The Morgan Kelly Opus - Part VI

2011


http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opi ... 72123.html
Ireland's future depends on breaking free from bailout
Saturday, May 7, 2011

OPINION: Ireland is heading for bankruptcy, which would be catastrophic for a country that trades on its reputation as a safe place to do business, writes MORGAN KELLY

WITH THE Irish Government on track to owe a quarter of a trillion euro by 2014, a prolonged and chaotic national bankruptcy is becoming inevitable. By the time the dust settles, Ireland’s last remaining asset, its reputation as a safe place from which to conduct business, will have been destroyed.

Ireland is facing economic ruin.

While most people would trace our ruin to to the bank guarantee of September 2008, the real error was in sticking with the guarantee long after it had become clear that the bank losses were insupportable. Brian Lenihan’s original decision to guarantee most of the bonds of Irish banks was a mistake, but a mistake so obvious and so ridiculous that it could easily have been reversed. The ideal time to have reversed the bank guarantee was a few months later when Patrick Honohan was appointed governor of the Central Bank and assumed de facto control of Irish economic policy.

As a respected academic expert on banking crises, Honohan commanded the international authority to have announced that the guarantee had been made in haste and with poor information, and would be replaced by a restructuring where bonds in the banks would be swapped for shares.

Instead, Honohan seemed unperturbed by the possible scale of bank losses, repeatedly insisting that they were “manageable”. Like most Irish economists of his generation, he appeared to believe that Ireland was still the export-driven powerhouse of the 1990s, rather than the credit-fuelled Ponzi scheme it had become since 2000; and the banking crisis no worse than the, largely manufactured, government budget crisis of the late 1980s.

Rising dismay at Honohan’s judgment crystallised into outright scepticism after an extraordinary interview with Bloomberg business news on May 28th last year. Having overseen the Central Bank’s “quite aggressive” stress tests of the Irish banks, he assured them that he would have “the two big banks, fixed by the end of the year. I think it’s quite good news The banks are floating away from dependence on the State and will be free standing”.

Honohan’s miscalculation of the bank losses has turned out to be the costliest mistake ever made by an Irish person. Armed with Honohan’s assurances that the bank losses were manageable, the Irish government confidently rode into the Little Bighorn and repaid the bank bondholders, even those who had not been guaranteed under the original scheme. This suicidal policy culminated in the repayment of most of the outstanding bonds last September.

Disaster followed within weeks. Nobody would lend to Irish banks, so that the maturing bonds were repaid largely by emergency borrowing from the European Central Bank: by November the Irish banks already owed more than €60 billion. Despite aggressive cuts in government spending, the certainty that bank losses would far exceed Honohan’s estimates led financial markets to stop lending to Ireland.

On November 16th, European finance ministers urged Lenihan to accept a bailout to stop the panic spreading to Spain and Portugal, but he refused, arguing that the Irish government was funded until the following summer. Although attacked by the Irish media for this seemingly delusional behaviour, Lenihan, for once, was doing precisely the right thing. Behind Lenihan’s refusal lay the thinly veiled threat that, unless given suitably generous terms, Ireland could hold happily its breath for long enough that Spain and Portugal, who needed to borrow every month, would drown.

At this stage, with Lenihan looking set to exploit his strong negotiating position to seek a bailout of the banks only, Honohan intervened. As well as being Ireland’s chief economic adviser, he also plays for the opposing team as a member of the council of the European Central Bank, whose decisions he is bound to carry out. In Frankfurt for the monthly meeting of the ECB on November 18th, Honohan announced on RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland that Ireland would need a bailout of “tens of billions”.

Rarely has a finance minister been so deftly sliced off at the ankles by his central bank governor. And so the Honohan Doctrine that bank losses could and should be repaid by Irish taxpayers ran its predictable course with the financial collapse and international bailout of the Irish State.

Ireland’s Last Stand began less shambolically than you might expect. The IMF, which believes that lenders should pay for their stupidity before it has to reach into its pocket, presented the Irish with a plan to haircut €30 billion of unguaranteed bonds by two-thirds on average. Lenihan was overjoyed, according to a source who was there, telling the IMF team: “You are Ireland’s salvation.”

The deal was torpedoed from an unexpected direction. At a conference call with the G7 finance ministers, the haircut was vetoed by US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner who, as his payment of $13 billion from government-owned AIG to Goldman Sachs showed, believes that bankers take priority over taxpayers. The only one to speak up for the Irish was UK chancellor George Osborne, but Geithner, as always, got his way. An instructive, if painful, lesson in the extent of US soft power, and in who our friends really are.

The negotiations went downhill from there. On one side was the European Central Bank, unabashedly representing Ireland’s creditors and insisting on full repayment of bank bonds. On the other was the IMF, arguing that Irish taxpayers would be doing well to balance their government’s books, let alone repay the losses of private banks. And the Irish? On the side of the ECB, naturally.

In the circumstances, the ECB walked away with everything it wanted. The IMF were scathing of the Irish performance, with one staffer describing the eagerness of some Irish negotiators to side with the ECB as displaying strong elements of Stockholm Syndrome.

The bailout represents almost as much of a scandal for the IMF as it does for Ireland. The IMF found itself outmanoeuvred by ECB negotiators, their low opinion of whom they are not at pains to conceal. More importantly, the IMF was forced by the obduracy of Geithner and the spinelessness, or worse, of the Irish to lend their imprimatur, and €30 billion of their capital, to a deal that its negotiators privately admit will end in Irish bankruptcy. Lending to an insolvent state, which has no hope of reducing its debt enough to borrow in markets again, breaches the most fundamental rule of the IMF, and a heated debate continues there over the legality of the Irish deal.

Six months on, and with Irish government debt rated one notch above junk and the run on Irish banks starting to spread to household deposits, it might appear that the Irish bailout of last November has already ended in abject failure. On the contrary, as far as its ECB architects are concerned, the bailout has turned out to be an unqualified success.

The one thing you need to understand about the Irish bailout is that it had nothing to do with repairing Ireland’s finances enough to allow the Irish Government to start borrowing again in the bond markets at reasonable rates: what people ordinarily think of a bailout as doing.

The finances of the Irish Government are like a bucket with a large hole in the form of the banking system. While any half-serious rescue would have focused on plugging this hole, the agreed bailout ostentatiously ignored the banks, except for reiterating the ECB-Honohan view that their losses would be borne by Irish taxpayers. Try to imagine the Bank of England’s insisting that Northern Rock be rescued by Newcastle City Council and you have some idea of how seriously the ECB expects the Irish bailout to work.

Instead, the sole purpose of the Irish bailout was to frighten the Spanish into line with a vivid demonstration that EU rescues are not for the faint-hearted. And the ECB plan, so far anyway, has worked. Given a choice between being strung up like Ireland – an object of international ridicule, paying exorbitant rates on bailout funds, its government ministers answerable to a Hungarian university lecturer – or mending their ways, the Spanish have understandably chosen the latter.

But why was it necessary, or at least expedient, for the EU to force an economic collapse on Ireland to frighten Spain? The answer goes back to a fundamental, and potentially fatal, flaw in the design of the euro zone: the lack of any means of dealing with large, insolvent banks.

Back when the euro was being planned in the mid-1990s, it never occurred to anyone that cautious, stodgy banks like AIB and Bank of Ireland, run by faintly dim former rugby players, could ever borrow tens of billions overseas, and lose it all on dodgy property loans. Had the collapse been limited to Irish banks, some sort of rescue deal might have been cobbled together; but a suspicion lingers that many Spanish banks – which inflated a property bubble almost as exuberant as Ireland’s, but in the world’s ninth largest economy – are hiding losses as large as those that sank their Irish counterparts.

Uniquely in the world, the European Central Bank has no central government standing behind it that can levy taxes. To rescue a banking system as large as Spain’s would require a massive commitment of resources by European countries to a European Monetary Fund: something so politically complex and financially costly that it will only be considered in extremis, to avert the collapse of the euro zone. It is easiest for now for the ECB to keep its fingers crossed that Spain pulls through by itself, encouraged by the example made of the Irish.

Irish insolvency is now less a matter of economics than of arithmetic. If everything goes according to plan, as it always does, Ireland’s government debt will top €190 billion by 2014, with another €45 billion in Nama and €35 billion in bank recapitalisation, for a total of €270 billion, plus whatever losses the Irish Central Bank has made on its emergency lending. Subtracting off the likely value of the banks and Nama assets, Namawinelake (by far the best source on the Irish economy) reckons our final debt will be about €220 billion, and I think it will be closer to €250 billion, but these differences are immaterial: either way we are talking of a Government debt that is more than €120,000 per worker, or 60 per cent larger than GNP.

Economists have a rule of thumb that once its national debt exceeds its national income, a small economy is in danger of default (large economies, like Japan, can go considerably higher). Ireland is so far into the red zone that marginal changes in the bailout terms can make no difference: we are going to be in the Hudson.

The ECB applauded and lent Ireland the money to ensure that the banks that lent to Anglo and Nationwide be repaid, and now finds itself in the situation where, as a consequence, the banks that lent to the Irish Government are at risk of losing most of what they lent. In other words, the Irish banking crisis has become part of the larger European sovereign debt crisis.

Given the political paralysis in the EU, and a European Central Bank that sees its main task as placating the editors of German tabloids, the most likely outcome of the European debt crisis is that, after two years or so to allow French and German banks to build up loss reserves, the insolvent economies will be forced into some sort of bankruptcy.

Make no mistake: while government defaults are almost the normal state of affairs in places like Greece and Argentina, for a country like Ireland that trades on its reputation as a safe place to do business, a bankruptcy would be catastrophic. Sovereign bankruptcies drag on for years as creditors hold out for better terms, or sell to so-called vulture funds that engage in endless litigation overseas to have national assets such as aircraft impounded in the hope that they can make a sufficient nuisance of themselves to be bought off.

Worse still, a bankruptcy can do nothing to repair Ireland’s finances. Given the other commitments of the Irish State (to the banks, Nama, EU, ECB and IMF), for a bankruptcy to return government debt to a sustainable level, the holders of regular government bonds will have to be more or less wiped out. Unfortunately, most Irish government bonds are held by Irish banks and insurance companies.

In other words, we have embarked on a futile game of passing the parcel of insolvency: first from the banks to the Irish State, and next from the State back to the banks and insurance companies. The eventual outcome will likely see Ireland as some sort of EU protectorate, Europe’s answer to Puerto Rico.

Suppose that we did not want to follow our current path towards an ECB-directed bankruptcy and spiralling national ruin, is there anything we could do? While Prof Honohan sportingly threw away our best cards last September, there still is a way out that, while not painless, is considerably less painful than what Europe has in mind for us.

