IMF Post-Program Monitoring Report on Ireland notes the unusual risk profile of the Irish banking sector

The IMF has released its latest post-program monitoring report for Ireland. What is notable in the report is how it highlights the still very-high-risk profile of the Irish banking sector, and the policy quandary regarding encouraging housing construction without endangering another Irish banking sector crash over the medium term. Despite a strong, three-year-long domestic economic expansion, Irish mortgage loans remain an unusually risky asset class.

Continue reading “IMF Post-Program Monitoring Report on Ireland notes the unusual risk profile of the Irish banking sector”

Conference on macroprudential regulation

A conference with the theme Macroprudential regulation: policy dynamics and limitations will be held on Friday January 29th, 2016, at the Institute of Banking, North Wall Quay, Dublin, organized by the Financial Mathematics and Computation Cluster, the Department of Economics, Finance & Accounting at Maynooth University and the UCD School of Business at University College Dublin. The conference schedule appears below.

There are no attendance fees for the conference, but attendees need to register. We are grateful to the Science Foundation of Ireland and the Irish Institute of Banking for their generous support of this conference. The Financial Mathematics Computation Cluster is a collaboration between University College Dublin, Maynooth University, Dublin City University and industry partners, with support from the Science Foundation of Ireland.

10:00 – 10:30  Registration and poster session

10:30 – 10:35  Welcome and introduction

Theme 1: Measuring Macroprudential Policy Needs and Policy Effectiveness

10:35 – 10:55  Marcelo Fernandes (Queen Mary University), “Response to supervisory stress tests”

10:55 – 11:15  John Fell (European Central Bank), “Credit flow restrictions: Implementation and coordination issues”

11:15 – 11:25  Coffee break

11:25– 11:45  Scott Frame (US Federal Reserve), “The failure of supervisory stress testing: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and OFHEO”

11:45 – 12:05  Eugenio Cerruti (International Monetary Fund), “The Use and effectiveness of macroprudential policies: New evidence”

12:05 – 12:25  Panel discussion

12:25 – 13:25  Buffet lunch and poster session

Theme 2: Housing Markets and Macroprudential Policy

13:25 – 13:45  Gabriel Brunneau (Bank of Canada), “Housing market dynamics and macroprudential policy”

13:45 – 14:05  Kieran McQuinn (Economic and Social Research Institute), “Macroprudential policy in a recovering market: Too much too soon”

14:05 – 14:15  Coffee break

14:15 – 14:35  Christoph Basten (Swiss Financial Supervisory Authority), “Countercyclical capital buffers in Switzerland”

14:35 – 14:55  Angus Foulis (Bank of England), “The role of credit in the US housing boom: Insights from tiered housing data”

14:55 – 15:15  Panel discussion

15:15 – 15:20  Closing remarks

New York Times: A Migration Juggernaut is Headed for Europe

Eduardo Porter, one of the most highly respected economic analysts in the US media, has an interesting, thoughtful new article on European immigration pressures. He argues that European economies and societies need to prepare for large-scale immigration from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. These regions are close to Europe, are notably poor by world standards, and have a forecast population increase of three billion in coming decades, on top of the large increases which have already occurred in the recent past. Porter argues that attempts to stop completely this migration pressure will not succeed, and instead Europe should try to adjust to an inevitable large inflow.

Insider or Outsider? Bloomberg article on Honohan succession

There is a brief article in Bloomberg Business today about the search for a new Irish Central Bank governor.

“Ireland is about to deliver evidence on whether, nearly two years after regaining its economic sovereignty, much has really changed. ……   Noonan’s dilemma now is whether to move back to the pre-crisis mode of finding a governor from inside the civil service, or repeat the Honohan recipe and appoint another outsider.”

The Paddy Power betting odds are discussed. As a financial economist, I am forbidden by the Efficient Market Theory from making gambling bets, but perhaps some of the labour/macro economists might want to take a punt.

I had an earlier post on the strategic issues around this appointment. The recent China-related volatility in financial markets is the latest difficult policy problem confronting monetary authorities in Europe and globally. Ireland should appoint someone as governor who can serve both domestically and also contribute to ECB council deliberations.

Since some readers will know some of the people mentioned personally, I blocked the comments feature.


