Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NTMA - a problem foretold

For months now I have been saying that soon, very soon, there will come a moment when the markets are not going to take any more of the Irish Government IOUs. At least not at the yields consistent with AAA, AA+, AA or even AA- ratings. The Government, its eager-to-please economic advisers and its boffins in the CBFSAI and DofF were not listening and continued to pile on debt commitments as if they were running a San Fran Fed, not an economy with 4.5mln people in it.

Today's NTMA results show that I was (and am) on the right track. I can't stress the fact that, in my view, NTMA are doing a good job in the current conditions, so whatever is to yet to come - it will be the fault of their masters in DofF and the Government.

In a quick summary, NTMA issued €1bn worth of bonds today in 5 and 9-year paper, with the markets willing to bid only €1.24bn on the offer - a 124% coverage overall. This compares with x3 times cover (300%+) for the previous auction. And, this time around, there was plenty of cash in the sovereign debt markets (not the case with the previous auction) with estimated €19bn worth of funds available for 'fishing'.

So what's at play? The 'bait' was off and the fish were too smart to line up for the Irish cast.

Last point first: Ireland to date has raised €12bn in its annual borrowing requirement (per DofF rosy estimate) of €25bn. This is just the stuff to finance the current deficit with. Again, per my projections we would need another €2-4bn in additional borrowings this year. How this can be achieved is unclear, as markets are getting thinner by the day and at €1bn per month, we are not getting there at any rate. But investors are bound to start getting even less welcoming when they realise that with NAMA, Ireland will have to open the flood gates for bonds issues - even at a hefty 40% discount, €90bn-strong NAMA will require €54bn in bond financing. That is the amount needed before we consider re-issuance of maturing paper...

Now to the wrong bait issue - the pricing of the bonds was very ambitious in my view - at 4% for €300mln worth 5-year paper (cover of 160%) and at 4.5% for a 9-year issue (cover at 110%). In March 24 auction, cover ratios achieved were 380% and 270%.

The next to watch is Thursday auction of short-term paper: 1-mo (€400-500mln), 3-mo (€500-600mln) and 6-mo (€400-500mln) T-Bills. If successful in finding a solid market, these might push Irish Government to switch into more aggressive financing through short-term debt - effectively creating a credit card system of financing for Irish deficits.

But even if the Government keeps short-term paper issuance at the going rate, it does appear to me that a part of the Government strategy is to use short-term bonds to finance spending in a hope that either:
(A) the economy improves dramatically (good luck to you chaps), or
(B) Brian Lenihan will raid the taxpayers in an even more massive robbery, comes Budget, or
(C) The ECB will take the balance off Brian's hands (in effect, we are borrowing recklessly short-term in a hope that a rich uncle rides into town with a wallet full of cash).
Otherwise, issuing 1-9mo debt when your problem is a structural deficit of ca €15bn (roughly 45% of your revenue) per annum is as close to playing a Russian Roulette as one can come.

But either way - (A) implies we can't deal with our mess ourselves (an embarrassing line of policy to take), (B) implies that the Government has no moral right to rule, while (C) implies that the Government is willing to go hat-in-hand to the world only to avoid threatening the Trade Unions. Take your pick.

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