Garrett FitzGerald and the Budget Deficit

On Morning Ireland today, Garrett Fitzgerald again criticised the opinion article signed by the 46 economists. However, rather than focus on the article’s principle arguments about the government’s banking policy, Dr. Fitzgerald concentrated on what was essentially a parenthetical comment about the budget deficit. Among other things, he said:

Moreover, the statement made that we’re moving towards a deficit of €30 billion was quite irresponsible and that destroyed my confidence in the 46 economists.

Even leaving aside that the fact that the size of this year’s deficit is nowhere near the key issue in the 46 economists piece, is it indeed the case that this figure was irresponsible? One way to check is to look at the forecasts of that highly responsible body, the Economic and Social Research Institute. Their most recent Quarterly Economic Commentary, based on data available through July 9th, predicts an exchequer deficit of €25.7 billion.

Since then we have had the publication of the July exchequer returns (Irish Times story here) which saw tax revenues falling behind the targets set in the April budget. It would certainly not be extreme to add another billion or so to the projected deficit forecast on the basis of these figures, putting it at about €27 billion. To the extent that these shortfalls relate to unanticipated weakness in the economy, it is likely that social welfare payments will also come in ahead of target, perhaps pushing the projected deficit up to €28 billion.

Even ignoring the fact that deficit forecasts have been coming in too low now for some time, it seems to me that this is already enough evidence to justify the statement in the 46 economist piece that

We now look to be on course for a Government deficit of close to €30 billion.

Note incidentally, the sentence is projecting a deficit “close to” not “equal to” €30 billion.

I’m afraid here that, as with Dr. Fitzgerald’s claim that the piece failed to distinguish between different classes of bank debt, this criticism seems to be largely unwarranted.

The pity, of course, is that far more people read the Irish Times and listen to Morning Ireland than will ever read this blog. So, unfortunately, the damage to professional reputations done by being branded “irresponsible” and “destabilising” by a respected public figure will not be easy to undo.

ECB Opinion on NAMA

During today’s Oireachtas Committee meeting, the Minister for Finance referred to a formal ECB opinion document on NAMA and that it was being published this afternoon. Well, lo and behold, here it is.

I haven’t had a proper chance to read this but two sections jumped out. First, on valuation of assets being transferred:

Although the measures contemplated by the draft law should restore confidence in the Irish banking system, the ECB considers it important, in line with previous opinions that the pricing of acquired assets is mostly risk-based and determined by market conditions. The preference expressed in the draft law for the long-term economic value of assets, rather than current market values, requires careful consideration in this context. In particular, it should be ensured that the assumptions to determine the long-term economic value of bank assets will not involve undue premium payments to the participating financial institutions to avoid creating inappropriate incentives from their side as regards the use of the scheme.

And on nationalisation:

the ECB notes that the Irish Government shares the guiding principle that the preservation of private ownership is preferable to nationalisation. If the NAMA scheme will be successful in this respect, this strategy should help to avoid, in the short-term, the high costs involved in nationalisations and, in the medium-term, the risk of banks’ objectives being diverted from profit maximisation to alternative goals that might distort the market structure and jeopardise the level playing field.  

The opinion is silent on what should happen when their preference for pricing that is “mostly risk-based and determined by market conditions” comes into conflict with their preference for preserving private ownership.

Guest Post: International Credibility Does Not Need NAMA; It Needs Determination

Here is a guest post from Ciarán O’Hagan (fixed income strategy, Société Générale, Paris). Ciarán had submitted some of this material as a comment on an earlier post but we thought they were worth giving their own dedicated thread. Text below the fold.

