Economics, voodoo, and climate policy

John Gibbons is having a go at Bjorn Lomborg. Mr Gibbons argues that Lomborg has a PhD in spin, while in fact he has a PhD in political science. Gibbons oddly suggests that Lomborg is behind “climategate”, and refers to economic models as “voodoo”. Most seriously, Gibbons suggests that statisticians and economists have no relevant expertise on climate science and policy.

Climate is defined as the 30 year average weather. Statistics is therefore at the core of climate science.

Greenhouse gas emissions are caused by economic activity. Emission reduction already costs a heap of money, will cost a lot more in the future, and would cost a whole lot more if economists do not help design abatement policies. Economics is therefore at the core of climate policy.

Fiscal Policy Uncategorized


The government have finally announced the details of their National Solidarity Bond mentioned in the last budget and previously recommended by ICTU and Fine Gael. The brochure is here. The bonds will pay an interest coupon subject to DIRT of 1% per year and then have a final tax-free balloon payment of 40% when the bond matures at ten years. You can get your money out at any time with seven days notice but the tax free lump sum element is much smaller in this case. Held to maturity, the bond has an after tax Annual Equivalent Return of 3.96%.

On the face of it, the initiative is a bit puzzling. This after-tax rate of interest is lower than the current yield on ten-year government bonds, which is now at 5.2%. However, this scheme will most likely move money out of domestic bank savings accounts (at a time when they really need them) and the government will then be forgoing the DIRT tax that these funds would have paid on the interest payments from those accounts.

For example, if the alternative investment strategy was to obtain a 4% rate for a similar long term savings account, then with DIRT at 25%, the government would be foregoing 1% per year in tax payments. This would bring the real net cost of this scheme to 4.96% per year. Add in the additional administrative cost of dealing with lots of small investors and this doesn’t seem to be a particularly cheap source of borrowing.

In addition, the NTMA already offers a range of products aimed at small investors that carry slightly lower rates with maturities of three or five years. The Solidarnosc bond offers a higher AER in return for tying up your money for a longer period. It seems more like a term premium than national solidarity.

I suspect, however, that my behavioural friends out there will tell me that the existence of a bond with a catchy name like this will uncover a large previously untapped source of funds for the government. Perhaps. I guess we’ll find out. Alternatively, a simple advertising campaign to inform the public about the existence of state savings schemes may have worked just as well.

Finally, I’d note that I don’t agree with Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney that the proceeds from this bond should be ring-fenced for infrastructural projects. Money is fungible. The fact that some money is raised from a new source with a catchy name shouldn’t in any way change the processes used to assess which types of public spending should be prioritised.


Global Finance Academy Conference

The 4th Global Finance Academy (GFA) conference will taked place at the University College Dublin (UCD) Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business on May 26th.

The 2010 conference will be held over 1 day on Wednesday 26th May 2010 at the Graduate School of Business campus in Blackrock.

The speakers include Michael Brennan (UCLA), Cal Muckley (UCD), Bart Lambrecht (Lancaster),
Christopher Polk (LSE), Matt Spiegel (Yale) and Hassan Tehranian (Boston).
The conference is free, but delegates must register by emailing the organizer, Cal Muckley (, as soon as possible or by Friday, May 7th at the latest.

EMU Fiscal Policy

Thinking the Unthinkable

Even as Greece appears willing to accept a larger austerity package in return for a much-expanded financing package, some leading economists are contemplating radical alternatives.  

Paul Krugman no longer sees a euro exit as impossible (NYT article here):

So what will happen to the euro? Until recently, most analysts, myself included, considered a euro breakup basically impossible, since any government that even hinted that it was considering leaving the euro would be inviting a catastrophic run on its banks. But if the crisis countries are forced into default, they’ll probably face severe bank runs anyway, forcing them into emergency measures like temporary restrictions on bank withdrawals. This would open the door to euro exit.

Nouriel Roubini  and Arnab Das argue in the Financial Times for a Plan B that involves a pre-emptive debt restructuring:

Continuing on the path of least resistance – a “Plan A” of official financing banking on a mix of deep fiscal cuts, inadequate structural reforms and hopes that markets will stay open, with growth doing much of the heavy lifting – is a risky bet that is very likely to fail. Already this week, financial markets and credit rating agencies have voted against this approach and started to price in a high probability that Greece will need to restructure its public debt coercively, with contagion to the rest of the eurozone periphery now a serious risk. Augmenting the programme for Greece alone – up to €100-€120bn as suggested by the IMF – will not work either.

