Archive for September, 2011

Overview on the Irish Crisis

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Friday, September 30th, 2011

This article for the World Financial Review provides a summary and update on the longer paper that I released earlier this year.

Three (and a bit) Years on from the Banking Guarantee

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Friday, September 30th, 2011

Today is the third birthday of Ireland’s blanket guarantee of 6 banks’ assets and liabilities, and 64 billion euros later, let’s take the opportunity to reflect on all that has gone on in Irish public and economic life, to assess how much real change there has been within the institutions that helped bring about the crisis, and perhaps to look a little towards the future. So fire away in the comments.

One small(ish) point though, from something I’m working on with my UL colleague Vincent O’Sullivan. It is true that the late Mr Lenihan did guarantee the banks three years ago. It is not true that that is when State support for these banks began, and we shouldn’t mix the two up. Banks like Anglo were in trouble before that, and to a significant extent. These are not (well not yet anyway) historical curiosa, because we still need to understand and deal with the issues our Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) raises.

To take Anglo, for example: The first mention of ELA which was the supported provided in March 2008 was in the interim accounts for 2009 of Anglo Irish Bank.  From note 20, page 46:

“These deposits include €13.5 billion (30 September 2008: €7.6 billion; 31 March 2008: €3.6 billion) borrowed under open market operations from central banks and €10.0 billion (30 September 2008: €0; 31 March 2008: €0) borrowed under a Master Loan Repurchase Agreement (‘MLRA’) with the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland. The interest rate on this facility is set by the Central Bank and advised at each rollover, and is currently linked to the European Central Bank marginal lending facility rate.”

In the 2009 annual report the amount lent by the CBI has increased to €11.5 billion. Collateral pledged has fallen to €12.49 billion, implying a much lower haircut of €990 million on €12,490 million, or 7.9%. See (d) on page 91 and Note 37 on page 104.

The 2010 interim report shows the collateral posted by Anglo Irish bank becomes mostly promissory notes issued to that bank by the Irish government and that the ‘MLRA’ agreement has, for the most part been superseded by a ‘special masterloan repurchase agreement (SMRA)’.

For more background information on what happened, Simon Carswell’s book Anglo Republic is excellent and highly recommended, though it doesn’t go into the ELA detail.

The importance of economic history

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Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Paul Krugman is upset about some pretty fanciful accounts of what supposedly happened during the Great Depression, and I don’t blame him. He also wonders whether economics is a progressive science (I am using the word ‘science’ in its German sense). Well, one of the things that philosophers of science have argued about in the past is whether, when you have a paradigm shift, you end up losing knowledge, and it’s pretty clear what has happened in this instance.

I recently came across this quotation from Mark Blaug’s 1980 book on the methodology of economics which seems worth quoting, given when it was written:

At this point, it is helpful to note what methodological individualism strictly interpreted…would imply for economics. In effect, it would rule out all macroeconomic propositions that cannot be reduced to microeconomic ones, and since few have yet been so reduced, this amounts to saying goodbye to almost the whole of received macroeconomics. There must be something wrong with a methodological principle that has such devastating implications.*

Now, as Krugman points out, this ain’t necessarily so. (See his point 5 in the last of the three links, and see this paper for an example of how you can have all the theoretical bells and whistles these days and still make a sensible argument.) But there is no doubt that a lot of people have been more than happy to say goodbye to the whole of received macroeconomics — for example, I have been reliably informed that a well-known department stopped teaching its undergraduates IS-LM just before the crisis hit in 2008. And the result is that you had people seriously peddling the line that austerity would be expansionary in the wake of the biggest downturn since the 1930s — and these claims were influential in Europe, it seems clear, in the fateful spring and summer of 2010.

One lesson is that it is one thing to play counter-intuitive intellectual parlour games in order to get tenure at a fancy university, but another thing entirely to say something about the real world. For that you need a little common sense.

Another lesson is that economists need at least some training in economic history. No-one with the slightest feeling for historical reality could believe that the Great Depression was due to supply side forces, for example. I observe that Krugman, along with such luminaries as Maurice Obstfeld and Ken Rogoff, did his graduate work in MIT, and I surmise (without having any inside knowledge on the matter) that all three were exposed to Charlie Kindleberger and Peter Temin. They are all distinguished theorists, but also have a historical sensitivity, and this makes them better economists — if your definition of a good economist includes the ability to say sensible things about our very messy real world.

