UK Economy Cries Out for Credible Rescue Plan

In this letter to the Sunday Times,  a group of economists call for a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation plan for the UK. 

The signatories are listed below:

Tim Besley, Sir Howard Davies, Charles Goodhart, Albert Marcet, Christopher Pissarides and Danny Quah, London School of Economics;
Meghnad Desai and Andrew Turnbull, House of Lords;
Orazio Attanasio and Costas Meghir, University College London;
Sir John Vickers, Oxford University;
John Muellbauer, Nuffield College, Oxford;
David Newbery and Hashem Pesaran, Cambridge University;
Ken Rogoff, Harvard University;
Thomas Sargent, New York University;
Anne Sibert, Birkbeck College, University of London;
Michael Wickens, University of York and Cardiff Business School;
Roger Bootle, Capital Economics;
Bridget Rosewell, GLA and Volterra Consulting

Latvia’s Depression

This is a nice summary of Latvia’s recession or, perhaps more accurately, depression, which thus far has seen a decline in GDP of more than 25 percent. The Latvian example is interesting both because of its parallels with Ireland because of the fixed exchange rate with the Euro and also for its differences due to the problems associated with having a fixed but not “irrevocable” exchange rate.

Europe, like Ireland, is facing two crises, not one

With all the talk about debt crises last weeek, it is easy to forget that there is a real economic crisis afflicting Europe as well. The 4th quarter GDP numbers were disappointing, and the fact that Eurozone industrial output fell 1.7% in December is alarming. Unemployment is still rising, and the real Eurozone economy is not out of the woods yet. A primary focus of economic policy still needs to be the avoidance of a double dip.

The fact that little Ireland is having to cut expenditure and raise taxes at a time like this will further worsen our own economic problems, but is of no broader consequence. How many Irish people have even noticed what is happening in Latvia? The same could be said of Greece. But if the entire periphery found itself having to fight market panic by cutting in an excessive fashion, simultaneously, that could be very dangerous — especially if Spain, or, God forbid, Italy, became involved as well.

Martin Wolf is very good on this, while those of you of a more temperamental disposition may enjoy Simon Johnson’s latest piece, with Peter Boone. The core Eurozone countries don’t just have to ward off self-fulfilling market panics focussed on the PIIGS, but continue to support aggregate demand in the Eurozone. I understand concerns about government debt, but people focussed on that problem should remember three things. First, deficits will continue to rise if the real economy worsens, and a lack of aggregate demand is still a problem for the real economy. Second, the more the ECB does to loosen monetary policy, the less is the burden which fiscal policy has to shoulder. And third, if we experience another year like 2008-2009 any time soon, the probability of a wave of defaults will rise sharply.

Blanchard on macroeconomic policy

There is an extensive interview with Olivier Blanchard on the IMF website, and a link to his recent paper on the future of macroeconomic policy making (co-authored with Giovanni Dell’Ariccia and Paolo Mairo), here. I can see this one ending up on lots of undergraduate reading lists.

Update: Krugman likes the paper, which makes sense. He alo cites a completely different argument in favour of moderate levels of inflation, which made quite a splash a few years ago: given that it is hard to cut nominal wages, inflation can be very useful in lowering real wages, when that is what is required.

Real wage reductions are required in Ireland, but nominal wage reductions remain elusive here, despite the spin. Can anyone doubt that Irish real wage adjustment would be easier if we could rely on higher inflation rates to do the bulk of the work?

Mortgage Repayment Burdens

The Central Bank have released a new paper by Yvonne McCarthy and Kieran McQuinn (link here) that uses data from the 2007 Survey of Income and Living Conditions (SILC) to describe how various types of households were coping with their mortgage burdens on the eve of the economic crisis. The paper also applies various techniques to estimate how these burdens may have changed since 2007.

I think this type of work is vital for gaining a better understanding of the extent of the upcoming mortgage default problem. It would also be crucial that data of this type be utilised if the government do wish to design a mortgage modification program, as discussed earlier here and here.

Forbearance and Bailouts for Builders

Today’s newspapers report (here and here) that control over Sean Dunne’s properties has been transferred to companies whose main shareholders are Ulster Bank, Co-operative Centrale Raiffeisen Boerleen Bank and Kaupthing (Iceland! Iceland!). Personally, I’m relieved that Mr. Dunne’s bankers are not in NAMA, so the Irish taxpayer won’t be at risk of making losses on his loans, either through NAMA overpaying them or through losses generated for state-owned banks. 

