Throughout Ireland’s economic crisis, our government has adopted policies based on overly optimistic assumptions. The language of corners turned, manageable problems and final estimates has dominated communication of these policies. And throughout this period, the approach of the Serious People in Leinster House and at institutions such as the Irish Times has been to attack those who question these overly optimistic assumptions as unpatriotic folk who are talking the economy down.
Against that background, this green jersey editorial from the Irish Times on Leo Varadkar’s comments is deeply depressing. It adopts Michael Martin’s ridiculous line about “loose talk costing jobs” as if serious businessmen thinking about creating jobs were not already aware of the likelihood of a further EU-IMF deal for Ireland. It makes claims about sovereign bond markets that serve to illustrate that the writer clearly doesn’t understand these markets. If Leo’s comments created “doubt and uncertainty in financial markets among those that most matter, the bond investors from whom the State hopes to borrow again next year” then how come sovereign bond yields didn’t budge?
Then we get this gem:
As the euro zone debt crisis has unfolded, Ireland has lost credibility and sustained major reputational damage at various levels – government, public service, banking and business – which the Fine Gael Labour Government is attempting to regain and restore. This was best exemplified last November when talks about an EU-IMF bailout were under consideration while Fianna Fáil ministers issued public denials. It will take some time to re-establish trust in what governments say and confidence they can deliver on commitments made.
So Fianna Fail lost credibility by lying about the scale of our problems and ultimately denying things that everyone knew were true. And the IT’s reaction to this loss of credibility is to condemn a minister who makes a statement everyone knows to be true and to encourage the government to repeat a mantra about “no second deal” that will, in time, be just as discredited as the previous government’s approach.
The Irish Times may not wish to hear government ministers admitting that, despite best efforts, we may not be able to get back to the bond market. However, the “everything’s going to be fine” approach runs the risk of being exposed as just as false as the corner-turning rhetoric of the previous government. And it hardly helps with negotiating better terms on the current deal.
Given that Irish politicians and media have decided that Leo Varadkar’s comments about Ireland probably having to get a second EU-IMF deal is some kind of faux pas, it is perhaps worth pointing out that this opinion is widely shared by pretty much everyone I have to talked to in recent months.
Anyway, given that this issue is being discussed, now might be a good time to put up a link to this talk that I gave at the IIEA a few weeks ago. I discuss the risks relating to the current EU-IMF plan the likelihood of the need for a new deal. The slides for the talk are also on the page.
Listening to the News at One on RTE Radio One, I heard Minister for Finance Michael Noonan dismissing comments over the weekend from Minister Leo Varadkar that Ireland would probably have to seek a second bailout as it would not be able to return to the markets. That’s fair enough, one would expect a Minister for Finance to say the current programme is going to work and Varadkar was clearly off message. However, it worries me that Noonan’s comments completely misrepresent the true picture in relation to Ireland’s funding situation.
Noonan said (I’m paraphrasing here but the audio links will be available later) that the EU and IMF are providing enough money “to carry us forward in all eventualities” and that the deal runs through Two-Thirteen (which I take means 2013). Noonan indicated that while there was a plan to return to borrowing from the markets in, yes, Two-Twelve, that this wasn’t actually necessary. The clear implication from these comments is that Ireland would not have to request a new deal until after 2013 if at that point market funding cannot be located.
This is not an accurate representation of the EU-IMF deal. Here‘s the European Commission’s report on Ireland, released in February. The last page shows the financing needs. It is clear that the EU and the IMF are not providing enough money to get us through the end of 2013. Indeed, the EU and IMF funds probably only get us to early 2013 (this was clear before the Commission’s report) and that market financing is required. So if we cannot obtain this market funding, we will have to request a new deal from the EU and IMF.
It’s reasonable to expect bluster from our Minister for Finance but we should at least expect him to show a clear understanding of the parameters of the state’s financing needs.
Update: Here is the updated European Commission programme document from this month. Financing needs are discussed on page 22. They differ a bit from the February document but the key point is the same. The programme calls for €14 billion in market financing in 2013 to fund the state.
Dan O’Brien has an interesting article (and an accompanying news piece) in today’s Irish Times on the “behind-the-scenes” story of Ireland’s bailout. The article is based on interviews for a radio documentary to be aired tomorrow on BBC Radio 4.
I suspect that regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised at the story of how the ECB triggered Ireland’s bailout and then favoured a plan involving a larger upfront fiscal adjustment than the government were comfortable with and a massive and rapid downsizing of the banking sector.
Time will tell whether the ECB’s actions in November helped or hindered the resolution of Ireland’s economic problems. However, the story of November’s events does raise very serious questions about the role the ECB now plays in European politics. Should the key role in this historic decision have been played by an unelected and essentially unaccountable organisation?
Here‘s an article I wrote for Business and Finance on the ongoing negotiations with the EU and the IMF. I wrote the article before last Thursday and have to admit to being a bit less positive now that I was when I wrote it but the general point about the need for a careful approach to ongoing negotiations over the coming year or so still stands.
Given the day that’s in it, I was contemplating whether to do a funny story. But then I remembered the Irish Independent’s entry in the April Fool’s stakes from last year and figured I couldn’t beat it.
Brendan Keenan interviewing Brian Lenihan:
“With the banks playing for time, and the regulatory system discredited, we needed to establish an asset-relief programme like NAMA. That takes time to put into practice. It can’t be done overnight.”
He makes a point that tends to be overlooked in discussions of whether more should have been done sooner. It could not have been done 12 months ago, with the financial markets fretting over the scale of the budget deficit.
The country came close to not being able to borrow the money to keep it running. Attempting to cover the bank losses as well might have made that danger a reality.
At the time, however, I didn’t find it that funny.
Prior to today’s announcements, the Irish Times were flagging the following:
Mr Noonan will make a “watershed” argument for a EU-wide solution around passing bank losses on to bondholders in response to the tests on Bank of Ireland, AIB, Irish Life and Permanent and EBS building society. Government colleagues last night described it as the first radical policy departure from the previous Fianna Fail-led government.
A few months ago, just prior to the announcement of the EU-IMF agreement, the Times had reported:
The source said there was a “common understanding” between delegations from the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF that senior and junior bondholders should each pay a share of the rescue costs.
Two conclusions to draw from this. First, people shouldn’t pay much attention to the Irish Times reports on these matters. Second, the Times need better sources.