Thoughts on the Design of Grexit

Paul Krugman has a thoughtful op-ed piece in today’s New York Times in which he reluctantly calls for Greek exit from the euro. I share his view on the desirability of Grexit at this juncture, but not his reluctance in expressing that opinion. How could Grexit best be designed, for Greece, for Europe, and for international interests? Below are a few modest thoughts on this. Continue reading “Thoughts on the Design of Grexit”

African Demographic Trends and European Policy Responses

The Demographic Transition, which started in Europe in the late 18th century, had a huge positive impact on average human welfare. Population levels and growth rates became dependent upon societal preferences rather than upon famine and disease. The demographic transition has now spread around the world to all continents, except Africa. Surprisingly, Africa has not made the switch. Rather than seeing population growth easing and then stopping, in a typical post-demographic transition pattern, African population growth rates have stayed at a very high rate for many decades. Even in recent years, while many demographers expected a slowdown finally to take hold, African population levels have rocketed up. So for example, from the National Geographic: Continue reading “African Demographic Trends and European Policy Responses”

Hidden Message from the Banking Inquiry: A First-Rate Economist Should Head the Central Bank

Some commentators wrongly claim there is little value in the long and (moderately) expensive banking inquiry. There is much to learn from the inquiry. One important message can be gleaned from the testimony of Central Bank and Financial Regulator executives this past two weeks: the coalition needs to appoint a first-rate economist (like Honohan) as his successor as central bank governor. The coalition should scour the globe and not compromise on analytical firepower.

Brian Lenihan pushed through the appointment of Honohan against the tradition of promoting someone from the senior ranks of the civil service. If the tradition had been followed, the Irish economy might still be wallowing in financial instability. A central bank governor without first-rate economic expertise could have made a total hash of the financial restructuring and recovery programme of the last five years. For example, a former senior civil servant would not have made the phone call to RTE Morning Ireland in November, 2010, getting the Troika programme quickly started. Other painful actions taken in recent years, such as the PCAR and PLAR exercises, and the time-consuming and expensive improvements to the financial sector database, might have never started or been botched. The job requires a highly-competent, well-trained and experienced economist. Continue reading “Hidden Message from the Banking Inquiry: A First-Rate Economist Should Head the Central Bank”

Irish Financial Regulation: Guidelines Rather Than Rules

In his testimony this morning, Patrick Neary explained that the mandated bank lending sectoral concentration limits, which were seriously breached by the Irish banks during the credit bubble, could not actually be enforced since they were guidelines rather than rules. This distinction between guidelines and rules has eerie similarities to a classic scene in The Pirates of the Caribbean, where pirate captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) explains to Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) the flexibility of The Pirates Code.

Upcoming Conference on Macroprudential Regulation

Call for Papers: Macroprudential regulation: policy dynamics and limitations

A joint academic-practitioner conference with the theme Macroprudential regulation: policy dynamics and limitations will be held in Dublin, Ireland on Friday September 4th, 2015, organized by the Financial Mathematics and Computation Cluster (FMC2), the Department of Economics, Finance & Accounting at Maynooth University and the UCD School of Business at University College Dublin.

Macroprudential regulation is fairly new, and there are many unanswered questions. Can macroprudential constraints on credit be reliably attuned with the business cycle and/or credit cycle? Are fixed constraints on credit safer and more reliable than attempts at dynamic anti-cyclical ones? Should regulators take account of market or regulatory imperfections, such as in the construction sector, in setting constraints on credit growth? Is macroprudential control by an independent central bank consistent with the democratic accountability of government economic and social policies? Potential topics include:
* Business cycles, financial cycles, and the feasibility of dynamic macroprudential control
* The desirability and effectiveness of LTI and LTV limits on mortgage lending
* Democratic accountability and central bank independence
* Modelling house price movements and household debt and their interactions
* Controlling credit growth and credit flows in the Eurozone
* International case studies of macroprudential regulation.
* Assessment of macroprudential credit-restricting policies

Please send papers or detailed proposals by June 15th, 2015 at the latest to; all papers must be submitted electronically in adobe pdf format. There will be both main conference sessions and poster sessions. We will consider proposed contributions to the poster session until 31st July. The academic coordinators for the conference are Gregory Connor and John Cotter, who can be contacted at or

There are no submission fees or attendance fees for the conference. We are grateful to the Science Foundation of Ireland and the Irish Institute of Bankers for their generous support of this conference. The Financial Mathematics Computation Cluster (FMC2) is a collaboration between University College Dublin, Maynooth University, Dublin City University and industry partners, with support from the Science Foundation of Ireland.

