Excess Bank Capital


After the planned new €24 billion equity capital injections are completed, the surviving domestic Irish banks will be highly capitalized, with equity-to-assets ratios[1] peaking at extremely high levels (above 20% except for BOI at 16%)  and then declining (after projected losses) to still high levels (baseline 10.5%). For details, see this Irish Central Bank report.  This puts Ireland in the vanguard of a new regulatory movement, across many countries, to impose substantially higher equity ratios on banks. There is strong and reasonably widespread support for this movement among academic economists and in financial regulatory bodies around the world. 

Is Ireland an appropriate test case for this new regime of much higher equity ratios? Higher equity ratios provide a safety buffer for bank depositors and bondholders, but they also provide a safety buffer for bank management. Troubled banks can fall into the “zombie bank” trap in which management squanders new funds endlessly, in order to preserve established banking relationships with failing clients and/or to hide their pre-existing losses. Around the world, state-owned corporations are legendary for their ability to waste shareholder (taxpayer) funds. Will the presence of unusually large equity buffers tempt the managers of state-owned Irish banks toward wasteful and/or politically expedient behaviour?

I have two main points to make in this blog entry:

1.      The enforced “over-capitalization” of Irish banks was the correct thing to do in the circumstances, but this new policy requires continuous monitoring.  There will be numerous pressures to waste the “excess” capital — these pressures need to be resisted.

2.     Ireland is now an important test case in the new international experiment with higher bank equity ratios.  No one can predict all the effects.


Continue reading “Excess Bank Capital”

Lending between National Central Banks

See the following contribution here from Hans-Werner Sinn.  It is certainly original but frankly alarmist.  It focuses on the fact that National Central Banks within the euro system are lending bilaterally to each other though without changing the monetary base as a whole.  Sinn jumps from there to draw apparently worrying conclusions:  that these are “forced capital exports”; that they are the counterparty to current account deficits and that “the PIGS would have had a hard time finding the money to pay for their net imports”.

There is not a scintilla of evidence that the private non-bank sector in the PIGS has lost access to normal European financial markets.  If the Bundesbank lends to the Central Bank of Ireland, it does not, in any sense, expand the availability of credit to the private non-bank sector in Ireland.  Similarly, German households and firms do not suffer a credit contraction.  This is, of course, because there is free movement of capital within the single currency area.

The second non-sequitur in Sinn’s article is the association of accumulated current account deficits in the PIGS with these bilateral loans.  Ireland has, of course, a current account surplus so the point is completely irrelevant to at least one of the PIGS.  Sinn notes that Italy has not availed of these inter NCB loans, despite its current account deficit, but mistakenly attributes this to virtuous policy on the part of the Italian authorities!  It is of course because Italy so far has not yet suffered from a banking or sovereign debt crisis.  And for no other reason.

My suspicion is that Target 2 credit is ultimately guaranteed by the ECB: that the Bundesbank loans to the Central Bank of Ireland should be considered as contingent items on the ECB balance sheet.  In short, that Target 2 credit is simply a mechanism for implementing ECB policy.  But I remain to be corrected on this.

Video from EUI Conference on Sovereign Default

As promised a few weeks ago, here is a link to the video of EUI’s workshop “Life in the Eurozone With or Without Sovereign Default?” held a few weeks ago. All of the presentations were interesting but I’d particularly recommend Martin Hellwig’s presentation in part 2 and sovereign debt lawyers Mitu Gulati and Lee Buchheit’s presentations in part 3. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be video of Charles Calomiris’s thought-provoking presentation but his slides (and the other presentations) can be found by clicking on the links here.

Constructing a National House Price Index for Ireland

Niall O’Hanlon (Central Statistics Office) will present a paper on this topic at the next SSISI meeting on Thursday, 19th May 2011, starting at 6:15 pm, in the Royal Irish Academy, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin 2. Non-members are welcome to attend and participate in the discussion. The discussants will be David Duffy of ESRI and Marian Finnegan of Sherry FitzGerald.

The Central Statistics Office will publish the first results of its national House Price Index on May 13th 2011.  This hedonic index is constructed using data on mortgage drawdowns by eight lending institutions under Section 13 of the Housing Act (2002).

This paper describes how the development of the index has been largely driven by an impending European legislative requirement to produce indices of the costs of Owner Occupied Housing in the context of the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices.  It discusses the limitations of data on Irish residential property transactions in the context of the national House Price Index and the proposed register of property transactions.  Practical considerations covering the treatment of data, the design of the hedonic functions, the rolling year regression model employed and the weighting of sub indices to form a composite national index are described.