Far better to move to Plan B. This would involve a pre-emptive debt restructuring for Greece; a strengthened fiscal adjustment plan in the eurozone periphery; far-reaching structural reforms; a larger IMF/European Union programme to help Greece and prevent contagion to others; further monetary easing by the European Central Bank; fiscal and domestic demand stimulus in Germany; and a co-ordinated effort to address the institutional weaknesses of Europe’s economic and monetary union.

Banking Crisis Uncategorized

Conference on Regulating Financial Market Liquidity and Stability

See below for details of an upcoming conference, “Regulating Financial Market Liquidity and Stability,” taking place on Friday, May 14th , 5 pm – 7 pm, at the Irish Institute of Bankers in the IFSC. This is an outreach event intended for a mixed audience of practitioners, regulators and academics. This blog’s noted contributor Karl Whelan will be speaking, along with Roland Meeks of the Bank of England, and Robert Korajczyk of Northwestern University.  REGISTRATION: The event is free, but delegates must register by emailing Irene Moore (, as soon as possible or by Friday 7th May at the latest.

Banking Crisis Fiscal Policy

Promissory Notes and Deficits

After the announcement that the €4 billion used to recapitalise Anglo Irish Bank last year has to be included in the General Government Deficit, I was surprised to see speculation on this blog and elsewhere that the €8.3 billion in promissory notes issued this year might not count towards the deficit. Yesterday in the Dail, Brian Lenihan made it clear that this full amount was being added to the general government debt:

The recapitalisation of €8.3 billion by issuing a promissory note has been recorded as increasing Ireland’s general Government debt by that full amount in 2010 and, pending the agreement of the restructuring plan, it is appropriate not to include it in the deficit measurement until the matter can be reviewed on foot of any decision made by the European Commission on the plan.

So, the full amount has been added to the stock of debt but we are awaiting a decision on whether it adds to the deficit.

Personally, I like my stock-flow identities to add up, so I can’t see any reason why the full amount wouldn’t be added to the deficit. Perhaps others who understand the statistical issues better than me could explain how these additions to the debt—which are clearly “non-financial transactions” as defined by Eurostat—will not be counted as part of the general government deficit.


Latest EPA projections

The EPA has released its latest forecasts for the emissions of greenhouse gases up to 2020. It confirms that Ireland will not need to buy additional CO2 permits on the international market. We may even have too many, but the NTMA is not allow to sell any excess for reasons that entirely escape me. The EPA also confirms that Ireland is unlikely to meet its 2020 target (although Greece may lend a helping hand) even in the “optimistic” scenario, which assumes that emissions fall if there is a government report that tells them to.

Fiscal Policy

Harney on Health Funding

With so many major macro and financial stories filling the headlines, it can be easy to forget about the major microeconomic issues that need to be considered when thinking about how to deliver as high a level of public services as is possible with less resources.

Minister for Health, Mary Harney’s op-ed discussing various proposals for reform of funding and delivery of health services (such as this proposal from the Adelaide Hospital Society and Fine Gael’s Fair Care proposal) is worth reading carefully to understand the government’s position on this key area of public spending.

Banking Crisis

Ireland’s Exposure to Greek Debt

On today’s RTE radio News at One, Sean Whelan reported that Irish banks have exposure of about €7 billion to Greek debt, that restructuring of Greek sovereign debt could lead to a fifty percent write-down of Greek debt and that because the Irish government are supporting the banks, the contribution of €450 million by the Irish government to the Greek bailout needed to be placed against the possibility of a potential loss of €3.5 billion for the banks.

Much of this is correct but it is perhaps worth clarifying what we know about Irish bank holdings of Greek debt. First, I’m guessing that Sean Whelan is quoting from figures released from the BIS which show that Irish banks hold $8.6 billion in Greek debt.  At an exchange rate of €1 = $1.31, this translates into €6.6 billion, so Sean Whelan’s figure is about right.