For Risk Measurement Nerds Only: The Swiss Franc Shock was a 200-sigma event

On January 15th, the one-day return to holding Swiss Francs from a Euro perspective was 16.9%. This is a high one-day return for any currency pair, but appears cataclysmic given the extremely low return volatility of the Swiss Franc from a Euro perspective in recent months. This one-day jump was a “239-sigma event” meaning that the magnitude of this return was 239 times the recent return volatility (using a 90-day historical estimate of volatility). In fact, in the period just before the sudden jump, the sample volatility of this exchange rate was even lower. Using a shorter 20-day volatility estimate, the sudden jump was a 400-sigma event.

It is interesting how closely the time-series behaviour of this exchange rate matches the predictions of Krugman’s 1991 model of a government-implemented exchange rate limit, in which traders credibly believe that the authorities will prevent the exchange rate from piercing the exchange rate limit. As the fundamentals for the exchange rate made the Swiss Franc greatly undervalued, the traded exchange rate settled down just near the government-imposed limit, with very low volatility. And then suddenly the credible promise became a non-promise.

Chalk one up for Krugman, in terms of the elegant fit between his theoretical model and this recent market experience. Several forex trading firms went bust, but they should have had better risk management systems.

Macroprudential regulation: policy dynamics and constraints

The Irish Central Bank is planning to impose macroprudential risk regulation on the domestic banking sector (see here). The general approach of the Irish Central Bank has been widely welcomed by economists, although the specifics of the proposals are controversial.

John Cotter (UCD) and I are planning a conference in September 2015 on macroprudential regulation, the fifth in our series of FMCC conferences on financial risk and regulation. Macroprudential regulation is fairly new, and there are many unanswered questions. Can macroprudential constraints on credit be reliably attuned with the business cycle and/or credit cycle? Are a-cyclical constraints on credit safer and more reliable than attempts at anti-cyclical ones? Should regulators take account of market imperfections, such as the poor performance of the Irish property development industry and the high costs of new housing construction in Ireland, in setting constraints on credit growth?

Macroprudential regulation has particular importance in Ireland, a small open economy buffeted by credit flows from bigger neighbours. The failure to impose macroprudential regulatory control on the Irish banking sector was a central cause of the Irish financial crisis of 2008-2011. During 2000-2007, within a flawed eurozone currency system, a politically-neutered Irish Central Bank ignored a runaway inflow of foreign credit into the Irish banking system. This massive credit inflow undermined the stability of the Irish financial system and led to the disastrous failure of the Irish domestic banking sector.

There is a varied range of views among economists on macroprudential regulation. This is clear in the responses to the Irish Central Bank’s policy discussion document. Three thoughtful responses come from David Duffy and Kieran McQuinn (both at ESRI) here, Ronan Lyons (TCD) here, and Karl Whelan (UCD) here. (For full disclosure, my own response to the Irish Central Bank discussion document is here.) Lyons recommends fixed, a-cyclical credit controls whereas Duffy and McQuinn argue for dynamic, anti-cyclical controls. Duffy and McQuinn stress the need for more new housing in light of fast Irish demographic growth, and the positive role of high housing prices (aided by bank credit growth) in eliciting an adequate supply response. Lyons argues that excessive bank credit growth should not be used as a hidden subsidy for a cost-inefficient building industry.

Lyons makes a case for no loan-to-income (LTI) constraint, instead relying only upon a loan-to-value (LTV) constraint for macroprudential credit control. This contrasts sharply with the view of Karl Whelan who argues for LTI-only macroprudential controls in the current Irish case. Duffy and McQuinn advocate for both controls. I share the view of Duffy and McQuinn. Lyons does not consider the importance of dual-trigger mortgage default in Ireland (that is, mortgage default which is triggered jointly by income stress and negative equity). The amount of Irish mortgage arrears is likely to remain large and volatile, and this is a key potential source of market instability. Both initial LTI and initial LTV ratios are linked to subsequent mortgage default probabilities, so both should be controlled.

There are certainly many points for discussion, which should make for an interesting conference! A formal Call for Papers will follow shortly – if there are particular themes or panels that we should include, feel free to mention them in the comments thread below.