The fact that these non-NAMA banks have intervened on Mr. Dunne’s business reminded me of comments from Minister Lenihan in his Last Word interview on Monday. About ten minutes in, the Minister said the following:

There’s no one being bailed out here. Builders have to pay. We’ve already begun to see spectacular crashes among developers. They’re not being bailed out. That is another line of rhetoric we had to listen to for about six months last year, that this was all about bailing out builders. It’s not about bailing out builders and it’s very clear again to anyone who’s reading the newspapers now that it’s not about bailing out builders. Builders who are not paying their debts are going to the wall. That’s what NAMA’s all about.

I think what this misses is that all of the spectacular crashes that we’ve seen so far have come from developers who had the misfortune to borrow money from banks who didn’t get into the NAMA scheme. Perhaps I’ve missed them, but I can’t recall any stories about big developers being closed on by AIB or Bank of Ireland. Indeed, the contrary is the case. Instead there have been stories such as NAMA-bound banks lending Liam Carroll money to pay off unsecured creditors and accepting patently unrealistic business plans in order to give bankrupt developers more rope.

In addition, NAMA’s infamous draft business plan also states that eighty percent of the loans due will be repaid in full, though very little of the repayments will appear until 2013. This is essentially an official statement that NAMA’s officials are planning a program of forbearance for bankrupt developers.  When one factors in the fact that NAMA will have the power to extend further credit to certain developers, the difference between “extreme forbearance plus additional lending”  and “bailout” may appear to be something of a fine line.

All this means that, much as he would like to, it is unlikely that Minister Lenihan will be able to continue dismissing concerns about NAMA’s relationships with developers quite as easily as Matt Cooper allowed him.

Rationale for the Greek Deal

I’ve been following the news stories on the proposed potential Greek bailout. However, reading articles like this, I’m struggling to find a good rationale for the agreement that’s been reached. The following questions come to mind:

  1. Greece needs to address its huge fiscal problems. To do this will require putting through highly unpopular measures. How does the EU’s offer of a potential bailout help get this achieved? How does the Greek government convince its people that harsh measures are required to reduce its deficit and keep open its access to sovereign debt markets when they now know that the EU tooth fairy is waiting by to help?
  2. Even if the senior figures in the leading EU countries have ultimately decided to intervene to prevent the disruptions associated with a Greek failure to roll over its debt, why not wait until that failure has happened?
  3. Why would the EU wish to be associated in the Greek public’s minds with the harsh expenditure cuts and tax increases that would still have to follow even after a bailout deal?
  4. Do those who advocate this policy really believe that the current Greek crisis is sui generis or are they planning to put in place a safety net for the whole Euro zone? If the latter, can such a policy really be credible?
  5. Is the long-run macroeconomic stability of the Euro area better served by avoiding the dislocations associated with one its constituent members going through a sovereign debt default or should we be more concerned about the problems created by the new bailout mechanism that lets governments know that the EU will intervene if they choose not to tackle their fiscal crises?

I feel that in asking these questions, I’ve clearly been missing something. Hopefully those who thrashed out this deal have thought these issues through. My concern is that in the somewhat fevered quasi-crisis atmosphere of this week, precedents may be getting set that we will live to regret.

Update: To be honest, I probably should have linked to this hand-wringing Times editorial as a better illustration of what I’m confused about. The editorial worries about “depressing the value of the euro” (which would in fact be a good thing for the Euro area economy) and discusses how this “raises major doubts about the future of the single currency” without explaining why this is the case.  The piece ends with the dramatic note of “The European Union remains on alert and on financial standby.”  It does make one wonder a little whether this issue is being hijacked somewhat by those who see “Europe” as the solution to most ills.

State In No Rush to Collect Dividend

You may remember that about this time last year, the state’s investment of €7 billion in preference shares of the two main banks was regularly touted as a great investment, with the 8% dividend playing a big role in helping to reduce our budget deficit. The story in relation to these dividends has now gotten a bit complicated and it now appears that instead of getting €560 million this year, we’re perhaps getting nothing.