National survival requires that Ireland walk away from the bailout. This in turn requires the Government to do two things: disengage from the banks, and bring its budget into balance immediately.

First the banks. While the ECB does not want to rescue the Irish banks, it cannot let them collapse either and start a wave of panic that sweeps across Europe. So, every time one of you expresses your approval of the Irish banks by moving your savings to a foreign-owned bank, the Irish bank goes and replaces your money with emergency borrowing from the ECB or the Irish Central Bank. Their current borrowings are €160 billion.

The original bailout plan was that the loan portfolios of Irish banks would be sold off to repay these borrowings. However, foreign banks know that many of these loans, mortgages especially, will eventually default, and were not interested. As a result, the ECB finds itself with the Irish banks wedged uncomfortably far up its fundament, and no way of dislodging them.

This allows Ireland to walk away from the banking system by returning the Nama assets to the banks, and withdrawing its promissory notes in the banks. The ECB can then learn the basic economic truth that if you lend €160 billion to insolvent banks backed by an insolvent state, you are no longer a creditor: you are the owner. At some stage the ECB can take out an eraser and, where “Emergency Loan” is written in the accounts of Irish banks, write “Capital” instead. When it chooses to do so is its problem, not ours.

At a stroke, the Irish Government can halve its debt to a survivable €110 billion. The ECB can do nothing to the Irish banks in retaliation without triggering a catastrophic panic in Spain and across the rest of Europe. The only way Europe can respond is by cutting off funding to the Irish Government.

So the second strand of national survival is to bring the Government budget immediately into balance. The reason for governments to run deficits in recessions is to smooth out temporary dips in economic activity. However, our current slump is not temporary: Ireland bet everything that house prices would rise forever, and lost. To borrow so that senior civil servants like me can continue to enjoy salaries twice as much as our European counterparts makes no sense, macroeconomic or otherwise.

Cutting Government borrowing to zero immediately is not painless but it is the only way of disentangling ourselves from the loan sharks who are intent on making an example of us. In contrast, the new Government’s current policy of lying on the ground with a begging bowl and hoping that someone takes pity on us does not make for a particularly strong negotiating position. By bringing our budget immediately into balance, we focus attention on the fact that Ireland’s problems stem almost entirely from the activities of six privately owned banks, while freeing ourselves to walk away from these poisonous institutions. Just as importantly, it sends a signal to the rest of the world that Ireland – which 20 years ago showed how a small country could drag itself out of poverty through the energy and hard work of its inhabitants, but has since fallen among thieves and their political fixers – is back and means business.

Of course, we all know that this will never happen. Irish politicians are too used to being rewarded by Brussels to start fighting against it, even if it is a matter of national survival. It is easier to be led along blindfold until the noose is slipped around our necks and we are kicked through the trapdoor into bankruptcy.

The destruction wrought by the bankruptcy will not just be economic but political. Just as the Lenihan bailout destroyed Fianna Fáil, so the Noonan bankruptcy will destroy Fine Gael and Labour, leaving them as reviled and mistrusted as their predecessors. And that will leave Ireland in the interesting situation where the economic crisis has chewed up and spat out all of the State’s constitutional parties. The last election was reassuringly dull and predictable but the next, after the trauma and chaos of the bankruptcy, will be anything but.


August 6, 2011
The Hubert Butler Annual Lecture



August 25, 2011
A Note on the Size Distribution of Irish Mortgages
http://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/WP11_17.pdf - PDF

The Morgan Kelly Opus - Part V

2010



http://voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/5040
Whatever happened to Ireland?
17 May 2010
Morgan Kelly

The Celtic Tiger faces severe challenges. This column argues that the Irish government’s commitment to absorb the losses of its banking system may well lead to a Greek-style debt ratio by 2012. It is a test-in-waiting for the EU, but one that could be solved by a debt for equity swap to cover the losses of Irish banks.

From basket case to superstar and back again – or almost. One has to wonder: How did all this happen? How did an economy where employment doubled and real GNP quadrupled during the “Celtic Tiger” era from 1990 to 2007, come to have GNP contract by 17% by late-2009 (with further falls forecast for 2010), the deepest and swiftest contraction suffered by a western economy since the Great Depression? The adjustments faced by the nation are monumental (see Cotter 2009 and Honohan and Lane 2009).

Two booms
The key to understanding what happened to Ireland is to realise that while GNP grew from 5% to 15% every year from 1991 to 2006, this Celtic Tiger growth stemmed from two very different booms. First, the 1990s saw rising employment associated with increased competitiveness and a quadrupling of real exports. As Ireland converged to average levels of western European income around 2000 it might have been expected that growth would fall to normal European levels. Instead growth continued at high rates until 2007 despite falling competitiveness, driven by a second boom in construction. I analyse this second boom, the Irish bubble, in a recent CEPR Discussion Paper (Kelly 2010).

Credit bubble
Ireland went from getting about 5% of its national income from house building in the 1990s – the usual level for a developed economy – to 15% at the peak of the boom in 2006–2007, with another 6% coming from other construction. In effect, the Irish decided that competitiveness no longer mattered, and that the road to riches lay in selling houses to each other.
However, driving the construction boom was another boom, in bank lending. As Figure 1 shows, back in 1997 when Ireland’s economy really was among the world’s best performing, Irish banks lent sparingly by international standards. Lending to the non-financial private sector was only 60% of GNP, compared with 80% in Britain and most Eurozone economies. The international credit boom saw these economies experience a rapid rise in bank lending, with loans increasing to 100% of GDP on average by 2008.
These rises were dwarfed, however, by Ireland, where bank lending grew to 200% of national income by 2008. Irish banks were lending 40% more in real terms to property developers alone in 2008 than they had been lending to everyone in Ireland in 2000, and 75% more to house buyers.
Figure 1. Bank lending to households and non-financial firms as a percentage of GDP (GNP for Ireland), 1997 and 2008.
Image
This tripling of credit relative to GNP distorted the Irish economy profoundly. Its most visible impact was on house prices. In 1995 the average first-time buyer took out a mortgage equal to three years’ average industrial earnings, and the average house cost 4 years’ earnings. By the bubble peak in late 2006, the average first-time buyer mortgage had risen to 8 times average earnings, and the average new house now cost 10 times average earnings, with the average Dublin second-hand house costing 17 times average earnings (see Figures 2 and 3).
As the price of new houses rose faster than the cost of building them, investment in housing rose. By 2007, Ireland was building half as many houses as Britain, which has 14 times its population.
The flow of new mortgages peaked in the third quarter of 2006, and then fell rapidly. By the middle of 2007 the Irish construction industry was in clear trouble, with unsold units beginning to accumulate. More than one-sixth of housing units are now estimated to be vacant.
Figure 2. Irish house prices relative to average industrial earnings, 1980 – 2009
Image
Figure 3. Irish new house prices and first time buyer mortgages relative to average industrial earnings, 1990 – 2009
Image

Banking collapse
This property slowdown was bad news for an Irish banking system which had lent, usually without collateral, an amount equal to two-thirds of GNP to property developers to finance building projects and make speculative land purchases. Share prices of Irish banks fell steadily from March 2007, with the crisis coming to a head in late September 2008 with a run in wholesale markets on the joint-second largest Irish bank, Anglo Irish. After aggressive denials that the banking system faced any difficulties, the Irish government has been forced to improvise a series of increasingly desperate and expensive responses.
As well as guaranteeing the deposits and most bonds of Irish banks, the Irish government has currently spent, or committed itself to spend, around €40 billion on a National Asset Management Agency to buy non-performing development loans from banks, and to invest around €30 billion in Irish banks. Despite this large injection (equivalent to half of GNP), Irish banks remain moribund.
While the Irish government bailout deals with bank losses on loans to property developers, it does nothing about their two other problems: a heavy reliance on wholesale funding; and the prospect of further large losses on mortgages and business loans.
Half of Irish bank funding comes from international wholesale markets. Without continued government guarantees of their borrowing and, more problematically, continued access to ECB emergency funding, the operations of the Irish banks do not appear viable. Borrowing in bond markets at 6% to fund mortgages yielding 3% is not a sustainable activity, and Irish banks face no choice but to shrink their balance sheets. Should Irish bank lending return to normal international levels, our results indicate that property prices will return to an equilibrium two thirds below peak levels, with larger falls possible in the medium term as the flow of new lending is curtailed sharply.
The third problem facing Irish banks is their mortgages. With house prices down by around 40%, renewed emigration, and unemployment tripled to above 13%, Irish banks face substantial mortgage defaults. For comparison, in Florida and Arizona, whose investor fuelled housing bubbles closely resembled the Irish one, 25% of mortgages are non-performing.
On top of the continued disintegration of its banking system, Ireland faces two other problems: unemployment and government deficits. Private sector employment has fallen by 16%, while the number of males aged 20-24 in work has halved. The collapse in Irish competitiveness (wages have risen over 40% relative to its main trading partners since 2000) which cannot be solved by a devaluation, will frustrate efforts to reverse this decline.

Debt crisis
Fifteen fat years allowed the Irish government to cut income taxes, increase spending and still run a budget surplus. Between 2007 and 2009 however, tax revenue fell by 20%, while expenditure rose by 9%, moving the state from a balanced budget to a deficit of 12% of GDP. In contrast to its inept handling of the banking crisis, the Irish government has moved decisively to reduce expenditure and increase tax rates, and appears on target to reduce its deficit to 3% of GDP by 2012.
Ireland’s government debt is still moderate. At the end of 2009 gross debt was 65% of GDP and, after subtracting the state pension reserve and pre-funded borrowing, net debt was 40% of GDP. Assuming that deficit targets are not missed too badly, gross debt should still be under 85% of GDP by the end of 2012.

Conclusions
This debt would probably be manageable, had the Irish government not casually committed itself to absorb all the gambling losses of its banking system. If we assume – optimistically, I believe – that Irish banks eventually lose one third of what they lent to property developers, and one tenth of business loans and mortgages, the net cost to the Irish taxpayer will be nearly one third of GDP.
Adding these bank losses to its national debt will leave Ireland in 2012 with a debt-GDP ratio of 115%. But if we look at the ratio in terms of GNP, which gives a more realistic picture of the Ireland’s discretionary tax base, this is a debt-GNP ratio of 140% – above the ratio that is currently sinking Greece. Even if bank losses are only half as large as we expect, Ireland is still facing a debt-GNP ratio of 125%.
Ireland is like a patient bleeding from two gunshot wounds. The Irish government has moved quickly to stanch the smaller, fiscal hole, while insisting that the litres of blood pouring unchecked through the banking hole are “manageable”. Capital markets may not continue to agree for long, triggering a borrowing crisis which will start, most probably, with a run on Irish banks in inter-bank markets.
Ireland may therefore present an early test of the EU bailout fund. However, in contrast to Greece, Ireland’s woes stem almost entirely from its banking system, and could be swiftly and permanently cured by a resolution which shares the losses of Irish banks with the holders of their €115 billion of bonds through a partial debt for equity swap.



http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opi ... 88132.html
Burden of Irish debt could yet eclipse that of Greece
May 22, 2010

OPINION: What will sink us, unfortunately but inevitably, are the huge costs of the September 2008 bank bailout, writes MORGAN KELLY

IT IS no longer a question of whether Ireland will go bust, but when. Unlike Greece, our woes do not stem from government debt, but instead from the government’s open-ended guarantee to cover the losses of the banking system out of its citizens’ wallets.

