NAMA Does Not Borrow from the ECB

One of the really strange things about economics reporting in Ireland is that once a politician has said something with enough authority, it becomes repeated as truth time and again by our financial journalists, no matter how untrue. An incredible example of this is the idea that NAMA borrows money from the ECB.

During the long tedious NAMA debates of 2009, every government politician was sent out with a spin line about NAMA involving the government getting cheap money from the ECB. Even though it was untrue then, the idea has remained amazingly popular. Now, as rumours of some form of NAMA 2 (perhaps for mortgages) start to circulate, our financial journalists are still busy misrepresenting the basic transactions at the heart of the original NAMA.

Today’s Sunday Times (not on the web as far as I know and I don’t think it would be free even if it was) contains the following two examples. First, we have Brian Carey and Tom Lyons:

The difficulty is who will fund the establishment of Nama 2. Nama is current funded by the European Central Bank.

Then we have Damien Kiberd:

The Irish state has accepted responsibility for both sides of the several banks’ balance sheets. It has done this by providing guarantees that cannot, in extremis, be honoured and by purchasing distressed bank assets using money from the European Central Bank.

Unfortunately, this is not at all how the government, in the form of NAMA, purchased distressed bank assets. The reality is that NAMA purchased the assets by swapping them in exchange for Irish government-backed bonds. There – that’s how it was done. Not so hard to understand really. In fact’s it’s hard to misunderstand. NAMA is funded by you and me.

Of course, one can – if you want – discuss the idea that NAMA bonds can be repo’d with the ECB, if the mood is on them. (And indeed, from the last time we discussed this, I know there are people who comment on this site who have the ability to twist words in such a way that they can satisfy themselves that somehow saying “the ECB funds NAMA” makes sense – but frankly I think those folk are having a laugh.) But that doesn’t change the basic reality of the NAMA transactions.

Given the importance of NAMA as well as the important role the ECB is playing in propping up the Irish banking system, it is really unfortunate to see the roles played by these organisations being misrepresented in this fashion.

NAMA From Heaven?

Fianna Fail Deputy Sean Fleming appeared on RTE’s Six-One News last night and said the following:

There’s a lot of confusion on this. NAMA … The banks … This money is being borrowed from the European Central Bank. The taxpayer is not contributing any of this money tomorrow. The European Central Bank is providing all the money and all that has to happen is that during the ten years of NAMA or thereabouts, they will repay those loans back.

Today, Minister Willie O’Dea appeared on Morning Ireland and said:

The ECB have undertaken to make these bonds available to NAMA at one and a half percent.

Appearing on the same program, Fine Gael’s George Lee objected to this statement as being false, so Minister O’Dea rephrased his position as:

The ECB has agreed to give NAMA money … If the ECB disagreed so fundamentally, as George Lee suggested, with the plan, then they wouldn’t be prepared to come up with the money.

I suggest to our readers that the following are facts:

  1. NAMA will purchase loans from the banks with bonds backed by the Irish taxpayer.
  2. The Irish government, in the form of NAMA, will be paying interest on these bonds to the Irish banks at an initial rate of approximately 1.5 pecent.
  3. The ECB is not lending NAMA money at 1.5 percent.
  4. The ECB is not lending NAMA money at all as to do so would violate the EU Treaty’s prohibition of monetary financing of government. (Click here and read Article 101.)
  5. The ECB’s current operating rules mean that it will lend to any bank that has eligible collateral and government-backed bonds are eligible collateral
  6. The taxpayer is contributing the money to pay for the NAMA assets because the taxpayer will have to pay the interest and the principle on these bonds.

I would be interested in finding out does any contributor to this site think that any of the above statements are not facts. Anyone wanting to read an earlier description from this site of the relationship between NAMA, the banks and the ECB can click here.

(Beyond facts, I would point out that to argue that the taxpayer is not contributing money to buy NAMA assets is equivalent to arguing that the taxpayer is not liable for the public sector pay bill because this is being paid for by IOUs.)

Now ask youself. Are Deputy Fleming and Minister O’Dea (both highly trained accountants) unaware of these basic facts about the operation of the most important government financial decision in the history of the state? Or are they aware and deliberately peddling inaccuracies about how NAMA will work?

Then ask youself: Which scenario are you more comfortable with?