Continue reading “Guest Post: International Credibility Does Not Need NAMA; It Needs Determination”

Draft submission to Innovation Task Force

The Innovation Task Force was appointed to advise the government on how to turn Ireland into an international innovation hub and to support the development of a smart economy. It’s easy to be cynical but better to be constructive. The ITF has issued a call for submissions on its terms of references:

  • to examine options to increase levels of innovation and the rates of commercialisation of research and development on a national basis with a view to accelerating the growth and scale-up of indigenous enterprise and to attract new knowledge-intensive direct investment;
  • to bring forward proposals for enhancing the linkages between institutions, agencies and organisations in the public and private sectors to ensure a cohesive innovation and commercialisation ecosystem;
  • to identify any specific policy measures which might be necessary to support the concept of Ireland as an International Innovation Development Hub including in the areas of legislation, educational policy, intellectual property arrangements, venture capital and immigration policy.

Here is my draft submission. All comments welcome. I’ll acknowledge your input by something like “A draft of this submission was posted at and substantially improved as a result of the discussion there. Comments by Malle Appie were particularly helpful.”

High wages require high labour productivity. High productivity requires excellent skills and creativity. Ireland can only maintain its position at the forefront of economic development if it fosters innovation and commercialization. Innovation is a creative process, however, and therefore cannot be mandated by government policy. The government can only create the conditions under which innovation and commercialization are likely.

Continue reading “Draft submission to Innovation Task Force”

Shane Coleman on NAMA

While the government’s approach to the banking crisis is struggling to get much support from economists outside the pay of the Department of Finance or financial institutions, they’re doing much better with opinion columnists. The Sunday Tribune’s Shane Coleman is the latest to join the pro-NAMA opinion columnist brigade. Coleman promotes NAMA as the “least worst option”. Most of the article is about the evils of nationalisation.

Let’s take a look at the arguments put forward.

Continue reading “Shane Coleman on NAMA”

Garrett Fitzgerald and Senior Bonds

In his column in yesterday’s Irish Times, Garrett FitzGerald wrote the following about the article signed by 46 economists:

The economists propose that bank shareholders take some of the “hit” – a view that is widely shared – but also that bondholders do likewise.

However, these economists fail to distinguish between subordinated and senior debt, despite the fact that an attempt to resile from our commitment in respect of the latter could prejudice our capacity to continue to borrow from international markets. Who would want to lend any more to us if we repudiated the senior bonds of our banks?

A similar apparent failure to make this distinction was also a worrying feature of last weekend’s Fine Gael statements on Nama. Fortunately this confusion was clarified by Richard Bruton on this page yesterday. A similar clarification by the 46 economists would be helpful.

The passage from the 46 economists piece that Garrett is referring to summarises the approaches that have been proposed by various economists.  The part about bondholders reads as follows:

Second, they propose that certain classes of bondholders also be required to accept reductions in value. It is probable that the losses of the banks are such that even eliminating all equity value would not absorb said losses. Unlike the equity, most of the bonds are in great part covered by the 2008 State guarantee. However, the vast majority of this debt matures outside the September 2010 expiry date for this guarantee.

In relation to the question raised by Garrett, the key phrase here is “certain classes of bondholders” be required to take reductions in value. Since this treatment is only recommended for “certain classes”, I take this to be an explicit statement that “senior classes” of bonds are to be left alone.  The phrases “senior” and “subordinated” don’t appear in the paragraph because the piece was aimed at the general public. But, to my mind, the article didn’t “fail to distinguish” between the various classes of debt.

Either way, as a representative of the 46, I hope this can operate as the clarification requested by Garrett.

Do NAMA Critics Know About LTVs?

The single strangest turn that the NAMA debate has taken is the sudden emergence of the claim that those who are critical of NAMA don’t know that it is purchasing loans rather than property assets. Take this quote from Damien Kiberd in the Sunday Times:

Are the agency’s critics aware that if we allow the European Central Bank (ECB) to fund the €60 billion or so that NAMA will pay for loans, we will be getting control of properties originally valued at €120 billion and not the €90 billion that is continuously cited?

Leaving aside the incorrect claim that the ECB are “funding NAMA” (the bonds issued will be debts that the Irish taxpayer will have to pay back), the answer to the question is, Yes, we are perfectly aware that not all loans have 100% loan-to-value ratios (though whether €120 billion is indeed the correct figure is uncertain).

