Anglo Irish bank: dealing with risk investors

Anglo Irish Bank has announced losses that bring its measured shareholders’ funds down to about 0.1 per cent of total assets — effectively zero.  It has also announced a further €3.4 billion in expected loan losses, little of which would be offset by operating income over the next year or so.

From a strict contractual point of view, the next in line for absorbing these losses are the subordinated debt holders.  There has already been some discussion on this site of the issues involved here.

Now we are at a crunch point because a recapitalization of Anglo cannot be long-delayed. Indeed, to continue trading, the bank presumably needed the assurance that was provided by the Government today that needed capital would be forthcoming.

There is €2.8 billion of unguaranteed sub-debt on Anglo’s books.  I am assuming that part of the Strategic Plan promised by the bank this morning will have to involve risk-sharing by sub-debt holders.  This could take the form of of a deeply-discounted buy-back (as indeed is already suggested in the Government’s statement). It could also take the form of a debt-equity swap. (This would parallel current discussions in the US around debt-equity swaps to recapitalize some of the larger US banks following their stress-tests).

Obviously none of this is easy, and these bondholders may want to play chicken.  In a liquidation they would be wiped out, but — absent modern bank insolvency legislation here — a messy liquidation could also inflict severe taxpayer and economic costs.

I admit that I am not sure of the most effective way of accomplishing it. There are some obvious options. Perhaps readers will have some further ideas. I am sure that officials are pondering these issues.

But difficult does not mean impossible.  The stakes here are evidently high. 

Urgent work to modernize bank insolvency procedures (as recently enacted in the UK post Northern Rock) could strengthen the Government’s hand. 

It might be argued that losses incurred even by sub-debt holders of a bank could damage the credit of the Irish government.  I disagree. 

First, it is really immaterial that the bank is Government-owned: eveyone knows that situation has only arisen as a result of the disastrous performance of the bank. No new subordinated debt has been issued since the nationalization. Besides, in his statement in the Dail on January 20, during the debate on the nationalization bill, the Minister removed any doubt about whether nationalization entailed an expansion of the guarantee.

More generally, even though there might be an immediate knee-jerk reaction in market prices of debt, mature reflection by the financial markets would recognize that a country honouring its debts and guarantees to the letter–and not beyond–was more creditworthy than one which handed over money lightly to unguaranteed risk investors.