Thursday, December 18, 2008

A train wreck of Irish economic policy

In managing the ongoing economic crisis, observing Irish Government policy can only be compared to watching a train wreck in slow motion. The banks re-capitalization scheme announced this week is just another example. By ignoring Ireland's impoverished and debt-overloaded consumers and companies, the latest plan will not deliver any real benefits to growth, credit flows or consumer/producer confidence.

One frame…

First, the rails buckle underneath as the Exchequer balance snaps under the weight of reckless public spending. Pop, pop – the fastenings fly off as tax line after tax line comes short. “No worries, we have a plan”, calls out the engineer. Enter the emergency budget – empty of any ideas as to how to mend the path or to lighten the load.

Then, the engine slumps oil-less. Banks hit the friction of bad corporate and household loans. The sparks of private unemployment fly. “All’s fine,” shouts the engineer, “we have insurance”. Emergency banks guarantee follows, but panic engulfs the carriages.

For what seems like an eternity the train pushes on. Dust, gravel and engine parts are shooting in all directions. Business insolvencies double year on year under the weight of the heaviest corporate debt load in the EU. Consumers crumble under the largest debt mountain in the OECD. Homes repossessions are on the rise and retail sales crash. The policy engine spins out of control: income, savings and consumption taxes go up and business rates increase. “The fundamentals are sound,” shout engineers. The rest of the world is selling off Irish shares and assets.

By the end of last week, the index of Irish financial companies shares has fallen 67% relative to the Black Monday of September 29th – the point that triggered the banks guarantee. “This will all end happily,” chirp engineers, “We’ll commission new reports, appoint new committees and issue more emergency responses.”

… to another

Enter this Sunday’s desperate ‘capitalization’ package. This promises to deliver some €10 billion to the banks in a swap for equity. The details, predictably, are sparse. Everyone expects the capital injections to be a copy-cat of those instituted by Germany and the UK – the countries hardly facing the same problems as Ireland. This implies a mixture of private and public funds to be made available to the banks with some token conditions, e.g dividends and management bonuses caps.

In a statement the Department of Finance said the plan will underpin the availability of loans to individuals and businesses.

Ooops. By-passing Ireland’s impoverished consumers and companies, the plan will not deliver any such benefits.

Elsewhere in Europe and the US, similar capitalization schemes have failed to reduce the cost of corporate borrowing or to restart lending to the households. In the UK, a £43 billion capital injection scheme has been in place for almost two months and the supply of consumer and business credit continues to fall - whether due to demand slowdown, lenders withdrawal from the market or both. In the US, massive banks’ capital supports have lowered the mortgage rates, but there is no meaningful increase in new mortgages uptake.

Three reasons for State-to-Banks recapitalization in-effectiveness

First, heavily indebted households are unlikely to take up new credit regardless of the cost. Short of the Government scheme to reduce the household debt or to increase after-tax incomes, no policy will shift consumers out of precautionary savings and into credit markets. So the retail sales will continue falling, businesses will suffer and consumers will keep on heading North for shopping. Our engineers, who two months ago raised VAT and now stubbornly refuse to back-down will see even less VAT revenue in 2009.

Second, heavily indebted Irish businesses can use new credit to either roll-over existent debts, or to finance short-term operational expenses, e.g export transactions. With exception of export credits, any new lending will simply re-arrange the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic of corporate Ireland. None of the new loans will go into capital acquisition, investment or hiring. These activities have stopped not because credit got dear, but because economic demand for goods and services has collapsed.

Third, for the banks, turning recapitalization proceeds into business loans will defeat the entire purpose of the scheme. Assuming re-capitalization is needed because bank’s capital is running too low relative to the size of the impaired or threatened loans, recapitalization must drive up the capital-to-loans ratio. Taking the money and using it to issue more loans will do exactly the opposite.

And this brings us to the issue of costs. The scheme will use the last of the remaining taxpayers’ money – the National Pensions Reserve Fund – to increase capital reserves of the banks. This means the state will no longer have any remaining capacity to inject a meaningful stimulus into the real economy. The consumers will go on cutting spending, business will go on laying off workers and the Exchequer will go on issuing new emergency responses. The more things change…

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