However, a few caveats about this are required. First, it appears that these figures relate to all Greek debt not just government debt.

Second, I believe the definition of Irish banks here include Irish outlets of non-Irish banks (such as various IFSC institutions) which are not receiving assistance from the Irish government.

Third, the figures available for the major Irish bank holdings of government bonds show that it is essentially impossible that these banks are holding such large quantities of Greek government debt. Greece’s rating was downgraded to BBB+ on December 16, this rules out AIB holding much Greek debt. The banks report their holdings of government bonds by ratings and they hold almost no government bonds with low rating (e.g. AIB only €109 million of these holdings were below A rating, Anglo have only €132 million).

So, to conclude, financial institutions in Ireland hold about €7 billion in Greek debt but we don’t know how much of this is Greek sovereign debt. We do know that the banks that are receiving assistance from the Irish government do not hold much Greek sovereign debt. For these reasons, the direct cost to the banks receiving assistance of a Greek restructuring would be a lot less than the €450 million figure cited for our direct contribution.

Keeping in mind that the caveats above are not accounted for, this post from the Peterson Institute is still worth reading.

Update: The Minister for Finance has now confirmed that Irish bank exposure to Greek sovereign debt is negligible relative to the size of their balance sheets–less than €40 million apparently.

Banking Crisis

Lenihan Open to Wind-Down of Anglo

Brian Lenihan has told the Dail that he is now open to the idea of winding down Anglo. This is perhaps speculative but Matt Cooper from Today FM has reported that he is hearing from sources that the European Commission is not happy with the restucturing plan for Anglo that has been provided. If true, then these two events are perhaps linked.

Banking Crisis

Just the One: Time Inconsistency and the Greek Bailout(s)

As EU decision-makers grapple with their response to an imminent Greek debt default or bailout, they need to consider not only their current decisions but also their likely future decisions. It is critically important that they not deceive themselves into thinking that they (or the Greek government) can commit to making all their future decisions now. There are strong grounds for positing time-inconsistency in EU and Greek government decision-making concerning the Greek bailout. This is a simple point, but critically important to good policy planning in this situation. Acknowledging time-inconsistency does not proscribe any particular policy choice, but it encourages policy makers to act cautiously.

Banking Crisis

AIB “too smart to buy this junk”

The AIB Chairman apologised today at the bank’s AGM for the self-inflicted problems caused by excessive lending to the property and construction sectors. At least, AIB avoided major losses in the US toxic securities sector  – as revealed in the Congressional hearings on Goldman Sachs, the GS view was that AIB was “too smart to buy this junk”.

See this report on the hearings and this extract featruing the committee chair Senator Carl Levin:

Levin chides Sparks for selling “junk”: In his second jousting session with Sparks, Sen. Levin questioned the former executive about the bank’s Hudson Mezzanine deal, reading an email from a Goldman salesperson in which she said that the client, Allied Irish Bank, was “too smart to buy this junk.”

“I didn’t believe it was junk. We didn’t believe it was a junk. A sales person said that,” Sparks said.

“Yes, if a sales person believed it was junk, you were selling junk,” Levin replied.

Uncategorized World Economy

A little bit of good news

Given all the worries concerning the Eurozone right now, I thought it might be appropriate to post a link to this.


Philip Lane in the New York Times

Via Michael Hennigan:

Philip is quoted in Europeans Fear Greek Debt Crisis Will Spread from today’s New York Times:

  “It’s like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns,” said Philip Lane, a professor of international economics at Trinity College in Ireland, referring to the Wall Street failures that propelled the financial crisis of 2008. “It is not so much the fundamentals as it is the unwillingness of the market to fund you.”

Also noteworthy from the same article:

Officials from Standard & Poor’s said the main reason for downgrading the debt of Greece and Portugal was the prospect that forced austerity packages would be an even bigger drag on economic growth.

It is the most vicious of circles: stagnating economies are forced to cut back more, which reduces their ability to generate revenue and thus pay off their debts. As part of the euro zone, these countries do not have the ability to print their own money to stimulate growth and bolster exports, so increasing debt and an increasing prospect of default result.