As discussed here before (here and here) the EU Commission does not like the idea of taxpayer money going into the banks only to be paid out to subordinated bonds. For this reason, the Commission has prevented AIB and Bank of Ireland from paying coupon payments on certain bonds. This has triggered “dividend stopper” clauses which prevent the banks from paying cash dividends on the government’s preference shares, which are due on February 20 in the case of Bank of Ireland and May 13 in the case of AIB. This in turn would trigger the right of the National Pensions Reserve Fund Commission (NPRFC) to acquire ordinary shares equivalent to the amount of the dividend. And €560 million is a large amount of money relative to the current stock market capitalizations for these banks.

However, it turns out that NTMA are not keen on collecting these shares for the taxpayer. Via Bloomberg, the Irish Times reports:

Speaking at a Dáil committee in Dublin today, Mr Corrigan said failure to pay the coupon won’t automatically lead the government to take a bigger stake in the lenders. The NTMA chief executive said he would prefer the banks to pay the coupon in cash rather than shares. He said he is “in no rush” to collect the shares, and will await a European Union decision on the coupon before deciding how to proceed.

In relation to not being in a rush, it is true that the NTMA don’t have to take the shares. The original announcement stated:

Dividend: Fixed dividend of 8%, payable annually. Dividends payable in cash at the discretion of the bank. If cash dividend not paid, then ordinary shares are issued in lieu at a time no later than the date on which the bank subsequently pays a cash dividend on other Core Tier 1 capital.

Since the banks are not currently paying out dividends on ordinary shares, then it is clear that the shares don’t have to be issued, though it is less clear as to who makes the decision to get shares issued—the banks or the government.

It would be interesting to know the exact nature of this EU decision-making process that Mister Corrigan referred to. The Commission has already made its judgment on the payments to subdebt holders and it has adopted a consistent stance on this issue with other EU banks. There doesn’t seem to have been any conversion of the subdebt to some other form of claim that wouldn’t have a dividend stopper. So what exactly are we waiting for? A bit of clarity on this would be nice.

Iceland! Iceland! Collapse! Collapse!

I’ve noted on a number of occasions that both Brian Lenihan and Brian Cowen are very fond of misleading analogies in which any proposals to nationalise the two main Irish banks are linked to events in Iceland. For example, I noted recently that in an interview with Business and Finance, Minister Lenihan linked Iceland’s banking system collapse to a decision to nationalise. Some of the Minister’s bigger fans on this site argued that he was merely citing the sequence of events rather than indicating any actual causation.

Well, on this evening’s edition of The Last Word on Today FM, Minister Lenihan was at it again (podcast here — the interview is during the first hour of the show). In addition, as is usually the case when Lenihan and Cowen discuss this issue, the principal point of the discussion appeared to be to link the Labour Party’s position on the banking crisis to that of the Icelandic government. About 53 minutes in, the Minister said:

We didn’t go off, again like Iceland, and nationalise the system overnight because that lead to a banking collapse in Iceland. That’s what some of the Labour Party people wanted us to do in the last year.

(Cue philosophical debates in the comments about the meaning of the word “because” or perhaps “lead”).

Continue reading “Iceland! Iceland! Collapse! Collapse!”

IMF on NAMA and lending

As promised below, there is a story in today’s Irish Times that: “THE INTERNATIONAL Monetary Fund (IMF) told Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan last April that the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) would not lead to a significant increase in lending by the banks.” I dare say that this (NAMA not resulting in increased lending) does not come as a huge surprise to anyone??

Financing Infrastructure

Today’s Irish Times reports that the IMF had warned that NAMA would not significantly increase lending (separate thread). Increased lending is something businesses are looking for, but with public budgets being squeezed one area of investment that will also need to attract significant non-public funds is infrastructure.

A story by Louise McBride in the Sunday Independent argues that “Greece and Spain’s financial woes are making it tougher than ever for Governments to raise cash for vital state projects”. She argues that the €70 bn held by Irish pension funds is being targeted by Brian Lenihan.

While the key issue here is the level of government debt rather than the ability to raise cash, the article makes an important point that is being discussed in many countries – how do we fund our infrastructure in the current fiscally constrained environment?

Given that infrastructure is typically a fairly safe investment that can yield a certain inflation indexed return, pension funds should find it useful to invest in infrastructure. A range of possible projects is presented in an accompanying article, including Metro-North, Western Rail Corridor, Landsdowne Road and National Parks.

