How Ireland got burned: Ireland’s recent €85bn bail-out package negotiated with the IMF and the EU is discussed in terms that verge on the apocalyptic. The rescue was supposed to serve as a break against the wildfire of market bondholder panic. And yet the upward trend in Portuguese bond rates has scarcely been slowed.... Spain is now where the line in the sand must be drawn. But we have heard this before. If Spain is vulnerable, why not Italy; and if Italy, why not Belgium, perhaps even France. Little wonder that the imagery of contagion, of financial plague, is brought into play.
The suddenness of the Irish deal has taken public opinion by surprise, causing shock that we have been plunged into this regime of austerity, and a smouldering anger about the terms on which the deal has been done. The terms of the bail-out will transfer all the hardships onto the taxpayers and citizens: reactions include the views that we have been held to ransom, we cannot afford this rescue package, it is a bad deal for Ireland.
Ireland’s fiscal crisis is largely caused by the collapse of the house price bubble and over-reliance on revenues from construction-related activities. This is bad enough, but by itself it would be difficult but manageable. The millstone around the neck of the Irish people is the vast scale of the crisis in the banking sector... reckless lending for property development and an inadequate regulatory regime.... When financial meltdown was imminent in September 2008, the government undertook to guarantee all of the banks’ losses, bondholders as well as depositors.... The true picture of what is entailed has been slow to emerge.... National Asset Management Agency (NAMA).... The total cost of Nama-type loan loss is now estimated at €66 billion. This is, in effect, half of [annual] GNP.... Mortgage and personal loan losses... may amount to an additional €25 billion....
Ireland is now committed to an IMF-EU rescue package worth €85bn over the coming years, to fund both government spending and to support the costs of sorting out the crisis in the banks. It all happened very quickly, and indeed one government minister said they were bounced into it... interest rate... 5.87%... fiscal contraction... €15bn... National Pension Reserve Fund... to be used as part of the bail-out package... the banks’ bondholders are not to be required to bear any losses....
How did it come to this? And given the size of the intervention, why have the bond markets not been assuaged? Ireland was meant to be the firebreak in asserting the primacy of political commitment to the Euro over market irrationality. But this did not work. Instead Ireland got burned....
The European fire-fighters seem to be at least one step behind the game on both of these issues.... Harsh and even punitive fiscal measures to address what are really financial and not fiscal crises will further depress growth in the European periphery. The only realistic prospect for generating new growth in the Eurozone is if Germany were to engage in demand-enhancing measures, not the fiscal contraction to which is now seems committed...
Letter from Dublin: It had been clear for a long time that the blanket guarantee given to the liabilities of Ireland’s rotten banks, in September 2008, had saddled the State with a debt that was too big for it to handle. Ten successive quarters of declining real GNP, and one attempt too many to draw a line under the losses of our banks, made our exclusion from international capital markets inevitable. But to know something is one thing; to see it actually happen is something entirely different....
I yield to no-one in my loathing of the men and women who have done this to my country. What has been the intellectual low-point of the last couple of years?... [T]he biggest Irish joke of them all, which underpinned the bank guarantee in the first place: that if we wanted investors to retain confidence in the creditworthiness of the Irish State, we needed to make sure that nobody who invested in our (private sector) banks ever lost a penny? The latter decision is the one that sank the country. It was the last great act of hubris of the Celtic Bubble, and was immediately denounced by one of the heroes of the crisis, my old UCD colleague Morgan Kelly. On the night the guarantee was announced, Kelly pointed out that while it was the right policy if the Irish banks were facing a liquidity crisis, it was a terrible policy if they were insolvent, which was in fact the case. As they always do when confronted with someone smarter than them, the Dublin establishment circled the wagons, and Kelly was dismissed as an irresponsible young troublemaker of no consequence. He has been proved right, of course, but the establishment is still at it, making the same fundamental mistake of thinking that a solvency crisis is just a liquidity crisis....
