be lost on us. Combining old with new, our past record with our future promise, we can make sure our economy comes out on the top floor.

Carl Whyte is a public relations executive

Popular