Here is an unedited version of my article for Irish Daily Mail for February 28, 2011.
The hardest thing in the General Election 2011 for Fine Gael and Labor is yet to come. After Sunday rest and celebrations this week will start for both parties with a political wrangle over positions of power. This too will be the easy part.
However, comes the week of March 7th, the entire weight of the ongoing crisis will fall on the shoulders of Mr Kenny and his colleagues. There is no rulebook the new Government can consult in these times of need. Old policies, having comprehensively failed to stabilize our banking system, will be of no use. In fact, some – like Nama and the extended guarantee – will have to be unwound or scrapped altogether and fast. New policies touched upon during the campaign – like ‘renegotiation’ of the EU/IMF loans – will be just a side-show to the escalating crisis.
The problem is that, largely unseen by us, the banking crisis continues to rage. We’ve heard about the perils of ATMs running out of cash should we ‘unilaterally burn the banks bondholders’. Alas, our banks are now running ATMs on the back of IOUs they issue to themselves. In other words, every time we dine out or buy a newspaper, we are spending cash that Irish banks have borrowed from the ECB or the Central Bank of Ireland against the collateral that is only worth anything because the taxpayers promised to repay the loans. You might think that your Laser card is a debit card – taking money you own from your account. Courtesy of our bust banking system, it really is a credit card with the debt being spread across the entire economy.
Tens of billions of new debt have been created over the last few months through this ‘backdoor’ borrowing. And the new Government will have to stop this merry-go-round before the taxpayers, and with them the entire economy, collapse under the weight of this debt.
On top of this, there is a new instalment in the series of horror shows looming on the horizon, as AIB is set to report its 2010 results in days to come. For AIB is most likely to reveal this time around that it is not that much better off, when it comes to lending and investment books quality, than Anglo and INBS. AIB spent last three years in active denial of the extent of its impairments. Now, it will have to start airing its dirty laundry. Again, the Government will have to react to put some active policy buffers between the markets – easily spooked by the zombie giant rearing its head – and the bank.
Add to that much anticipated Prudential Capital Assessment Review (PCAR) – the new set of ‘stress tests’ on Irish banks balancesheets – and you have some seriously disastrous newsflow that the Government is heading into. To be credible, the PCAR will have to be really honest. We already had a number of previous reviews that spectacularly failed to reveal the truth about banks, including the ones carried out by the EU which gave AIB and Bank of Ireland their clean bills of health just before AIB was nationalized and Bank of Ireland required new financial wizardry from the Government to avoid the same fate. An honest PCAR expected next month will most likely send AIB into a tailspin.
Last, but not least, the Government will be facing the EU negotiations relating to the Franco-German push to ‘reform’ EU-wide macroeconomic stability rules. During these talks, our fiscal position will come under renewed scrutiny by the very same EU Commission and ECB who have already voiced concerns that the Government 4 year plan for restoring order to our public finances is a castle built of sand. Should the EU take a keen interest in our economic assumptions and forecasts, the Government might be forced to either increase the ‘savings’ planned for 2011-2014 by, possibly, as much as €5-6 billion, or sacrifice something else in return. No prizes if you guessed that it will be our corporate tax rates.
Here is an example. We all heard about unrealistically high assumptions on economic growth that underlie our recovery plans. Over the last couple of weeks, things have gone from bad to worse. For example, Government plan, supported in principle by Fine Gael, assumed oil price inflation of just 10.4% in 2011. Alas, since plan’s publication, oil prices have risen on average by over 20% already. Every 10% increase in oil price in Ireland translates into roughly 0.5% cut in our GDP growth. So if the Budget 2011 projected expected growth of 1.75% in GDP over this year, all signs to-date suggest that in reality we will be lucky if we can get 0.5% (0.1% for larger and less oil-dependent economies, like Germany). And this means that in year 2011 alone, to keep up with the 4 year plan, the Government might need to find additional ‘savings’ of some €200 million net.
So forget the 5 points plans. The new Government will have to get off to a fast start on drawing up the realistic plans for dealing with the crises we faced. Comes Monday week, the honeymoon will be over for Fine Gael and Labor.