Composition Effects and Loan-to-Value Limits

The Irish Central Bank is scheduled to introduce new macro-prudential risk controls on Irish mortgage lending, with the new regulations taking effect on January 1st or soon thereafter. One of the regulations will limit most new mortgages to an initial loan-to-value ratio of 80% or less. There has been considerable discussion of the effect of loan-to-value limits on potential property purchasers, but the analysis has been very poorly framed.

The budgeting scenario has been described as follows:

“Consider a couple who wish to purchase a €300,000 property. With a LTV limit of 80% this will require that they save €60,000 for the down payment whereas if they were allowed to borrow 85% they would only need savings of €45,000.”

This oft-repeated budgeting scenario misrepresents the nature of market-wide LTV limits imposed by the Central Bank. This budgeting scenario gives the impression that the policy decision is about imposing/not imposing the LTV constraint on only one particular buyer rather than market-wide. It misses the large compositional effects since leveraged property buyers compete with one another for properties. The degree of leverage allowed in the banking system feeds into property prices, and this affects the opportunity set of purchasers. Continue reading “Composition Effects and Loan-to-Value Limits”

NYTimes Op-Ed on Mortgage Limits in the USA

There is an interesting New York Times Op-Ed article relevant to the proposed Irish Central Bank LTV and LTI caps on residential mortgages. US financial regulators attempted to impose very similar caps, but the caps have now been diluted/dropped in response to political pressure.

The article is behind the NYTimes paywall, but a number of articles can be read per month without paying a subscription. A key quote:

“low underwriting standards — especially low down payments — drive housing prices up, making them less affordable for low- and moderate-income buyers, while also inducing would-be homeowners to take more risk.”

Question on measuring foreign risk capital inflows during the Irish financial sector recovery

One of the key drivers behind the better-than-expected recovery of the Irish financial sector has been the strong inflow of foreign risk capital, particularly from U.S. “vulture funds” as they are inaptly named. This healthy demand for Irish banking assets has allowed the PCAR and PLAR plans for the domestic banks, and the unwinding of NAMA, to progress successfully. Similarly healthy demand for the Irish assets of foreign banks, such as Irish loan portfolios sold by Ulster Bank, has also contributed indirectly to the Irish financial sector’s partial recovery.
There is a risk capital inflow when a foreign institution buys a troubled loan portfolio or property portfolio from an Irish bank, or from an Irish subsidiary of a foreign bank, or from Nama. These risk capital inflows are not intermediated through the Irish banks and do not appear on their balance sheets. Prof. Brian O’Kelly (DCU) and I were able to trace the 2000-2009 destabilizing inflow and sudden outflow of foreign credit into the Irish banking sector using the aggregate Irish banking sector balance sheet Table A4.1 published by the Irish Central Bank. Question: how can one measure this new source of risk capital inflows? It seems healthy and stabilizing rather than (like in 2000-2009) unhealthy and destabilizing, but it still deserves to be measured accurately. Is it necessary to list all the individual deals and add them up? Has some hardworking analyst done that already? Is it possible to create a quarterly or annual time series? Answers on a postcard (or better on a spreadsheet) are welcome!

The Irish Case for LTV and LTI Caps on New Mortgage Lending

The Irish Central Bank discussion paper on macro-prudential policy tools published yesterday seems to be a trial balloon for possible caps on Loan-to-Income (LTI) and Loan-to-Value (LTV) ratios for new residential property mortgages in Ireland. The general theory behind imposing these limits is laid out clearly in that document; there is no reason to repeat it here. I want to discuss some notable features of the Irish environment which strengthen the case for these caps (but do not make the decision easy).

Continue reading “The Irish Case for LTV and LTI Caps on New Mortgage Lending”

Conference on Financial Crises: Transmission and Consequences

Maynooth University Department of Economics, Finance and Accounting in association with FMC2 (Financial Mathematics and Computation Research Cluster) are hosting a one-day conference on Financial Crises: Transmission and Consequences on Wednesday, September 24 in Renehan Hall, Maynooth University, Maynooth, Co.Kildare.

The event brings together leading international and domestic experts on financial crises, contagion and banking. The full programme of speakers and presentations is shown below. We invite you to join us in Maynooth. Registration is free, but please confirm your attendance by emailing: The conference programme is shown below the fold. Continue reading “Conference on Financial Crises: Transmission and Consequences”

The Economic Rationale for the Insolvency Service of Ireland

The economic rationale for the new Insolvency Service of Ireland is well-founded in economic theory. It hinges on the concept of Pareto improving bargains. The idea is that a debtor, with the guidance of a personal insolvency practitioner, can construct a Pareto improving bargain to everyone’s benefit: the debtor, the lender, and society as a whole.