One of the most important things that a bit of history gives you is a sense of the importance of context. A model will work very well in some technological or institutional contexts, but not in others. For example, the Reverend Malthus devised a model that did a pretty decent job of describing the world up to the point that he started writing, but which soon became essentially irrelevant in the century that followed, at least in the richer countries of the world. (He had an economist’s sense of timing.) Sometimes the world is well-described by Keynesian models, and sometimes it is not. And so on.

If the only thing that economic history did was protect us from one-size-fits-all merchants, it would still be worth the price of admission.

*I am looking at the 2nd edition, published in 1992, but I am betting that this sentence dates from the 1980 edition.

ECB and State-Owned Banks, Again

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Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

There are a lot of reasons why attention has turned to the idea of leveraging EFSF via one of a number of possible methods. If this can be done, it takes a big step towards solving both the solvency and liquidity issues plaguing Euro area sovereigns and banks – on the liquidity front, a €2 trillion or €3 trillion fund is big enough to buy up Spanish and Italian bonds for a number of years, while €440 billion is big enough to absorb a lot of the potential losses.

The financial press are abuzz with various mechanisms that could be used to leverage up the EFSF. However, I was surprised today to twice read that Gros and Meyer’s proposal to have EFSF (or some vehicle funded by EFSF) register as a credit institution and borrow from ECB is likely to be illegal.

The Wall Street Journal reports

Klaus Regling, chief executive of the European Financial Stability Facility, told a podium discussion that “there are serious concerns” that such a scheme wouldn’t be allowed under the EU Treaty, which forbids the ECB from financing governments directly.

And at the FT’s Money Supply blog, Ralph Atkins writes

But Jens Weidmann, Germany’s Bundesbank president and ECB governing council member, has already made clear his opposition. Giving the EFSF access to ECB funding, Mr Weidmann argues, would be “monetary financing” – central bank funding of governments – which is banned under European Union treaties …

More crucially, an ECB legal opinion issued in March made clear that the European Stability Mechanism – a permanent fund expected to replace the temporary EFSF from 2013 – would not be allowed access to its liquidity because of the ban on monetary financing. “The ECB recalls that the monetary financing prohibition…is one of the basic pillars of the legal architecture of economic and monetary union,” its lawyers wrote then. I am not a lawyer, but to me that would also rule out giving the EFSF access.

The ECB legal opinion states

Article 123 TFEU would not allow the ESM to become a counterparty of the Eurosystem under Article 18 of the Statute of the ESCB. On this latter element, the ECB recalls that the monetary financing prohibition in Article 123 TFEU is one of the basic pillars of the legal architecture of EMU

Of course, we in Ireland have been here before. Back in 2009, a number of very serious people assured us that nationalising any banks would be inadvisable because the ECB was prohibited under the monetary financing clause from lending to nationalised banks. (That Anglo were at the time borrowing in a big way from the ECB didn’t seem to get in the way of what seemed like a great argument).

As I pointed out back then on a few occasions (e.g. here and here) this wasn’t true because while Article 123 of the current consolidated Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states

1. Overdraft facilities or any other type of credit facility with the European Central Bank or with the central banks of the Member States (hereinafter referred to as ‘national central banks’) in favour of Union institutions, bodies, offices or agencies, central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of Member States shall be prohibited, as shall the purchase directly from them by the European Central Bank or national central banks of debt instruments.

This is immediately followed by

2. Paragraph 1 shall not apply to publicly owned credit institutions which, in the context of the supply of reserves by central banks, shall be given the same treatment by national central banks and the European Central Bank as private credit institutions.

So while the ECB may recall the monetary financing prohibition, you could argue that they don’t recall it very well.  One could quibble that EFSF is not currently not a “publicly owned credit institution” but it’s hardly high octane financial engineering to create a vehicle funded by EFSF that counts as such.

The impact of the PRTLI

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Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

The HEA has published its impact analysis of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (h/t Colm Harmon). It is good that government agencies are increasingly open to such evaluation.

From the executive summary, we learn that PRTLI centres and initiatives had a budget of 1.7 bln euro, with 1.2 bln from the Exchequer. 1,700 people were employed, at an exchequer cost of 700,000 euro per job. In 1998, 2,400 full-time academics were employed at the universities and ITs. In 2008, there were 6,200 FTEs.

The commercial impact (a mix of turnover, investment, and cost savings) was 750 million euro, with 1,300 jobs created (or 600,000 euro per job). For the next five years, a further impact of 1.1 bln euro is projected.

