The real winners from Rio?

With the 2016 Summer Olympics Games upon us, much of the world’s media has descended on Rio to cover more than 300 events, across 28 sports, for the next three weeks. Early reports have already complimented the facilities in place. This should not come as a surprise. An estimated $14 billion has been spent to date and includes new stadia, sports facilities, transport and communications infrastructure, accommodation, security, etc. The scale of investment is on a par with London 2012 but comes on the back of a similar outlay during the 2014 World Cup. That’s close to $30 billion dollars in 24 months.

While the Games will probably be a sporting success, it’s hard to see how this investment can be justified. A growing list of cities, are now home to unused, dilapidated or demolished Olympic venues. Brazil is likely to encounter similar problems in the years ahead despite the promise of “legacy” effects. Even London recently reported a drop in sports participation four years on from the most recent Summer Games.

Brazil of course will be no stranger to this. Estádio Nacional in Brasília, the second most expensive stadium on the planet, was rebuilt for the 2014 World Cup. The 70,000 seat arena is now primarily used as a bus terminal.

Over the past 40 years, only the Los Angles Summer Games in 1984 generated a net surplus. This was a consequence of the weakened bargaining position of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when faced with just one finalised bid to host the Games that summer. Riots (1968), terrorism (1972), public debt (1976) and boycott (1980) had all marred the Olympics in the decade beforehand. Los Angeles negotiated a deal with the IOC that maximised the economic benefits to the city.

Since 1984 other cities have jumped on the bandwagon, in an attempt to regenerate urban areas and turn a net profit. While Barcelona and London have been notable example of ‘success’, they failed to generate any financial surplus. This should not be a surprise.

Sporting events like these should not be viewed as investments. They are primarily consumption products. In the past the Games have brought other benefits; mainly a sense of national pride and increased levels of life satisfaction and happiness. If one monetises these, research suggests the Games are worth the cost. The richer the country, the greater the gain. Citizens from wealthier countries need a much bigger increase in income, to those from poorer countries, in order to experience the same jump in happiness.

And herein lies the problem for Brazil. The country is in the unique position of probably being the first developing democracy to stage the Summer Games (the extent of Mexican democracy in 1968 is debatable). This has brought with it problems. The riots at the World Cup were a manifestation of this. The extent to which the Games will make the population ‘happier’ is questionable. With political, economic, health, environmental and housing crises all present, these Games may not be a repeat of the past.

Rio is on the brink of its biggest ever party. A $14 billion hangover is waiting. The city needs to make the most of the next three weeks. While they party, the real winners are probably the taxpayers in Illinois and Spain. Two of the failed bidders for the 2016 Games.

The EBA Stress Tests: What’s the News Value?

The Irish banks, AIB and Bank of Ireland, show up poorly on the stress test of 51 European banks (33 in the Eurozone) released Friday night. The methodology is explained on the EBA website. Briefly, there has not been a review of each bank by a team of EBA inspectors as is implied by some of the media coverage – RTE’s bulletin referred to an ‘examination’. It is a mechanical exercise based on the ‘static’ 2015 balance sheet, as published, with no adjustment for the plausibility of provisions but also with no credit for retained earnings post 2015. The ‘stress’ is essentially a GDP downturn from 2016 through 2018 resulting in a depletion of capital adequacy as against the end-2015 balance sheet number.

The scale of the depletion reflects the extent of the assumed downturn. The essential reason for the sharper loss of capital adequacy for the Irish banks is that the downturn assumed for Ireland is greater. Against a baseline, the cumulative adverse GDP shock for the main Eurozone countries included is as follows:

Belgium -7.6
Germany -6.6
Ireland -10.4
Spain -6.7
France -5.6
Italy -5.9
Lux -8.2
Neth -8.4
Austria -7.6
Finland -8.3

The adverse shock assumed for Ireland is the largest and 3.2% above the average for the others shown. There are some other factors but the EBA release makes it clear that these numbers are the main driver of the projected capital depletion. The basis for the large Irish shock is a calibration against the experience over 2008 to 2011 when the downturn in Ireland was more severe than elsewhere.

