Friday, April 24, 2009

Daily Economics 25/04/09: John McGuinness & Alan Ahearne

For my comment on John McGuinness' story, scroll to the bottom.

Alan Ahearne, the newly minted adviser to the Government, has gone into an overdrive mode, tackling the 20 dissenters (including myself) who dared to challenge NAMA as a taxpayers' nightmare waiting to happen (in the Irish Times: here) and striking at criticism against his masters in the Leinster House (Irish Independent report today: here).

Per Ahearne's musings in the Times
It is indeed sad to read an article that so flatly denies itself a chance at having an argument, as Alan's treaties on What's wrong with nationalization. Alan spent some time studying our earlier Times piece (see more on this here), but it is also obvious that he had hard time coming up with arguments against its main points.

Let us start from the top.

"The recommendation that nationalisation of the entire Irish banking system is the only way we can extricate the banks and the economy from the serious difficulties we are experiencing risks diverting the debate away from issues that are much more central to the success of the ...Nama proposal." Alan follows up with a list of such 'central issues' from which our article was allegedly diverting the debate. Alas, all are actually covered in our article. As an aside, we never argued for nationalization of "the entire banking system", but of the systemically important banks alone.

"As in other advanced economies, bank nationalisation is seen very much as a last resort." Our article states that: "We do not make this recommendation from any ideological position. In normal circumstances, none of us would recommend a nationalised banking system. However, these are far from normal times..." We clearly were not advocating nationalization as some sort of a good-fun measure.

"It is important to recall that there is an overwhelming international consensus that the so-called good-bank/bad-bank model on which Nama is strongly based presents the opportunity for achieving an enduring long-term solution to the banking crisis." Actually, there is no such 'consensus'. And even if there was one, just because many other Governments have been working with this specific model does not mean that (a) the model actually works, (b) Ireland should follow in their footsteps and (c) this is the best option for resolving the crisis. The model does not work, as in the US, for example it has managed to absorb vast resources (which Ireland does not possess) and had come under heavy criticism as not delivering.

The fact that Ireland should not blindly follow in others footsteps is apparent. But it is also rather amusing, for the Indo (see below) reports today Alan's own insistence that we should not follow the US in stimulating our economy. No tax breaks to the suffering workers, says Alan, because we are different from the US in fiscal policies. NAMA and no nationalization, says Alan, because we want to follow the US lead in financial markets policies. Same Alan, two divergent points of view...

"One of the main issues identified in the article is the need to restore bank lending. This is a central objective of the Nama initiative. Nationalisation, on the other hand, creates a significant risk of undermining the capacity of the banks to raise funds internationally for domestic lending." Two things worth mentioning.
  1. Alan clearly contradicts here his own statement that our article risks 'diverting' national attention from the core issues relating to NAMA. Obviously it did not: restoring bank lending is "a central objective of the NAMA" (per Alan) and it was identified in our original article as "one of the main issues".
  2. The argument that nationalization undermines banks capacity to borrow internationally is a pure speculation. Firstly, our banks have little capacity to borrow internationally as is. Secondly, when they regain such capacity their ability to do so will be underpinned by public guarantees. Third, why a state-owned (and thus a fully state-insured) bank wouldn't be able to borrow from other banks and the markets? What would prevent, say London- based investors buying BofI bonds when these bonds carry a much stronger default protection under state guarantees than the one afforded to them by the half-competent current management?
"Investors would surely give the Irish market a wide berth in the future – not just in the banking sector – if the State undertook such an extreme step." No they won't, Alan. Banks and public finance in Ireland are in a mess. Investors have already priced these factors in. The markets understand the difference between a healthy, albeit not necessarily extremely profitable company like Elan or CRH and the nationalization-bound banks or economically illiterate Exchequer policies. Such are the basics of investment markets.

Nationalizing banks with clear privatization time line and disbursing privatization vouchers to the taxpayers will send strong signals to the markets that Ireland is:
  • serious about the banking crisis;
  • ready to support household balance sheets in crisis;
  • can creatively stimulate its economy without destroying it fiscal position;
  • will not waste privatization revenue in a gratuitous public spending boost, thus supporting long term fiscal health; and
  • will have a transparent and fixed downside on its banking rescue commitments (i.e no repeated rounds of post-NAMA recapitalizations).
Which one of these points contributes to the international investors shying away from Irish stocks?