In the foreword, John Hennessy (the HEA chairperson) puts on a brave face and lists all the benefits that were not quantified.

Intrigued by the numbers (and their precision; above numbers are rounded) in the executive summary, I read on expecting to find tables and tables with detailed data that would tell me who publishes and who gets cited, which disciplines create economic value, and what universities are motors of development. Unfortunately, such data is not available. The data, by the way, were gathered by questionnaire — that is, companies were asked how many people they additionally employed because of the PRTLI.

Some evaluation is better than no evaluation, but I think that a 1.2 bln euro investment warrants more analysis than what is offered by the HEA.

Euro-nomics; European Safe Bonds (ESBies)

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Monday, September 26th, 2011

For the past six months, I have been working on the euro crisis with an international group of colleagues. We have now set up a website, where you can learn more about our project.

We have also released a proposal for the creation of European Safe Bonds (ESBies), which is available here.

We provide an overview of the proposal in this WSJ article.

I have also written a broader article for the Irish Times on the desirability of a unified banking system for the euro area.

Do college rankings matter for student choice?

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Monday, September 26th, 2011

A guest post by Kevin Denny

The recent publication of the QS world rankings generated a lot of interest as well as criticism from various people, including me. A common response to such criticisms is to say “Like it or not, they matter to people so we need to pay attention to them”.  But do they matter?

This paper looks at how the publication of US college rankings influences the demand for places but only when colleges are not listed alphabetically.

Salience in Quality Disclosure: Evidence from the U.S. News College Rankings

M. Luca & J. Smith

How do rankings affect demand? This paper investigates the impact of college rankings, and the visibility of those rankings, on students’ application decisions. Using natural experiments from U.S. News and World Report College Rankings, we present two main findings. First, we identify a causal impact of rankings on application decisions. When explicit rankings of colleges are published in U.S. News, a one-rank improvement leads to a 1-percentage-point increase in the number of applications to that college. Second, we show that the response to the information represented in rankings depends on the way in which that information is presented. Rankings have no effect on application decisions when colleges are listed alphabetically, even when readers are provided data on college quality and the methodology used to calculate rankings. This finding provides evidence that the salience of information is a central determinant of a firm’s demand function, even for purchases as large as college attendance.

[NOTE: The "rankings" tag leads to previous posts on this topic.]

UPDATE: Glenn Ellison has a cool paper that’s related:

Abstract:

A large literature following Hirsch (2005) has proposed citation-based indexes that could be used to rank academics. This paper examines how well several such indexes match labor market outcomes using data on the citation records of young tenured economists at 25 U.S. departments. Variants of Hirsch’s index that emphasize smaller numbers of highly-cited papers perform better than Hirsch’s original index and have substantial power to explain which economists are tenured at which departments. Adjustment factors for differences across fields and years of experience are presented.

Income Inequality and Poverty: Crisis Dynamics

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Monday, September 26th, 2011

Brian Nolan writes on the dynamics of income inequality and poverty during the crisis in this Irish Times article.

The Crisis Resolution Plan?

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Sunday, September 25th, 2011

This Sunday Telegraph article provides an outline of what might happen next.

Gavin Kostick: Tiny Plays for Ireland

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Sunday, September 25th, 2011

This guest post is by Gavin Kostick

When I started reading The Irish Economy it was partly because I had in mind to write a play about the night of the bank guarantee and particularly the inclusion of Anglo. I had a title: ‘The Best Bank in the World’, but not enough inside knowledge. I still think there’s a great play to come about that night.

As I went on though, I became more interested in the range of thoughts, insights and viewpoints and, indeed, characters, all jostling through the threads. The thought came to me that if the job for drama is to talk
about where we are now in Ireland – including how we got here and where we might be going – then perhaps instead of one big play, what was required was loads of tiny plays from loads of writers, which put
together might move, inform, challenge, provide space for debate – all the things the theatre is good at.

So Jim Culleton, Fishamble’s artistic director, and I developed things abit and went to the ‘Irish Times’ and I’m pleased to say, ‘Tiny Plays for Ireland’ was launched in the Saturday, 24th edition, and can be read here.

I won’t rehash too much what is in the article, but will emphasise thatwhat we’re looking for really is a variety of short works from writers who have something they feel passionate about saying and that they think
the public needs to hear.