I suppose it is possible there are many regular folk out there who don’t understand the distinction between loans and collateral but that can’t be who Kiberd is taking about.  All I can say is that no economist that I have communicated with on this issue has failed to understand this distinction.

And here‘s the Minister for Finance, quoted in the Irish Times:

The crucial point about the €90 billion, which has not been reported, is that when you take into account average loan-to-value ratios, the property secured had a peak book value of about €120 billion. When people talk about reductions, they are ignoring that issue completely.

Really, who is this “they”?

One explanation for the sudden focus on loan-to-value ratios is that perhaps the government are confused by the fact that NAMA critics have focused extensively on property valuations. There is, of course, a very good reason for this focus. If a developer cannot pay his loan back, then the bank will have to end up seizing the collateral and the value of this collateral will be all the bank has to show for the money lent out.  So, in most cases, the value of collateral will be the value of the loans.

Another explanation for this new talking point is that, rather than engage in a substantive argument, the government has decided that it may be an effective debating tactic to claim that forty six professional economists are unware of even the most elementary aspect of banking. Decide for yourself.

Non-Dutch Disease

The last couple of days have seen several commentators raise fundamental questions about the role and optimal size of the financial sector. Free Exchange very helpfully links to three pieces, including one discussing the extraordinary statements (given their provenance) by Lord Turner, chairman of the British FSA. Turner suggests that a lot of what the City does is socially useless, and that finance has gotten too large.

There are lots of issues to be discussed here, so let me just pick up on one for now. That is the argument that the UK (and arguably other Anglo-Saxon economies) is suffering from a form of Dutch Disease, with an expanding financial sector sucking in too many resources, and depriving other sectors of much-needed inputs.

A standard thing to say about the Dutch Disease is that it isn’t a disease at all. If workers flock into the booming sector (say natural gas) because of higher wages, that is efficient, since those higher wages reflect higher productivity in the booming sector. (The higher productivity is due not just to the physical productivity of the workers in that sector, but to the price of the sector’s output.)

The term ‘Dutch Disease’ is thus a misnomer.

On the other hand, you can clearly argue that high wages and bonuses in the City have reflected bubble conditions, and the relative prices guiding resource allocation have thus been ‘wrong’. There is therefore a much better case for regarding financial services expansion as a ‘disease’, and for government intervention of some sort to reduce the consequent misallocation of resources.

So: can anyone think of a nice alliterative label to replace ‘Dutch Disease’?

NAMA and Best Practice

From an article by then-ivory-tower economist Alan Ahearne in the Sunday Independent on July 27, 2008:

However, if the borrower is unlikely to repay the loan, the best strategy is often for the bank to sell the loan to a special company created to handle bad debts. This allows the banks to concentrate on what banks do best – making new loans.

In some countries that have had severe property busts, these asset management companies have been state-owned agencies. In this country, one could imagine an agency like the National Treasury Management Agency buying nonperforming loans from the banks and then managing and disposing of the properties that are collateral for these loans. These distressed properties could be disposed of gradually, thereby avoiding fire-sale liquidations.

A key question would be what price the agency should pay the banks for the loans? Buying the assets at inflated prices would amount to a back-door recapitalisation of the banks. Similarly, many of the proposals currently doing the rounds to reignite the housing market using government subsidies to first-time buyers involve disguised bail outs of banks and developers.

Best practice is for the banks to recognise the losses on these loans up front and sell the assets at fair market value. If banks do not have sufficient capital to take the hit, then they should raise new capital to plug the hole. Dealing with impaired assets properly will be critical for our economic recovery.


Loan to Value Ratios

In interpreting the write down on loans that NAMA is intending to announce in mid-September, an important element will be the loan to value ratios. A commonly cited figure has been that original loan-to-value ratios on development loans were about 75%.

