Monday, September 13, 2010

Economics 13/9/10: Our crises are more than academic

This is an unedited version of my article in the Irish Mail on Sunday.

Adjoining the famed Moscow Conservatory there is a trendy Vieneese-styled café set in a quiet side-street of a bustling city center. Kofemania is a little microcosm of today’s young and upwardly mobile Moscow. On a late night break from the week of the Irish Trade Mission here, I was meeting a group of friends. Half a dozen of us, from different walks of life, crammed into a small booth were having a lengthy chat about life in general and our futures in particular. In our late 30s-early 40’s, one way or another, we can all relate to the topics of our children and our own and their futures.

For the first time in my life, I found myself being a deeper pessimist in the company of my Russian friends.

Like its Irish counterpart, Russian economy had a tough couple of years since the global financial crisis hit the country in the second quarter of 2008. However, amidst the crisis Russia has managed to deploy significant economic reforms – financed by a prudent fiscal policy during the boom. Their austerity programmes are offset by tax cuts, disposals of state assets and continued capital stimulus.

Since the beginning of 2010, the country economy has expanded at approximately 5% annual rate of growth, despite enduring the worst drought and wildfires in over 200 years. Moscow is enjoying a robust revival: city economy is up some 8% in real annualized terms since January this year, the local authority no longer runs a deficit and capital investment programme was underpinned just two days ago with a robust 12-yea bond placement for ca €500mln yielding less than Irish Government debt, despite being denominated in rubles. People are spending, taking holidays abroad, buying cars, and are genuinely almost over the “recession gloom” when it comes to their outlook for the future.
There is even a pick in investment in second homes in Spain and France taking place as a friend of mine, running a specialty real estate agency has told me. Tight credit conditions during the crisis are easing gradually, but steadily and not a single of my friends has switched their banks accounts to foreign intermediaries or altered the mix of currencies they hold - a sure bet that they do not expect significant pressure on the ruble or a ramp up in inflation that currently runs modest (by Russian standards) 5.5-5.7%.

My fiends are fully convinced that their lives are going to be just fine and their kids future will only get better. The generational game of renewal and raising of expectations – the hallmark of any society that enjoys a sense of confidence in its future – is well underway in Moscow.

It's a different story for us in Ireland.

This week’s admission by Alan Dukes, that the bank’s final expected loans losses can top €39 billion became the final straw for many people here, as well as for myself. Follow up admissions by the Government that the fiscal reforms of quangoes, promised back in 2008, are not happening made it clear that the policy path we are taking hardly amounts to much more than a waiting game in a hope for a miracle of the externally driven turnaround.

Over a year ago, I publicly estimated that the total losses in the Anglo will reach up to €38.6 billion. My total estimate of the net losses in Irish banking crisis since March 2009 has remained around €50-53 billion. There’s little to be gained from having gotten the estimates right. The sheer extent of the economic destruction that befell Ireland over the last three years is now hitting my own home, hard.

A third year into an economic equivalent of the Perfect Storm, the reality of our economic collapse remains unchanged. Worse – the storm, using Bertie Ahern’s turn of phrase, is only getting stormier.

All in, the combination of banking and fiscal hell we are currently living through will exact an economic toll unseen by this country since the age of the Famine. Courtesy of the consistent and persistent policy failures spanning the last decade and continuing to-date, my own family, like a million other ordinary taxpayers’ families in Ireland have been turned into an army of serfs bound by the state to the rapidly sinking Titanic of our banking and fiscal policies. The very hope of seeing my children living in a world of higher social and economic standards – that cornerstone of any family raison d’etre – is now under a real threat.

Within the last 12 months, the new wave of unemployment is wiping clean the ranks of professional, highly educated younger services sectors workers. The social mobility ladder that provides hope for our and our children future has collapsed.

Tens of thousands of students are now actively seeking to emigrate out of Ireland. Five years ago, less than one in ten in my Trinity classrooms intended to go abroad in search of starting careers. This summer, the number rose to about three quarters. By my estimates, over 200,000 people have left this island in the last 24 months and some 300,000 more are on the verge of emigrating, held back by the shackles of negative equity and rapidly rising debt.

For our middle class, just as for my own children, education was supposed to be a sure bet for achieving a steady progression to economic and social well being. Today, this is no longer the case.

Both myself and my wife hold advanced post-graduate degrees and have achieved above average careers with over 15 years of steady growth. Yet, back in the Autumn of 2008 both of us have almost simultaneously lost our main jobs. Four subsequent months, spent living in the hell of uncertainty, were some of the toughest periods we ever endured. Throughout these months, the fear for the future backed by our steadily declining savings was compounded by the complete absence of any leadership from our policymakers.