As this blog is one of the starting points for the idea, it would be great to see you entering. Selected submissions will get printed in the ‘Irish Times’, a production in Project Arts Centre, March 2012, and
about as much money as PR Guy could blow in a mini-bar in one evening.

I was thinking about it, and we will accept pseudonymous entries, as long as you don’t mind your modest cheque being made out to: ‘Mr Grumpy of Grumpington Villas’.

I won’t comment on submitted entries, but if people would like tips or further info., I will answer as well as I can in comments.

You might also want to have a look at the Fishamble website


Krugman on internal devaluations

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Saturday, September 24th, 2011

To Paul Krugman’s recent posts on Ireland and the Baltics, I would add two points.

1. Ireland’s quarterly GDP data are notoriously volatile.

2. Ireland is a small, open economy, and it is by common consent a relatively flexible economy. It is also an economy in which labour is both inwardly and outwardly mobile. And yet unemployment here is now running at 14.5%. So do we really think that the Irish experience can be used to argue that the austerity/internal devaluation medicine is appropriate for countries like Greece or Italy?

CBA of the Home Energy Saving scheme

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Saturday, September 24th, 2011

The SEAI has released its cost-benefit analysis of the Home Energy Saving scheme, which concludes that for every euro invested, five euros were earned. More money to the SEAI so, and the economic crisis will soon be over.

Intriguingly, the results for the HES are in sharp contrast to the evaluation of the Warmer Homes Scheme — which found that the subsidies had no statistically significant impact on behaviour — and the evaluation of the Green Homes Scheme — which found net losses.

The evaluation of the HES leaves some things to be desired. For optical reasons, it may be better to commission an independent outsider to do the evaluation. Instead, SEAI staff evaluated an SEAI programme.

The cost is assumed to equal the sum of the public and private expenditure. The HES is a price subsidy. It increases the consumer surplus, by less than the total subsidy. The net cost is the difference. Private expenditure does not enter that calculation.

The study ignores changes in producer surplus. These are probably small, if we assume that investment is displaced.

Benefits are the energy savings and the avoided carbon dioxide, . The study assumes that only 18% of the investment in energy saving would have been made without the subsidy. This is in contrast to the Greener Homes evaluation, which finds that roughly half of the investment would have been made anyway, and the Warmer Homes evaluation, which finds that almost all of the investment would have been made without the subsidy.

Energy saved and CO2 avoided are discounted at 4%. If only that were the opportunity cost of public investment.

The study accounts for the VAT paid on energy. Surprisingly, the carbon tax is omitted from the analysis. The HES subsidy is double regulation: Carbon dioxide emissions are taxed, and emission reductions are subsidized. In other sectors of the economy, there is single regulation (carbon tax, or ETS permit price). The HES subsidy thus introduces a distortion in Ireland’s CO2 abatement policy: We abate too much in home energy use and too little elsewhere. This distortion is not quantified in the study.

In sum, this CBA of the HES does not tell us much that is useful. Its conclusions are not supported.

One can assess the HES based on first principles. It is a second-best intervention: Carbon dioxide emission are regulated already. It is an inefficient intervention: It is a fixed subsidy on investment, unrelated to the emissions avoided. It may well be that the HES addresses some imperfection in the market for home improvement (e.g., constrained access to borrowing) but, if so, it is a second-best intervention in that problem too.

If the SEAI had concluded that there was a benefit of 80 cents for every euro invested, I probably would have believed them.

Industrial Revolution Roundtable and Bob Allen keynote

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Friday, September 23rd, 2011

I did my bit for Irish service exports the other week, organising the 9th conference of the European Historical Economics Society in the fabulous Guinness Storehouse. There were a couple of plenary sessions, one of which was a roundtable on the causes of the Industrial Revolution, featuring Bob Allen, Nick Crafts, Deirdre McCloskey, and Joel Mokyr. There was also a keynote speech by Bob Allen on the causes of wealth and poverty. Karl Deeter very kindly came along and filmed the two events, and you can find the videos here and here. My sincere thanks to Karl.

Dan O’Brien on Burning Bondholders

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Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Dan argues the ECB case for not burning Anglo bondholders in today’s Irish Times. I’ll quote the main argument at length

Apart from Ireland, nobody else in the euro zone has sought to make seniors take their losses so there are no cases to which one can point as evidence. But an immediate neighbour’s experience has been watched very closely. Denmark last year introduced the toughest bank resolution laws in Europe. These laws, which govern the winding-down of bust banks, are more similar to those in the United States than those across the rest of Europe. In the US, senior bank bondholders have traditionally got their just desserts if the institutions they invest in fail.