Consider a debtor with unsustainable debt who, to avoid the personal and social costs of bankruptcy, goes to a personal insolvency practitioner (PIP). The PIP objectively examines the debtor’s situation and suggests a payment scheme which offers only part-repayment of loan value. Let the offered proportion of loan value be denoted by OFFER where OFFER < 1.  If OFFER = 1 then the debtor is not insolvent since he/she can afford full-value payment and the PIP has no role.  The PIP describes the offered repayment plan to the lender (or lenders).

The lender knows that the alternative to a personal insolvency plan is bankruptcy for the borrower, and that bankruptcy entails large financial costs, most of which will be borne by the lender. The uncertain proportion of loan value received by the lender after accounting for bankruptcy costs will be denoted by RECOVER.  The debtor will accept the PIP offer if it provides higher expected value of total payments:

OFFER > E[RECOVER],          (A)

where E[ ] denotes the expected value.

The economic rationale for this process is that it can make all three interested parties (debtor, lender, and society) better off. The debtor avoids the personal/social costs of bankruptcy; the lender gets a loan recovery amount which is higher than the expected bankruptcy-cost-adjusted amount received otherwise.  Society avoids administrative bankruptcy costs and gets the benefits of a debtor freed more quickly from debt distress. Of course the PIP has lots of other duties (counselling the debtor, dealing with multiple lenders, administrative duties) but dealing with equation (A) is very fundamental.

The banks understand equation (A); the politicians understood equation (A) when they set up the enabling legislation. Does anyone in the Insolvency Service of Ireland understand equation (A)?  It is fundamental to the Service performing its important task competently.

The Primetime news show recently highlighted a young couple whose PIP offer was rejected.  I do not want to focus particularly on the individual case, keeping in mind the adage “hard cases make bad law.” According to the discussion in the show, the couple owed a mortgage-related debt of €276,000 and their PIP constructed an alternative loan repayment of €2,000. That is, relying on the numbers as discussed in the show, they made an offer of:

OFFER = 2,000/276,000 = 0.0072.

It is important for clarity to note that this does not denote a concessionary interest rate of 72 basis points; rather, 72 basis points is the total proportion of repayment including all principal repayment. Unsurprisingly, the PIP offer was rejected by the lender.

One could argue that the bank could just forgive the couple the loan debt as a gift (skip the 0.0072 partial payment which is too miniscule to consitute a meaningful debt settlement arrangement).  That is, the insolvency system can be brought in as a useful component of parish pump politics, in the good sense, of parish pump politics as using the political system to create unfunded sources of benefits for local causes.  There is certainly a case for doing this, but it was not actually the intention of the legislation. Doing so would greatly increase the effective political power of the ISI as controller of this new source of unfunded social benefits.

A technical feature of equation (A) is a convexifying effect for OFFER proportions close to zero. OFFER is known with certainty whereas RECOVER is a random proportion. Since RECOVER has a lower bound at zero, Jensen’s inequality means that the expected value of RECOVER is much higher than its maximum likelihood value in the region near zero. Is seems extremely difficult to create a scenario where E[RECOVER] could fall as close to zero as 0.0072.

The head of the Insolvency Service of Ireland was on the Primetime show, but he did not seem to be familiar with equation (A), or did not consider it relevant. He did seem to understand that if the ISI had the power to force deals without worrying about (A), then parish pump political considerations would give the agency much greater power. Yet equation (A) was extremely relevant and the absence of any appropriate analysis associated with it detracted considerably from the clarity of the discussion. The staff at the Irish Insolvency Service could benefit from the 30-minute lesson in the economic rationale for their agency’s existence.

[I added a few edits to correct typos, respond to comments (thanks to Sarah Carey and to other commenters who induced me to think more carefully). There may be some time-inconsistencies between the earlier comments below and the later edits.]

Problematic Calibration of the EU Banking Sector Stress Test for Ireland

The details for the calibration of the EU-wide bank stress test are now available. Looking only at Ireland, and only at one of the key variables in the stress test, the calibration looks problematic. It may be coincidental that the Irish adverse scenario has been badly chosen; it might be that all the other member countries have reasonable calibrations.  If the others are as problematic as in the Irish case, this is not a reliable EU banking sector stress test.