"It is difficult to see a credible exit strategy from wholesale bank nationalisation." Read our article on the topic in Business & Finance magazine, Alan. Also, the original Times article, stated in plain English: "...nationalisation offers an opportunity, should the Government see such a need, to share directly with the taxpayers the upside in restoring banking sector health. Such an opportunity could involve a voucher-style reprivatisation of the banks and could be used to provide economic stimulus at a time of scarce resources, at no new cost to the exchequer." So no real mystery as to how a credible exit strategy can be devised, Alan.

But NAMA without nationalization offers no exit strategy at all (credible or not). In fact, it offers no strategy for ending the rounds of repeated bailouts of the banks either.

"Under the Nama initiative the taxpayer is protected from unforeseen losses through the Government’s commitment to levy the banks for any losses incurred." This is simply wrong! Once NAMA owns the assets, what recourse onto banks will the state have should the quality of the assets bought fail to match the price paid? As far as I can see - none. But under nationalization, the state owns all - good and bad assets, and it can price these assets on the ongoing basis as more information on the quality of loans arrives.

"The State has already, under the recapitalisation programme, potential for benefiting from the upside in terms of the recovery in the share prices of the two main banks. The State has an option to purchase at a very low price 25 per cent of the existing ordinary shares in Bank of Ireland, and will soon have a similar claim on AIB." I am sorry, Alan, the 25% shares in BofI and AIB relate to the €5bn that we, the taxpayers have already paid for these banks recapitalization. These shares are wholly independent from NAMA liability and from the future liabilities we will incur under NAMA-triggered second round of recapitalizations. Whichever way you twist it, Alan, the state will have to spend additional cash buying the shares of the banks after we have paid for NAMA!

About the only statement in the entire article I find myself at least in a partial agreement with is: "Empirical evidence strongly suggests that private banks perform better than nationalised banks. International studies have shown that too much “policy-directed” lending by wholly state-owned banks has retarded economic growth. The simple truth is that nationalisation creates a significant risk of a political rather than a commercial allocation of credit." However, the problem here is three-fold:

  1. NAMA is at the same, if not even the greater, risk of becoming politicised;
  2. Banks are going to be majority state-owned post-NAMA (if only at double the cost to the taxpayers), so Ahearne's musings do not resolve the problem he posits; and
  3. We are not in the normal times when empirical evidence holds...
we are in a mess! and Alan's confused rumblings on the topic illustrate the extent of this mess well enough for me.

Per Ahearne's economic policy musings in the Indo
US-styled fiscal "stimulus wouldn't work well anyway in a small, open economy, and, of course, the budget position is such that it just doesn't allow it," Dr Ahearne told Engineers Ireland conference.
Of course he is right on this, but him being right on the technicality does not mean that:
  • It is right to raise taxes on ordinary workers and businesses, as the Budget did, amidst the recession;
  • It is right not to cut public spending by an appreciably significant amount, as the Budget did;
  • It is right to continue awarding public sector wage hikes, as the Government is doing with consultants;
  • It is right to rely on senile plans for Irish-styled 'stimulus' that will waste money on unproven projects, as the Government did;
  • It is right to continue resisting reforms of the public sector, as the Government is doing.

Ahearne further said that 'if the US and the global economy improves next year and Ireland continues to get its public finances in order, then Ireland would be in a position to make a "strong recovery"'. Really, Alan? How so? Through a miraculous return of Dell jobs, Google engineers jobs? Waterford jobs? Tralee jobs? By reversing our losses in exports competitiveness? By scaling down the atrociously high cost of doing business here? Dr Ahearne is so far removed from reality of economic environment that he believes the entire economy can be rescued by the IDA efforts alone?

"Ireland is regaining its competitiveness "very quickly" because of rapidly falling wages, he said", as the Indo reports. "Of course, those declines are painful but they will price a lot of people back into the labour market and, therefore,they are setting the foundations for the recovery." This amazingly callous statement comes from a person who is secure in his own public sector job with high salary. It also comes from an official of this Government.