Even under the most optimistic assumptions about government spending cuts and bank losses, by 2012 Ireland will have a worse ratio of debt to national income than the one that is sinking Greece.

On the face of it, Ireland’s debt position does not appear catastrophic. At the start of the year, Ireland’s government debt was two- thirds of GDP: only half the Greek level. (The State also has financial assets equal to a quarter of GDP, but so do most governments, so we will focus on the total debt.)

Because of the economic collapse here, the Government is adding to this debt quite quickly. However, in contrast to its inept handling of the banking crisis, the Government has taken reasonable steps to bring the deficit under control. If all goes to plan we should be looking at a debt of 85 to 90 per cent of GDP by the end of 2012.

This is quite large for a small economy, but it is manageable. Just about. What will sink us, unfortunately but inevitably, are the huge costs of the bank bailout.

We can gain a sobering perspective on the impossible disproportion between the bailout and our economic resources by looking at the US. The government there set aside $700 billion (€557 billion) to buy troubled bank assets, and the final cost to the American taxpayer is about $150 billion. These sound like, and are, astronomical numbers.

But when you translate from the leviathan that is America to the minnow that is Ireland, it would be equivalent to the Irish Government spending €7 billion on Nama, and eventually losing €1.5 billion in the process. Pocket change by our standards.

Instead, our Government has already committed itself to spend €70 billion (€40 billion on the National Asset Management Agency – Nama – and €30 billion on recapitalising banks), or half of the national income. That is 10 times per head of population the amount the US spent to rescue itself from its worst banking crisis since the Great Depression.

Having received such a staggering transfusion of taxpayer funds, you might expect that the Irish banks would now be as fit as fleas. Instead, they are still in intensive care, and will require even larger transfusions before they can fend for themselves again.

It is hard to think of any institution since the League of Nations that has become so irrelevant so fast as Nama. Instead of the resurrection of the Irish banking system we were promised, we now have one semi-State body (Nama) buying assets from other semi-states (Anglo) and soon-to-be semi-States (AIB and Bank of Ireland), while funnelling €60 million a year in fees to lawyers, valuers and associated parasites.

What ultimately matters for national solvency, however, is not how much the State invests in its banks, but how much it is likely to lose. It is alright to invest €70 billion, or even €100 billion, to rescue your banking system if you can reasonably expect to get back most of what you spent. So how much are the banks and, thanks to the bank guarantee, you the taxpayer, likely to lose?

Let’s start with the €100 billion of property development loans. We’ll be optimistic and say the loss here will be one-third. Remember, Anglo has already owned up to losing about €25 billion of its €75 billion portfolio, so we have almost reached that third without looking at AIB and Bank of Ireland. I think the final loss will be more than half, but we’ll keep with the third to err on the side of optimism.

Next there are €35 billion of business loans. Over €10 billion of these loans are to hotels and pubs and will likely not be seen again this side of Judgment Day. Meanwhile, one-third of loans to small and medium enterprises are reported already to be in arrears. So, a figure of a 20 per cent loss again seems optimistic.

Finally, we have mortgages of €140 billion, and other personal lending of €20 billion. Current mortgage default figures here are meaningless because, once you agree a reduction of mortgage payments to a level you can afford, Irish banks can still pretend that your loan is performing.

Banks in the US typically get back half of what they loaned when they foreclose, but losses here could be greater because banks, fortunately, find it hard to take away your family home. So Irish banks could easily be looking at mortgage losses of 10 per cent but, to be conservative, we will say five.

So between developers, businesses, and personal loans, Irish banks are on track to lose nearly €50 billion if we are optimistic (and more likely closer to €70 billion), which translates into a bill for the taxpayer of over 30 per cent of GDP. The bank guarantee may have looked like “the cheapest bailout in the world, so far” in September 2008, but it is not looking that way now.

Adding these bank losses on to the national debt means we are facing a debt by late 2012 of 115 per cent of GDP. If we are lucky.

There is more. The ability of a government to service its debts depends on its tax base. In Ireland the proper measure of tax base, at least when it comes to increasing taxes, is not GDP (including profits of multinational firms, who will walk if we raise their taxes) but GNP (which is limited to Irish people, who are mostly stuck here). While for most countries the two measures are the same, in Ireland GDP is a quarter larger than GNP. This means our optimistic debt to GDP forecast of 115 per cent translates into a debt to GNP ratio of 140 per cent, worse than where Greece is now.

And even this catastrophic number assumes that our economy does not contract further. For the last two years the Irish economy has not been shrinking, so much as vaporising. Real GNP and private sector employment have already fallen by one-sixth – the deepest and swiftest falls in a western economy since the Great Depression.

The contraction is far from over, to judge from the two economic indicators I pay most attention to. Redundancies have been steady at 6,000 per month for the last nine months. Insolvencies are 25 per cent higher than this time last year, and are rippling outwards from construction into the rest of the economy.

The Irish economy is like a patient bleeding from two gunshot wounds. The Government has moved competently to stanch the smaller, budgetary hole, while continuing to insist that the litres of blood pouring unchecked from the banking hole are “manageable”.

Capital markets are unlikely to agree for much longer, triggering a borrowing crisis for Ireland. The first torpedo, most probably, will be a run on Irish banks in inter-bank markets, of the sort that sank Anglo in 2008. Already, Irish banks are struggling to find lenders to leave money on deposit for more than a week.

Ireland is setting itself up to present an early test of the shaky EU commitment to bail out its more spendthrift members. Probably we will end up with a deal where the European Central Bank buys Irish debt and provides continued emergency funding to Irish banks, in return for our agreeing a schedule of reparations of 5-6 per cent of national income over the next few decades.

To repay these reparations will take swingeing cuts in spending and social welfare, and unprecedented tax rises. A central part of our “rescue” package is certain to be the requirement that we raise our corporate taxes to European levels, sabotaging any prospect of recovery as multinationals are driven out.

The issue of national sovereignty has for so long been the monopoly of republican headbangers that it is hard to know whether ordinary, sane Irish people still care about it. Either way, we will not be having it around much longer.

We have long since left the realm of easy alternatives, and will soon face a choice between national bankruptcy and admitting the bank guarantee was a mistake. Either we cut the banks loose, or we sink ourselves.

While most countries facing bankruptcy sit passively in denial until they sink – just as we are doing – there is one shining exception: Uruguay. When markets panicked after Argentina defaulted in 2002, Uruguay knew it could no longer service its large external debt. Instead of waiting for a borrowing crisis, the Uruguayans approached their creditors and pointed out they faced a choice.

Either they could play tough and force Uruguay into bankruptcy, in which case they would get almost nothing back, or they could agree to reduce Uruguay’s debt to a manageable level, and get back most of what they lent. Realising Uruguay’s problems were largely not of its own making, and that it had never stiffed its creditors in the past, the lenders agreed to a debt restructuring, and Uruguay was able to return to debt markets within a few months.

In one way, our position is a lot easier than Uruguay’s, because our problem is bank debt rather than government debt. Our crisis stems entirely from the Government’s gratuitous decision on September 29th, 2008, to transform the IOUs of Seán FitzPatrick, Dermot Gleeson and their peers into quasi-sovereign instruments of the Irish state.

Our borrowing crisis could be solved before it even happens by passing the same sort of Special Resolution legislation that the Bank of England enacted after the Northern Rock crisis. The more than €65 billion in bonds that will be outstanding by the end of September when the guarantee expires could then be turned into shares in the banks: a debt for equity swap.

We need to explain that the Irish State has always honoured its debts in the past, and will continue to do so. However, the State is a distinct entity from its banks and, having learned the extent of the banks’ recklessness, we now have no choice but to allow the bank guarantee to lapse and to share the banks’ losses with their bondholders. It must be remembered that when these bonds were issued they had no government guarantee, and the institutions that bought them did so in full knowledge that they could default, and charged an appropriate rate of interest to compensate themselves for this risk.

Freed of the impossible bank debt, the Irish State could concentrate on the other daunting problems left by its decade-long credit binge: unemployment, lack of competitiveness and indebted households. The banks would be soundly capitalised and able to manage themselves free of political interference.

There are two common objections to sharing the banks’ losses with their bondholders, both of them specious. The first is that nobody would lend to Irish banks afterwards. However, given that soon nobody will be lending to Irish banks anyway, this is not an issue. Either way, the Irish State and banks are facing a period of relying on emergency funding. After a debt-for-equity swap, Irish banks, which were highly profitable before they fell into the clutches of their current “management”, will be carrying little debt, making them attractive credit risks.

The second objection is that Ireland would be sued in every court in Europe. Again wrong. Under the EU’s winding-up directive, the government that issues a bank’s licence has full power to resolve the bank under its own laws.

Of course, expecting politicians to sort out the Irish banks is pure fantasy. Like their British and American counterparts, Irish politicians have spent too long believing that banks were the root of national prosperity to understand that their interests are frequently inimical to those of the rest of the economy.

The architect of Uruguay’s salvation was not one of its politicians, but a technocrat called Carlos Steneri. The one positive development in Ireland in recent months is that control of the banking system has passed from the Government to similar technocrats.

This transfer did not take place without a struggle – one that was entirely missed by the media. When Anglo announced they wanted to take over Quinn Insurance despite the objections of the Financial Regulator, journalists seemed to view this as just another case of Anglo being Anglo. They should have remembered that Anglo cannot now turn on a radiator unless the Department of Finance says so, and what was going on instead was a direct power struggle between the Financial Regulator and the Minister for Finance.

Having been forced to appoint a credible Financial Regulator and Central Bank governor – first-rate ones, in fact – the Government must do what they say. Were either Elderfield or Honohan to resign, Irish bonds would straight away turn to junk.

Now you understand the extraordinary shift in power that lay behind the seeming non-headline in this newspaper last month: “Lenihan expresses confidence in regulator”.

The great macroeconomist Rudiger Dornbusch observed that crises always take a lot longer to happen than you expect but, once started, they move with frightening rapidity. Or, as Hemingway put it, bankruptcy happens “Slowly. Then all at once.” We can only hope that the Central Bank is using whatever time remains to us as an independent State to devise an intelligent Plan B – or is it Plan C?