Fiscal Policy

Irish Bond Spreads Up Sharply

S&P downgraded Greek government bonds to junk status today and also downgraded Portugal’s debt. Meanwhile, in Germany, there appears to be continued prevarication about whether\how to help Greece.  To be honest, I’m not willing to spend that much of my time following the whole Germany\Greece soap opera.

What’s more concerning, however, is that the yield on Irish government debt has jumped dramatically over the past week, with today being the worst day (chart here). The yield on ten year Irish government bond yields rose to 5.25% today with the spread relative to German bonds rising 42 basis points. At 2.3%, this spread is now not too far off the highs of about 2.5% seen last summer.


Powerpoint and Analysis

This blog has periodically featured posts on the role of visual devices to improve analytical understanding  –  this NYT article reports on how the US military has become a slave to Powerpoint (and features an interesting slide).

Economic history Uncategorized

Death of Angus Maddison

Economic history has lost two giants in the past month: first François Crouzet, and now Angus Maddison. Maddison was a larger than life character and a committed Hibernophile who will be impossible to replace. Both men will be greatly missed.

Knowledge economy

20 million euro for NEW energy research centre

The government will establish the European Energy Research Centre at the Tyndall National Institute, and provide initial support of 20 million euro. See here.

Tyndall has no prior experience with energy research, and I must admit that I was unaware of its existence until the 20 million euro rumour emerged a few months ago. Wikipedia has an interesting entry. Then again, sometimes it is good to start with a clean slate.

Banking Crisis

Bank of Ireland Capital Raising Plans

The Irish Times reports about Bank of Ireland’s capital raising plans here and provides links to all the relevant documentation so I don’t have to.

It is, of course, good news that there’s some sign that private investors are willing to invest in one of the Irish banks. Still (warning — malcontent comment alert) it’s perhaps best to put this in context. These private investors are now willing to do this because the Irish government is buying a portfolio of €12.2 billion in property and development loans from the bank, only €5.4 billion of which are performing, for €7.9 billion (assuming the initial 35% discount is applied to the whole book.)

The idea that private capital sources would renew their interest in investing in the Irish banks after loans had been transferred to an asset mangement agency was also an opinion offered last year by advocates of temporary nationalisation. Whether the route we’ve travelled to get to this juncture has been the right one is still an open question.

It is perhaps because there are still so many questions hanging over his approach to the banking crisis that Brian Lenihan persists with a rhetorical strategy in relation to the banks that largely depends on overstatements, half-truths and falsehoods such as his comments on Morning Ireland today about people who wanted to “nationalise the whole system”, about how temporary nationalisation would have lead to other banks becoming “just like Anglo” and how the bank guarantee scheme has been cost free, indeed how we’ve made a tidy profit out of it.

Banking Crisis

Are One Third of NAMA’s Loans Producing Cash?

I received an email recently from someone who objected to my characterisation of NAMA’s goal of being cashflow positive as something of a loaves and fishes act.

The argument put to me was that while Brendan McDonagh says that only one third of NAMA’s loans are income producing and NAMA is projecting to pay a discount of 47% for these loans, the fact that the interest rate on NAMA’s income generating loans are higher than on its bonds means that it will still generate positive cash flow.

Specifically, NAMA’s bonds will pay six-month Euribor while, we are told, that its assets are generally Euribor plus two percent. In this case, NAMA would be cash flow positive as long as 0.33(i+2) is greater than 0.53 i. This requires i < 3.3. In other words, as long as six month Euribor is less than 3.3% (it’s currently about one percent) then NAMA would be cash flow positive.

I don’t disagree with the algebra of the above paragraph. But I do disagree with some of its underlying assumptions. I’m going to write a couple of posts on the various aspects of NAMA’s cash flows.

Here, I want to discuss the extent to which NAMA’s loan portfolio is generating cash.

Economic Performance Uncategorized

Recent Trends in Earnings and Employment

The CSO released its latest survey on Earnings and Labour Costs on Thursday.

The following summarizes the changes in the main aggregates between Q3 2008 and Q3 2009:

Whole economy:
Employment: -8.4% Average weekly earnings: -0.8% Average hourly earnings: +1.8%

Private sector:
Employment: -10.3% Average weekly earnings: -2.7% Average hourly earnings: +0.6%

Public sector:
Employment: -2.2% Average weekly earnings: +1.9% Average hourly earnings: +2.2%

(The earnings figures are gross, and take no account of income taxes or levies.)

