Lowered Ambitions

Ok, so it’s true. The headline in the Times piece says it all.

THE GOVERNMENT has conceded it is seeking a smaller reduction in the interest rate of the EU-International Monetary Fund bailout package than the 1 per cent originally sought, and only on the remaining money it has yet to draw down.

In what the Opposition portrayed as a U-turn and a tacit acceptance that a cut is no longer achievable, Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday said the maximum savings the Government could achieve from an interest rate cut were €150 million per annum, compared to €400 million if the rate on the whole loan was cut from 5.8 per cent to 4.8 per cent.

Mr Kenny, speaking in the Dáil, based the reduced figure on the fact the interest rate reduction would not apply to the €15 billion in European loans already drawn down, and only to the €24.6 billion remaining.

Let’s be clear about this. There is no reason whatsoever why the EU could not grant Ireland a one percent reduction on all its borrowings (not just those yet to be drawn down) as was previously granted to Greece. The EU has decided to add a particular margin on to its borrowing costs. The EU can decide to reduce it.

The lowered ambitions appear to be a combination of preparation for a deal barely worth accepting and (more relevantly) an attempt to use a fake argument (“can’t change the interest rate on funds already withdrawn”) to present the “feasible” rate reduction as not that big a deal.

I suspect “lowered ambitions” could prove to be the epitaph for this government.

Bailout Interest Rate White Flag Department

Journalists sometimes get things wrong, so I’m going to phrase this as follows. Tell me this isn’t true:

Minister of State Brian Hayes has said the Government is looking for a 0.6% reduction in the bailout interest rate during its ongoing negotiations with the EC and the ECB.

Mr Hayes told RTÉ’s Drivetime programme that this would amount to a saving of €150m per year on the remaining amount of the loans which has not yet been drawn down.

All the signs are now that the government has gone into white flag mode on this one (what with the little-remarked-upon previous concession on Anglo-INBS bank bondholders, the flag’s had a busy week).  The key thing to watch for here is the approach of claiming lower and lower figures for what an interest rate reduction can achieve, with the benefit now down to €150 million per year.

Look, this isn’t rocket science. Greece, which hasn’t been very successful in implementing its package, received an interest rate cut of one percent in March. No Irish government could possibly be looking for less than a similar cut of one percent. We are borrowing €45 billion from the EU, so a one percent cut would save us €450 million a year, three times the figure being quoted. With an average maturity of seven and a half years, let’s call it seven, this would save the Irish taxpayer €3.15 billion or about €700 a head. It’s not a game-changer on the debt stability front but it’s not worth dismissing either.

Focusing on getting a cut in the remaining loans that have been drawn down is a red herring. It doesn’t matter that the EU has already sourced funds to lend to us as what we’re discussing cutting here is the EU’s own margin on these loans.

The only possible reason to define down the potential gains from an interest rate cut is to prepare the public for failure to achieve this cut, at which point we’ll be told that it wasn’t important.

Any hope that we might show some backbone on this issue (a la Namawinelake) is fading.

Update: Looking at yesterday’s Dail proceedings, one can find Minister Noonan stating that a one percent reduction in our interest rate will save us about €200 million a year. I know the Minister has the combined brain power of the Department of Finance officials on his side but it still seems to me that one percent of €45 billion is €450 million.

Leogate and Green Jersey Economics

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.

IIEA Talk on Sovereign Debt

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.

Noonan on the EU-IMF Bailout

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.