Friday, March 22, 2013

22/3/2013: Sunday Times, 17/03/2013

This is an unedited version of my Sunday Times article from March 17.

Economics is an art of contention. In so far as economics body of knowledge is concerned, the world is largely composed of an infinite number of things that are either uncertain, or open to interpretation. One of the very few near-certainties that economists do hold across the ideological and philosophical divisions is that an economy undergoing deleveraging of household debt is likely to experience a lengthy period of below-trend growth. The greater the debt pile to be deleveraged, the faster was the period of debt accumulation, the longer such a recession or stagnation will last.

Another near-certainty is that in a debt crisis, economy is unlikely to recover on foot of either monetary or fiscal stimuli. Monetary easing can help the deleveraging process if and only if low policy rates translate into cheaper mortgages on the ground. This requires a functioning banking system, in addition to monetary policy independence. Fiscal stimulus can only help to the extent to which it can temporarily stimulate growth, and even then the impact on more indebted households is unlikely to be any stronger than on less-indebted ones. Longer-term effects of a significant debt-financed fiscal stimulus in an economy already struggling with government and household debt, are more likely to be detrimental to the overall process of deleveraging. Higher debt today necessary to fund economic stimulus translates into higher burden of that debt in the future.

Meanwhile, deleveraging of the households in and by itself, even absent banking and other crises, is a process associated with dramatically reduced economic activity and growth.

Households struggling with a debt overhang are effectively removed from being active participants in the economy. Indebted households do not save, thus depleting their future pensions provisions and reducing overall levels of investment in the economy. Indebted households tend to cut back their consumption, both in terms of large-ticket durable goods and in terms of everyday items. They also reduce consumption of higher-quality higher-cost goods, adversely impacting domestic producers in higher-cost economies, like Ireland, favoring more competitively priced imports.

With banks beating on their doors, indebted households abstain from entrepreneurship and engage less actively in seeking improved employment opportunities. The latter means that indebted households, fearing even a short-term spell in unemployment, do not seek to better align their skills and talents, as well as future prospects for promotion with jobs offers. This, in turn, implies loss of productivity for the economy at large. The former means slower rate and more risk-averse entrepreneurship resulting in further reduction in future growth potential for the economy.

Last, but not least, household debt overhang results in increased rates of psychological and even psychiatric disorders, incidences of self-harm, suicide, stress and social dislocations. These effects have a direct and adverse impact on public services, the economy and the society at large.

In Irish context, the effects of household debt overhang (most acutely expressed in mortgages arrears) are likely to be significantly larger than in normal debt crises episodes and last longer.

Consider the sheer magnitude of the problem. In an average debt crisis, household debt arrears peak at around 7-10% of the total debt outstanding. Per latest data from the Central of Bank of Ireland, at the end of 2012, 143,851 private residential mortgages accounts and 37,995 buy-to-let accounts were in arrears. Total number of mortgages in arrears represented 19% of all mortgages outstanding.  Total balance of mortgages in arrears amounted to EUR35.4 billion, or 25% of the entire mortgages-related debt. Mortgages at risk of default or defaulted (defined as all currently in arrears, relating to properties with repossession orders and mortgages restructured during the crisis, but currently not in arrears) amounted to 238,663 accounts and EUR45.3 billion of the outstanding debt, or 25.3% and 31.9% of the respective totals.

Given expected losses from the above mortgages in the case of repossessions and/or insolvency, and inclusive of the interest costs due on this unproductive debt, over the next 3 years Irish economy is likely to face direct losses from this mortgages crisis to the tune of EUR20 billion. This will reduce our current level of gross fixed capital formation in the economy by 40 percent in every year through 2015.

In indirect costs, the crisis currently is impacting some 650,000-700,000 individuals living in the households with mortgages at risk, as well as countless others either in the negative equity or arrears on unsecured debt (credit cards, credit unions’ loans, utility bills etc).  Using basic cost of health insurance coverage, the relationship between health insurance spend in Ireland and cost of public healthcare, and assuming that annual cost of higher stress associated with debt overhang amount to just 10% of the total annual insurance costs, direct health costs alone from the debt crisis can add up to EUR400-500 million per annum. Factoring productivity losses due to stress, the total social, psychological and psychiatric costs of the mortgages arrears can run over a billion.

