This is an unedited version of my November 12 article in the Irish Examiner. Of course, since then the events have taken over the core premises of the article, but for archival purposes and also to posit the article into the context (at the time of print, the official position was 'we don't need a bailout'), I am posting this here.
Despite all the intensifying talk about the EU support, despite the growing number of assurances from the various officials and social partners that we can ‘grow out of our difficulties’, this week has clearly shown that Ireland is nearing the end game of the crisis. Tellingly, even the usual official policies cheerleaders, our stockbrokers, have by now one by one deserted the State-side of the arguments. As one analyst from IFSC put it earlier this week: ‘you know the game’s up when you can’t round up your own sales team to sell Irish bonds’.
The game is almost up. Were we to go into borrowing today, Irish debt will be more costly to finance than that of any other developed country, save Greece. On the assumption of a 70% recovery rate, the Irish 10 year Credit Default Swaps imply an 85% probability of Ireland defaulting sometime in the next 10 years. This, of course, is not the real probability, but an estimate. However, in comparison, even countries that availed over the last 3 years of IMF assistance, including Iceland, are enjoying much greater confidence of the markets.
We all know how we got into this predicament. Three years into the crisis, Irish Government continues to spend well beyond its means. Our current spending keeps rising. Tax revenue, despite significant tax hikes, is running below 2008 levels.
The markets know that the Irish Government has by now exhausted all means for extracting more cash out of this devastated economy. If, as expected, Minister Lenihan hikes taxes in the Budget 2011 again, he will be shifting more of our economic activity into the grey market where the taxman is a distant and powerless overlord.
Much anticipated Budget 2011 is unlikely to solve this problem. Cuts of €6 billion from the deficit this year will do very little to restore any credibility to the Government policy. As anyone with an ounce of common sense will know in the current conditions, the whole exercise will be equivalent to taking money out of one pocket – Government total spending – and putting it in the other – the banks, bondholders, social welfare and pay and pensions bill.
By avoiding soaking the bondholders from the start of this crisis, the Government has boxed itself into a proverbial corner. Instead of standing on a morally and economically high ground and soaking the bondholders early on in the crisis, as Iceland did, we have created a full-blown contagion from the banks to the sovereign. With liquidity evaporating from the shorter end of the banks funding market, this contagion is now a two-way street. Untangling this today, without going into a renegotiation of the sovereign bonds and/or guarantees, cannot constitute a credible policy position.
All of this comes before we even consider the real economy-side of the matters. With private investment on its knees, and companies, starved of trade and operational credits, operating outside the realm of normal corporate finance, can anyone really claim that we have a private sector capacity to escape a restructuring of the private or public or both debts?
Irish families are now so deep in debt and negative equity that consumption and household investment stalled, while deposits are vanishing to pay rising state and semi-state bills. Squeezed on both ends of their incomes – by falling earning and rising taxes and charges – these very households cannot be expected to provide more funding for our fiscal policy pyramid scheme.
But the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back is the belated realisation that the EU has no plan B for dealing with this crisis. In fact, it doesn’t even have a plan A. This was made absolutely clear by the vacuous nature of statements issued by the EU Commissioner Olli Rehn during and after his visit to Dublin this week.
The fundamental EU problem is that the much-lauded EFSF (European Financial Stabilization Facility) – the fund used to put Greece into a bond markets deep-freezer earlier this year – is not designed to address the problems we face. EFSF is designed to help cash strapped governments for a period of 3 years at ‘near market’ rates. Ireland is not cash-strapped. Nor are ‘near-market rates’ a sustainable lending option for us.
We are plain insolvent when one takes three to five years forward view. Our sovereign debt to GNP ratio is likely to exceed 140% by the end of 2015 and this is before we factor in the highly probable wave of mortgages defaults. Our household and corporate debts are more than double those of Greece. And we are staring at the abyss of rising interest rates and strong euro into the next 3-5 years.
EFSF is simply not fit for the purpose of rescuing Ireland.
At current yields, Ireland will need to grow its economy at some 6.5-7% on average annually for the next decade to counterbalance the mountain of debt we are carrying. At the ESFS rates – at ca 4.5%. Anyone expecting this to happen without radical and extremely painful structural reforms of the economy (not just budget cuts) should really go back to the basics of economics. With exception of exporting sectors our economy has slipped into a coma. Jolting it out of this state will require complete rethinking of our fiscal and economic policies.
As an optimist, I can tell you that this can be done. As a pragmatic observer of the current policy and economic environment, I have little hope that it can be done without restructuring our debts – either public or private or both – and issuing a new policies mandate for the political leadership.