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If you thought the bank bailout was bad, wait until the mortgage defaults hit home
November 8, 2010

THE BIG PICTURE: Ireland is effectively insolvent – the next crisis will be mass home mortgage default, writes MORGAN KELLY

SAD NEWS just in from Our Lady of the Eurozone Hospital: After a sudden worsening in her condition, the Irish Patient, formerly known as the Irish Republic, has been moved into intensive care and put on artificial ventilation. While a hospital spokesman, Jean-Claude Trichet, tried to sound upbeat, there is no prospect that the Patient will recover.

It will be remembered that, after a lengthy period of poverty following her acrimonious divorce from her English partner, in the 1990s Ireland succeeded in turning her life around, educating herself, and holding down a steady job. Although her increasingly riotous lifestyle over the last decade had raised some concerns, the Irish Patient’s fate was sealed by a botched emergency intervention on September 29th, 2008 followed by repeated misdiagnoses of the ensuing complications.

With the Irish Patient now clinically dead, her grieving European relatives face the melancholy task of deciding when to remove her from life support, and how to deal with the extraordinary debts she ran up in the last months of her life . . .

WHEN I wrote in The Irish Times last May showing how the bank guarantee would lead to national insolvency, I did not expect the financial collapse to be anywhere near as swift or as deep as has now occurred. During September, the Irish Republic quietly ceased to exist as an autonomous fiscal entity, and became a ward of the European Central Bank.

It is a testament to the cool and resolute handling of the crisis over the last six months by the Government and Central Bank that markets now put Irish sovereign debt in the same risk group as Ukraine and Pakistan, two notches above the junk level of Argentina, Greece and Venezuela.

September marked Ireland’s point of no return in the banking crisis. During that month, €55 billion of bank bonds (held mainly by UK, German, and French banks) matured and were repaid, mostly by borrowing from the European Central Bank.

Until September, Ireland had the legal option of terminating the bank guarantee on the grounds that three of the guaranteed banks had withheld material information about their solvency, in direct breach of the 1971 Central Bank Act. The way would then have been open to pass legislation along the lines of the UK’s Bank Resolution Regime, to turn the roughly €75 billion of outstanding bank debt into shares in those banks, and so end the banking crisis at a stroke.

With the €55 billion repaid, the possibility of resolving the bank crisis by sharing costs with the bondholders is now water under the bridge. Instead of the unpleasant showdown with the European Central Bank that a bank resolution would have entailed, everyone is a winner. Or everyone who matters, at least.

The German and French banks whose solvency is the overriding concern of the ECB get their money back. Senior Irish policymakers get to roll over and have their tummies tickled by their European overlords and be told what good sports they have been. And best of all, apart from some token departures of executives too old and rich to care less, the senior management of the banks that caused this crisis continue to enjoy their richly earned rewards. The only difficulty is that the Government’s open-ended commitment to cover the bank losses far exceeds the fiscal capacity of the Irish State.

The Government has admitted that Anglo is going to cost the taxpayer €29 to €34 billion. It has also invested €16 billion in the other banks, but expects to get some or all of that investment back eventually.

So, the taxpayer cost of the bailout is about €30 billion for Anglo and some fraction of €16 billion for the rest. Unfortunately, these numbers are not consistent with each other, and it only takes a second to see why.

Between them, AIB and Bank of Ireland had the same exposure to developers as Anglo and, to the extent that they were scrambling to catch up with Anglo, probably lent to even worse turkeys than it did. AIB and Bank of Ireland did start with more capital to absorb losses than Anglo, but also face substantial mortgage losses, which it does not. It follows that AIB and Bank of Ireland together will cost the taxpayer at least as much as Anglo.

Once we accept, as the Government does, that Anglo will cost the taxpayer about €30 billion, we must accept that AIB and Bank of Ireland will cost at least €30 billion extra.

In my article of last May, when I published my optimistic estimate of a €50 billion bailout bill, I posted a spreadsheet on the irisheconomy.ie website, giving my realistic estimates of taxpayer losses. My realistic estimate for Anglo was €34 billion, the same as the Government’s current estimate.

When you apply the same assumptions about lending losses to the other banks, you end up with a likely taxpayer bill of €16 billion for Bank of Ireland (deducting the €3 billion they have since received from investors) and €26 billion for AIB: nearly as bad as Anglo.

Indeed, the true scandal in Irish banking is not what happened at Anglo and Nationwide (which, as specialised development lenders, would have suffered horrific losses even had they not been run by crooks or morons) but the breakdown of governance at AIB that allowed it to pursue the same suicidal path.

Once again we are having to sit through the same dreary and mendacious charade with AIB that we endured with Anglo: “AIB only needs €3.5 billion, sorry we meant to say €6.5 billion, sorry . . .” and so on until it is fully nationalised next year, and the true extent of its folly revealed.

This €70 billion bill for the banks dwarfs the €15 billion in spending cuts now agonised over, and reduces the necessary cuts in Government spending to an exercise in futility. What is the point of rearranging the spending deckchairs, when the iceberg of bank losses is going to sink us anyway?

What is driving our bond yields to record levels is not the Government deficit, but the bank bailout. Without the banks, our national debt could be stabilised in four years at a level not much worse than where France, with its triple A rating in the bond markets, is now.

As a taxpayer, what does a bailout bill of €70 billion mean? It means that every cent of income tax that you pay for the next two to three years will go to repay Anglo’s losses, every cent for the following two years will go on AIB, and every cent for the next year and a half on the others. In other words, the Irish State is insolvent: its liabilities far exceed any realistic means of repaying them.

For a country or company, insolvency is the equivalent of death for a person, and is usually swiftly followed by the legal process of bankruptcy, the equivalent of a funeral.

Two things have delayed Ireland’s funeral. First, in anticipation of being booted out of bond markets, the Government built up a large pile of cash a few months ago, so that it can keep going until the New Year before it runs out of money. Although insolvent, Ireland is still liquid, for now.

Secondly, not wanting another Greek-style mess, the ECB has intervened to fund the Irish banks. Not only have Irish banks had to repay their maturing bonds, but they have been haemorrhaging funds in the inter-bank market, and the ECB has quietly stepped in with emergency funding to keep them going until it can make up its mind what to do.

Since September, a permanent team of ECB “observers” has taken up residence in the Department of Finance. Although of many nationalities, they are known there, dismayingly but inevitably, as “The Germans”.

So, thanks to the discreet intervention of the ECB, the first stage of the crisis has closed with a whimper rather than a bang. Developer loans sank the banks which, thanks to the bank guarantee, sank the Irish State, leaving it as a ward of the ECB.

The next act of the crisis will rehearse the same themes of bad loans and foreign debt, only this time as tragedy rather than farce. This time the bad loans will be mortgages, and the foreign creditor who cannot be repaid is the ECB. In consequence, the second act promises to be a good deal more traumatic than the first.

Where the first round of the banking crisis centred on a few dozen large developers, the next round will involve hundreds of thousands of families with mortgages. Between negotiated repayment reductions and defaults, at least 100,000 mortgages (one in eight) are already under water, and things have barely started.

Banks have been relying on two dams to block the torrent of defaults – house prices and social stigma – but both have started to crumble alarmingly.

People are going to extraordinary lengths – not paying other bills and borrowing heavily from their parents – to meet mortgage repayments, both out of fear of losing their homes and to avoid the stigma of admitting that they are broke. In a society like ours, where a person’s moral worth is judged – by themselves as much as by others – by the car they drive and the house they own, the idea of admitting that you cannot afford your mortgage is unspeakably shameful.

That will change. The perception growing among borrowers is that while they played by the rules, the banks certainly did not, cynically persuading them into mortgages that they had no hope of affording. Facing a choice between obligations to the banks and to their families – mortgage or food – growing numbers are choosing the latter.

In the last year, America has seen a rising number of “strategic defaults”. People choose to stop repaying their mortgages, realising they can live rent-free in their house for several years before eviction, and then rent a better house for less than the interest on their current mortgage. The prospect of being sued by banks is not credible – the State of Florida allows banks full recourse to the assets of delinquent borrowers just like here, but it has the highest default rate in the US – because there is no point pursuing someone who has no assets.

If one family defaults on its mortgage, they are pariahs: if 200,000 default they are a powerful political constituency. There is no shame in admitting that you too were mauled by the Celtic Tiger after being conned into taking out an unaffordable mortgage, when everyone around you is admitting the same.

The gathering mortgage crisis puts Ireland on the cusp of a social conflict on the scale of the Land War, but with one crucial difference. Whereas the Land War faced tenant farmers against a relative handful of mostly foreign landlords, the looming Mortgage War will pit recent house buyers against the majority of families who feel they worked hard and made sacrifices to pay off their mortgages, or else decided not to buy during the bubble, and who think those with mortgages should be made to pay them off. Any relief to struggling mortgage-holders will come not out of bank profits – there is no longer any such thing – but from the pockets of other taxpayers.

The other crumbling dam against mass mortgage default is house prices. House prices are driven by the size of mortgages that banks give out. That is why, even though Irish banks face long-run funding costs of at least 8 per cent (if they could find anyone to lend to them), they are still giving out mortgages at 5 per cent, to maintain an artificial floor on house prices. Without this trickle of new mortgages, prices would collapse and mass defaults ensue.

However, once Irish banks pass under direct ECB control next year, they will be forced to stop lending in order to shrink their balance sheets back to a level that can be funded from customer deposits. With no new mortgage lending, the housing market will be driven by cash transactions, and prices will collapse accordingly.

While the current priority of Irish banks is to conceal their mortgage losses, which requires them to go easy on borrowers, their new priority will be to get the ECB’s money back by whatever means necessary. The resulting wave of foreclosures will cause prices to collapse further.

Along with mass mortgage defaults, sorting out our bill with the ECB will define the second stage of the banking crisis. For now it is easier for the ECB to drip feed funding to the Irish State and banks rather than admit publicly that we are bankrupt, and trigger a crisis that could engulf other euro-zone states. Our economy is tiny, and it is easiest, for now, to kick the can up the road and see how things work out.

By next year Ireland will have run out of cash, and the terms of a formal bailout will have to be agreed. Our bill will be totted up and presented to us, along with terms for repayment. On these terms hangs our future as a nation. We can only hope that, in return for being such good sports about the whole bondholder business and repaying European banks whose idea of a sound investment was lending billions to Gleeson, Fitzpatrick and Fingleton, the Government can negotiate a low rate of interest.

With a sufficiently low interest rate on what we owe to Europe, a combination of economic growth and inflation will eventually erode away the debt, just as it did in the 1980s: we get to survive.