Hourly earnings in the private sector peaked in Q1 2009 and declined by 4.7% over the following two quarters. In the public sector, hourly earnings continued to rise until Q2 2009 and declined by 1.1% in the following quarter.

Economic history World Economy

Krugman and Wells on Reinhart and Rogoff

Paul Krugman and Robin Wells have a lengthy discussion of Reinhart and Rogoff here.

Fiscal Policy


The domestic response to yesterday’s Eurostat announcement has been fairly predictable. Opposition politicians are treating it as a substantively bad development that makes our fiscal problems worse. The government are calling it a mere technicality that is nothing to worry about.

I’ve generally been critical of those who seek to ease our fiscal problems via accounting gimmicks. So, on this point, I’m more inclined to agree with the government than the opposition. There may be some particularly uninformed bond traders out there for whom it was news that the government’s €4 billion recapitalisation of Anglo last year wasn’t actually an investment but I wouldn’t imagine there’s too many. Irish government bond yields may have risen a bit yesterday but this may be more related to increased jitteriness about the Greek situation and its potential spillovers than the fact that our headline deficit figure has been changed.

Of course, one problem that the government has in making its “just a technicality” argument is that this same government practically bent over backwards to create the strange beast that is the NAMA SPV and then emphasised how important this accounting gimmick was. For instance, we were told that Brian Lenihan “heartily welcomed” Eurostat’s decision to keep the NAMA debt off balance sheet and that he said the SPV “is an essential device for ensuring that our national debt is off balance sheet in Eurostat terms”. So I think there’s an element of live by the sword, die by the sword about this situation.

Banking Crisis Economic Performance Fiscal Policy

More on the Revised GGB

The Department of Finance explains the data revision here.  In terms of the GGB in 2010 and subsequent years, there is an interesting set of communication issues.  As per the DF note,  one approach is to make a sharp distinction between the ‘headline’ and ‘underlying’ GGB with the difference consisting of the ‘unrequited’ capital transfers into Anglo-Irish etc. (as opposed to the equity-type investments in AIB and Bank of Ireland).  This distinction may be effective if the bank-related capital transfers are a ‘once off’ event or a “twice off” event (ie 2009 and 2010) but may lose its force in relation to a steady sequence of capital transfers over the next decade.  To the extent that the promissory notes spread out the capital transfers over a long period,  this may be a downside to this approach relative to making a larger-but-final capital transfer in 2010.

Update/clarification:  The promissory note approach will not affect the timing of when capital transfers hit the GGB  (once the capital transfer is decided, it hits the GGB in that year in line with accruals accounting) or when the fiscal cost of bank re-capitalisation hits the gross government debt (again, it hits the gross debt at the time of the commitment, since the liability has been accrued).  Moreover, the impact on the gross debt happens immediately even if it takes time (as in the 2009 case) to determine whether the re-capitalisation is an equity-type investment or a capital transfer. The promissory note approach just spreads out the timing of the cash payments.

Banking Crisis Fiscal Policy

Eurostat Revises Irish Deficit to 14.3%

Eurostat has today announced that the Irish general government deficit for 2009 was in fact 14.3% rather than the 11.7% figure that the government has been reporting. Reuters report

Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said this was a result of a technical reclassification associated with government support provided to the banking sector.

“It is important to note that the underlying 2009 general government deficit for Ireland is 11.8 percent of GDP, which is broadly similar to that projected in December’s budget,” he said.

“There is no additional borrowing associated with this technical reclassification. This is a once-off impact, and will not affect the government’s stated budgetary aim of reducing the deficit to below 3 percent of GDP by 2014,” Lenihan said.

Though the Eurostat document does not state this, the revision appears to be related to reclassifying the €4 billion used to recapitalise Anglo Irish Bank as part of the deficit (at this point, I can’t resist an I told you so moment.) If this is indeed the case, I’m not sure that the once-off impact comment is correct since there’s more money going in this year.  Hopefully it is indeed the case that we’re not still pouring money into Anglo in 2014.

Oh, they also revised the Greek deficit upwards and said mean things about Greek budget statistics. So nothing new there.

