Burning Ourselves?

On tonight’s edition of The Frontline on RTE, Gavin Blessing, Head of Bond Research at Collins Stewart made some comments about repayments of ELA liabilities by the IBRC (i.e. Anglo-INBS) that I’d like to elaborate on. Gavin pointed out that IBRC’s major liabilities are to the Central Bank of Ireland. Indeed, I estimate that IBRC now owes about €42 billion in ELA to the Central Bank.

Gavin then followed this up by saying that we would be “burning ourselves” if we cancelled these payments to the Central Bank. This is a complicated business and I fully understand Gavin Blessing expressing the situation in this way. However, I would like to emphasise that it is my understanding that there is no offsetting financial gain to the Irish state from the IBRC’s repayment of Emergency Liquidity Assistance to the Central Bank.

The details are below but I can summarise this issue as follows: Channelling taxpayer funds towards repayment of ELA is equivalent to burning public money.

Let me start by describing the information communicated by a central bank balance sheet, such as this one for the Central Bank of Ireland. Central banks could create money by following Milton Friedman’s analogy and dropping it from a helicopter. However, helicopter drops are neither efficient nor fair. So the long-standing tradition has been for central banks to issue money by acquiring assets via open market operations.

Central bank balance sheets thus show you the assets that a central bank has accumulated via its money issuance. At some point in time, somebody decided it was a good idea to place the money that was issued to acquire these assets on the “liability” side of this balance sheet. I’m not sure this was such a great idea as central bank balance sheets can cause a lot of confusion. Suffice to say, however, these liabilities are somewhat theoretical. If someone brings a banknote to the Central Bank, the only thing they can exchange it for is other banknotes that the cost the Bank almost nothing to print.

That over with, the accounting treatment for Central Bank’s issuance of ELA can be described as follows.

1. The Central Bank provided ELA by crediting, for example, Anglo’s reserve account that it holds with the Central Bank. This was just the Central Bank creating electronic money out of nowhere and this new money was counted as a liability on the Bank’s balance sheet.  In particular, this shows up in “Other Liabilities” on the CBI’s balance sheet.

2. On the other side of the balance sheet, the money that Anglo then owed back to the CBI as a result of the ELA is counted as an interest-bearing asset for the CBI.

Now consider the repayment of part of the ELA by the IBRC. For example, consider repayments funded by IBRC’s annual receipt of €3.1 billion in promissory note payments. One could imagine two possibilities for what happens next.

One possibility is that the following happens. A €3.1 billion repayment gets taken in by the CBI who can then, for example, buy German bonds with it and ultimately use the interest payments on these to pay money back the government when they make profits.  In this case, the amount of money created from the original operation doesn’t change and the Central Bank’s ELA asset gradually turns over time into other, more tangible, financial assets. It is likely that this is what Gavin Blessing thinks is happening.

The alternative possibility is less attractive. The Central Bank takes in the €3.1 billion repayment and then deducts this from the value of its ELA asset. On the liability side it reduces “other liabilities”—the idea is that taking in this €3.1 billion is effectively siphoning off part of the money that was created in the original ELA operation.  In this case, no new securities are purchased by the Bank. The €3.1 billion is effectively being burned.

The available evidence indicates that the latter, less attractive, mechanism is what occurs.

Earlier this year, the Irish government deposited a large amount of money in the Irish banks; this money was later converted from a deposit liability into equity when the banks were recapitalised. When the banks obtained these funds, they reduced their ELA debts to the Central Bank of Ireland.

A quick look at the Central Bank’s balance sheet shows that “other assets”  (which we know is mainly ELA) are down by €17 billion since February. Other liabilities are also down by €19 billion. There is no sign of any jump in the Central Bank’s holdings of other securities as a result of the ELA repayments. There is no hidden positive story at the end of the ELA rainbow.

So why repay it at all? Well, if we don’t repay this money, the Central Bank’s ELA operation will have been equivalent to flying a helicopter over the IBRC, dropping €40 billion and not asking for it back. A jolly good wheeze for the bondholders and depositors who got paid back but possibly not a good precedent for the Euro area. If every Euro area country could do that with their troubled banks, there would be no banking problems but there would probably be a decent amount of inflation.

So our European partners would consider failure to repay ELA to be bad form. But that still seems to leave the pace of repayment, and the funding of this repayment, as very much an open question. In the meantime, let’s not kid ourselves about hidden benefits from these payments.

Anglo Bond Note from DoF

The talking point about repayment of Anglo bonds not costing the taxpayer any money had received a sufficiently wide rollout that it was clear that this was something government politicians were being told was a good thing to say. Via Constantin, here is a note from the Department of Finance apparently distributed to government TDs.

The note tells the politicians that “It is important to state that the redemption of the bond will be made by the IBRC. It will not be funded by the Exchequer.”

Is it really important to state that? Why? So someone sitting at home might think that we’ve stumbled upon some money that eases the burden of paying the bonds, even though the US assets were being sold at a loss? So they might forget that the alternative to using the money to pay off the bonds is to return it to the exchequer?

Anglo has lost all of its equity capital multiple times over and has been continually recapitalised by the state. Money is fungible. All resources being used to pay off the bonds are state resources.

This talking point doesn’t work. Time to give it a rest. Please.

Anglo Bonds No Cost to Taxpayer Talking Point Gets Full Rollout

In advance of next week’s $1 billion Anglo bond repayment (congrats to all our international hedgie readers), the government talking point that repayment of this bond doesn’t cost the taxpayer a cent is now getting a full rollout, with Michael Noonan on RTE Radio’s News at One today and Leo Varadkar on Tonight with Vincent Browne both at it.