How low is sufficiently low? Economists have a simple rule to calculate this. If the interest rate on a country’s debt is lower than the sum of its growth rate and inflation rate, the ratio of debt to national income will shrink through time. After a massive credit bubble and with a shaky international economy, our growth prospects for the next decade are poor, and prices are likely to be static or falling. An interest rate beyond 2 per cent is likely to sink us.

This means that if we are forced to repay the ECB at the 5 per cent interest rate imposed on Greece, our debt will rise faster than our means of servicing it, and we will inevitably face a State bankruptcy that will destroy what few shreds of our international reputation still remain.

Why would the ECB impose such a punitive interest rate on us? The answer is that we are too small to matter: the ECB’s real concerns lie with Spain and Italy. Making an example of Ireland is an easy way to show that bailouts are not a soft option, and so frighten them into keeping their deficits under control.

Given the risk of national bankruptcy it entailed, what led the Government into this abject and unconditional surrender to the bank bondholders? I have been told that the Government’s reasoning runs as follows: “Europe will bail us out, just like they bailed out the Greeks. And does anyone expect the Greeks to repay?”

The fallacy of this reasoning is obvious. Despite a decade of Anglo-Fáil rule, with its mantra that there are no such things as duties, only entitlements, few Irish institutions have collapsed to the third-world levels of their Greek counterparts, least of all our tax system.

And unlike the Greeks, we lacked the tact and common sense to keep our grubby dealing to ourselves. Europeans had to endure a decade of Irish politicians strutting around and telling them how they needed to emulate our crony capitalism if they wanted to be as rich as we are. As far as other Europeans are concerned, the Irish Government is aiming to add injury to insult by getting their taxpayers to help the “Richest Nation in Europe” continue to enjoy its lavish lifestyle.

My stating the simple fact that the Government has driven Ireland over the brink of insolvency should not be taken as a tacit endorsement of the Opposition. The stark lesson of the last 30 years is that, while Fianna Fáil’s record of economic management has been decidedly mixed, that of the various Fine Gael coalitions has been uniformly dismal.

As ordinary people start to realise that this thing is not only happening, it is happening to them, we can see anxiety giving way to the first upwellings of an inchoate rage and despair that will transform Irish politics along the lines of the Tea Party in America. Within five years, both Civil War parties are likely to have been brushed aside by a hard right, anti-Europe, anti-Traveller party that, inconceivable as it now seems, will leave us nostalgic for the, usually, harmless buffoonery of Biffo, Inda, and their chums.

You have read enough articles by economists by now to know that it is customary at this stage for me to propose, in 30 words or fewer, a simple policy that will solve all our problems. Unfortunately, this is where I have to hold up my hands and confess that I have no solutions, simple or otherwise.

Ireland faced a painful choice between imposing a resolution on banks that were too big to save or becoming insolvent, and, for whatever reason, chose the latter. Sovereign nations get to make policy choices, and we are no longer a sovereign nation in any meaningful sense of that term.

From here on, for better or worse, we can only rely on the kindness of strangers.

The Morgan Kelly Opus - Part IV

2009


The Irish Property Bubble and its Consequences
January 12, 2009
http://www.irisheconomy.ie/Crisis/KellyCrisis.pdf - PDF


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Piling Anglo losses on to national debt risks bankrupting the State
January 20, 2009

ANALYSIS: Anglo Irish is poisoning the banking system and is of no systemic importance. It must not be nationalised; it must be allowed to collapse and with it the developers at the heart of the problem, writes Morgan Kelly

YESTERDAY’S CATASTROPHIC collapse of Irish bank shares stems directly from the Government’s proposal to nationalise Anglo Irish Bank. With the Government’s finances already buckling under the collapse of our bubble economy, financial markets began to fear that with the added burden of Anglo’s debt, the Irish State cannot afford to finance itself, let alone support the remaining national banks.

Facing the imminent collapse of the national financial system, the Government needs to perform a ruthless triage. The worthwhile banks need to be maintained by any means necessary, including nationalisation, while Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide must be allowed to collapse.

What began as farce has turned swiftly to catastrophe. Last September the Government casually decided to give a small dig-out to some developer pals by guaranteeing the liabilities of Anglo Irish Bank. This spiralled into a proposed nationalisation that would saddle Irish taxpayers with Anglo’s bad debts, which could easily exceed €20,000 per household, and starve the other, worthwhile, banks of the capital they need to survive.

At the original crisis meeting on September 29th, Brian Cowen claimed that the blanket guarantee to all six banks was given “on the basis of the advice from those who are competent to so advise the Government”.

That does not appear to have been the case.

According to a source of mine very familiar with what happened at the meeting, extending the liability guarantee to Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide was strongly opposed by representatives of the Central Bank and the Department of Finance (who reportedly came into the meeting with a draft Bill to rescue only four institutions). However, I am told they were overruled by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, who were supported by the Financial Regulator and the Governor of the Central Bank on the grounds that a sudden liquidation of Anglo’s assets would not be in the national interest.

It is still worth asking what would have happened if Brian Cowen had listened to the Department of Finance and allowed Anglo Irish to sink? The answer is: very little.

Developers would have gone bust and commercial property would have become more or less worthless, but that is going to happen anyway, with or without Anglo Irish. Depositors of Anglo Irish would have been paid off in full, and the hit would have been taken by the international financial institutions that hold around €22 billion of its bonds.

These bondholders are professional institutional investors who signed up for higher returns on Anglo debt in the knowledge that they were facing higher risks. They are, moreover, insured against their losses through insurance contracts called Credit Default Swaps.

This is the central point about the bailout of Anglo Irish, and one that has not received any attention: the only effect of a bailout is that the Irish taxpayer will make up the losses of Anglo Irish’s bondholders instead of the insurers who had already been paid to underwrite the risk.

Why it is necessary to transfer Anglo’s losses from the writers of Credit Default Swaps to the Irish taxpayer is something that the Government has not thought to justify.

Indeed, what has been disturbing about the entire Anglo affair is that at no stage has the Government felt it necessary to explain why any bailout was needed, beyond inchoate mutterings about the “systemic importance” of Anglo Irish.

The reality is that Anglo has no importance in the Irish financial system. It existed purely as a vehicle for a few politically connected individuals to place reckless bets on the commercial property market. These property speculators may be of systemic importance to the finances of Fianna Fáil, but their significance ends there.

In ordinary times, piling €30 billion of Anglo Irish losses on to the national debt would be painful and pointless but not impossible. These however are not ordinary times. International debt markets are flooded with governments trying to borrow. The other Irish banks are dangerously short of capital. Most importantly, the Irish economy and government finances are collapsing.

Ireland’s growth during the last decade was largely illusory, generated by a property bubble fuelled by reckless bank lending. In 2007 an incredible 20 per cent of our national income and employment came from building houses and commercial property. Next year, the percentage will be approximately zero.

The only industrialised economy that has endured a property and banking crash remotely comparable to what we are beginning to experience was Finland in 1991, where national income fell in total by 15 per cent and unemployment rose by 12 percentage points. As the private sector haemorrhages jobs it is hard to see how Irish national income will fall by less than 20 to 25 per cent in the next few years. Unemployment will easily reach 15 per cent by the end of the summer, and 20 per cent by next year, and will not start to fall until recovery in Britain and elsewhere permits mass emigration to resume. The economy will not begin to grow until real wages fall to competitive international levels, a process that will probably take a decade.

In other words, the Irish economy is facing a decade of stagnation and mass unemployment of the same magnitude as the 1980s, with the difference that the unemployed now have mortgages, car loans and maxed-out credit cards. Faced with an irreversible contraction on this scale, the Government will have grave difficulty borrowing to fund its ordinary expenditure, even after draconian cuts in spending and increases in taxation. In the view of international investors, piling Anglo Irish’s gambling losses on top of a spiralling national debt could easily suffice to sink the Irish State into bankruptcy.

In this national crisis, what should be done? The answer is simple. The State must do everything to rescue AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB, and let Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide sink.

The Government must continue to guarantee all deposits at Anglo Irish while announcing that, in the light of continuing revelations of misconduct in the bank and shortcomings in its auditing procedures, it will enter into negotiations with senior and unsecured bondholders.

The proposed Anglo nationalisation marks a decisive watershed in Irish democracy. With it, an Irish government has coolly looked its citizens in the eye and said: “Sorry, but your priorities are not ours.”

It is to be hoped that the collapse of other bank shares will serve as a warning to deter the Government from this catastrophic course. I would therefore urge any TDs and Senators who still believe that the Irish State exists to act in the interests of its people to vote against the nationalisation of Anglo Irish and do everything to protect the other banks.

Morgan Kelly is professor of economics at University College Dublin.

Corrections & Clarifications - Published January 22nd

In this article, it was stated that the Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan had failed to follow advice received from representatives of the Central Bank and the Department of Finance at a meeting on September 29th 2008 at which the Government decided to guarantee the deposits and certain identified liabilities of six named financial institutions.

It was also stated that a Bill to rescue only four institutions was before the Government on that occasion. In fact, the Bill was the same as that passed by the Oireachtas this week, being a Nationalisation Bill. The Irish Times notes the unequivocal statement by the Minister for Finance in the Dáil on Tuesday confirming the correct factual position and we are happy to set the record straight and withdraw any suggestion of corrupt motives on the part of the Minister.



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Bank guarantee likely to deal a crippling blow to the economy
February 17, 2009

ANALYSIS: Government borrowing is not an immediate problem, but the extent of banks’ bad debts may prove catastrophic, writes MORGAN KELLY

BETWEEN COLLAPSING house prices, bankrupt banks and spiralling unemployment, you might be forgiven for thinking that fate has already dealt Ireland every misfortune in its hand. However, there may be one more unpleasant surprise in store for us, the prospect that international investors unexpectedly stop lending to the Government.

Economists call this a “sudden stop”. The original sudden stop occurred in 1998 when a default by Russia panicked lenders away from Latin America and plunged their economies into prolonged crisis.

The consensus among Irish economists is that government borrowing is not an immediate problem. Ireland has a low level of public debt by international standards, and even a few years of heavy borrowing will still leave it below Greek and Italian levels.

To understand why this view is too complacent, imagine that you are a bank manager and somebody that we will call Brian (not his real name) comes in looking for a loan.

Brian’s income is €30,000 and he would like to borrow €20,000 to cover living expenses. This sounds like a lot in these nervous times but, because Brian is not carrying much debt, you think you might lend to him.

However, Brian then lets it slip that, because his income is falling sharply, he will need to borrow at least as much each year for the foreseeable future. He also admits that, late one night and for what seemed like good reasons at the time, he somehow agreed to insure the gambling losses of some “banks”.