The index results are examined in the context of some of the other measures of house prices in Ireland.  Finally, the paper explores some future challenges for further development of the measurement of residential property prices in Ireland.

Greece Not a Threat to Irish Banks

As stories about a Greek sovereign debt restructuring gather pace, expect to read lots more stories like this one in which some guy claims that a Greek restructuring would “severely damage the banking systems of Ireland and Portugal.”

Let’s be clear. It won’t. We’ve been here before with people quoting figures from the BIS on Irish exposure to Greek debt that stemmed from holdings of foreign-owned banks in the IFSC. However, even the BIS figures now show “Irish” bank exposure to Greek debt has collapsed to below $1 billion (you can find a time series in here if you look hard enough.)  God knows there’s enough to worry about in relation to the Irish economy and its banks, so let’s at least try to put this one to rest.

Public Policy and Behavioral Economics

For those interested in behavioural economics, and its relevance to public policy, the recently released book by Congdon, Kling and Mullainathan, published by the Brookings Institute press, is essential reading. Entitled “Policy and Choice: Public Finance through the lens of behavioral economics”, the full book is free to download as a pdf file from the website. This is the best summary of the application of behavioral economics to public policy questions that I have read. There are chapters on asymmetric information, externalities, poverty and taxation, as well as summary and overview chapters. Ireland is in the process of fairly dramatically redesigning our health and pension systems and the insights from this book are extremely important to consider in this process. The first three chapters, in particular, are concise and clear descriptions of the main directions in this literature.

The benefits of moderate inflation in a currency union: lessons from the gold standard

This post is well worth a read, if necessary using google translate. It essentially takes the well-known point that moderate inflation can be beneficial in that it helps downward real wage adjustment, in circumstances when this is necessary; and extends this to the context of real exchange rate adjustments in a diverse currency union. It also cites some supportive evidence from the history of the classical gold standard, courtesy of Flandreau, Le Chacheux and Zumer.

Promissory Notes: The Movie

The text below is a secret draft of the opening scene of an upcoming Hollywood movie. The movie opens at some date in the near future with a conversation between a finance minister, let’s call him Baldini, and a European bureaucrat of Scandanavian origin, let’s call him Wally. (Any resemblance between the characters below and real individuals is purely intentional.)

Wally: Greetings Mr. Minister.

Baldini: Ahh, tis yourself Wally.

Wally: Mr. Minister, I bring a proposal from your European partners.

Baldini: Pray tell, Waldo, what’s the deal?

Wally: Well, as you know, our Greek sovereign debt restructuring has gone fantastically. Combined with the sale of Macedonia to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, we’ve practically solved all our problems there. So we’re thinking it’s your turn. We’re proposing that you lengthen maturities on your debt and cut back on some of the principal to reduce your debt burden by over €30 billion. And, to be honest, you’re not getting another red cent from us unless you agree.

Baldini: Is that so? Well you know what Waldo, we’ve got a different plan, one that also reduces our debt by €30 billion but doesn’t involve defaulting on our sovereign bonds.

Wally: Really Minister, this isn’t a time for gallows humour.

Baldini: Indeed, there’s nothing funny about it. No, I’ve been talking with the brains trust here at the Ministry and they’ve explained to me that apparently we’re going to be writing a cheque every year for €3.1 billion until two twenty three and then a bit more after that. Now I’ve been trying to get my head around this business, but I’m just a simple fella, and I can’t figure out for the life of me what we’re getting in return for this money. So, I’ve decided to cancel it. I hear your Eurostat boffins have been counting all of these payments as part of our national debt, so we’ll give them a call in the morning to let them know they can forget about that.

Wally: Really Mr. Minister, this isn’t a time for jokes. I’m sure you’re well aware that the, ahem, promissory note payments are the main asset of a certain Anglo Irish Bank and, its terrible twin, the Bank of Fingers. And I’m sure you’re also aware our beloved ECB is owed a fortune by those two institutions. You can’t really expect to endanger the ECB in this fashion.

Baldini: Hold your horses Wally! Sure aren’t the ECB’s loans to these banks fully collateralised, over-collateralised in fact. Sure I’ve met those ECB eggheads many’s the time and there’s no flies on them lads. I’m sure that’s lovely collateral they have, so no need to worry.