Both ministers were insistent that because the IBRC (i.e. the new Anglo-INBS institution) has sold loans worth €2.5 billion for a loss of €500 million, thus realising €2 billion, that paying the remaining €3.7 billion in unguaranteed senior bonds won’t cost the Irish taxpayer any money.

Let’s make this as simple as possible: Even if you wanted to view this repayment as costless because Anglo has its “own funds” to repay the bond, ask yourself who would be the beneficiary of these “own funds” if they weren’t used to repay unguaranteed bondholders. Every cent going to these bondholders is coming from Irish taxpayers.

Slightly less simplistically, Leo acknowledges that we are putting large amounts of money in the form of the promissory note payments (“the only money we’re putting in is the promissory note” — ah yes, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln ….”). How did they arrive at the figure for the promissory note? The figure was arrived at by figuring how much money was required to keep Anglo solvent, i.e. paying back all its bonds debts. If we didn’t pay back the unguaranteed bondholders, then we could revise the promissory note payments down.

I know that the remaining unguaranteed bond debts are dwarfed by the approximately €40 billion Anglo owes in ELA but this talking point is irritating all the same. Honestly guys, please stop.

How Would a Greek-Style Haircut Affect Ireland?

Someone asked me today how a Greek-style haircut for private bondholders would impact on the Irish debt situation if applied here. Without any claim that this is a prediction for what could happen to Ireland, or a policy recommendation, here are the calculations.

While the figure grabbing the headlines is the 50%-60% haircut for private holders of Greek sovereign bonds, it appears that the bonds bought by the ECB will not be written down, nor will the IMF loans. FT Alphaville discuss a UBS report that calculates that a 50% haircut for private bondholders actually implies a 22% reduction in total debt.

In Ireland’s case, the latest EU Commission report estimates (page eight) that our year-end general government debt will be €172.5 billion or about 110 percent of GDP. The report also estimates that by the end of this year, we will owe €38.2 billion to the EU and IMF.  (Table 4 on page 23).

We don’t know how much Irish sovereign debt the ECB own but it’s believed to be a large amount. I do remember a report from Barclay’s claiming they owned €18 billion by June 2010. Let’s say ECB owns €22 billion of Irish debt (that’s just a guess, I really don’t know). Combine that with €38 billion from EU-IMF and you have €60 billion in debt that wouldn’t be getting a haircut. Better guesses of ECB holdings of Irish sovereign debt are welcome.

Now apply a 50% haircut to the remaining €92.5 billion of our debt and you reduce the debt by €46.25 billion, or 29 percent of GDP, getting the debt ratio down to 81 percent. (Of course, we’d still be running large deficits, so it would start increasing again.)

So that’s the answer. Perhaps worth noting, however, is that an alternative method of writing down Ireland’s debt by close to 30 percent of GDP without haircutting private bondholders at all would be to have Anglo’s ELA debt to the Central Bank of Ireland written off.

According to its interim report Anglo owed €28.1 billion in ELA at the end of 2010 but this had risen to €38.1 billion by the end of June. This is because Anglo transferred €12.2 billion in NAMA senior bonds to AIB in February to back the deposits that were being moved out of the bank.

On July 1, Anglo was merged with Irish Nationwide Building Society (INBS) to form what is now called the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC). As of the end of 2010, INBS had €7.3 billion in loans from the ECB. However, €3.7 billion of this was backed by NAMA bonds and other assets that were transferred to Irish Life and Permanent. INBS has been in receipt of ELA since February to replace this lost funding. While this has been admitted by a Department of Finance official (see this story) the exact figure has not been released. I assume it is about €4 billion.

So my estimate is that the IBRC now owes about €42 billion in Emergency Liquidity Assistance to the Central Bank of Ireland. If the European authorities ever decide they like the idea of haircuts for Irish debt, it would be fair to ask which of a fifty percent haircut or a write-off of ELA would be more likely to damage Ireland’s reputation or cause financial market contagion.

Anglo Bonds: Not Coming From the Taxpayer

Via NAMA Wine Lake, I came across this very important statement from An Taoiseach on September 28 about repayment of Anglo bonds

If the Anglo bondholders are paid, they will be paid from their own resources. This will not come from the taxpayer. The Minister for Finance has been dealing with this situation at the ECOFIN meetings.

This is really good news. I had been under the impression for some time that all of the funds used to pay Anglo bondholders came from the taxpayer. But apparently that’s not the case. Phew, that’s a relief. Hats off to the Minister for his excellent work at those ECOFIN meetings.

Update: In case anyone thinks Enda’s on his own here with this idea of Anglo bondholder payouts not coming from the taxpayer, listen to Leo Varadkar on RTE’s This Week today (32 minutes and 25 seconds in). When asked about the looming payout to bondholders, Leo says

Well that’s not quite the case. What’s happening in relation to the Anglo bondholders is they’ll be paid from Anglo’s own resources, from the sale of its own property assets, for example. The only money that is being put into Anglo Irish by this government is the promissory notes, the €3 billion a year that we are required to give to Anglo, or what is now the IBRC, as a result of the deal made by Fianna Fail and the Greens, and we are trying to have that changed. That is our major objective at the moment.

I recommend strongly that the government retire this particular piece of spin immediately. Every cent that is given to bondholders is an additional cent that will have to be poured into Anglo by the Irish tax payer, whether as promissory note payments or some rejiggered version of these notes.