What the article does not properly consider is that of the €70bn only a fraction should be invested in infrastructure given the need to hold a balanced portfolio. The other point is that it is not obvious why Irish pension funds should necessarily invest in Irish infrastructure or indeed why we should not expect foreign pension funds to invest here.

The key issue in attracting private funding into projects is a revenue stream. Without a relatively certain income private funding will not materialise. That would seem to rule out national parks unless anyone is proposing to charge an entrance fee and the construction of very long fences. A certain and sufficiently large income or rather the likely absence of one would rule out private finance for the Western Rail Corridor. In other words the projects need to stack up as a business proposition, and those that are driven more by political or redistributive goals will have to be ditched (in the absence of other funding). Thus, private funding should have a significant positive impact in that there will be less ‘gold-plating’ and only likely winners will be get funded.

The issue of private finance for public infrastructure and services should also ignite a debate about what services should be provided publicly in the first place. Should public transport and water be provided publicly or could they be privatised? As was highlighted recently our water supply infrastructure (primarily the pipes) is in serious need of investment, which may not be forthcoming from public funds, yet to get private sector involvement the sector will need to consolidate significantly.  

George Lee resigns from Fine Gael and his Dail seat

I just spotted this – had to check I got the date right as this seems to much like a first of April story, but sure enough his former (???) colleagues at RTE, and the Irish Times have reports on this.  At the time George got elected a number of comments on this blog made the point that this would increase the economics know-how in the Dail.

Bonuses as Deferred Pay

This story is the best explanation we’ve got so far as to how the higher civil servant pay U-turn occurred and the justification used.

THE GOVERNMENT’S controversial U-turn on pay cuts for top public servants followed strong lobbying by their staff association that any cuts should take account of money lost as a result of the abolition of a bonus scheme which averaged 10 per cent of salary.

Official Department of Finance files show the Association of Assistant Secretaries and Higher Grades said it had legal opinion that the performance-related bonus scheme, which the Government initially suspended for 2008 and later scrapped permanently, formed an integral part of members’ remuneration packages.

The key argument put forward:

The association had earlier argued in correspondence with the Department of Finance that “while receipt of the performance-related element of pay is obviously not guaranteed to any individual, the scheme is part of our members’ basic remuneration package and amounts to an arrangement whereby part of that remuneration is simply deferred pending an independent assessment of performance”.

I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean. The fact that the bonuses did not count as pensionable pay and were not eligible for PRSI suggests that they were not part of basic pay. If the legal opinion was an implicit threat that the civil servants could have sued to reverse their pay cuts, I find it pretty hard to imagine such a case being successful.

In any case, it’s still not clear why the U-turn occurred. Minister Lenihan announced the ending of bonuses in February, so he was well aware of what he was doing when he announced the pay cuts in the budget concluding with “These are permanent reductions which will be reflected in future pension entitlements.”

It would be interesting to have heard the speech that Brian Lenihan gave on this issue at the Fianna Fail parliamentary party on Tuesday night for which he reportedly received a round of applause from the faithful.

In relation to this, I appeared on the radio on Tuesday night just after this meeting (link here) and heard Fianna Fail TD Michael Mulcahy suggest that the U-turn came from following the recommendations of the Review Body report and that the U-turn occurred because the report wasn’t released until after the budget. In truth, the U-turn runs counter to the report’s recommendations and the Minister had access to the report before the budget (he mentioned it in his speech.) These didn’t seem to be very satisfactory talking points on this issue from someone who had just received a full explanation from the Minister.

If the government thinks that misleading spin is the way to make this issue go away, I suspect they’re wrong. The fact that the usually-supportive Stephen Collins has taken up the issue also suggests that the government isn’t winning people over on this one.

Escaping the lion

The news that Italian bank Unicredit is insisting that Ireland rather than Italy is the ‘I’ in PIGS should hardly come as a surprise. All the PIIGS are at it these days: thus Emilio Botin of Santander is quoted in the FT as saying that “Comparing Spain to Greece is like comparing Real Madrid to Alcoyano”. (Alcoyano is apparently a club in the Spanish second division.) And we have been busily distancing ourselves from everyone else as well.