When two Danish banks failed earlier this year, their seniors were burned. This raised funding costs for the entire Danish banking system.

From the euro zone perspective, the ECB is obliged to consider that if a default precedent were to be set in the senior bond market, then at the very least funding costs for all banks in the zone would rise. The savings for Ireland of a few billion euro would be offset many times over by the generalised increase in funding costs for the already-teetering euro zone banking system.

That there is good reason – in the collective European interest – not to burn seniors does not lessen the injustice of having Irish citizens pay for European bankers’ losses (although the hugely subsidised bailout loan is a partial de facto spreading of the burden).

The point that burning senior bondholders may raise the cost of funding for banks is a fair one. But the relatively lower cost of bank funding obtained from a policy of supporting all senior bondholders is hardly a free lunch. The additional risk that the market would perceive as being attached to bank bondholders would have been transferred away from sovereigns.

Now one could argue that some sovereigns in the Euro area are in a position to take on this kind of risk in order to protect their banking systems. But others clearly are not.

My position on this is that there is no need for the question of burning senior bondholders to be a simple black or white proposition. As I discussed in this paper, the EU could adopt a policy that sees senior bondholders only incur haircuts if equity and subordinated bonds have been wiped out, the bank has been nationalised, and the state has incurred costs of x% of GDP to bring the bank back to solvency.

What x is could be a matter for policy discussions, and could evolve over time. But a policy that set x=5% would mean that the EU is only ruling out bailouts that would place enormous burdens on the state. Indeed, given the state of Euro area public finances, there simply isn’t room for another round of expensive bank bailouts so an approach of this sort may help to reduce the perceived riskiness of much of Europe’s sovereign debt.

This policy could see the remaining Anglo senior bondholders receive severe haircuts without implying a contagion effect for other institutions apart from those the market suspect to be severely insolvent and to which states should probably be reluctant to offer blanket liability guarantees.

But, of course, such a policy would tradeoff state and private sector interests in a balanced way and, as I argue in this paper, M. Trichet’s approach to the question of debt defaults has consistently been characterised by dogma rather than balance.

Monetary Dialogue Briefing Papers: September 2011

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Friday, September 23rd, 2011

The latest collection of briefing papers for the European Parliament’s Monetary Dialogue with the ECB are available here (click on 4.10.2011). There are nine papers (including one by me) discussing Jean-Claude Trichet’s term as ECB President and the challenges facing his successor.

Latest CSO Data

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Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

The new national accounts release is here.

The BOP release is here.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

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Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Martin Wolf’s latest column is here.

IMF Fiscal Monitor and World Economic Outlook

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Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

The new Fiscal Monitor is here.

Chapters 1 and 2 of the WEO are here.

Explaining the European Debt Crisis with LEGO

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Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Via Felix Salmon, JP Morgan put out a note a while back explaining the European Debt Crisis with LEGO.

Key graphic (summary explanation here):

Doom!

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Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Paul Krugman points us to this interesting article in the New Republic.

Feasta Conference: National Strategies for Dealing with Ireland’s Debt Crisis

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Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Feasta (The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) are holding an interesting conference on Thursday and Friday of this week titled National Strategies for Dealing with Ireland’s Debt Crisis: Exploring the Options. The webpage for the conference is here and the conference programme is here.

TASC on Promissory Notes

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Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

TASC’s Progressive Economy blog has an interesting post by Tom McDonnell, Michael Burke and Michael Taft on restructuring promissory notes. I think it is important that there be more public discussion of this issue. With payments of €3.1 billion a year stretching into the middle of the next decade, these notes are going to impose a far greater burden on the Irish people than the remaining unsecured Anglo bonds which receive a lot more attention.

Dublin in the Cycle Top 10

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Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Good news is always welcome. Dublin is the 2nd most Intelligent Community. Who cares it’s Dublin, Ohio? There is a chuckle in the capital, an opportunity to bitch, and as not too many people know about the other Dublin, its reputation adds to ours.

Dublin (Ireland) is ranked 9th (out of 80) on the list of most Bicycle-Friendly Cities in the world. The Lord Mayor rightly called this astonishing. I agree. Any town (that I’ve visited) in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands is more friendly to cyclists, including Hamburg (ranked 13th).

