Buiter’s Bombshell

At the risk of adding to the gloom, here is Willem Buiter’s widely discussed “Sovereign Debt Crisis Update.”

A sample:

Despite the recent drama, we believe we have only seen the opening act, with the rest of the plot still evolving. Although we have not had a sovereign default in the AEs since the West German sovereign default in 1948, the risk of sovereign default is manifest today in Western Europe, especially in the EA periphery. We expect these concerns to extend soon beyond the EA to encompass Japan and the US.

Accessing external sources of funds will not mark the end of Ireland’s troubles. The reason is that, in our view, the consolidated Irish sovereign and Irish domestic financial system is de facto insolvent. The Irish sovereign cannot from its own resources ‘bail out’ the banks and make its own creditors whole. In addition, a fully-fledged bailout (permanent fiscal transfer) from EA partners or the ECB is most unlikely. Therefore, either the unsecured non-guaranteed creditors of the banks, and/or the creditors of the sovereign may eventually have to accept a restructuring with an NPV haircut, even if it is not a condition for accessing the EFSF or the EFSM at present.


Rollover Risk and the Crisis Resolution Mechanism

Gauged by yesterdays market reaction, the EU-IMF support package did little to dampen longer-term default worries on Irish debt.   The yield on the 10-year bond rose on Monday after an initial rally, even as the yield on 2-year bonds fell.   Potential buyers continue to have a number of doubts about Irelands creditworthiness:  doubts about the political capacity to produce the necessary primary budget surplus; doubts about whether sufficient nominal growth can be generated to stabilise the debt to GDP ratio even with an impressive turnaround in the primary balance; and doubts about how the direct cost of the banking bailout will impact the starting level of debt. 

There has been a lot of discussion of an additional source of doubt that is largely outside of our control: the rules of the new EU resolution regime that will be in place for government debt.   It is not immediately obvious why the arrangements that will be in place from 2013 should have such a bearing on the cost of borrowing today.   However, the new regime will affect the cost and ease of rolling over debts, and so forward-looking investors must look beyond the resolution arrangements that apply to bonds purchased now.    It seems likely that todays potential investors worry that it will be more difficult for countries such as Ireland to roll-over debts under the new rules. 

The proposed rules reflect a watering down of the tougher arrangements advocated by Germany.   Under the new proposals, a country has to be deemed to have an unsustainable debt to trigger collection action clauses to restructure existing debt as part of any bailout.   Even so, there is an expectation that it will be more costly to raise funds in the future.   

What are the implications for the policy effort to restore Irelands creditworthiness?   The nature of the new regime suggests that a country lacking in fiscal space could pay a large risk premium in the future.   This could explain why even the expectation of successfully stabilising the debt to GDP ratio at a high level still leaves a country vulnerable to perceived rollover risk.   Unfortunately, there is no easy solution, but it does suggest the importance of adopting a national fiscal regime aimed at ensuring fiscal space (e.g., putting in place such measures as an independent fiscal council and appropriate fiscal rules).  

I dont think the report on fiscal governance by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service and in particular Philip Lanes excellent background paper for the Committee received sufficient attention (the report and background paper are available here).   Moving to put the necessary institutions in place may not just be essential to improve fiscal policy in the future, but also an essential part of restoring creditworthiness today in a context where perceptions of future fiscal space are so critical.   

Cancun, climate, and weather

Fokke & Sukke are proud weathermen The outcome of the climate negotiations … can now be predicted months in advance.

The 16th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 6th Meeting of the Parties to its Kyoto Protocol has started today in Cancun. It will last for two weeks. Unlike last year’s conference/meeting in Copenhagen, expectations are low this time. Again, results will be minimal.

The economic crises, the results of the mid-term elections in the USA, climategate, and the deception of Copenhagen are often listed as reasons why Cancun is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough. I would add that the international climate negotiations repeat the same moves over and over again. If something did not work the last 10 times, why would you try it again? I’ve argued elsewhere that the international framework for climate policy is complete, and that we should now focus on reducing national emissions at minimum cost.

There is another similarity between Copenhagen and Cancun. It’s winter. There are slow oscillations in the climate. Experts reckon that cold winters may be with us for another decade or so. After that, trend and cycle will conspire to rapid warming.

Beware of journalists bearing history lessons

Today’s Irish Times contains this gem from Stephen Collins:

Another issue that did not get serious traction in the talks was the simplistic call to “burn the bondholders” for which German chancellor Angela Merkel has to take a lot of responsibility.

The European Central Bank was adamantly opposed to the notion as any such move would threaten the financial stability of Europe. It is ironic that the zealots of the US Tea Party movement and many of those on the left in Ireland share a common belief in “burning bondholders” and damn the consequences.