For example, this ratio would be consistent with a property purchased for €100 million with a loan of €75 million. If for instance, this property had fallen in value by 50% and the developer had insufficient cash flow to repay the loan, then bank would only recoup €50 billion, for a one-third loss on the original loan. A 70% decline in property value, as Anglo Irish noted for Irish property development land back in March, would imply a 60% loss.

So far, so simple. However, the real world is not so simple. Here are two complications that seem likely to have pushed loan to value ratios above 75%.

First, there is the fact that many (most?) development loans allowed developers to roll up the interest from day one. This then gets incorporated into the principal that they owe. So, to take the example above, three years of rolled-up interest at a six percent rate will have left the developer owing €88.5 million, leaving an LTV of only 88.5%.

Second, it’s my understanding that the average loan-to-value ratios generally quoted include a quite different form of loan to the one outlined in the fictional example above. For instance, a developer may have borrowed 100% of the money for the project. However, in addition, they have put up additional collateral in the form of another property they own. If this additional property was worth one-third of the value of the new property being purchased, then this would count as an LTV of 75%.

For example, the developer may have borrowed €75 million to buy a property worth that value and then pledged €25 million in additional collateral. In this case, not only is the property that the loan financed declining in value but so is the additional collateral (the “equity” component.)  It is also widely reported that the same piece of property may have been put up multiple times as additional collateral in these types of loans.

From my ivory tower, I’m afraid I don’t know how much this stuff affects overall LTV rates but both practices seem to have been pretty prevalent and they both point towards higher ratios than 75%. I would really appreciate if those with more detailed knowledge of these issues could give us some estimates on the magnitudes at hand here.

Beyond that, I think it will be important that the mid-September announcement of NAMA’s intended purchase prices include information on true underlying loan-to-value ratios, including the amount of rolled-up interest and the valuation of additional collateral pledged.

Macroeconomic Adjustment: The Second Phase

Robert Wade has an interesting piece on Iceland in today’s FT: you can read it here.  The main point he makes is that some of the assistance measures adopted last year are due to expire soon: much of the pain of the crisis was delayed rather than eliminated by these measures.  Accordingly, the full impact of the crisis on Icelandic living standards has yet to kick in.

Pro-NAMA Irish Times Article from Rory Gillen

The Irish Times has an article today by Rory Gillen of Merrion Capital. Gillen takes issue with arguments raised in a recent Irish Times article by Fintan O’Toole and also, to a lesser extent, with arguments in the 46 economist piece.

There is one argument in piece that I think is worth highlighting. It relates to subordinated bond holders. The 46 guys piece makes it clear that “certain classes of bondholders” should take a hit. Gillen presents this proposal as disastrous. He says that the

argument that bond holders should also be scalped is, in my view, a very short-sighted one. The cost of Ireland’s debt would most certainly increase, further hitting the majority of mortgage holders and businesses.

In the eyes of the international community, it would also link us to such bedfellows as Argentina, Russia and Iceland. I, and surely our descendents, would rather not be stuck with that particular stigma.

Raising the spectre of Argentina, Russia and Iceland here is unfair and, funnily enough given the title of Gillen’s article, alarmist. An Irish bank defaulting on its subordinated debt is not the same as our government defaulting on its debt (Argentina, Russia) or our banking system refusing to pay up on huge amounts of foreign liabilities (Iceland).  And as for the cost of “Ireland’s debt”, some highly respected sovereign bond analysts have repeatedly pointed out that a resolution of the banking crisis in a manner that eases the burden on the taxpayer will have a positive effect on market’s assessment of Irish sovereign debt.

There is the question of the guarantee. However, some of the subordinated debt is not guaranteed while the rest is only guaranteed up until September 2010. A signal that the guarantee will not be extended for this class of assets would in no way be similar to a sovereign default.

More generally, subordinated debt is, by definition, at the back of the debt queue in terms of being paid back when a business gets into trouble. Sometimes businesses default on their subordinated debt—that’s sort of the point—and this happens not just in the countries mentioned by Mr. Gillen but also in the US, the UK and every other capitalist country in the world. We will not automatically turn into Iceland if a few subordinated bond holders don’t get their money back.