Wage declines have been borne out by the private sector alone, Alan. Unemployment increases have been borne by the private sector alone, Alan. And most of the real income loss to those still in the jobs has come courtesy of your masters policies - the Budget. How is this restoring any sort of competitiveness vis-a-vis other economies where the Governments are putting in place tax cuts?

Here is a lesson that Dr Ahearne failed to learn in all his years of studying economics:

  • Higher tax rates amidst the most generous welfare system in Europe mean that marginalized workers will not have an incentive to return to the labour market.
  • Higher taxes in a restricted labour market (with high costs of hiring and firing workers and high minimum wage rate) hamper jobs creation.
  • Higher taxes on already debt-loaded households mean that more and more families are facing the ruin and precautionary savings are rising, reducing our internal economy growth potential.
  • But most importantly, higher taxes on human capital mean that productivity growth is going to be constrained for years to come.

It is that simple, Alan, any recovery will require productivity growth in this economy outpacing the cost of living rises and the cost of doing business growth. Your policies have just hiked the latter by some 10% - courtesy of taxes and levies increases in the Budget, while restricting productivity growth by failing to provide any real support for businesses or incentives for workers to get off the dole. You are travelling in exactly the opposite direction to the one that has to be taken if we are to get productivity-driven recovery.

John McGuinness' appearance on the Late Late Show tonight was a logical conclusion of months of pinned up rage that this country is feeling toward the Cabinet - and primarily to Mr Cowen, Mr Lenihan and Mrs Coughlan - towards the public sector at large and towards the scores of mostly nameless, faceless (but sometimes publicly visible) 'advisers' who have systemically destroyed the prosperity of this country and its chances of coming out of the recession as a competitive and growth-focused economy.

McGuinness avoided offering direct examples of gross incompetence and outright insubordination that are so often exemplified by some of our public sector departments and quangoes. This was his choice, but the country needs to know of these acts and it needs to know the names of those who carry on their duties in such a manner. He also avoided placing the blame for the mess we are in where it really belongs, at the feet of:
  • the participants in the Social Partnership that managed to squander billions of our money to finance wasteful 'investment' and social cohesion programmes and to set this economy into the rigid infrastructure of inflexible labour laws, senile minimum wage restrictions, mad political correctness and corrupt local governance. Some of the Social Partnership members were the reluctant parties to this outrage - brought in under the threat of union violence against businesses and entrepreneurs. Others made it their life-long ambition to get their organizations to the feeding trough. Roles of all should now be questioned and the entire Partnership model must be scrapped;
  • the Government that has for the last 6 years chosen to take no serious policy action to reign in its own employees and their unions and that has retained inefficient and often markets-retarding monopolies. The Government that simply bought its way through the elections, policy conflicts and minor reforms;
  • the political culture that promotes mediocrity and punishes statesmanship. Our academic and policy debate systems that promote complacency, competition for public funding, anti-entrepreneurial ethos, social welfarism and provide philosophical and ethical foundations for systematic moral and financial debasing of the taxpayers, wealth creators, jobs providers and consumers, promoting instead the unquestioning support for NGOs, quangoes and public sector;
  • some business elites that, in exchange for state contracts handouts looked the other way as the political and social elites of this country carved our wages and earnings to their own benefits. It is a telling sign of the depreciation of the entrepreneurial spirit in this country that faced with a wholesale destruction at the hands of incompetent (and often outright malicious) policymakers, our business leaders remain largely silent, uncritical of the Government.
This should not be held against the person who has now become the first man from inside the FF tent to voice his honest and informed opinion. Instead, there should be firm focus on completing the task he started - the task of recognizing the fact that we are currently being ruled by the three 'leaders' who have shown over the last year complete inability to run the country in crisis. It is time for us not to ask them to go, but to tell them that they must go.

Blunders of Mary: I would encourage the readers of this blog to submit any publicly documented evidence of Mary Coughlan's incompetence at the helm of DETE or indeed of her incompetence at the previous ministerial appointments.