The lesson of the Great Depression of the 1930s was that taking that kind of approach leads to widespread bank failures and national economic collapse which, in turn, threatens the democratic foundations on which our society is built.

Give me a break.

The bank failures of the 1930s were due to bank runs caused by excessively conservative monetary policies, and in particular by the determination of elites to stick with the gold standard well past its sell-by date. Burning bondholders had nothing to do with it.

Insofar as the 1930s involved debt restructuring (in Latin America, for example), this was part of the solution, not part of the problem — cf. the work by Eichengreen and Portes.

The lesson of the 1930s is that slavish adherence to economic orthodoxy can lead to disaster, and that sometimes you need a radical break with past policy mistakes in order to turn around expectations and prepare the way for recovery. FDR’s abandoning the gold standard was one such radical break; there were other radical breaks with the past that were much less benign, and that were directly caused by previous hyper-orthodoxy.

Finally abandoning the socialization of private losses would not just have made the Irish state more solvent, but would have clearly signalled a new beginning in Irish political and economic life. As things stand, it is hard to disagree with Mohamed El-Erian that the present deal is not the game-changer that Ireland needs.

Forfas: Review of Labour Cost Competitiveness

This report is available here.


This report examines the scale of the competitiveness challenge facing Irish firms and considers the reasons and implications for the deterioration in Ireland’s cost base over recent years. It looks at recent labour market developments in terms of employment and earnings trends including setting earnings trends against the international context and wage movements in key competitor locations. The report also provides an overview of the key drivers of labour costs and the impact of a range of factors on Irish wage levels is assessed. Drawing all of this analysis together, the report identifies a set of actions designed to improve the efficiency of the labour market, facilitating employment creation and protecting real incomes.

Migration, the limits of internal devaluation, and the bailout

It is time to dust off old ways of thinking about the Irish economy that were useful in the past.

In the long run, migration sets a floor to Irish wages. It has been thus ever since the Famine of the 1840s, and I don’t believe that the Irish have become less mobile in the last 20 years. Now, a lot of Irish wages are still high by international standards, but eventually as ‘internal devaluation’ proceeds, and as peoples’ living standards are lowered as a result of tax hikes and cuts to public services, it seems inevitable that the ‘migration constraint’ will start to bind again.

Once this happens, then very roughly speaking the size of the Irish economy will be largely governed by relationships of the following sort:

w(1-t) + b + P = E

where w is the wage (which determines employment and output, for given levels of the capital stock and technology); t is the tax rate; b is the value to workers of the public services they receive; P is the premium we enjoy as a result of living in Ireland; and E is the living standard which we can enjoy overseas. If the left hand side of this equation falls too far below the right hand side, people will leave until equilibrium is re-established.

Once we hit this constraint, either because w falls, or t increases and b declines, adjustment in the economy will be more quantity-based and less price-based than it has been to date.

And it gets worse, since t and b depend inter alia on the levels of output and employment. There are fixed costs to running a state, and the debts we are now being saddled with are not population-dependent. You don’t have to be Paul Krugman to see the potential for some pretty nasty feedback loops here.

What can politicians do? The most obvious thing to do is to minimize the debt overhang facing this State, so that t is not higher, and b is not lower, than they otherwise would have to be. Less obviously, if politicians — not the existing ones, obviously, but an entirely new political class — can increase P, by providing people with a political project for national renewal that they can buy into, this might also help convince some people at the margin to stay at home. This is not just essential for our democracy, but for the economy as well.

Banking Crisis, Bondholders and the Single Currency Project

When a country finds itself overburdened with debt, the solution – if the debts are denominated in its own currency – is to inflate its way out of the problem. Debt is denominated in nominal terms so inflation reduces the real debt burden. Ireland cannot do this, but the ECB can. It would not do it for Ireland or Greece or Portugal alone but if Spain comes under attack, given its size relative to the European Financial Stability Facility, this option will be forced up the agenda.

What would inflating our way out of the debt entail? It can be seen as a type of orderly default. Assume for the sake of argument that the ECB is the owner of all Irish bank bonds; the Irish taxpayer currently owes these funds to the ECB. The ECB could accept a debt for equity swap, which would mean a substantial haircut, so that it – rather than the Irish taxpayer – now owns the banks. It recapitalises them by printing money and then sells them on. The downside is higher European inflation (it will have to take similar steps all across Europe because many banking debts are in fact to other banks, meaning that many will require recapitalisation) and a higher risk premium on all European debt. The risk premium could be moderated though by a pan-European regulatory system which would tackle one of the design flaws in the entire single-currency project.