Under the adverse scenario, Irish property prices are assumed to suffer a cumulative three-year drop of 3.03%; equivalent to a decline of 1.02% each year for three years in a row. Over the period covered by CSO data, 2005-2013, Irish residential property prices had an annual sample volatility of 11.7%. This in turn implies (under reasonable assumptions) a three-year volatility of 20.27%. In risk analysis it is conventional analytical shorthand to measure adverse outcomes in “x-sigma” units defined as the outcome as a multiple of the standard deviation. For an adverse scenario calibration, the assumed outcome is usually roughly a two-sigma or three-sigma event. Using a four-sigma shock would not be unusual (due to fat tails in some probability distributions). The EBA has calibrated the adverse price shock as a 0.1492-sigma event. That is not credible as an adverse scenario in a stress test.

Keep in mind that the stress test is meant to reassure market participants that even in an adverse scenario the Irish banks are sound. This test reassures us that if property prices fall by as much as one percent a year over the next three years, the banks have enough capital. In the case of a two-percent fall, there are no promises.

As a caveat, this does not mean that the Irish banks need equity capital. They have already had a credible stress test (in 2011) and a big capital injection. Also, the Irish property market although very volatile has a maximum likelihood price change which is positive over the next three years. However the asset class also has considerable “downside” potential and continued high volatility. Conventionally, at least in the case of portfolio risk analysis, the unconditional mean of a stressed variable is set equal to zero for risk analysis purposes. The EBA has chosen to build in a big positive benchmark price rise for Irish property assets, and this is part of the reason that the adverse scenario is unacceptably mild. In any case, this calibration is extremely mild as an adverse scenario and not reassuring for the EU-wide test.

Ending the Sean FitzPatrick Myth

16th April 2014: Sean FitzPatrick has been found not guilty of all charges relating to the Maple 10 transaction. First the judge (for some of the charges) and then the jury (for the remaining charges) examined the evidence carefully, and declared him not guilty. The Maple 10 scheme was truly outrageous, but there is no reason to second-guess the verdicts as given.

From a broader perspective, these not-guilty verdicts might encourage a deeper understanding and better public response to the Irish credit bubble and financial collapse. It is a myth that Sean FitzPatrick caused the Irish financial collapse. Sean FitzPatrick was a major character in the Irish credit bubble, but not a fundamental cause. The collapse is better explained by the extremely “light-touch” financial regulatory system which was deliberately chosen by the democratically elected government of the Irish state, and to a lesser degree by the deeply-flawed Euro currency system chosen by member states. Over the short term, the Irish public benefitted handsomely from both the flawed Euro currency system and the very flawed light-touch Irish financial regulatory system. The Irish electorate was keenly enthusiastic for both.

The Maple Ten scheme was an outrageous transaction whose sole purpose was to unwind another outrageous transaction – the accumulation of a disguised 29% ownership of Anglo Irish Bank by Sean Quinn using contracts for difference (CFD). CFD’s are only legal in some countries, are a naturally toxic trading vehicle, and evade corporate governance rules by disguising true share ownership. Ireland during the boom was a world leader in the use of CFD’s, and Sean Quinn’s disguised 29% ownership position using CFD’s was particularly outrageous.  The Irish financial regulator was simultaneously monitoring (or not monitoring) two very large and very dubious financial transactions in a relatively tiny domestic financial system. To lose track of one large, dubious financial scandal may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose track of two looks like carelessness.

During the bubble period macro-prudential risk regulation by the Irish Central Bank was also (with hindsight) very poor.

The fundamental causes of the Irish financial collapse were two flawed systems – a flawed Euro monetary system and a very flawed Irish financial regulatory system. Both of these systems were built up in broad view and with enthusiastic public support.

– – –  – –  – – – –  – – – – – – – – –

See Corbet and Twomey for a technical treatment and empirical study of CFDs, with a focus on Irish CFDs.