Banking Crisis

Irish Nationwide Annual Report

The Irish Nationwide were pretty tardy in putting their annual report online. However, it’s up now, available here.

I’m not sure what to add to what’s already been said about the multi-layered failures at this institution. That said, one useful aspect of the report is that it gives us some additional information on the quality of the loans going into NAMA. The INBS loans are being purchased by NAMA at a discount of 58% relative to their original face value. The report tells us that, of these loans, €1.4 billion of the total of original €8.7 billion face value are currently counted as neither past due or impaired. (I’m not a big fan of the phrase “performing”.)

Banking Crisis

Mazers on SME Lending in 2009:Q4

The latest Mazers report on lending to SMEs is here.

As usual, Mazars report a very high acceptance rate for credit applications — 87.7% in 2009:Q4. Mazars acknowledge that these figures are skewed to the high side because “limitations exist within bank applications support systems”. In other words, if you call into the local bank branch, have a word with the manager and he tells you there’s no chance of a loan, so you don’t bother filling out the paper work, then this doesn’t count as a loan application that’s been turned down. Somewhat surprisingly, Mazars reckon that “an approval rate of 84% is more representative.”

This still seems to me to be far too high. Mazars own evidence on credit quality provides plenty of evidence for why banks are likely to be extremely cautions in handing out credit in the current environment, regardless of any issues to do with undercapitalisation.

Only 65% of SME loans were fully performing in 2009:Q4.  22% are on “Watchlist” because they are behind 30 to 90 days and 13% are “Impaired” because they are more than 90 days behind. By contrast in 2008:Q2, 85% of loans were performing, 14% were on Watchlist and 1% were Impaired.

These figures show that lending to SMEs is currently a very risky business. Indeed, the fact that 15% of loans were behind on repayments back in 2008:Q2 when the economy was performing much better shows that this class of lending is always somewhat risky.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that the major banks are not currently restricting credit as part of a strategy to get risk-weighted assets down and thus minimise the amount of new capital required to achieve the capital ratio targets set down by the Central Bank. However, in reality, it is very difficult to distinguish between this mechanism and the normal banking approach to screening credit risks during a severe recession.

The fact that this screening often takes the form of turning down loans rather than simply raising the cost of credit has been well understood for a long time and was best explained in this classic paper by Stiglitz and Weiss.


The UK Election: Economic Analysis of Key Issues

The CEP at the LSE is releasing a series of briefing notes on some of the key economic issues facing the next UK government: you can find the list here.  Among the recent contributions are Luis Garicano on financial regulation and Brian Bell on bankers’ bonuses.

Banking Crisis

Economies with Large Banking Systems

The IMF has released a new report on the challenges facing economies that have large banking systems: Ireland is included in the analysis.  The report is here and the abstract is below:

This paper examines cross-country perspectives on economies with large banking systems relative to GDP. As such economies tend to have domestic institutions with major foreign currency cross-border activities, strong links are generated between the health of the financial system and sovereign sustainability. These links are of central interest to the paper. It does not cover off-shore centers as their international links tend to be relatively unrelated to domestic activities.

To make the analysis more concrete, the experience of five economies—Hong Kong SAR, Iceland, Ireland, Singapore, and Switzerland—are featured (plus a Box on the Benelux region). These economies had large and relatively diversified international banking sectors compared to their fiscal capacity before the global financial crisis of 2007–09, and divergent experiences over the crisis. The paper analyzes the reasons for these outcomes. (A range of private and public sector individuals were interviewed during missions to Belgium, Hong Kong SAR, Ireland, Singapore, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.)

Banking Crisis

Anglo’s Northern Rock Strategy

Matthew Elderfield’s Oireachtas appearance generated some interesting discussions about the future of Anglo Irish Bank. Alan Dukes has, on a number occasions, stated that the bank’s management are putting forward a restructuring plan that involves splitting the bank into a bad bank to be wound down over time and a good bank that will continue to operate.

Elderfield on the Anglo Split

Elderfield’s prepared comments shed some additional light on the nature of this split:

It is likely that the bulk of Anglo Irish Bank which remains after NAMA will be transformed into an asset management company to manage the bad assets of the bank. A small new bank is likely to be carved out and it is on this entity that we will apply our process.