Bank Asset Price Bounce: Irish versus US Banks

Perhaps the most contentious issue in NAMA planning is the distinction made between the long-term economic value and the current-market prices of bank assets, particularly developer loans collateralized by Irish property portfolios. 

Optimists see a strong case for a liquidity-related price bounce in these bank assets, that is, low current-market prices recovering to higher “true economic value” prices over coming years, as financial market distress dissipates.  This optimistic view, forecasting a bank asset price bounce, provides a strong justification for setting up NAMA, and also justifies paying the banks more than current-market prices for their bad loan portfolios (but still much less than accounting book value).

Pessimists forecast either flat or declining market prices for these bank assets over coming years.  This pessimistic view implies that NAMA (if it comes into existence) should pay current-market prices or less for bank assets. 

 I think that the optimists might be over-extrapolating from the current US environment.  There are important differences for the case of Irish bank assets.  In my opinion, the market prices of US bank assets will bounce up strongly sometime during the next few years, whereas the prices of Irish bank assets will recover more modestly or not at all. Continue reading “Bank Asset Price Bounce: Irish versus US Banks”

Suggestions for Rules

(Text slightly amended as previous text referred to a comment now dated)
Apologies for starting a distracting thread. This blog is unmoderated for very good reason, namely that people have busy jobs. I suggest a couple of rules:

1. No personal insults

2. No direct unsubstantiated accusations

3. Use some sort of unique signature. Not necessarily an identifier. Most of the people who comment here have a clearly identified signature whether anonymous or not. There seems to be disagreement on whether this is necessary. To me it would avoid a lot of potential confusion.

Irish Times NAMA Piece Signed by 46 Economists

The Irish TImes has today published a letter signed by 46 economists (organised by Brian Lucey) warning against the dangers of the NAMA process. Forty six economists can’t possibly be wrong can they? 😉

On a more serious note, one of the issues that will inevitably be raised about this is the position being taken by those economists who were offered the opportunity that didn’t sign. I suspect some will argue that they must all be in favour of NAMA.

My sense, however, is that there is no alternative groundswell of support from (non-stockbroking) economists for the govenment’s approach. Rather, many people are instinctively not petition signers, preferring to express their own views in exactly their own fashion, stressing whichever nuances they think are most important.  Also, it is worth emphasising that most economists are not experts in banking and finance and some simply don’t feel comfortable signing something relating to an area outside their research specialisation.

Still, if such an alternative groundswell of support did exist, I would strong suggest that they should put forward their own piece. I know that Alan Ahearne has been pressed into action but Alan is in a difficult position because publicly disagreeing with the Minister for Finance is outside his job description. I genuinely think that a high profile alternative letter, followed up by an intensive debate about the issues raised, would be very useful.

As a final note, I’d add that the headline for the article, as always, is written by the Irish Times subeditors. As far as I can see, the article says nothing about shifting wealth to developers.

NAMA Levy versus NAMA 2.0

Thanks to pro-NAMA commenter AL for a useful contribution in a comment thread below. I think we probably need some more pro-NAMA commenters here, at least to give Zhou some company! But seriously, AL raises some useful issues. One in particular is the question of whether we should be worried about the pricing. AL states:

If we get the pricing wrong on the way in – there is the understanding that a levy will be imposed on the banking system (affecting equityholders in the future) to recoup any shortfall on the wind up of NAMA.

I think this is worth discussing more.  My worries here are (a) It’s an “understanding” rather than anything that will appear in legislation, so I have no faith that it will ever appear or, that if it does, it will be based on anything like the actual combined cost of NAMA to the taxpayer. (b) If it really becomes apparent that a levy will apply and then NAMA is running losses, this will cast a shadow over our banks for years, so that NAMA will have failed in its goal to draw a line under the problem.