J.P. Morgan’s Legal Troubles and Eurozone Banking Sector Consolidation

The financial architecture of the Eurozone is still a mess. One possible improvement might be a wave of cross-border bank takeovers and mergers. Such a change might make the Eurozone less fragile since country-specific economic shocks would not have a two-way negative-feedback through the balance sheet of country-specific banks. This change would also kill the potential for country-specific deposit runs. The bank regulatory authorities in the U.S.A. (FDIC and Federal Reserve) often arrange mergers and takeovers of troubled banks to snuff out liquidity/solvency crises at individual banks and/or dampen regional shocks. J.P. Morgan was encouraged to take over Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual by the regulators for exactly these reasons. Now, quite appropriately, J.P. Morgan is responsible for the “legacy liability” issues of these two absorbed banks, and it looks like the final bill for J.P. Morgan could be over $10 billion. J.P. Morgan is the legal successor and a change of ownership does not eliminate the liability, even if (as in this case) the regulator gave you a Best Boy in Class ribbon when you agreed to the takeovers. The J.P. Morgan case is in a foreign jurisdiction, but nonetheless this case will have knock-on effects for the Eurozone.  The J.P. Morgan case makes it less likely that there will be any takeovers of troubled or formerly-troubled Irish banks.

Strategic Irish Mortgage Arrears: The Smoking Gun

My colleague Tom Flavin and I are preparing a paper for the Dublin Economic Workshop on the financial characteristics of Irish Mortgage defaults. The analysis relies on a donation of anonymized data on mortgage arrears from Permanent TSB and we are grateful to them for their assistance. Tom will give a fuller account of our data analysis at the conference; this blog entry highlights some of the strong evidence for a very substantial proportion of strategic arrears in Irish mortgage arrears. Continue reading “Strategic Irish Mortgage Arrears: The Smoking Gun”

Restoring Confidence in the Financial System

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.

NYT – Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences

And now for something completely different!  Nikolas Cristakis has a fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times advocating a fundamental restructuring of the social sciences. His proposal involves jettisoning the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), in which people are assumed to be infinitely malleable computing machines limited only by their environment. Instead he proposes that the social sciences take seriously the links to the natural sciences in areas such as brain chemistry and evolutionary biology. In financial economics there have been some moves in this direction, notably at MIT and Cal Tech.  It would be much to the credit of Irish universities if they could be on the forefront of this new approach.

Irish Times on Mortgage Arrears Deals

An interesting article on property debt restructuring deals by Mark Hilliard in today’s Irish Times, “Secret Deals on Mortgage Arrears Raise Concerns.” For many of us it will bring back our graduate school days studying Stiglitz, Rothschild, Ackerlof, Spence et alia on information revelation and efficient contracts. The laudable goal of the Irish mortgage debt arrears policy is to ensure that almost all householders who cannot pay their mortgages can keep their family homes. The difficulty is that it is virtually impossible to distinguish can’t-pays from won’t-pays except at untenable cost and personal privacy intrusion. So the unwritten “policy” is to restrict the flow of information to consumers regarding restructuring terms and conditions. This is intended to limit the flow of potential won’t –pays into the system. In the article, Noeline Blackwell of FLAC is quoted lamenting the lack of a clear detailed list available to consumers in terms of debt restructuring options. She is correct, but this lack of information is not a bug, it is a feature of the evolving Irish system.

Final Reminder: Conference on Bank Resolution Mechanisms

The conference on bank resolution mechanisms is next Thursday at IFSC, attendance is free but requires enrolment via Details of the poster session presentations are also now available and are shown below the main presentations.

Thursday May 23, 2013

Irish Institute of Bankers Conference Hall, International Finance Services Centre

9:15 am – 9:45 am: Registration and Opening Reception with Poster Session

9:45 am – 10:30 am: Ajai Chopra (International Monetary Fund) “A Banking Union for the Euro Area”

10:30 am – 11:15 am: Zhenyu Wang (University of Indiana) “On the Design of Contingent Capital with a Market Trigger”

11:15 am – 11:30 am: Coffee Break

11:30 am – 12:15 pm: Viral Acharya (New York University) “Analyzing the Systemic Risk of the European Banking Sector”

12:15 pm – 1:00 pm: Patrick Honohan (Central Bank of Ireland) “The Shifting Goals of Bank Resolution”

1:00 pm – 1:30 pm: Closing Reception with Poster Session

Presentations at the Poster Session: We encourage comment and discussion with poster presenters at the two poster sessions which open and end the conference.  Poster presentations include: Continue reading “Final Reminder: Conference on Bank Resolution Mechanisms”