Thursday, September 4, 2014

4/9/2014: Repaying Ahead of Schedule: Ireland & IMF Loans

Last week Portugal's Expresso published a big article on Irish plans to repay earlier the IMF loans. The link is here: (pages 37-38)

My view on the subject in full:

1-      The Irish hurry is politically engineered or they understand that the present low sovereign bond yields mood can be a short-term window of opportunity in the Euro area?

In my view, Irish Government interest in refinancing IMF loan is driven by both political and economic considerations. On political front, following heavy defeats in the European and Local elections, the ruling coalition needs to deliver new savings in Exchequer spending to allow for a reduction in austerity pressures in Budget 2015 and more crucially support increased giveaways in the Budgets in 2016 and 2017. Savings of few hundred millions of euros will help. And an ability to claim that the IMF loans have been repaid, even if only by borrowing elsewhere to fund these repayments can go well with the media and the voters tired of the Troika. On economic incentives side, the Government clearly is forwarding borrowing and re-profiling its bonds/debt maturity timings to minimise short-term pain of forthcoming repayments and to safeguard against the potential future increases in the rates and yields. In addition, there is a very apparent need to refinance the IMF loans as the interest charges on these is out of line with the current funding costs for the Government. It is worth noting here that the Irish Government is far from being homogeneous on the incentives side. For example, from Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan's statements, it is pretty clear that the incentives to refinance the IMF loans are predominantly economic and financial. On the other hand, for majority of the Labour Party ministers and a small number of the Fine Gael Cabinet Ministers, the incentives are more political.

2-      The move is also a way of reducing the “official sector” debt in the overall sovereign debt composition (higher than 50 per cent)?

The issue of the 'official sector' debt as opposed to the total public debt is less pressing for the Irish state. Larger share of the official sector debt in total debt composition provides short-term support for bonds prices, as higher official sector debt holdings imply lower private sector debt holdings in the present. However, in the future, the expectation in the markets is that the official sector debt will be refinanced via private markets, thus higher share of official sector debt today is a net negative for the future debt exposures. The result is that higher official share of debt is supporting lower current yields, but rises future yields, making the maturity curve steeper, ceteris paribus. In the current environment, Irish government is not significantly exposed to shorter-term debt markets, but it is exposed to longer termed debt roll-over demands that are consistent with political cycle. Reducing official exposures, therefore, can be supportive of the longer-term view of the debt issuance by the state. However, the issue is marginal to Irish policymakers and certainly secondary to the political and economic benefits the early repayment of the IMF loans brings.

3-      This initiative is useful to upgrade the sovereign debt sustainability?

In the short run, if successful, the initiative will provide improvement in the sovereign cash flows, but will cause the rebalancing of some private portfolios of Irish government debt. In the longer run, the direct effect of a successful refinancing of the IMF loans will most likely lead to little material change in the Government debt dynamics. The issue of the greater longer term concern is what the Irish Government is likely to do with any savings achieved through the debt restructuring. If the funds were to be used to fund earlier closing off of other official loans, there is likely to be a positive impact in terms of markets expectations on supply of Government bonds in the future and the direction of Irish fiscal reforms, both of which will support better risk assessments of the sovereign debt and Irish bonds. This is unlikely, however, due to the strong political momentum in favour of spending the new savings on reversing in part past savings achieved via public sector spending cuts and wages costs moderation. Such a move would likely be detrimental to Ireland's debt sustainability in the longer run. A third alternative is to deploy savings to reduce austerity pressures in the Budget 2015 across tax and spend areas. Tax reductions can be productive in stimulating sustainable growth and thus improving the fiscal position of the state in the longer run; spending cuts reductions will simply be consumed by remaining inefficiencies within the public sector.

4-      The Irish had some interesting political initiatives during the bail-out and post-bail-out period. First they change the annual promissory notes repayments into very long long debt (a kind of soft debt restructuring of 25 billion, 12 per cent of total public debt); then they decided for a “clean” exit opting out from the OMT constraints; and now they take the move to get out of IMF loans. In the framework of the Euro are peripheral countries this is an “innovation”?

The Irish government has taken a clearly distinct path from other euro area 'peripheral' states. However, this path is contingent on a number of relatively idiosyncratic features of the crisis in Ireland. Restructuring of the IBRC Promissory Notes was required due to political pressures of facing continued and clearly defined cost of the IBRC restructuring, but also by the significant pressures from the ECB to close off the ELA lines to IBRC, as well as Frankfurt's unhappiness with the structure of the Promissory Notes. In the end, this policy 'innovation' basically traded off short term savings for longer term costs and increased longer term uncertainty. It achieved substantial improvements in cash flow up front, but, depending on the schedule of bonds sales into the future, created little real savings over the life time of the loans. In the case of 'clean exit', Ireland benefited from the fact that a bulk of its deficits were incurred in extraordinary supports for the banks through 2011. In this sense, the Government had two years of relative stabilisation and decline in fiscal pressures before exiting the Troika programme. No other country in the euro 'periphery' had such deficit and debt dynamics. The move to refinance the IMF loans, however, is probably the first significant policy lead that Ireland deployed, as this move (if successful) will be paving the way for Spain, Portugal and Greece to follow in the future. Throughout the second stage of the euro area sovereign debt crisis (2012-present), the Irish Government deserves the credit for being recognised as being the one most actively seeking marginal improvements in the cash flow and rebalancing of debt costs and maturities within the euro area 'periphery'. But in part, this activism is also down to the fact that Ireland had a longer run in the debt crisis than any other 'peripheral' states and it deployed a plethora of various programmes, creating a policy map that is a patchwork of temporary and poorly structured programmes, like the IBRC Promissory Notes. Repairing these programmes offers Ireland a rather unique chance to get an uplift on some of its exposures.

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