The EBA may have sacrificed plausibility to uniformity of treatment – the exercise is in any event an input into a further phase called SREP, the supervisory review and evaluation process, rather than a definitive assessment of bank capital adequacy. The Irish banks, and numerous others, may of course need to generate or raise more capital but the relative worsening in their position flows from the assumptions employed and not from any ‘news’ uncovered by the EBA sleuths.

New Release: The Central Bank Quarterly Bulletin 2016

The central bank have just released their 2016 quarterly bulletin. Box A on Page 11 discusses the farce of the 26.5 per cent growth.


“These developments reflect the statistical ‘on-shoring’ of economic activity associated with a level shift in the size of the Irish capital stock arising from corporate restructuring and balancing sheet reclassification in the multinational sector and also growth in aircraft leasing activity”.

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The housing crisis is all about the politics of debt.

Everyone agrees Ireland has a huge housing crisis. The housing “market”, if one can call it that, is completely dysfunctional. There is a massive shortage of supply, particularly in Dublin, and growing demand. Competitive firms are losing mobile workers by the day. Homelessness is on the rise. Rents are sky rocketing. Dublin house prices are back to silly-levels. The price-quality dynamic is totally out of kilter. Yet there is absolutely no reason why housing “supply” should be restricted.

There are literally thousands of empty properties around Dublin, loads of green and brown field sites, and tons of opportunities for housing development. Dublin is not San Francisco, where there is literally no where to build. The problem is that the banks are not lending. The government is intervening in a belated and piecemeal way. The fundamental question, therefore, is why? This is where economics meets politics. Constrained supply means rising prices. Rising prices makes it possible to manage the debt dynamics of the state. Supply is being restricted. It’s not a coincidence. It’s an outcome of incentives.

Yesterday’s “rebuilding Ireland” report is obviously welcome. However, all the policy focus on social housing and homelessness, whilst important, completely misses the core problem, which is that the banks control the market. The banks control the supply of mortgages and the supply of loans for development. In a housing market, if you control mortgages, property and builders, then you control the outcomes. It’s not in their interest to see a rise in supply. A rise in supply would reduce prices and expose the underlying debt dynamics of the bank’s balance sheets.

This is the real structural constraint facing government.

The banks don’t want anyone to sell under the asset (house) price to ensure that they can maintain their debt problem. If they can’t manage their mortgage debts, then the taxpayer has to step in and bail them out again, which clearly the government does not want to do. The structural problem underpinning the housing crisis is the bank-state nexus.

If NAMA or the banks fire sell housing assets to solve the housing crisis, then all those under performing loans/mortgages will be exposed. The debt dynamics of the banks will be exposed. The government will be exposed. Then the ECB is exposed.  It’s a house of cards and the only thing holding everything together are rising rental and house prices. Those renting (and those who don’t own mortgages) are ultimately picking up the bill for the last crisis, of which they had no part.

Hence, the structural constraint underpinning the housing crisis is a convergence in the incentive structure to maintain sky-high rents and rising house prices. It’s not in the interest of the Department of Finance, the banks, NAMA, and mortgage holders to see a rise in supply and a potential fall in prices. This is not to suggest that all these actors are sitting around a table conspiring to restrict supply. But all these actors are clearly aware that rising house prices means lower debt and more wealth. The politics of debt is about the politics of housing capital.

The real policy solution is radical intervention to fire sale the assets.

Compel the banks to lend for real development. Compel builders to borrow. The objective should be to bring down rental prices and house prices. Let the banks take the hit, then let them pass it on to the government, then let the government pass it on to the ECB. In the end, Ireland will be back to where it started: in a one-to-one negotiation with the European monetary system. Except this time, the Irish government should say to the ECB, tough shit, you pay. Our public policy priority is ensuring proper housing for our citizens as a social right.

This policy response is obviously dreamland. But you get the point.

This blog entry is based on two research papers I am working on: “Housing Capital is Back” and “House of cards: the real politics of the Irish housing crisis”. Most of the data to empirically corroborate the claims I have made can be found either at the Central Bank (the “Financial Summary” statistics pack), and/or in the Ratings Agencies of the Irish banks.