The list was put together by Copenhagenize. They do not reveal their methods. Dublin got 12 bonus points for trying, without which it would not have been in the top 20. Dublin’s high ranking is explained by “a wildly successful bike share programme” (true), “visionary politicians” (since booted out of office) “who implemented bike lanes and 30 km/h zones” (although the 30 km/h zone is fiendishly hard to navigate by bike), and “a citizenry who have merely shrugged and gotten on with it” (although the few available statistics suggest that people cycle less and less).

Copenhagenize claims that “[t]he new cycle track along the [Grand] [C]anal is brilliant”. It sure looks shiny and new. It has a small ridge between the road and the cycle line, the sort that was abandoned elsewhere because if you’d hit it accidentally, you’d go head first into traffic. Right of way is confusing. I use one crossing of the new cycle lane on my way back from work. In the few months since it was opened, I’ve spend some 10 minutes there and witnessed four near misses as cars turn on bikes. Fortunately, Dublin bikes are equipped with above-average brakes.

Copenhagenize has used the old let’s-rank-something trick to generate publicity. Unfortunately, they did not add to our understanding of what makes a city friendly to cycling.

Selected Unemployment Rates

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Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Although there are some problems with the aggregate figures estimated by the CSO from the Quarterly National Household Survey, the percentages provided by the survey have continued validity.  In these cases we can expect that the ‘missing’ 97,000 people who were ‘found’ by the Census will affect both the numerator and denominator. 

Here are some unemployment rates from the first quarter of 2006 up to the second quarter of 2011.  The rates are provided by gender, age, region, education and nationality.  When making overall judgements the size and the labour force participation rate of each group should also be considered but those are not the focus here.

1. Overall unemployment rate

2. Unemployment rate by gender

3. Unemployment rate by age

4. Unemployment rate by education

5. Unemployment rate by region

6. Unemployment rate by nationality

Comptroller and Auditor General Report for 2010

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Monday, September 19th, 2011

The annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General contains lots of useful information. However, one criticism I would level at the report is its use of an accounting framework that differs from the General Government Budget that we report to Brussels.

The report states that “Overall State expenditure in 2010 was €53.8 billion, a reduction of 9.5% on the 2009 level” figures that are being widely reported in the news today. The report also lists “Total Receipts” at €35.6 billion up from €34.7 billion the year before.

However, if one looks at the more comprehensive accounts that we provide to Brussels—and which are used as the basis for reporting and compliance with our EU-IMF programme—one finds (page 49) that total expenditure by the Irish government last year was €103.2 billion while total revenues were €53.2 billion.

The €103.2 billion expenditure figure includes €30.8 billion for promissory notes, and one can understand that there are various possible accounting treatments for these notes. However, that still leaves non-promissory-note spending at €72.4 billion, almost twenty billion higher than reported by the C&AG. So despite the use of “overall” and “total”, it’s pretty clear that these are not overall totals at all.

Some of these differences are accounted for by the exclusion of capital spending and on the tax side there’s differing treatment of PRSI contributions. I could go on listing other differences but, frankly, who cares? The GGB figures provided to Brussels are the most comprehensive indicators of our fiscal position and they are being closely watched by the EU and IMF.

As I’ve written about before, these kinds of figures also mislead the public about key magnitudes, thus undermining public debate about fiscal options. For example, you will hear various expenditure items compared against a total tax revenue figure of €31.7 billion—those who’ve read the C&AG report will think total revenue was €35.6 billion. This usually ends up distorting the actual fraction of revenues devoted to these expenditures.

Eurozone Prospects

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Monday, September 19th, 2011

Many will have heard Alan Ahearne on Morning Ireland explain why we should try to work our way out of the crisis by ‘sticking to the plan’.  He clearly believes that the Eurozone will survive in its present form and that the costs of Ireland defaulting and/or unilaterally leaving the currency union would far outweigh the benefits.

In their recent ESRI publication, John FitzGerald  and Ide Kearney set out in some detail why they believe the Irish debt problem is manageable and why we should should stick to the plan.  This was already posted by Philip Lane and has been discussed here.

Nouriel Roubini, on the other hand, believes that ‘sticking to the plan’ has no chance of working in Greece, so it should organize an orderly default and re-introduce the drachma. Some of the arguments he makes are compelling and many of them apply with some force to Ireland, especially the difficulty of restoring competitiveness and growth through a deflationary internal devaluation.