Here’s a question I’d be interested in getting more discussion on. Why not have risk-sharing as suggested by Patrick Honohan’s NAMA 2.0 (pay a low price for the assets today—Patrick phrases it as “what we can confidently expected to obtain”) and then compensate shareholders (not the banks) with a share in NAMA’s potential profits, should they ever appear? This protects the taxpayer, achieves risk-sharing, and gives us cleaned up banks with no “legacy” problems.

Lenihan Not Anticipating Further Nationalisations

Minister Lenihan has returned from his holidays to talk about NAMA on RTE’s This Week. I’m not sure much new was revealed from this interview. On the key question of what will happen with the major banks, the Minister argues that only “some allowance” will be incorporated for long-term economic value while at the same time he says “we don’t anticipate nationalising any other institutions in their entirety”.

To see what this means in practice, consider AIB. This bank has property-related loans of €48 billion, half of this being development loans. It is widely reported that €30 billion of these loans will be transferred to NAMA. The bank has private core tier 1 capital of about €8 billion. So the minister is saying that he is not anticipating a discount for AIB as high as 27 percent (because 27 percent of €30 billion is €8 billion.) 

Given what we know about the current financial situation of Irish property developers, the haircuts envisaged by the Minister appear to rely on a very substantial recovery in property values. And yet the Minister also rules out purchasing assets at multiples of their current market value, so I don’t see how the various comments here hang together.

It would be interesting to know on what basis the Minister’s anticipations about NAMA transfer values have been formulated. And since the people doing the mysterious long-term economic value calculations all work for the Minister, it is reasonable to ask how likely it is that these people can back out the right answer as to what the average haircut needs to be to fit with the Minister’s anticipated outcome.

Of course, this could all be a bait and switch, and the main banks could end up being nationalised. However, the spin suggests otherwise. The Minister’s latest comments contained a series of misleading remarks about nationalisation.

For instance, Minister Lenihan blames the cost to the taxpayer of re-capitalising Anglo on the fact that the bank was nationalised, rather than on his decision to guarantee almost all of Anglo’s liabilities last September. In relation to AIB or BOI, the implication is that the cost of sorting them out would be higher if we don’t overpay for the assets to keep them in private ownership. There are arguments worth airing against nationalisation but this just isn’t one of them. As long as the guarantee is kept in place, these banks need to be recapitalised, most likely by the state. Doing so by overpaying for assets rather than by getting an equity share really doesn’t save money.

An unnamed foreign country that nationalised its banks, leading to disaster, was mentioned by the Minister. I’m guessing the country the Minister has in mind is Iceland. Minister Lenihan may think a decision to nationalise the banks was the cause of Iceland’s problems. I’d wonder though.

DEW Conference – November 2nd 2009, Dublin

Event: Third DEW Policy Conference

Venue: Radisson SAS Royal Hotel, Golden Lane, Dublin (

Date and Time: November 2nd, 2pm to 5.30pm

The third DEW conference will take place on November 2nd between 2pm and 5.30pm in the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel, Golden Lane in Dublin city centre. The conference continues the general themes from previous events surrounding the Irish economic position. Speakers to include David Blanchflower (Dartmouth College), Colm Harmon (UCD), John McHale (NUIG), Patrick Honohan (TCD), Karl Whelan (UCD). A full agenda will be posted on this site in September and at the UCD Geary Institute and Irish Economic Association sites.

Due to the usual issues of venue size and logistics we would appreciate if people could register as soon as possible by emailing

Government Banking Policy Based on Best International Advice?

The Taoiseach has emerged to defend the government’s banking proposals. He has been reported as saying:

The proposal we have brought forward is on the basis of the best international advice, including the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, and we are doing this in consultation with the European Central Bank.

Invoking international support for their approach has been a key element in the government’s PR strategy in recent months. However, these comments seem to me to confuse the actual roles being played by the various international organisations referred to.

Continue reading “Government Banking Policy Based on Best International Advice?”