I guess the news that the Commission has approved NAMA (statement here) will get some attention over the next few days but it’s hardly too surprising. EU guidelines allow governments to introduce an asset management agency of this type and it’s very hard to imagine that the Department of Finance had designed something that wasn’t guaranteed to get approved. However, as I’ve noted before, if you read those guidelines closely, they also suggest that the Commission isn’t in favour of packages that are overly friendly to providers of risk capital. For instance, the guidelines state
(21) As a general principle, banks ought to bear the losses associated with impaired assets to the maximum extent …
(22) Once assets have been properly evaluated and losses are correctly identified, and if this would lead to a situation of technical insolvency without State intervention, the bank should be put either into administration or be orderly wound up, according to Community and national law. In such a situation, with a view to preserving financial stability and confidence, protection or guarantees to bondholders may be appropriate.
(23) Where putting a bank into administration or its orderly winding up appears unadvisable for reasons of financial stability, aid in the form of guarantee or asset purchase, limited to the strict minimum, could be awarded to banks so that they may continue to operate for the period necessary to allow to devise a plan for either restructuring or orderly winding-up. In such cases, shareholders should also be expected to bear losses at least until the regulatory limits of capital adequacy are reached. Nationalisation options may also be considered.
The relatively tough line suggested by these statements has been evident in the Commission’s rulings on payments to subordinated bonds and on various restructuring plans. This approach undoubtedly limits the government’s ability to overpay for the assets going into NAMA and with the assets falling in price with every passing month, the opportunity to keep the banks from actual or near insolvency via overpayment seems to be slipping away.
In my exchanges with our old friend John the Optimist, I have regularly pointed out economists shouldn’t necessarily be judged on their forecasts and I certainly have made calls here that have turned out to be incorrect. However, I will take this opportunity to point out that tomorrow is the one year anniversary of this column that I wrote for the Irish Times. Among other things which I’d still stand by, the column pointed out the following:
In addition to being unfair, it is questionable whether the bad bank proposal could achieve its goal of properly re-capitalising private sector banks. There may be limits on the price the Government can pay for impaired property loans under EU state aid rules. Banks may still have to write down their assets. It is easy to imagine a scenario where banks struggled with weak capital bases even after a bad bank scheme has been put in place.
And here we are.