All this is understandable. As Ken Rogoff puts it,

There is an old joke about two men who are trapped by a lion in the jungle after a plane crash. When the first of them starts putting on his sneakers, the other asks why. The first answers: “I am getting ready to make a run for it.” But you cannot outrun a lion, says the other man, to which the first replies: “I don’t have to outrun the lion. I just have to outrun you.”

However, one of the big lessons of history is that lions rarely make do with just one snack: when defaults come, they come in waves. The 1930s is a good case in point.

Europe needs solidarity, not finger pointing.

Property Scheme Tax Incentives

One of the major issues that I think needs to be addressed this year is the role played by tax expenditures in our budgetary system. Reports such as this one by TASC have pointed to closing off tax expenditures as having an important role to play in closing the budget deficit. Chapter 8 of the Commission on Taxation report does a pretty good job of listing many of these tax reliefs and recommends shutting many of them off. There are serious discussions worth having in relation to many of these reliefs, such as those for pensions, but I don’t have the time to get into these issues now.

Interestingly, one particularly controversial type of relief that the Commission report does not examine is property incentive schemes; the report argued that since the decision had been taken to close off these schemes on their completion, they should not be examined. Information on the cost of these schemes was, however, reported to the Dail by Minister Lenihan last November in response to a parliamentary question from Joan Burton. The link to this answer is here but I know not to trust links to the Oireachtas website so I’ve also put up the answer as a Word document here.

The total amount of tax revenue lost from these schemes in 2007 was €435 million. I suspect this is smaller than some people might have expected, given the widespread nature of claims that the very richest in society are managing to pay almost no tax through their extensive use of these schemes.

Still, it is a decent amount of money. It would be interesting to know what these schemes are expected to cost this year and next and whether they can legally be closed. I suspect they can. Another interesting question is whether many of the individuals that availed of these schemes are now bankrupt and wouldn’t be able to pay any tax.

Mortgage Modifications

As posted earlier, Brian Lucey has a timely article in today’s Irish Times on the government’s plan to perhaps have a plan to help people who can’t pay their mortgage.

Brian makes a number of important points on this issue (moral hazard, fairness of helping those who took out excessive mortgage, limited capacity of these banks to take further losses leaving it back on the hard-pressed Irish taxpayer, bankruptcy reform).  I was going to post a comment on it but the thread’s already really long and I wrote too many words, so I’ll put this on the front page instead.

I’d like to add to Brian’s points by discussing a stylized example in which a mortgage modification plan could work in the sense of easing the difficulties of current owners without costing the bank or taxpayer anything. Then I’ll note how the conditions of the stylized example won’t necessarily hold in many cases.

Continue reading “Mortgage Modifications”

New Responsibilities for NTMA

A busy day, with lots going on. But I think it’s worth flagging this story about new responsibilities for the NTMA.

The move is understood to be aimed at creating a sharper focus on the State’s financial interest in the banks, while leaving Mr Lenihan and the Government to address broader economic and social concerns.

It may also serve to alleviate European Commission concerns about political interference in day-to-day financial decisions being made by institutions receiving support from the State.

The main functions being delegated include discussions with the so-called covered institutions about their capital needs, as well as discussions in relation to “realignment or restructuring” within the banking sector.

The NTMA will also be delegated with the Minister’s powers in relation to the management of the State’s shareholdings in credit institutions, and some remaining functions under the State guarantee scheme.

It will also be delegated functions in relation to the giving of advice on banking matters generally, including issues relating to crisis prevention, management and resolution.

The distancing of the managing of the state’s control in banks that may soon be partly or fully nationalised is a good idea. The rest of the announcement I’m more puzzled by. I would have thought that the capital needs of the banks was an issue for the Central Bank to discuss with the covered institutions rather than the NTMA.

More generally, I can’t imagine there are too many countries that use their government bond issuance office for “advice on banking matters generally, including issues relating to crisis prevention, management and resolution” so I’m not sure why we are.

Constantin Gurdgiev discusses the annoucement here. He argues that there is a conflict of interest between obtaining the best return for NAMA and obtaining the best return on the government’s bank shares, presumably in relation to the pricing of the assets to be transferred.  Of course, if the government owns both the banks and NAMA, this conflict of interest would more of an ecumenical intra-NTMA matter.