Brian has no idea how large these losses might be, but is starting to fear that they might be substantial. At this stage, you realise that Brian is on a trajectory into bankruptcy and show him the door.

Multiply the numbers in this story by a million and you begin to understand why Ireland makes bond markets nervous. First, the Irish economy is heading into a severe and prolonged slump that will force the Government to borrow heavily at a time when markets are increasingly reluctant to lend heavily.

Secondly, the Government’s delay in revealing how much its bank liability guarantee is likely to cost is making markets suspect that the final bill will be crushing.

After a decade of a credit-fuelled property bubble, the economy is not so much crumbling as vaporising: were we the size of Britain, January’s rise in unemployment would have been over half a million.

As the economy collapses, so does the Government’s tax revenue. This year the Government will have to borrow about €20 billion – everything it spends on wages or on social welfare – or about 15 per cent of a falling national income.

With no chance that the hopelessly uncompetitive economy will recover in the next five years and little sign that the Government has any appetite for serious cuts in spending or increases in taxation, borrowing looks set to continue at around this level for the foreseeable future.

If this borrowing was the limit of the Government’s liabilities, Ireland would probably just about weather the storm in the bond markets. Unfortunately, an elephant is lurking in the corner in the form of the bank liability guarantee, and this looks increasingly certain to sink the economy.

In my view, the Government has made insufficient effort to estimate how much its banks have lost. We have therefore had the bizarre experience of nationalising Anglo Irish Bank and recapitalising Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland without knowing precisely the extent of their bad debts.

The Government has not updated its estimate of losses since Brian Lenihan’s boast that the liability guarantee was “the cheapest bailout in the world so far”, an assurance that already ranks in the annals of supreme political irony alongside Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time”.

The ability of the State to continue funding itself ultimately depends on the size of these bad debts. If they are of the order of €10–€20 billion, we will survive. If they are of the order of €50-€60 billion, we are sunk.

Irish banks could easily lose this much. If we suppose that most of the €20 billion lent to builders will not reappear this side of Judgment Day, along with 20 per cent of the €90 billion lent to developers, and 10 per cent of the €120 billion in mortgages, then we are already up to €50 billion.

These are only guesses. However, the continuing stream of revelations from Anglo Irish – which bear out the old investment dictum that there is never just one cockroach in a kitchen – suggest that they could be optimistic guesses.

To see what would happen to Ireland if foreign lenders suddenly pull the plug, we only need to look at what happened in Latvia last December. We would be forced to seek an international bailout, with the International Monetary Fund and European Union playing bad cop and good cop. We could expect cuts of one-quarter to one-third in public sector wages and social welfare benefits, and draconian tax rises to bring the deficit back to around 5 per cent of national income in two years.

There is actually a worse scenario where international bond markets suffer a general panic, like 1998. Not only does Ireland gets torpedoed, but also Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain and Austria. The IMF and EU simply would not have the resources to bail out so many economies and we would be entirely on our own.

In circumstances where the Government could not even pay public sector salaries, the bank guarantee would immediately become worthless and we would see an uncontrollable run on all the Irish banks.

Watching the ineptitude and complacency of Lenihan’s bank bailout, we can understand increasingly how the people of New Orleans must have felt as they watched George Bush rescue their city: “Brianie: you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Particularly galling are the Government’s efforts to feign surprise and indignation at the behaviour of the banks, when the reality is that this is how we have always done business here. All that the Anglo affair has done is to hold up our grubby brand of crony capitalism for international ridicule.

For increasing numbers of ordinary people, the Irish economic miracle has turned out to be as worthwhile as a share in Bernard L Madoff Investments.

In return for working hard and paying their taxes, the lucky ones who keep their jobs can now look forward to pay cuts, negative equity and savage tax rises; while the unlucky ones face prolonged unemployment and losing their homes, their cars and everything for which they have worked.

If, on top of this, we suffer a sudden stop, people will see their pensions and Government spending slashed to pay off the gambling losses of Seán FitzPatrick and his pals. The Irish social fabric would certainly rip and unprecedented civil disorder ensue.

Bill Clinton’s feared enforcer James Carville once said that he would like to be reincarnated as the bond market, because that way you get to intimidate everyone.

Without decisive and intelligent Government action in the next few weeks, by the end of this year we will understand exactly what he meant.



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Brought to our knees by bankers and developers
July 3, 2009

OPINION: Nama is in effect Fianna Fáil’s shrine to the property bubble for which the party still yearns. Prepare to pay 10 per cent more in income tax for the next 10 years to pay for it all . . . we are headed for national bankruptcy, argues MORGAN KELLY

WRITING HERE two years ago, I pointed out that the exuberant lending of Irish banks to builders and property developers would sink them if the property bubble burst. Since then, the bubble has burst, the banks have sunk, and we are all left wondering how to salvage them.

Two ideas for fixing the banks have been suggested: a bad bank or National Asset Management Agency (Nama) and nationalisation. While these proposals differ in detail, their impact will be identical. Irish taxpayers will be stuck with a large bill, and in return will get an undercapitalised and politically controlled banking system.

A far more efficient and cheaper alternative to Nama is to copy what Barack Obama did with General Motors, and transfer ownership of Irish banks to their bond holders. In this way we can achieve well capitalised banks, run without political interference, at minimal cost to taxpayers.

By converting a portion of Allies Irish Banks’ approximately €40 billion of bonds, and Bank of Ireland’s €50 billion, into shares, each institution can be recapitalised. Transferring ownership to bond holders will not cost the taxpayer a cent and will avoid interminable legal battles over the transfer of assets to Nama.

While the shaky state of Irish banks had been worrying investors since early 2007, when the crisis finally broke in late September the Government was taken completely by surprise and reacted with blind panic. Faced with a run on Anglo Irish Bank by institutional depositors on September 29th, the Government was stampeded into guaranteeing virtually all liabilities, except shares, of the six Irish banks.

This guarantee contained two obvious but fundamental flaws. Everything that has happened since – the proposed recapitalisation of Anglo, the nationalisation of Anglo, the establishment of Nama – can be understood as the Government scrambling to catch up with the consequences of these two errors.

The first mistake was to guarantee not only deposits – which had to be guaranteed – but also most of the existing bonds issued by banks to other financial institutions. Bond holders receive higher returns in the knowledge that they are accepting the risk of losses on their investment. In addition, unlike depositors who can scarper, existing bond holders are effectively stuck.

It made no sense for the Government to insist that taxpayers would take the hit on any bank losses instead of the financial institutions that had already entered legal contracts to do so.

The second mistake was to extend the guarantee to Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide. As specialised property development lenders with incompetent management, they were at risk of heavy losses as their market collapsed, and fulfilled no role in the wider economy.

In making the guarantee on September 29th, I do not doubt that the Government believed that the difficulties of Irish banks ran no deeper than temporary liquidity problems stemming from the international crisis. However, as it has become apparent that Anglo was a mismanaged wreck, with AIB and Bank of Ireland scarcely better, the Government has stuck with the mantra that all banks are equally important and equally worth saving at any cost to the taxpayer.

Brian Lenihan and Brian Cowen are happier to dice with national bankruptcy than lose face by admitting that they were misled about the state of Irish banks last September.

Nama, then, is the latest twist in the Government’s increasingly bizarre efforts to save the Irish banking system while claiming that it does not really need to be saved.

Underlying Nama is the delusion that the collapse of our property bubble is a temporary downturn. In a few years time when the global economy recovers we will be back building houses like it was 2006. All the ghost estates, empty office blocks, guest-less hotels and weed choked fields that Nama has bought on our behalf will once again be worth a fortune.

The reality is that, because of our surfeit of empty housing, there will be almost no construction activity for the next decade. Empty apartment blocks in Dublin will eventually be rented, albeit at rates so low that many will decay into slums. However, most of the unfinished estates that litter rural Ireland – where the only economic activity was building houses – will never be occupied.

Nama is a variant on the “Cash for Trash” scheme briefly floated in the United States last year where the government would recapitalise banks by overpaying for their bad loans. Our Government is proposing to buy €90 billion of loans and will reportedly pay €75 billion for them.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) guesses that Nama will cost us €35 billion, and this is probably optimistic. The narrowness of the Irish property market meant that banks effectively operated a pyramid scheme, bidding up prices against each other. Now that banks cannot lend, development assets are effectively worthless.

The taxpayer is likely to lose well over €25 billion on Anglo alone. Among its “assets” are €4 billion lent for Irish hotels, and almost €20 billion for empty fields and building sites. In fact, I suspect that the €20 billion already repaid to the casino that was Anglo represents winners cashing in their chips, while the outstanding €70 billion of loans will turn out to be worthless. And it is well to remember, as the architects of Nama have not, that although the problems of Irish banks begin with developers, they do not end there.

The same recklessness that impelled banks to lend hundreds of millions to builders to whom most of us would hesitate to lend a bucket; also led them to fling tens of billions in mortgages, car loans, and credit cards at people with little ability to repay. Even without the bad debts of developers, the losses on these household loans over the next few years will probably be sufficient to drain most of the capital out of AIB and Bank of Ireland.

Brian Lenihan’s largesse to bond holders could cost you and me €50 to €70 billion. What do numbers like these mean?

The easiest way to put numbers of this magnitude into perspective is to remember that in 2008 the Government generated €13 billion in income tax. Every time you hear €10 billion, then, think of paying 10 per cent more income tax annually for the next decade.

In other words, the fiscal capacity of a state with only two million taxpayers, and falling fast, is frighteningly thin. Ten billion here, and ten billion there and, before you know it, you are talking national bankrutcy. Even without bankrupty, Nama will ensure a crushing tax burden for everyone in Ireland for decades.

The tragedy is that, were it not for the Government’s botched efforts to save financiers from the predictable consequences of their own greed, the Irish economy would have recovered far more quickly than most people, including the IMF, expect.

Recovery for the Irish economy will not be easy – there is no painless way for an economy to move from getting about 20 per cent of its national income from construction to getting about zero – but the flexibility of the Irish labour market would have ensured that our incomes and share of global trade would have rapidly recovered. Now, however, any fruits of recovery will be squandered on Nama.

Aside from the fact that Nama will spend huge sums to achieve little, its governance is problematic. Here, the fog of secrecy that has quietly settled over Anglo Irish since nationalisation sets an unsettling precedent.

After revelations of financial irregularities forced the resignation of three executive directors, Anglo moved decisively to replace them with . . . Anglo insiders. Most astonishing, in the light of the scandal over Irish Nationwide deposits, was the decision to replace Anglo’s disgraced financial director with his immediate subordinate, Anglo’s chief financial officer.

It is hard not to conclude that a deliberate decision has been made at the highest level of Government that what happened in Anglo, stays in Anglo. And we can expect Nama to be run in the same tight manner.

