Fiona Muldoon, Director of Credit Institutions and Insurance Supervision at the Irish Central Bank, gave a speech yesterday in Glenties at the MacGill summer school (h/t John Gallaher). The topic of the speech was “Restoring Confidence in the Irish Financial System.” Ms Muldoon gave a fairly upbeat assessment of progress. I am less sanguine. The problem is not lack of international confidence in Irish banks and businesses, but rather lack of international confidence in Irish financial regulation. It is still not clear if the Irish Central Bank has the backbone for the tough tasks it faces in the current environment.
It is important to remember that the weak regulatory stance of the Irish Central Bank during the credit bubble period was one of the chief causes of the Irish economic crisis. The Irish Central Bank’s soft and timid approach, and its willingness to be swayed by political and business interests, was a major cause of Ireland’s economic disaster (for evidence, see my paper with Brian O’Kelly). Has the Irish Central Bank sufficiently altered its approach?
The Irish Central Bank has reformed enough so that if the challenges of 2002-2008 ever reoccur, it will be ready for them. This new resolve to block credit bubbles is not likely to be tested for many decades. The Irish Central Bank needs to have the strength and fortitude to deal with the very different challenges of 2013.
The Irish Central Bank showed no leadership during the fiasco of the 2009 Land Reform Act/Dunne Judgement. The previous government (perhaps deliberately) slashed a gaping hole in Irish financial contract law when it passed the flawed 2009 Land Reform Act. The flaw was pointed out by Justice Dunne, and the judiciary reasonably expected that such an egregious flaw (called a “lacuna” in legal parlance) would be fixed by amending legislation. However the legal flaw was politically convenient since enforcing mortgage contracts would have been politically painful at the time. Ignoring the Dunne Judgement and leaving the flaw in place was very poor practice in terms of restoring international confidence in the Irish financial system, but it was politically convenient for a domestic audience. The government did nothing at all about this legal flaw, despite the obvious impact on Ireland’s international reputation.
It took outside interference by the Troika to get this legal flaw fixed. The Troika repeatedly noted the unacceptable situation in their quarterly reviews, and when government action was still not taken the Troika demanded that the Irish government act by an imposed deadline or face a cut-off in national debt funding. Throughout this long, confidence-draining saga, the Irish Central Bank stood meekly by and said nothing. A stronger-willed central bank (US, UK, Germany, others) would have been screaming from the rooftops about the need to fix such a gaping hole in the country’s financial contracting law. It is not to the credit of the Irish Central Bank that we needed Troika intervention to get this problem acknowledged and fixed.
The Central Bank’s response, or lack thereof, to the explosive growth in mortgage arrears is another case where its stance was timid. Even by late 2011 it was obvious to hard-headed observers that some substantial fraction of the mortgage arrears explosion could be traced to strategic behaviour by households. Mentioning strategic default is offensive to many people since it means acknowledging that some Irish people are acting dishonestly in their own self-interest against the interests of society. A few people were brave enough to mention the obvious (take a bow, Karl Deeter!) but none at the Irish Central Bank. Up until early 2013, the Irish Central Bank effectively had a ban on any mention of strategic default by any central bank spokesperson. This gave rise to some stilted presentations, where Central Bank senior spokespeople railed about the explosion in mortgage arrears without any mention of one of the key causal factors. This omerta was finally broken by Patrick Honohan in early 2013. That was too late in the process to be an international confidence-booster. A strong imperative by the Irish Central Bank not to cause anyone any offence is not a good foundation for building international confidence in Irish financial regulation.
On the positive side, the Irish Central Bank’s actions against Quinn Insurance were tough and bold. So the bottom line is that in terms of restoring confidence the Irish Central Bank has a mixed record over recent years.