Property development

Ataturk’s Ministers visit Sarajevo

The events of the last few days in Turkey brought back to mind this powerful snippet from Anglo-Irish writer Rebecca West’s account of her travels in Yugoslavia in the 1930s. Nothing to do with economics, and little related to present realities, but a passage that some might appreciate….

“There are thirty thousand Moslems in Sarajevo, and I think most of them were there. And they were rapt, hallucinated, intoxicated with an old loyalty, and doubtless ready to know the intoxication of an old hatred.

We came to the halt at the right moment, as the train slid in and stopped. There was a little cheering, and the flags were waved, but it is not much fun cheering somebody inside the tin box of a railway carriage. The crowd waited to make sure. The Moslem Mayor of Sarajevo and his party went forward and greeted the tall and jolly Mr. Spaho, the Minister of Transport, and the Yugoslavian Minister of War, General Marits, a giant who wore his strength packed round him in solid masses like a bull. He looked as Göring would like to look. There were faint polite cheers for them; but the great cheers the crowd had had in its hearts for days were never given. For Mr. Spaho and the General were followed, so far as the expectations of the crowd were concerned, by nobody. The two little men in bowlers and trim suits, very dapper and well-shaven, might have been Frenchmen darkened in the colonial service. It took some time for the crowd to realise that they were in fact Ismet Ineunue, the Turkish Prime Minister, and Kazim Ozalip, his War Minister.

Even after the recognition had been established the cheers were not given. No great degree of disguise concealed the disfavour with which these two men in bowler hats looked on the thousands they saw before them, all wearing the fez and veil which their leader the Ataturk made it a crime to wear in Turkey. Their faces were blank yet not unexpressive. So might Englishmen look if, in some corner of the Empire, they had to meet as brothers the inhabitants of a colony that had been miraculously preserved from the action of time and had therefore kept to their road.

The Moslem Mayor read them an address of welcome, of which, naturally, they did not understand one word. This was bound in any case to be a difficult love affair to conduct, for they knew no Serbian and the Sarajevans knew no Turkish. They had to wait until General Marits had translated it into French; while they were waiting I saw one of them fix his eye on a distant building, wince, and look in the opposite direction. Some past-loving soul had delved in the attics and found the green flag with the crescent, the flag of the old Ottoman Empire, which these men and their leader regarded as the badge of a plague that had been like to destroy their people. The General’s translation over, they responded in French better than his, only a little sweeter and more birdlike than the French of France, and stood still, their eyes on the nearest roof, high enough to save them the sight of this monstrous retrograde profusion of fezes and veils, of red pates and black muzzles, while the General put back into Serbian their all too reasonable remarks. They had told the Moslems of Sarajevo, it seemed, that they felt the utmost enthusiasm for the Yugoslavian idea, and had pointed out that if the South Slavs did not form a unified state the will of the great powers could sweep over the Balkan Peninsula as it chose. They said not one word of the ancient tie that linked the Bosnian Moslems to the Turks, nor had they made any reference to Islam.

There were civil obeisances, and the two men got into an automobile and drove towards the town. The people did not cheer them. Only those within sight of the railway platform were aware that they were the Turkish Ministers, and even among those were many who could not believe their eyes, who thought that there must have been some breakdown of the arrangements…

We had seen the end of a story that had taken five hundred years to tell. We had seen the final collapse of the old Ottoman Empire. Under our eyes it had heeled over and fallen to the ground like a lay figure slipping off a chair. But that tragedy was already accomplished. The Ottoman Empire had ceased to suffer long ago. There was a more poignant grief before us. Suppose that such an unconquerable woman as may be compared to the Slav in Bosnia was at last conquered this time, and sent for help to her old lover, and that there answered the call a man bearing her lover’s name, who was, however, not her lover but his son, and looked on her with cold eyes, seeing her only as the occasion of a shameful passage in his family history: none of us would be able to withhold our pity”.