Wally: But, Mr. Minister, don’t you know that the promissory notes have been used as collateral for the loans from the Irish Central Bank to Anglo and the Bank of Fingers?

Baldini: Is that so? Ah well, sure that’s Paddy Honohan’s problem.

Wally: Ah now Mr. Minister, come off it. You know well that without the promissory notes, these banks can’t pay back the emergency liquidity loans they got from the Irish Central Bank and your predecessor has guaranteed that state funds would be used to pay these loans back if necessary.

Baldini: Really? Ye think? I’ve wondered about that. Wouldn’t you imagine there was a major debate in the Dail about that guarantee? But you know what, I couldn’t find anything in the records. And we’ve had the lads here in Merrion Street scouring the place for that guarantee and still nothing’s come up. Sure ye can’t find anything anymore since we introduced that new PPARS2 IT system … No, I’m afraid me mind’s made up. No more promissory thingybobs anymore.

Wally: But this will mean that Anglo and INBS’s debts will have been monetised!

Baldini: I dunno Wally, you’re a quare fella. What’s monetised mean?

Wally: I’m going to have to talk to Mr. Drago about this. I suspect he won’t want to keep lending all that money to your other banks.

Baldini: Well sure we’ll see about that won’t we?

[Baldini raises one eyebrow at the camera. Fade to black].

The question is what happens next?

Suggestions for the casting of Baldini and Wally are welcome. Leonardo di Caprio has expressed an interest in playing the minor but crucial role of Lorenzo Beeni Silly.

Who Owns Senior Irish Bank Bonds?

I’d like to pass on a few comments on the question of who owns senior Irish bank bonds, an issue that has been discussed on a number of occasions by Seamus Coffey from UCC.

Here’s a nice chart from Seamus’s blog using data from Table 4.2 of the Central Bank’s Money and Banking statistics. The chart shows that when the September 2008 guarantee was put in place, only €23 billion of the €97 billion in outstanding bonds of the covered banks were classified by the Central Bank as being held by Irish residents while today that share is €50.7 billion out of €77.6 billion.

There are a number of reasons why one should be careful in interpreting these statistics.

First, as I understand it, the Central Bank don’t keep track of secondary market activity in these bonds and so don’t actually know who the current owners of these bonds are. The estimates are largely based on the first holder of the debt when it is issued.

Second, in some cases, the “holder” is a trustee that manages the debt issuance and the subsequent payment streams on behalf of the issuing bank. So, for example, if an Irish bank issues debt that is held by an Irish resident firm Custodian Plc who manage the payment streams, but the ultimate beneficial owner of the debt (who ultimately gets the coupon payments, etc.) is a German pension fund, then the Central Bank statistics will report the debt securities as being held by Irish residents.

Third, much of the €50.7 billion currently deemed to be held by Irish residents is stuff like “own-use” bonds guaranteed by the Irish government. If, however, one is debating the question of failing to pay out on unguaranteed bonds, then you are generally talking about bonds issued prior to September 2008 and these are largely classified in these statistics as “foreign resident” bonds.

Finally, this may be obvious but it’s perhaps worth pointing out that the fact that some of these bonds may be owned by Irish residents is hardly a sufficient justification for using taxpayer funds to redeem them, rather than letting the pension funds or private citizens lose money on a bad investment.

To be honest, the fate of senior Irish bank bonds is probably generating more heat at this point than it should. It seems to me that there is no chance of the government adopting a policy of failing to pay out on AIB or Bank of Ireland’s senior bonds, so what is genuinely at debate is the roughly €4 billion or so in senior bonds outstanding at Anglo and Irish Nationwide. For what it’s worth, I suspect that most of these bonds are currently owned by international hedge funds and distressed debt desks of investment banks. So far, their investment strategy has been working out really well.

In relation to the cost of the banking bailout, an issue that may loom larger in the future than senior bonds is the policy the Irish government should adopt in a potential sovereign default situation to future payments on the Anglo and INBS promissory notes, keeping in mind that their major creditor is a certain Frankfurt-based institution.

Is the grievance against the ECB overdone?

Colm McCarthy and Kevin O’Rourke rightly point today to the damage that a sense of grievance towards the ECB does to political support for necessary domestic adjustment efforts (see Kevin’s post below).   While few would disagree that the ECB has been remiss on the public relations front, I think the all-things-considered case against it has been overdone. 