While there has been considerable speculation about dark motives for bailing out developers and banks, I do not believe that the Government’s behaviour has been corrupt: it has been far worse. At least corruption implies a sense that you are doing wrong, and need to be paid in return. Our Government actually thought it was doing the right thing in risking everything to safeguard the interests of developers who had given us an economy that was the envy of Europe.

Instead of recognising bankers and developers as parasites on our national prosperity, the Government came to see them as its source. While everyone else in Ireland has come to see the past decade as an embarrassing episode of collective insanity to be put behind us as soon as possible, the Government still sees it as the high point of our nation’s history. Nama is effectively Fianna Fáil’s shrine to the bubble, and likely to be an expensive and enduring one.

What should be done instead of Nama? First, we need to understand how the idea of Nama follows from a mistaken analogy with the Swedish banking crisis and bad bank of the early 1990s. The Swedish banks differed in one fundamental way from ours: they only had deposits as liabilities. If their government had not taken over their bad debts, ordinary depositors would have suffered. By contrast, Irish banks had borrowed heavily from other financial institutions through bonds, and these bondholders originally agreed to take losses if Irish banks got into difficulties.

By placing the costs of the banking collapse primarily on existing holders of bank bonds, the State can improve its credit rating and pull back from the edge of bankruptcy. Knowing that taxpayers are not liable for the losses of AIB and Bank of Ireland will make capital markets more willing to lend to the Irish State.

Instead, like a corpulent Tooth Fairy gently slipping billions under the pillows of sleeping bond holders, Brian Lenihan has chosen to extend the liability guarantee and further weaken the bargaining position of the State.

The drift into national bankruptcy looks increasingly unstoppable.



http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opi ... 55311.html
Overpaying for Nama may hit taxpayer for €30bn
September 15, 2009
MORGAN KELLY

ANALYSIS: Government estimates of Nama valuations appear implausible, are out of line with other property collapses and may impose massive losses on the taxpayer

WHAT HAS been dismaying about the recent acrimonious exchanges over Nama is that neither side seems to feel it necessary to produce any evidence to support its assertions about its likely cost to the taxpayer. Like most discussions in Irish public life, the Nama debate seems set to generate more heat than light.

If we want to make sensible predictions on the likely course of Irish property prices over the next decade, we need to see what has happened historically in the aftermath of similar booms. In other words, we need to find property booms where sharp increases in bank lending caused real prices to more than double.

In Ireland, between 1995 and the peak of the boom in 2007, the average price of housing and commercial property roughly tripled, adjusting for inflation, while disposable incomes increased by one half.

Two previous booms fit this pattern closely: Japanese urban land in the 1980s, and Irish agricultural land in the late 1970s.

In Japan between 1985 and 1990, the real price of commercial land in major cities tripled, while the price of residential land doubled. What makes the Japanese case particularly relevant to Ireland, as I pointed out here two years ago, is that at the peak of their bubble, Japanese banks had the same extreme exposure to development and construction loans – 30 per cent of their lending – as Irish banks did in 2007.

As Japanese banks buckled under bad property debts, lending fell sharply and prices with it. By 2005 – 15 years after the peak – residential land had fallen back to its pre-bubble level, while commercial land had fallen by nearly 90 per cent. Given that many people are claiming that Irish property prices will recover once the economy starts to grow again, it is interesting to note that Japanese property prices collapsed while the economy continued slowly to expand: real output in Japan rose 20 per cent between 1990 and 2007 and did not fall in any year during this period.

The next case is much closer to home but almost forgotten: the boom and bust in Irish farmland prices in the late 1970s. After joining the EEC in 1973, Irish banks began to lend heavily to farmers. As a result, the inflation adjusted price of agricultural land tripled between 1975 and 1977, reaching a peak equivalent to €14,000 per acre in 2009 prices. Real Irish GNP in 1977 was about one third of its present level, so this price is roughly equivalent to €50,000 per acre in current purchasing power for land with no development potential. For comparison, during the recent boom, when agricultural land prices were driven by demand for potential development, prices peaked in 2006 at an average of €21,000 per acre nationally.

The bubble quickly burst as farmers ran into difficulties servicing loans: between 1977 and 1980 real prices fell by around 75 per cent, and remained at this level, more or less where it had started in 1973, until 1995, 18 years after the peak.

These examples illustrate a general principle: property bubbles are the consequence of abnormal levels of bank lending. Once the bank lending that fuelled the boom returns to its usual levels, prices return roughly to where they started before the boom.

In ordinary times, property prices grow at the same rate as national income: people in industrialised economies spend much the same fraction of their income on housing as they did a century ago.

However, a surge in prosperity, which drives property prices higher and encourages banks to lend more on appreciating assets, can lead to a self-reinforcing cycle of rising prices and rising lending.

Eventually, banks get a fright and return to levels of lending they used to regard as prudent, causing prices to fall back to where they were before the bubble. Just like Irish farmland in the 1970s, and Japanese property in the 1980s, our recent property boom was the product of unsustainable bank lending.

Between 2000 and 2007, while nominal GNP rose by 77 per cent, mortgage lending rose from €24 billion to €115 billion, lending to builders from €2.4 billion to to €25 billion, and to developers from €5 billion to €80 billion. Should the usual post-bubble correction occur in Ireland, it would suggest that real prices of residential and commercial property would return to their levels of the mid-to-late 1990s, two thirds below peak values.

Already the Irish property market has seen unusually sharp falls by international historical standards. The Sherry FitzGerald house price index is down 35 per cent nationally, and 42 per cent for Dublin; while the Society of Chartered Surveyors estimate that commercial property prices have fallen 48.6 per cent from their peak; and Knight Frank estimate that farmland prices, which were driven by their development potential, are down 45 per cent from their peak but are still twice those of comparable UK land.

Despite these large falls, which already exceed the one third haircut on Nama assets rumoured to be proposed by the Government, the property market remains moribund. Property transactions, measured by stamp duty receipts, are two thirds down on this time last year, and 80 per cent lower than two years ago.

In other words, if nobody is buying despite large falls in price, then price needs to fall considerably further to reach its long-run equilibrium.

The impression that Irish property prices are still considerably above long-term value is reinforced by rental yields: the ratio of the rent you get from a property to the price you paid for it. As many of you have discovered to your cost, property is a risky asset that performs particularly badly during economic downturns. To compensate for this fundamental risk, property should earn a long run rental return of at least 8 per cent.

Despite some of the highest rents in the world at the peak of the bubble (according to Lisney, Dublin ranked as the second most expensive location for industrial property and ninth for offices, with Grafton Street coming in as the fifth most expensive retail street on earth), new residential and commercial property was earning a paltry rental yield of 3-4 per cent.

This means that, to restore long-run equilibrium, prices needed to halve from peak levels, or rents to double.

Suppose for a moment that the Government’s assertions are correct, and the long-run value of Irish property is two thirds of its peak value. In order for rental yields to rise from an unsustainable 4 per cent to a long-run equilibrium of 8 per cent, the Government needs rents to rise one third from their already extreme peak values.

In fact, instead of rising, rents have fallen, and nearly as sharply as prices. The Irish Property Watch website estimates that residential rents have fallen by 32 per cent since May 2008; while Lisney estimate that commercial rents have fallen 24 per cent from peak, with office rents down 35 per cent and now lower than they were a decade ago.

Again, these large falls have not been sufficient to restore equilibrium. The number of rental properties listed on Daft.ie has risen from 5,000 at the start of 2007 to nearly 25,000 now, while the average time to rent a property is now 76 days.

For offices, HWBC estimate that lettings are running at one fifth of their rate last year; while Lisney calculates that one fifth of Dublin offices are now empty (something they describe as “startling”) and one third in west Dublin.

The usual post-bubble correction in property prices is likely to be aggravated in Ireland’s case by large falls in national income, and the dislocation in the banking system and Government finances, caused by the collapse of our unusually large construction boom.

The effective ending of new construction activity, collapsing consumption, rising taxes and cuts in Government spending all make the 15 per cent contraction in GNP forecast by the ESRI and others look optimistic. The fall in national competitiveness and likely continuing difficulties in the banking sector make the prospect of a swift national recovery seem problematic.

What we have seen then is that as the abnormal lending that fuelled the property boom returns to its normal level, Irish property prices should fall back to their pre-bubble values, at around one third of their peak values.

In the absence of evidence to support it, the Government’s claim that €90 billion in developer loans are backed by €120 billion in assets appears implausible. While five-year developer loans were the norm, properties were usually flipped on after two years, meaning that existing loans were mostly taken out at peak prices.

In addition, while loans were supposedly 70 per cent of property value, the collateral supplied was usually equity in other property or personal guarantees, both now worthless.

It appears, therefore, that, by paying an average of two thirds of the face value for Nama assets, the Government is likely to impose severe losses on taxpayers of the order of €30 billion, or one fifth of national income.

Morgan Kelly is professor of economics at University College Dublin. During the recent High Court case involving the Zoe group of companies and ACCBank, he gave property valuation estimate evidence on behalf of the bank


http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opi ... 08947.html
Turning bank debt into equity will save us from Nama ruin
October 13, 2009
MORGAN KELLY

History shows Nama-style bad banks are profoundly corrupt and corrupting institutions. If Nama didn’t happen, the alternative would involve minimal cost to the taxpayer and banks would manage their business without political interference

WHILE MOST economists by now simply dismiss Brian Lenihan’s utterances on the economy as “not even wrong”, this is to miss the Minister’s almost eerie ability to predict exactly the opposite of what is going to happen. Merely to contradict Brian Lenihan is virtually to guarantee that you will later be credited with supernatural prescience.

Who else, as Irish bank shares plunged 13 months ago, could conclude: “Our banks uniquely have weathered this storm . . . We are in a zone of financial stability in a very troubled financial world.”? Two weeks later, having been panicked into his catastrophic bank liability guarantee, the Minister assured us that we had “the cheapest bailout in the world so far”, and six weeks later averred that: “It is not the function of the Government to fund or bail out the banks.”

The effortless miscalculations, the assured non sequiturs, the lofty indifference to facts: all reveal Brian Lenihan as a master of what Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt defined succinctly in his 1986 paper, On Bullshit .

The Nama legislation, as expected, piles up this material on an Augean scale. Prices have fallen 47 per cent; the long-term economic value of property is 30 per cent below its peak value; the loan-to-value ratio is 77 per cent; prices only need to rise by 10 per cent in 10 years for the State to break even.

To subject these almost poetic flights of ministerial imagination to any sort of rational analysis will seem to many like vandalism, but that is what God made economists for.

First, the estimate that prices have fallen 47 per cent. The reality is that prices can only exist when there is a market, and the market for commercial property and development land has disappeared.