This fear still remains a part of our daily lives. Hope for a recovery today is contrasted by the vacuous and occasionally outright insulting statements from high podia about imminent ‘turnarounds’ and ‘patriotism’, and the ‘hard choices’ allegedly being made the country leadership that is painfully unable and patently unwilling to make any real decisions.

The crisis we face is not a temporary, but a structural one. In order to unwind a roughly 700,000 strong-army of surplus workers who are out work or grossly under-employed, Ireland will have to more than triple our entire exporting sector – a feat that even during the Celtic Tiger era would have taken some 25 years to achieve.

By the time my children finish their education, some 20 years from now, our family will have spent over two decades in a state of perpetual struggle to pay for the legacy of our banking sector collapse and fiscal policy fiascos, to cover the costs of bankers and bond holders bailouts and to unwind a massive pile of private and public debts accumulated through the erroneous and egregious policies we have pursued since 2001-2002.

To finance ever-increasing social welfare and public sector pay bills, a family like ours will be pushed into massively higher taxes on income, property and everyday necessities.

The numbers are frightening. Frightening to the point of getting me worried about even my own family ability to endure this crisis.

Nama and banks rescues alone will add some €110,000-120,000 to our family debt pile through state-accumulated liabilities. Property and assets collapses in the end will contribute another loss of €300,000 to our net worth. The benefits of free education and children-related allowances will be gone, implying a life-time loss of roughly €120,000 for our family. At current yields, the debt accumulated through the deeply flawed banks recapitalizations and Nama, plus egregious current spending deficits will impose an annual interest bill of €12,000-15,000 on our family by 2014. Interest on the state debt alone will cost us every year the same as our children’s education.

American philosopher and writer, Ayn Rand once said that: “It only stands to reason that where there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there's service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master.” Recall Minister Lenihan’s statements about the need for ‘patriotism’ in his two Budget 2009 speeches. With the events transpiring around us today, Rand’s words are now no longer a catchy turn of a phrase.

Our pensions – supported solely by our personal savings – will be a shadow of their current expected value as funds returns will remain stagnant over the years of painfully slow growth, caused by the disastrous policy choices. Inflation, imported from the rest of the Eurozone, will mean that the real value of our savings will be declining over time.

Our healthy demographics – normally a reason for optimism in economic future – can end up driving this economy deeper into slow growth scenario. By the time my children will be finishing their university degrees, today’s middle-age workers will see their pension ages extended in order to reduce the exchequer pensions liabilities. This means that twin peaks of new job markets entrants between 2020 and 2030, Irish workforce will swell with educated, but inexperienced professionals unable to locate a job because their retirement age parents have no option but to continue working into their seventies.

This scary trend is well underpinned by today’s reality, including that of my own household. Save for a sizeable mortgage, our family is completely debt-free for the moment. Myself and my wife have good private sector jobs and earn well above the average family income. On the paper – we are doing fine.

Our future liabilities are massive, courtesy of the Government mismanagement of fiscal balances since 2003, the Croke Park deal, the Social Partnership-led pillaging of the growth years, the banks rescues, Nama and the chronic lack of real reforms in the state-controlled sectors.

Banks bailouts are already having a direct effect on our family. Amidst historically low interest rates, our mortgage has grown throughout 2010 and is likely to rise even more comes 2011, just as the negative equity continues to bite deeper and deeper into our ‘investment’ which value has shrunk roughly 40% since the time we bought into it. By my estimates, the spreads between the ECB base rate and the average variable rate mortgage charges will rise from 2.5-3% today to 4% by the end of the next year. After that, the ECB will start hiking its rates, with a distinct possibility of our mortgage finance costs more than doubling within a span of 15 months.

As an economist, I am all too familiar with the long term nature of the fiscal, house prices and banking crises that were are experiencing today.

Based on what we know about fiscal crises, our debt to GDP ratio will peak at over 125-130% around 2015-2017. At these levels, any economy, even a highly competitive one, would suffer a catastrophic decline in long term prospects for growth.

In the end, Ayn Rand was right – the sacrifices and patriotism of our politicians’ speeches has turned the people of this country into serfs to the vested interests of Social Partnership and banks’ elites. They speak of a sacrifice, intending to be the masters. My family, and millions of other ordinary people around this country are now just meaningless pawns in their game for survival.
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