Tuesday, September 9, 2014

9/9/2014: An IMF Loans Deal Can Be a Win-Win for EU and Ireland

Earlier today I was covering the topic of Ireland seeking an early repayment of the IMF loans on the CNBC (@CNBCWEXhttp://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?video=3000309131. Here is a quick note summarising my views on the topic.

DEAL: The Irish Government is hoping to refinance the IMF portion of the Troika debt to achieve annual savings of some EUR375 million due to lower bond yields enjoyed by Ireland today compared to the IMF interest charges. The Government is looking to pay down EUR15 billion of the EUR22.5 billion total the country owes to the IMF.

IMF loans come with 4.99% interest rate against 1.80% marketable yield on Irish Government 10 year bonds. Back in July, Irish Finance Minister, Michael Noonan said he aims to refinance the first EUR5 billion of IMF loans before end of December, with the same tranche going for refinancing in the first half of 2015 and a final EUR5 billion in 2016.

Since then, following the ECB’s latest rate cut last week, Irish Government yields hit negative territory and yields on 10 year paper are currently trading at yields of under 1.7%.

The Government also has EUR20.6 billion in cash reserves that can be used to fund IMF loans buy-out. And the fiscal performance in 8 months through August 2014 has been surprisingly strong, even stripping out one-off payments.

INCENTIVES: The Irish Government interest in refinancing IMF loans is driven by both political and economic considerations.

On political front, the Coalition Government suffered heavy defeats in the European and Local elections earlier this year. So the Government needs to deliver new savings in Exchequer spending to allow for a reduction in austerity pressures in Budget 2015. 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. Optics and reality are coincident in the case of refinancing IMF borrowings, creating a powerful incentive to deliver.

Additional consideration is provided by the Government failure to secure a deal on legacy banks’ debts (see below), which de facto aligns Irish Government political interests with those of the EU.

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. Especially since the latest Exchequer figures are pointing to Ireland significantly outperforming the Troika targets for 2014-2015 and the economy is showing signs of recovery.

All-in, this is a smart move for the Irish Government and a win-win for the economy, the EU and the governing Coalition.

SUPPORT:  In August, the Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Jyrki Katainen said that in his view, Irish plan to pay down IMF portion of the Troika loans ahead of schedule makes sense.

The EU Commissioner statement came on foot of the letter by the IMF mission head to Ireland, Craig Beaumont in which he said that the Fund will not impose early repayment penalty on Ireland, were the Government to refinance its debt.

Last week, Mario Draghi cautiously commented on the deal. When asked about his position on it, Draghi said that the ECB “took note” of the proposal and will monitor “very, very closely what is being done with the sale of assets so that monetary financing concerns are being properly and significantly addressed.” In other words, Draghi explicitly linked the IMF refinancing deal with the IBRC-legacy bonds held by the Central Bank of Ireland. The ECB has always signalled that it is interested in seeing Irish Government disposing of these bonds at an accelerated schedule. The accelerated disposal of the bonds means that the Irish Government sells these bonds in the markets to private holders and the coupon payments on these bonds become payable not to the Central Bank (which can recycle payments back to the Exchequer) but to private bondholders. On the other hand, however, the value of these bonds is now likely to be over par, implying that disposing of them today can generate capital gains for the Exchequer. At any rate, Mr Draghi’s statements does signal the ECB willingness to deal on the prospect for refinancing of the IMF loans.

Regardless of Mr Draghi’s comments, we had more statements in support of the deal so far in the last few days with unnamed EU Commission sources indicating further EU support.

As the decision remains with the Euro area governments on whether such a repayment will trigger automatic repayment of other multilateral loans, these are more important than Mr. Draghi’s position. As long as the ECB does not actively object to the deal, Minister Noonan is likely to secure an agreement without triggering automatic repayment of the remaining loans.

The reason for this is simple. In June 2012, the EU promised to review sustainability of Irish public debt in light of potential retroactive recapitalisation of the Irish banks. However, with subsequent developments, it became painfully clear that the Euro states had no intention of providing any significant support for Ireland. In order to back out of the proverbial corner, the EU will look favourably on any debt restructuring or refinancing deal the Irish authorities can design that does not imply retrospective recapitalisations.

Letting Ireland have a EUR375 million annual breathing space is a cheap solution to the EU's dilemma of issuing promises, without any intention of following through on them. 

REALITY: The truth, however, remains simple. EU and ECB insistence in 2008-2011 on paying in full on Irish banks debts has derailed Irish economy and is costing this country in terms of lower economic growth, high unemployment, high burden of taxation and dysfunctional banking system saddled with legacy debts. EUR375 million savings - welcome as they might be - is a proverbial plaster applied to a gaping wound left on Irish public finances by the crisis.

IMPACT: In the short run, refinancing IMF loans will provide improvement in the sovereign cash flow, but can 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 can lead to a small, but a positive change in the Government debt dynamics. The definitive point here 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 or closing off the remaining (and still large) deficit gap, there is likely to be a positive impact in terms of markets expectations and this will support better risk assessment of the sovereign debt dynamics. However, this is unlikely, due to the strong political momentum in favour of spending the new savings on reversing, in part, public sector spending cuts and state wages moderation. The problem is that in this case, interest costs reductions achieved under the deal will simply be consumed by remaining inefficiencies within the public sector. Such a move would likely be detrimental to Ireland's debt sustainability in the longer run.

It is worth noting that in 8 months through August, the Government took in EUR971 million more in tax revenues (UER700 million if one-off measures are netted out) than it planned in the Budget 2014, so some tax rebate is overdue, given the hefty burden of taxes-linked austerity on Irish economy. But the state is still borrowing EUR800 million per month to fund its spending. And we spent around EUR5.5 billion so far this year on funding interest payments on the debt.

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