The major design flaw was that there was no mechanism to tackle asymmetric (i.e. region-specific) shocks. The US has a huge federal budget which absorbs a major share of such shocks; e.g. if California goes into recession, it pays 25 cents less in federal taxes for each dollar its income drops, and it receives 10 cents more in federal funding. There is no such “fiscal federalism” in Europe (the nearest to it, the Structural Funds programmes, transfer about one cent for every dollar gap in income). Asymmetries prevail however, as is evident in that the business cycle in peripheral countries such as Ireland is out of sync with Germany and the core eurozone countries. This design flaw featured strongly in contributions made by Kevin O’Rourke, myself and others (all of us at the UCD School of Economics at the time) during the Irish national debate on whether to join the single currency. So Spain and Ireland got very much lower interest rates than were appropriate over their respective booms, which fuelled their property bubbles. The problem could have been reduced, though not eliminated, by tight pan-European regulation of the financial system.

These design flaws must be tackled in one way or another if the eurozone is not to stumble from crisis to crisis, though it is doubtful that there is the political will for substantial fiscal federalism. There is no painless way out of the current crisis, but inflating our way out of the debt and coming to grips with the design flaws look to me to be the least painful option.

I try to make these points in a politics programme recorded several days ago and due to be shown on RTE when the EU/IMF announcement is made. They’ll only use snippets so I’ve tried to join up the dots here.

Taking Stock

It is a day for taking stock after an extraordinary week.   On Wednesday, the Government unveiled its four-year plan for stabilising the debt ratio with about as much political acceptance as could be expected.   Yet by the end of the week the expected probability of default on sovereign debt implied by bond yields had increased, and that was despite the imminent announcement of the details of an international rescue package.    It was also a week in which those advocating sovereign default—on State guaranteed bank debt and State bonds—were advancing, while those arguing that creditworthiness could still be restored were in retreat.   I think it is worthwhile to reflect on the two broad views.  Continue reading “Taking Stock”

It was all the fault of foreigners

In the past week or so there have been plenty of attempts by the Dublin elite who have sleep-walked this country into catastrophe to blame others. For an example, see the quotations in this article. If Chancellor Merkel had kept her big mouth shut, the implication is, everything would have been alright.

This line of argument seems to imply that Ireland was simply facing a liquidity crisis — in which random events and loose lips can indeed sink ships of state. And, to be fair, there certainly was a liquidity crisis.

However, an awful lot of influential external observers believe that Ireland is also facing a solvency crisis, brought about by the suicidal bank guarantee of September 2008, and compounded by our lousy growth performance (10 successive quarters of falling real GNP, with more potentially to come). The Government could have chosen to listen to Morgan Kelly that evening, but it didn’t — after all, who would take such an irresponsible young person seriously! — and the rest is history. If it is a solvency crisis, then it was always going to come to this, as long as the Government tried to stand by that guarantee. Mrs Merkel may have been the trigger, but if she had stayed quiet there would, inevitably, have been some other trigger.

The really important point to make about what Mrs Merkel said is that she was right. There is indeed a limit to how much taxpayers are going to be willing to bail out bank creditors, and so there should be. If she, or the IMF, or any other external body, forces the sort of restructuring of bank debt that our own leaders have been so reluctant to contemplate, then ordinary Irish people will be very grateful to them. If the restructuring doesn’t happen this weekend or soon thereafter, then presumably it will be a major issue in the forthcoming general election campaign, and we will get an early test of whether Mrs Merkel’s political instincts are right.

Update: today’s FT editorial makes some very similar points.

2009 data on household living conditions published

The CSO has just released the 2009 results of its annual Survey of Income and Living Conditions. SILC is the official source of data on household and individual income and also provides a number of key national poverty indicators, such as the at risk of poverty rate, the consistent poverty rate and rates of enforced deprivation. The accompanying press release highlights a number of the key findings.

Continue reading “2009 data on household living conditions published”

The Four-Year National Recovery Plan

You can read my view on the Four Year Plan here.

My comment included two additional paragraphs which were cut, I suppose due to space constraints:

“The current economic and financial crisis has slowed down economic growth in the advanced economies which are Ireland’s main trading partners. Against this background, the assumption of a strong export-led growth might be too optimistic. In addition, improving price competitiveness and reducing the debt burden are two conflicting objectives.   

Operational measures are to be discussed at a later stage and there is little information about the measures to be taken beyond 2011. It is not clear when and how the plan will be reviewed, enforced, and monitored. There is no clear sequencing of the reforms to ensure that short term negative effects on demand are minimised.”