Costs of foregone entrepreneurship are even harder to quantify, but can be gauged from the overall decline in investment. In 2012 the shortfall in aggregate domestic investment activity compared to 1999-2003 annual average (taking the period before the rapid acceleration in property bubble) was running at ca EUR6.9-7.0 billion. This shortfall is roughly comparable to the above estimated annualized cost of servicing defaulting and at risk mortgages. Gross investment in Ireland is now running at a rate not seen since 1997.  Meanwhile, net expenditure by the local and central Government on current goods and services is running above 2005 levels, same as personal consumption of goods and services. This suggests that our current rates of domestic investment and associated entrepreneurship are down more significantly than personal and Government spending.

In some sectors, things are even worse.  Construction sector is clearly seeing no turnaround with new residential construction permits down 88% in 2012 on the peak, heading for historical low of estimated full-year 14,022 permits based on data through Q3 2012. Extending mortgage arrears crisis or deepening the households’ already significant debt overhang through the means of forcing them into repaying the unsustainable loans will only exacerbate the crisis in Irish construction sector and in all sectors of domestic economy.

In years to come, the mortgages crisis today is likely to cost Irish economy around 10% of our GNP.

And it is unlikely to ease significantly any time soon, since the above costs exclude the effects of likely acceleration in mortgages defaults in months and years to come due to the adverse policy and economic headwinds.

Firstly, ongoing fiscal consolidation is shifting more burden of paying for our State onto the shoulders of Irish households, including those subsumed by the debt crisis. This process is not going to end with Budget 2014.

Secondly, reform of the personal insolvency regime will add fuel to the fire by giving banks disproportional powers over the households in structuring long-term solutions to the mortgages distress. Changes to the Central Bank code of conduct for the banks in dealing with borrowers, along with the accelerated targets for restructuring non-performing mortgages announced this week are likely to push the banks to more aggressively deal with the borrowers. These factors will amplify the rate of mortgages arrears build up, driving more households into temporary relief measures. These measures will structured by the banks in absence of transparent and efficient consumer protection to suit banks’ objectives of extracting all resources out of households for as long as possible before forcing the households into bankruptcy in the end.

Finally, mortgages arrears will continue to rise on foot of weak economic growth and continued re-orientation of the Irish economy away from domestic activity toward MNCs. This headwind closes the loop from the household debt overhang to depressed domestic investment to higher unemployment and lower domestic growth to an even greater debt overhang.

In order to deal with the mortgages crisis, we need a prescriptive approach to long-term solutions based on principles of borrower protection, standardization and transparency.

All lenders operating in Ireland should be required to publish a full list of solutions offered to the distressed borrowers which complies with the minimum standards set out by the Central Bank and a borrowers’ protection watchdog, such as reformed and independent Mabs. The financial criteria and conditions that qualify borrowers for such solutions should be disclosed. The process of finalizing the details of solutions should involve borrowers supported by an adviser, fully resourced to deal with the lender and independent from the lender and the state.

Only by matching borrower and lender powers and resources in a transparent and strictly supervised manner can we achieve a resolution to this crisis. Until then, this economy will continue operating well below its potential rate of growth, condemning generations of Irish people to debt slavery. The status quo of the state granting ever increasing powers to the banks in dealing with mortgages arrears is not sustainable and is likely to lead to both economic misery, continued emigration, and in the long run to political and social discontent. Sixth year into the mortgages crisis of extremely acute nature, we can not afford another round of half-measures and fake solutions.


This week auction of Irish bonds put to some test the theory of yields divergence with the euro area periphery. Compared to Italian Government bonds auction carried out on the same day, Irish 10 year bonds were greeted by the markets with a cheer.  While supportive of the analysts’ consensus view that Ireland is decoupling from the peripheral states, such as Italy, Portugal and Spain, the results of the auction were at least in part driven by factors outside the Irish Government control. This was the first 10 year bond issuance for Ireland in 3 years and the issue came without much of the adverse newsflow surrounding the economy. Complete absence of 10 year bonds in the secondary market prior to the auction assured some of the demand. For Italy, this was the first auction following Fitch downgrade of the sovereign to Baa1 rating – fresh in the memory of the markets. Italian newsflow has also been disappointing recently with elections outcome unnerving the markets and with GDP figures (Italy has reported its 2012 full year growth almost a month ahead of Ireland, which is still to post results for Q4 2012).

Just how much of this week’s result for Ireland can be accounted for by the factors unrelated to the Government policies or real economic performance is impossible to determine. Nonetheless, Minister Noonan’s cheerful references to the auction as ‘extraordinary’ in nature sounds more like a political PR opportunism than of financial realism.

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