A less futile exercise is to ask how much Nama would have cost at the end of similar credit-fuelled price bubbles. A decade after their peaks, Tokyo land prices had fallen by five-sixths, while Irish farmland, adjusted for inflation, had fallen by three-quarters. Had Brian Lenihan bought €77 billion of either, applying the proposed Nama discount of 30 per cent, he would have lost €35 billion-€40 billion on our behalf, or roughly €20,000 per taxpayer, and that is before adding interest.

At a quarter of national income, Nama would dwarf the cost of previous bank bailouts, which varied from about 3 per cent of GDP in Sweden to 14 per cent in Finland and Japan.

Most baffling of all the Nama numbers is the proposed discount of 30 per cent, implying that the “long-term economic value” of property is at 2004 prices. Not one shred of evidence is offered for this assertion, the keystone of the Government’s strategy.

At first, I thought that this mystical 30 per cent number embodied Fianna Fáil nostalgia for a vanished era of innocent greed; a hope that we would wake up one morning and find ourselves back in 2004 forever, basking in the benevolent gaze of Bertie Ahern and Seán FitzPatrick. The reality turns out to be a lot more mundane. The EU simply forbade Lenihan to pay any more. This is not through any dismay at seeing Irish taxpayers fleeced by their Government, but for fear that they will be stiffed into carrying out an Iceland-style rescue here.

The figure of a 77 per cent loan-to-value ratio is equally fanciful. It will take years for the courts and Fraud Squad to disentangle multiple personal guarantees and imaginary collateral. The situation in Anglo Irish Bank appears particularly grave.

Finally, there is the assumption that the Irish Government can continue to borrow forever at low rates from the European Central Bank. However, the ECB is making no secret of its dismay at being turned into a credit union for feckless Micks, and is anxious to end such emergency lending facilities within the next year.

Once the ECB slams the window on its fingers, the Government will be forced to borrow at market rates of 5 per cent or more. In the next decade, this will add another €25 billion or so to taxpayers’ losses from Nama.

Property speculation was a mania that swept every level of Irish society, from hairdressers buying apartments in Bulgaria to dentists taking out second mortgages to join commercial property syndicates. Business owners were not immune to the lure of effortless wealth, and many borrowed heavily to gamble in property.

As one banker put it: “We are happy to restore their credit line as soon as they repay us the €15 million they borrowed to buy that land bank on the edge of town.” The destruction of the Irish commercial class, who we might have hoped to be an engine of export led recovery as they were in the 1990s, is likely to prove one of the most enduring and costly legacies of the property bubble.

Forcing banks to lend to SMEs will only compound our problems. One condition of the Japanese bank recapitalisation in 1999 was that they lend to small firms, but the effect was to heap a second layer of non-performing loans onto existing property losses.

As well as being expensive, history shows Nama-style bad banks to be profoundly corrupt and corrupting institutions. After the financial crisis in 1931, the US, Germany and Austria all set up bad banks which turned into conduits for directing funds to politically connected enterprises.

Bad banks are the means for governments to choose which oligarchs will survive to emerge even stronger than before. They do not just happen to behave in a corrupt and anti-democratic manner: it is what they are designed to do.

And do not forget that, even after the crushing expense of Nama, Irish banks will still be seriously short of capital. Under the current, deliberately lax, international bank regulations, AIB and Bank of Ireland need capital of around €8.5 billion.

Financial markets, which assume that Nama will go through, value their existing capital at around €3 billion, and adding Government preference shares of €3.5 billion leaves them short about €2 billion each. Once stricter capital requirements are imposed next year (the so-called Basel 3 process), this shortfall will probably rise to €6 billion.

Nama then, will turn out to be expensive, corrupting, and inadequate. While the abject, almost endearing, eagerness of the Greens to please their Fianna Fáil masters means Nama is almost certain to go ahead, it is perhaps worth asking what would happen if it did not.

All that needs to be done is for ownership of Irish banks to be transferred to their bondholders. This process of converting debt into equity occurs sufficiently often in banking to have a name: resolution. Resolution offers a way for Irish banks to be adequately recapitalised at no cost to the taxpayer, and able to manage their business without political interference.

Under existing Irish corporate law, this transfer would be a recipe for centuries of litigation. That is why most other industrialised economies have, or are introducing, special legislation to resolve failing banks with limited judicial review. Particularly impressive is the UK’s Special Resolution Regime introduced last February, which could easily serve as a template for similar legistlation here.

Instead we will get Nama. Brian Lenihan assures us that Fianna Fáil’s monument to a decade of waste, corruption, and ultimate ruin will not be wasteful, corrupt, and ultimately ruinous.

Let us hope that, for once, he is not wrong.


December 2009
The Irish Credit Bubble
http://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/wp09.32.pdf



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Ghosts of debt and jobs will haunt economy
December 29, 2009
MORGAN KELLY

OPINION : By 2015, Iceland will almost certainly be a lot better off than Ireland because it dealt decisively with its banks

WHILE THINGS are hard to predict, the future, especially the situation of the Irish economy, is so stark that even an economist can make some predictions that stand a chance of being right.

Two ghosts of Christmas will haunt Ireland in 2015: jobs and debt.

For 20 years, the Irish economy experienced extraordinary growth. Unfortunately, this growth came from two separate booms that merged imperceptibly into each other. First we had real growth in the 1990s, driven by rising competitiveness and exports. However, after 2000 competitiveness collapsed, and growth came to be driven by a lending bubble without equal in the euro zone.

As Michael Hennigan of Finfacts (http://www.finfacts.ie) has pointed out, of the half million jobs created in the last decade, only 4,000 were in exporting firms; and fewer people now work in IDA-supported companies than in 2000. The Irish economy has been faking it for a decade.

Now that the property bubble has burst, people hope that exports will once again become the engine of our salvation. The problem is that, back when we were becoming rich by selling houses to each other, we priced ourselves out of world markets. Wages have risen by one-third here compared with Germany since 2000. Restoring competitiveness will be an arduous task where nobody, outside the banks and ESB, will see a pay rise for a decade, and many will take pay cuts.

Whether desirable or otherwise, leaving the euro is not possible for a mundane reason. Changing currencies takes a lot of organisation, as we saw when the euro was introduced. If the Government announced that a New Irish Pound will be introduced in 12 months, everyone would rush out to withdraw their savings in euro and wipe out the banks.

Prolonged mass unemployment is a disaster not only for its victims, but for all society. The great Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson showed how the disappearance of low-skilled jobs in the US during the 1970s led to the social collapse of black ghettos.

In Ireland for the last 20 years we saw this process working in reverse, as rising employment turned what had been sink estates into decent, if not wonderful, places to live. Finding a job does more for the disadvantaged than a legion of social workers: people’s sense of self-worth is transformed by being able to earn the money to do ordinary things like own a car, buy toys for their kids at Christmas, and take their family on holiday.

While many commentators argue that the benefits of the Celtic Tiger flowed exclusively to the wealthy and connected, this is nonsense. The benefits went overwhelmingly to ordinary people in the form of something that Ireland had never seen before: abundant jobs. By 2015 we will have seen what happens when jobs disappear forever, particularly from less educated men who were able to earn a good living in construction. In effect, Ireland is at the start of an enormous, unplanned social experiment on how rising unemployment affects crime, domestic violence, drug abuse, suicide and a litany of other social pathologies.

We will be forced to discover the consequences when people, who had worked hard to make decent lives for themselves and their children, find themselves reduced to nothing. Less than nothing in fact because, unlike the unemployed in the past, people now losing jobs are weighed down with debt and facing the terrifying prospect of losing their homes.

Debt will be the second ghost of Christmas 2015. Back in 1997, when exports drove real growth, Irish banks lent little by international standards. By 2008, Ireland had twice as much debt for its size as the average industrial economy: banks were lending a third more to property developers alone than they had been lending to everyone in Ireland in 2000.

It was this tidal wave of credit that inflated house prices and launched the construction boom that drove wages and government spending to unsustainable levels.

To fund this suicidal lending, Irish banks borrowed heavily internationally, and now must pay it back fast as the world realises that our recent economic miracle was less in the spirit of Adam Smith than of Bernard Madoff. As Irish bank lending returns to ordinary international levels, property prices will fall by at least two-thirds from their peaks.

However, five years from now, property prices could have been driven far lower than that by a deluge of sales of unsold, foreclosed and abandoned homes.

Mass mortgage defaults caused by unemployment and falling house prices are the next act of the Irish economic tragedy. As well as bankrupting our worthless banks all over again, the human cost of tens of thousands of families losing their homes will be enormous but, because the Government has already exhausted the State’s resources taking care of developers with Nama (National Asset Management Agency), there is very little that can be done to help these people.

Most people, of course, will not lose their jobs and homes. However, even they will be forced painfully to relearn something our parents already knew: beyond a small mortgage, debt swiftly turns into pure poison that will eat away your prosperity and happiness.

One response to large-scale home repossessions that will be attempted is to buy ghost estates for public housing to accommodate evicted home owners, providing ample opportunities for good old fashioned petty corruption.

For grand corruption, though, we will have to look to Nama. By allowing the banks to dictate the terms of their bailout, the bank rescue was turned into the most lucrative and audacious Tiger Kidnapping in the history of the State, with the difference that, like the sheriff in Blazing Saddles , the bankers held themselves hostage.

Bad banks like Nama were tried on a large scale in the early 1930s in the US, Austria and Germany; and proved to be profoundly corrupt and corrupting institutions, whose primary purpose was to funnel money to politically connected businesses. The German bank is best remembered for setting up what we would now call a special purpose vehicle to fund the presidential election campaign of the odious Paul Hindenberg.

Bad banks do not just happen to be corrupt and anti-democratic institutions, it is what they are designed to be. Effectively, bad banks give governments the power to choose which of a country’s most powerful oligarchs will be forced into bankruptcy, and which will be resuscitated to emerge even more powerful than before.

Nama will get to pick which of the fattest hogs of Irish development will be sliced up and fed, at taxpayer expense, to better connected hogs (remember that Nama has been allocated at least €6.5 billion, considerably more than the Government saved by draconian budget cuts, to “lend” to favoured clients).

While Nama may have momentous political consequences, it has already failed economically: the Irish banks are still zombies, reliant on transfusions of European Central Bank funding to survive until losses on mortgages and business loans finally wipe them out. In the next few months we will discover if the State bankrupts itself by nationalising the banks; or if it has the intelligence to free itself from bank losses by turning the foreign creditors of banks into their owners, as Iceland has just done with Kaupthing bank.

It is ironic that by 2015, having devalued its currency and dealt decisively with its banks, Iceland will almost certainly be a lot better off than Ireland.