Serious Questions about Post-Guarantee Anglo Policy

The documents released yesterday show that the government were aware in September 2008 that, at least under stress scenarios, Anglo Irish Bank was going to be insolvent.

David Murphy: Hindsight Says Guarantee the Right Option

On the day that we found out that, contrary to the mantra of “everything was done on the basis of the best possible advice” the Irish government failed to follow the expert advice it received from Merrill Lynch when it decided to introduce a blanket guarantee, the state broadcaster brought on David Murphy to explain the implications. Viewers of the Six-One news were treated to the following exchange:

Sharon ni Bheolain: So with the benefit of hindsight and knowing now what we do know particularly about the value of those assets underpinning the loans, can we say that the blanket guarantee was the wrong way to go or is that an oversimplification?

David Murphy: I think in hindsight the guarantee probably was the right way to go and that’s exactly the conclusion that Patrick Honohan came to in his recent reports on the banks. The question though is “did they guaranteed too much?” and they did include subordinated debt in the guarantee. That was something that Merrill Lynch warned against. Merrill Lynch did make a number of warnings about introducing the guarantee. It said that Europe won’t be happy and that was right. It said that there will be a negative knock-on consequence for borrowing money in financial markets and that was right too. But it looks as if the government probably did choose the right option finally.

David reckons Patrick Honohan says that with hindsight the guarantee issued was the right way go. Let me turn the microphone over to Governor Honohan:

the extent of the cover provided (including to outstanding long-term bonds) can – even without the benefit of hindsight – be criticised inasmuch as it complicated and narrowed the eventual resolution options for the failing institutions and increased the State‘s potential share of the losses.

As I have discussed here before, Honohan’s arguments in favour of some sort of guarantee do not in any way mean his report backed the full blanket guarantee that was introduced. Rather than backing the guarantee with the benefit of hindsight, he opposes it even without this benefit!

So the only argument David Murphy can produce to defend the blanket guarantee is the claim that someone who opposed it (albeit in diplomatic language) was exactly in favour of it. Perhaps David had another argument and I have missed it.

More seriously, I heard An Taoiseach on the radio today defending the decision to introduce the blanket guarantee on the grounds that this was required to keep access to funding open for the Irish banks. Again, I’d defer to Governor Honohan, who argued in his report that the inclusion in the guarantee of existing long-term bonds “was not necessary in order to protect the immediate liquidity position. These investments were in effect locked-in.”

So, let’s recap. The government did not, in fact, follow the best possible advice that it paid for when introducing a blanket guarantee. Governor Honohan is not an advocate of blanket guarantees. And blanket guarantees are not necessary to deal with short-term liquidity problems.

Still, at least the government has David Murphy’s support.

Documents Relating to Bank Guarantee

The Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee has placed a number of documents online that were given to it by the Department of Finance in relation to the government’s deliberations prior to its decision to issue a guarantee on the liabilities of the Irish banks in September 2008. The documents can be found here. Section A has the most relevant but there’s also some interesting stuff in Section B, which has material from a joint Finance\Central Bank Standing Group on Financial Stability.

Update: There’s a lot of material in the documents and I haven’t looked at it all. However, thus far, my impression is that while the documents are useful in shedding light on the extent of the government’s lack of understanding of the scale of the solvency problem in the banks, they are not very useful in explaining why the government decided to issue such a blanket guarantee.

Take a look at document 5 from part A. This contains notes from a meeting on Friday September 26 involving the Minister for Finance and representatives from the Central Bank, Financial Regulator, Department of Finance and the government’s advisers, Merrill Lynch. The notes state: “On a blanket guarantee for all banks — ML felt could be a mistake and hit national rating and allow poorer banks to continue.”

Moving on a couple of days to document 3 from part A, a blanket guarantee is one of the options presented to the government by Merrill Lynch on Sunday, September 28. However, the note questions the credibility of this approach, again mentions the implications for sovereign debt ratings and also points to a negative reaction for other European countries. The document is a bit inconclusive but the blanket guarantee still does not appear to be the preferred option of the govenment’s advisers.

Then on September 29, the government decided to introduce an almost-blanket guarantee. These documents do not make it clear why this decision was taken.

Irish Times Article on September 2008 Guarantee

Following on from my post last week on the September 2008 guarantee, here‘s an article I wrote for today’s Irish Times on the same subject.

The September 2008 Guarantee

The media have decided that one of the headline conclusions of the Honohan report was that “Honohan supported the September 2008 guarantee” and the government have been very keen to consistently repeat that line.