Two main charges have dominated the recent discussion: that the ECB “bounced” Ireland unnecessarily into a bailout; and that it has unfairly insisted that Irish taxpayers bear the burden bank losses that are rightly the responsibility of senior bondholders. 

Continue reading “Is the grievance against the ECB overdone?”

Government Revenues and Spending

One of the problems that plaugues discussion of the Irish public finances is there is a fairly widespread confusion over how much the government takes in as revenues and how much it spends.

Many people know that the figure for “tax revenues” has been about €30 billion in recent years, via press coverage of the monthly exchequer returns. (See here for the 2010 end of year exchequer returns showing €31.7 billion in tax revenue.) Many people also know that we have run deficits of close to €20 billion in recent years.

Together, these two facts have lead to the wide repetition of statements along the lines of “we are taking in €30 billion and spending €50 billion.” Often, a particular item of government expenditure, such as public sector pay or social welfare is then compared to the revenue take of €30 billion to illustrate the huge fraction of government revenues that it takes up.

It turns out however that a more accurate description of the Irish public finances has been the government has been taking in about €50 billion and spending about €70 billion. This pattern is hard to assess from looking at the Exchequer statements because, for example, they do not count the €11.4 billion in “social contributions” such as PRSI as taxes. Indeed, the whole definition of tax revenues is a bit arbitrary. I believe the USC is being counted as tax revenues, while various levies that it replaces were not.

The most useful description of the state of the Irish public finances is the materials provided to the European Commission, for example in Friday’s Stability Programme Update. Go to the second last page and you’ll see a useful breakdown of exactly how the General Government Deficit of €49.9 billon was determined. Take away the promissory note worth €30.8 billion and this deficit would have been €19.1 billion, determined by spending of €72.4 billion and revenues of €53.3 billion. (The last page contains a description of the relationship between the Exchequer Balance and the General Government Balance.)

Unfortunately, this simple and clear presentation of the public finances is not emphasised in the materials regularly released by the Department of Finance. Perhaps one of the reforms that the two new minsters in charge of spending and taxation could agree to would be to release regular clear presentations of the tax and spending figures underlying the general government deficit.

AIB Subordinated Liabilities Order

One item that hasn’t been discussed on this blog in recent weeks is the Subordinated Liabilities Order issued by Minister Noonan in relation to AIB’s debt instruments. I guess everyone knew this was coming so the order in itself was no big deal. However, the order is now getting some attention (here and here) due to the fact that it appears to mess with existing capital hierarchies. In particular, it appears to have left the preference shares owned by the Irish government untouched while adjusting the terms of subordinated debt.

This seems to me like a bad idea. I’m all in favour of seeing subordinated bondholders in AIB get wiped out given the enormous extent of state support that has been required to keep the bank going. But if you are going to do this, then you should respect the hierarchy of claims that exists.

Many of us have questioned the wisdom of the protection of senior bondholders in Irish banks at the expense of a potential sovereign default. However, those who have argued in favour of protection of senior bondholders have generally made points about the need to maintain the reputation of the domestic banking sector in light of its huge ongoing funding gap. If this is our approach, then is it wise to get a reputation as a country which randomly up-ends existing claims hierarchies at the whim of a Minister?

The ECB is leading Europe to disaster

Colm McCarthy makes some important political points in today’s Sunday Independent. He points out, quite correctly, that the ECB’s policy of favouring an Irish sovereign default later over a private banking default now (and it is important to be clear that this is exactly their position, whether or not they publicly admit it) is going to make it very difficult, if not impossible, to get public buy-in for the further austerity measures coming down the line; and is also virtually certain to lead to increasing anti-EU sentiment here (and in the rest of the periphery as well).

But it’s worse than that. By confusing fiscal and banking crises in the public mind, the ECB is also fuelling anti-EU sentiment in the core, since core taxpayers understandably resent the notion that they should subsidize feckless peripheral taxpayers. By contrast, greater honesty about the fact that we have a Europe-wide banking crisis would make taxpayers everywhere realise that they have common interests, and a common enemy, namely an out-of-control financial sector. In such a scenario, ‘Europe’ might be seen by ordinary voters as having something positive to contribute, since cross-border banking requires cross-border regulation. Right now, however, ‘Europe’ is seen as a big part of the problem, in the case of the ECB correctly so.

Like Colm says, it really is a slow motion train wreck.