We need to evaluate the prospects for the Eurozone and our place in it.

Burning Bondholders and taking one for the team

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Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Before he became über-famous for his history of finance, The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson made his name in academia writing ‘counterfactual histories‘. Counterfactual histories are essentially ‘what ifs’, changing the outcome of one or two pivotal events, and taking history for a ride to see where subsequent events take you. A great example is what would have happened if Arch Duke Ferdinand hadn’t taken a bullet to the neck in June 1914 from Gavrilo Princip. Would World War 2 have started? Another cool example is the effect on bridge engineering if ‘Galloping Gertie’ hadn’t collapsed in 1940. Counterfactuals are useful because they allow us to explore the ramifications of what might have happened in the light of what actually happened.

Every citizen in the State has probably sat down at some point asked themselves what might have happened if the late Brian Lenihan hadn’t handed out the blanket guarantee in September 2008 that put the taxpayer on the line for the banks’ many failures. Everyone wonders what would have happened if the Regulator had done his job properly during the years of the construction bubble. And everyone on this blog, I’m sure, has wondered what the outcome would have been if we had burned some of the senior bondholders in bust banks like Anglo long before now.

Official wisdom, as handed down from the ECB as recently as yesterday, holds that confidence in the banking system is more important than individual banks’ liabilities. So the taxpayer must be put on the hook for those liabilities in extremis. Serious people the length and breadth of the country queued up to endorse this policy. If you didn’t–especially if you were an economist–you were being irresponsible and extremist.

The official position has changed slightly. Now it’s just not worth it. We’d lose the ‘confidence’ of the markets for a mere 100 million euros if we burned the remained 3 billion of unguaranteed seniors. I’m not the only one perplexed at how this number is reached.

Today’s Sindo column by Colm McCarthy puts nails in the coffins of the serious people and their preferred policy. The counterfactual element comes through in this piece quite strongly. Colm argues, clearly and simply, that paying off bondholders of bad debt warehouses when the country is bust and within an EU/IMF loan facility is bonkers, and that there is a different way. Read the whole thing, but here’s a key part:

It is unprecedented for bondholders in defunct banks to be paid by a country already in an IMF programme and unable to re-finance its own sovereign debt in the market.

It is an extra irritation to have to endure lectures from EU and ECB officials about their generosity to Ireland, as if the lucky beneficiaries were the Irish public.

The Irish Times interviewed departing ECB executive council member Juergen Stark and reported on Monday last: “He is dismissive of a renewed Government push to avoid repaying about €3.8bn of the senior debt in Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society. The ECB remains opposed to such an initiative and Stark says Ireland is ‘not autonomous to take this decision’. The question is a ‘non-issue’ for the bank.”

The phrasing is interesting. Ireland is “. . . not autonomous to take this decision”. The government of an EU member state, accountable to its electorate, is not free, according to Stark, to decide whether or not creditors in utterly insolvent and defunct banks, no longer trading and in wind-down, should be paid by a Government which has not guaranteed these debts. The funds to pay these bondholders are being provided by the IMF and EU, since the country cannot borrow elsewhere. Each payment adds to a debt mountain already so large as to threaten the ability to service the State’s own sovereign debt.

This column would have been heresy, even one year ago. Now let’s hope it contributes to a change in official policy with respect to the bondholders in Anglo, and perhaps in other banks. Colm closes his piece well, it’s worth quoting:

It is bad enough to have to “take one for the team” without acknowledgement. It is much worse to see the team lose the game so ingloriously.

How Europe Sees Itself

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Friday, September 16th, 2011

An audit of Irish Debt

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Thursday, September 15th, 2011

My UL colleagues Sheila Killian, John Garvey, and Frances Shaw have produced a valuable report Auditing Irish debt. In particular, pages 13–19 will be of interest to the readers of this blog, as will tables 9 and 10, where the total debt guaranteed by the State is collated. Table 9, which I reproduce below, just looks at the covered institutions.

The latest unemployment and emigration data

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Thursday, September 15th, 2011

It would be wrong not to have a thread on the latest unemployment and emigration data.

Together with the recent data on our consumer price level, relative to the rest of the EU, they show (as if there were any doubt on the matter) that even in small, open, flexible Ireland, the current poster boy for the EU’s preferred austerity/internal devaluation strategy, wage and price flexibility — while impressive — isn’t what certain macro theories assume it to be.