Here’s a few thoughts on aspects of the pro-note deal concluded last week.
The GGB Interest Saving
One of Karl Whelan’s slides at the recent irisheconomy conference sported the title ‘Eurostat and Reality’. The ‘general government’ concept used by Eurostat and consequently employed in the EU Commission’s implementation of budget rules and bail-out programmes has other critics besides Karl. One critic is the IMF.
The Fund argues that, once central banks begin undertaking quasi-fiscal functions, they may as well be consolidated with the fisc. Australia and New Zealand consolidate their central banks into the fiscal accounts. More pertinently the IBRC was not part of general government and NAMA is not either. Since the fisc was and will be on the hazard for both, the same argument applies to them. The fact that these three institutions, the CBI, the IBRC and NAMA are not part of general government has muddied the waters regarding the budget impact of the pro-note deal as John McHale points out in his post.
The true cost of the pro-note was the interest paid at the ECB’s MRO, the main re-financing rate, currently 0.75%. This will continue to be the cost when the pro-note passes to the CBI and is replaced with long-dated floaters. Transfers of interest arising from the pro-note and its floating successor between Irish government entities wash out in terms of economic impact. But they do not wash out in terms of the measured GGB deficit as per Eurostat, since these entities are not consolidated into general government.
This is the reason why there is an interest saving to the GGB (in addition to the discontinuation of front-loaded capital payments, which had to be funded but are excluded from GGB spending). Funds were being transferred, at high interest, to the IBRC, an operating subsidy if you will which would revert fully to the DoF eventually as part of the residual net worth (positive or negative) of IBRC. The excess interest was treated by ESA-95 as current spending, even though it was really the Exchequer lending money outside the GGB club to an entity it owned, guaranteed and planned to liquidate six years from now. No such sums will now be paid to NAMA or to any other state entity outside the GGB club. Hey presto, an interest saving of €1 billion. The interest shown, although heading in the right direction, is still not ‘correct’, in the sense that it does not equal the figure that would be shown if the Exchequer’s offspring were all living at home. The figure still looks too high, but by less. The ‘correct’ figure will rise eventually for two reasons: the 0.75% will rise as the Eurozone economy improves, and the amounts borrowed at this favourable rate will decline as the floaters in the CB’s book are re-financed in the market.
There has been no creative accounting and the DoF have done everything by the book. ESA-95 is just not a very coherent book. For more on all of this in an Irish context, see
The NTMA has already issued to the Central Bank eight long-dated floaters.
The base rate is six-month Euribor, recently a little under 0.4%. The margins over Euribor average about 2.6% so the government has issued €25 billion in very long dated floaters with opening yields of around 3%. The margin is fixed to maturity.
The rate does not matter (neither Euribor nor the margin) until the Central Bank sells some of the bonds and coupons start to leak outside the (fully consolidated) Irish state system. The CBI has agreed a schedule of minimum sales of the floaters, starting at €0.5 billion by end-2014 with steadily rising amounts that will see the lot gone by 2032. This means that the availability of concessionary state finance at the MRO rate contracts from 2014, slowly at first but more rapidly as 2032 approaches. The state is exposed at a diminishing rate to the ECB’s MRO rate and to the margin and Euribor at an increasing rate as the Central Bank sells out. The MRO will doubtless be higher during the life of these bonds, as will Euribor. The margin could compress or blow out. The exposure to this margin would have arisen anyway, and sooner, without the deal, as the pro-notes would have been replaced with market funding sooner. The margins, which are fixed through the life of the notes, have had to be estimated, since long-dated floaters are relatively rare and Ireland has none in issue. The initial margins chosen do not matter – it is the margin when the bonds are sold on that determines the effective cost. Floaters normally trade close to par, but the margin over Euribor for Irish sovereign risk could prove volatile and these bonds, when they come to be dealt in the secondary market, could trade further from par (on either side) than highly-rated sovereign floaters. Over the long haul, floaters are closer to index-linked bonds, since Euribor should follow the inflation rate.
Options in Favour of the CBI
The Central Bank will have some interesting but, it would appear, not very valuable options. Where these are options against the issuer, they have of course no net value to the state. The CB has an apparent option to convert the floaters to fixed, but only with the agreement of the NTMA. This option expires as the bonds pass to market purchasers. Without this provision the NTMA could get stuck with a growing component of long-dated floaters in its debt portfolio, for which market appetite is unknown. The NTMA rather than the CBI will likely call the shots on the exercise of this option – it will really be an option in favour of the NTMA, against the CBI as holder, but not against the ultimate market purchasers.
The CB has the option to sell more than the minimum required, but the MRO would have to exceed Euribor plus about 2.6% for this to be attractive, and would have to look like staying that way. This is most unlikely so this option has negligible value.
An Option in Favour of the ECB?
The CB has agreed (at the behest of the ECB) to a schedule of minimum sales into the market which will see the Central Bank dispose entirely of these securities by 2032, vaporising €25 billion of blameless money along the way. This schedule lengthens the duration of access to funds at the MRO relative to the duration under the pro-notes and is the key benefit of the deal. Any acceleration of this schedule diminishes the value of the deal.
The ECB can seek accelerated sales of the CBI’s holdings of the bonds, curtailing access to low-cost funds. This is potentially a serious option against the state as issuer. Governor Honohan also stated on RTE on Sunday that the CBI had agreed to retire the floaters as quickly as possible. He said: ‘The CBI has undertaken to sell these bonds as soon as possible, subject to financial stability’. This leaves the terms on which the state retains access to low-cost finance unclear. What is ‘financial stability’? Who decides if financial stability prevails, the CBI or the ECB? Is there a written understanding on the criteria that will be used? If so, it would be nice to know what it says. If not, there is a risk of future conflicts here.