The reaction to the news that Irish taxpayers are to be squeezed while foreign bondholders escape scot-free has been one of outraged disbelief and anger. At the start of last week, it was possible to make the argument that ‘burning the bondholders’ was irresponsible, since it would inevitably lead to contagion, and the spread of the crisis to Iberia. That argument has at this stage lost all validity, since contagion has happened anyway.... Who knows what the political consequences of all of this will be? The southern Irish are a conservative lot... political change in normal times is slow; but when it does come, it may come in a rush.... [W]e are about to have a general election, and if Brussels thinks that this deal is not going to be the big issue in that election, then they are even more out of touch than we already think they are. It is no longer even certain that the budget will be passed in December. Brussels may not have a Plan B, but they had better prepare one nonetheless.... Iceland is an obvious model for us. In a referendum, her voters have already rejected a proposal to pay back their banks’ creditors, who will take major losses. Now they have elected a constitutional assembly charged with drafting a new constitution. Ireland probably needs this more than does Iceland; I wish I were more confident that we will follow the latter’s example.
The Irish bailout: he Irish “rescue package” finalized over the weekend is a disaster.... It pains me to say this. I’m probably the most pro-euro economist on my side of the Atlantic. Not because I think the euro area is the perfect monetary union, but because I have always thought that a Europe of scores of national currencies would be even less stable. I’m also a believer in the larger European project. But given this abject failure of European and German leadership, I am going to have to rethink my position.
The Irish “program”... kicks the can down the road. A public debt that will now top out at around 130 per cent of GDP has not been reduced by a single cent. The interest payments that the Irish sovereign will have to make have not been reduced by a single cent.... Ireland will be transferring nearly 10 per cent of its national income as reparations to the bondholders, year after painful year.
This is not politically sustainable.... A populist backlash is inevitable. The Commission, the ECB and the German Government have set the stage for a situation where Ireland’s new government, once formed early next year, rejects the budget negotiated by its predecessor. Do Mr. Trichet and Mrs. Merkel have a contingency plan for this?
Nor is the situation economically sustainable. Ireland is told to reduce wages and costs. It must engage in “internal devaluation” because the traditional option of external devaluation is not available to a country that lacks its own national currency. But the more successful it is at reducing wages and costs, the heavier its inherited debt load becomes. Public spending then has to be cut even deeper. Taxes have to rise even higher to service the debt of the government and of wards of the state like the banks.
This in turn implies the need for yet more internal devaluation, which further heightens the burden of the debt in a vicious spiral. This is the phenomenon of “debt deflation” about which the Yale economist Irving Fisher wrote in a famous article at the nadir of the Great Depression.
For internal devaluation to work, therefore, the value of debts, expressed in euros, has to be reduced. This would have been particularly easy in the Irish case. A bright red line could have been drawn between the third of the government debt that guarantees the obligations of the banks, on the one hand, and the rest of the government’s debt, on the other. The third representing the debts of the Irish banking system could have been restructured. Bondholders could have been offered 20 cents on the euro, assuming that the Irish banks still have some residual economic value. If those banks are insolvent, the bondholders could – and should – have been wiped out.
Irish public debt would then have topped out at maybe 100% of GDP. And the Irish program would have had a hope of working. As it is, the program will have to be revisited, perhaps as soon as next year. Investors know this, which is why Irish spreads have barely budged.
In fact, this is exactly what the IMF, which at least knows how to add, has been pushing for over the last week. But the Fund was unable to overcome the objections of the Commission, the ECB and the German government.
One can interpret the intransigence of the German government and its EU allies in two ways. First, they understand neither economics nor politics. As Tallyrand said of the Bourbons, “They have learned nothing, and they have forgotten nothing.”
Alternatively, policy makers in Germany – and in France and Britain – are scared to death over what Ireland restructuring its bank debt would do to their own banking systems. If so, the appropriate response is not to lend to Ireland – to pile yet more debt on the country’s existing debt – but to properly capitalize their own banking systems so that the latter can withstand the inevitable Irish restructuring.
But European officials are scared to death not just by their banks but by their publics, who don’t want to hear that public money is required for bank recapitalization. It’s safer, in their view, to kick the can down the road in the hope that something good will turn up – to rely on “the luck of the Irish.”
As John Maynard Keynes – who knew about matters like reparations – once said, leadership involves “ruthless truth telling.” In Europe today, recent events make clear, leadership is in short supply.