Rehn Spokesperson on Bank Senior Debt

On Morning Ireland a few hours ago, Amadeu Altfaj Tardio, Spokesman for the European Commissioner Olli Rehn, was asked by RTE’s Rachael English (about 5.08 minutes in) whether the EU would countenance senior bond holders sharing the burden as part of the Irish bailout.

Possibly Amadeu didn’t quite understand the question (though he was asked it twice in pretty clear terms.) Anyway, my understanding of his response was that he could countenance this type of burden sharing. He said the issue “was under discussion” though it seems as though he meant this in the sense of a general Euro-area policy in this area was being discussed, rather than that he knew that this issue was being discussed in the current Irish bailout negotiations.

Further clarifications on this issue should probably be sought.

The sputtering foreign engines of assumed Irish growth

The four-year plan assumes that Irish GDP will grow in real terms by around 2.75% per annum over the next four years. For good measure, it throws in a little bit of assumed inflation as well (0.75%, 1%, 1.25%, 1.5% — a suspiciously smooth progression, would you not say?).

In the context of the proposed austerity package, this seems wildly over-optimistic to me, and it would appear that several market analysts hold the same view. Here’s one quote from the foreign press, but you can easily find more of the same:

Analysts questioned whether the plan was credible. Stephen Lewis, chief economist at Monument Securities, said: “It doesn’t seem all that realistic to me. It seems they’re planning very stringent fiscal measures and yet they expect the economy to grow against that background. That seems highly unlikely.”

Needless to say, I would love to be proved wrong, and the third quarter GDP statistics will be revealing one way or the other.

Optimists point to the growth in Irish exports as the route to our recovery. Since we can’t devalue, we will be relying on foreign income growth more than on relative price shifts to achieve this happy outcome. So it seems worth pointing out that the Dutch CPB’s September data on world trade and industrial production were released yesterday. They confirm a trend which has been there since January: the momentum of the world recovery is steadily decreasing.

Four year plan: Energy and environment

Overall, the four year plan repeats many of the things that we have seen before. It is not a new strategy. It is more of the same. The broadening of the tax base and the pension reform are steps in the right direction. Strikingly, there is no culling of quangos and no privatization. There will be a poll tax rather than a property tax. R&D will be stimulated by abolishing the tax exemption for patent royalties.

On energy, there is little to say. Essentially, the intention is to continue to pump billions of euros into renewable energy with the intention to make energy more expensive.

The carbon tax will be doubled between now and 2014, but coal and peat are apparently still exempt, and the subsidies for insulation and renewable heating remain. Doing away with exemptions and subsidies would bring in roughly the same amount of money, and would remove distortions in the economy.

Water charging will be postponed to 2014. That probably means that DEHLG still plans for a 3-year, top-down programme to roll-out water meters, paid by the NPRF! A system with a flat-water-charge-unless-you-install-a-meter-yourself can be up and running in a year.

Tax reliefs will fall for pollution control on farms. REPS payments will fall too.

No specific announcements for waste or transport (but see Hugh Sheehy’s comment #8).

From the perspective of energy and the environment, this four-year plan is the tired repetition of moves.

EFSF Charging 7%?

During the discussion of the bailout on Prime Time tonight, the prospect was raised (and not denied by Minister Batt O’Keefe) of the EFSF charging 7% to Ireland for its loans.

It may be worth taking at look at the calculations that I did on this issue a few weeks ago. I worked out the formula for the interest rate at the time as

Effective Interest Rate = 1.2*(3-year swap rate + Margin + Annualised Cost of Once-Off Service Fee)

which worked out at the time as

Effective Interest Rate = 1.2*(1.57 + 3.0 + .167) = 1.2*4.737 = 5.68.

The three-year swap rate is now 1.9%, which would give

Effective Interest Rate = 1.2*(1.9 + 3.0 + .167) = 1.2*4.737 = 6.08.

The government’s most recent projections show the debt-GDP ratio peaking at 106%. This is prior to the admission that large amounts of additional money will be borrowed to recapitalise the banking sector. Piling on an interest rate of even 6.1% onto the likely debt levels would greatly reduce the prospect of Ireland avoiding sovereign default. An interest rate of 7% would be grossly unacceptable.

Put simply, if these reports are true, the government needs to refuse any deal based on such a high interest rate. Indeed, unless the government feel compelled to play their role in a morality play in which Ireland is used as cautionary tale, they should refuse any deal featuring a rate higher than the 5% rate that Greece obtained.

Update: As commenter Tull points out, while we’re drawing down the money over three years, the relevant maturity for the interest rate would be length of time before we have to pay it back.  Plug in seven years, for example, and we’d get

Effective Interest Rate = 1.2*(2.67 + 3.0 + .5/7) = 1.2*4.737 = 6.88.