Here is the first one: on April 2 Mary Coughlan has publicly displayed the lack of knowledge as to the existence (let alone the details) of the new Social Welfare Bill put forward by her own Government and already scheduled for a full debate in the Dail in late April. As the bill provides for adjustments in unemployment benefits and conditions, the bill would be at least partially linked directly to Mary Coughlan's ministerial brief. Responding in the Dail to the question concerning this bill, Mary Coughlan said she had no knowledge of any such legislation.

There was, of course, her infamous failure in the Lisbon Treaty debate (here); and an equally spectacular flop during her tenure as Minister for Agriculture, when an ordinary farmer's question exposed her lack of knowledge concerning her ministerial brief.

She earned herself a nickname of 'Sarah Palin of Donegal' after she told radio listeners on April 11th that Irish shoppers go to Northern Ireland only to buy cheap booze (here). This showed such monumental disrespect for ordinary families her Government has squeezed out of savings, pensions and earnings, that she should have been sacked on the spot for such proclamations.

The rumor mill in the public sector if full of accounts - that are yet to be documented - of her undiplomatic behaviour at foreign missions, outrageous antics at the meetings with international business leaders and arrogant statements in addressing top corporate brass. This is far from being a hallmark of an independently-minded politician - it is a direct result of her gross unsuitability for the position of responsibility that she occupies.


Anonymous said...

Mary Palin's first act as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment was to issue a statement welcoming Guinness' announcement of the close of Smitwicks brewery in Kilkenny. The Tánaiste is notorious for not reading the briefs or speeches prepared by Department officials and thus making a fool of herself by speaking off the cuff on maters she doesn't understand.

artied said...

Greetings Dr Gurdgiev

I am enjoying the clarity of your blogging to the point where i have nearly stopped writing/ranting about Economics on my own site.

I tried to summarise the Govt.'s plan to a friend as
The main thrust of the plan is

1. to recapitalise the banks with taxpayer funds that require tax hikes and service cuts to implement.
2. the worst of the banks excesses are to be purchased at a discount to book value and a premium to market in the hope that they may eventually be sold at a profit. The market premium is required so as to reduce the amount of recapitalisation fund needed. This also has the effect of taking property out of circulation in the hope of avoiding a complete collapse in value as occured in the StockExch (-75%)

is this a fair summation. The friend believes that the NAMA transfers will happen at some notional market valuation (he hears 70% mentioned in 'knowledgeable circles') -

i don't believe there is a 'market' for these amounts of property at the best of times let alone these.

A one sentence confirmation/correction would be much appreciated



TrueEconomics said...

Artied, thanks for the comment. Do not give up on your own writing - the best part about blogging is not that there are people who get things right, but that there are people who have their own views and analysis.

Both of your points are spot on. There is an added dimension to the second point on which I wrote earlier: (scroll to the "The Upside to capitalization savings"). The argument is that whether the Government/NAMA wants it or not, if they apply a fair market discount (accounting for risk inherent in these assets), a new round of recapitalization will be needed afterward as such a discount will drop banks capital ratios below 8% Tier 1. In this case, at least, the Government will get some ordinary shares in the bank against such recapitalization.

Alternatively, if they chose a smaller discount, the banks might escape without the new recapitalization call (or with a smaller one) and the taxpayer will be completely shafted.

As far as the NAMA discount on distressed assets goes - various figures have been floated out there. Davy suggest 15%, Merrion argue 25%, I think that an average of 35-40% (with some assets bought at 50% or heftier discount) is in order. I heard recently that some hedgies are expecting 20% discount. It's anyone's guess.

At 15-25% discount we are setting ourselves up for a miserable tally of losses in NAMA to be covered by us, the taxpayers. At 40% discount we shall be able to break even, but we will need to provide banks with some €5-8bn in new capital right away. Of course, were we to provide such capital, the state will become a nearly 100% shareholder in the banks as the cash injection will be much greater than the entire market value of the banks.

In short, this is a complete mess.

artied said...

Greetings Constantin,
Thanks for the swift response and the encouragement (if interested check out

I agree that the plan is a mess - for which the Govt do not have a mandate.


TrueEconomics said...

With apologies for accidentally erasing a valuable comment from Rob:

For those who missed it, the Late Late interview with John McGuinness is available at
Starts around 18:05