Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Don't blink

This article strays a little off the normal topic of this blog, but the current turmoils of the Eurozone require some comment.

These are worrying times both for those at the younger end looking for employment, and those at the older end who are not employed in the public sector and who hope to retire on pension policy savings which actually still have some value when they come to retire. From that point of view the question for those in the UK is whether there will be another global meltdown similar to the one of two years' ago, or whether it will be confined to the weaker Eurozone members. Who knows?

However, the current issue concerning Ireland is interesting as well as (in that wider context) alarming. I am reminded of the adage that if you owe your bank manager £100 you call him Sir, but when you owe him £1m, he calls you Sir. So it is with the Ireland: from the negotiating point of view the Irish government is in a strong position, possibly made even stronger by the doubt about whether it can actually pass its austerity budget at the beginning of next month. It seems difficult to believe even Eurozone ministers think the proposed bail-out package for Ireland will deal with the current situation faced by Ireland, notwithstanding what those ministers say, and certainly the markets don't believe it. The problem with Ireland is not an inadequately performing economy, but the fact that the Irish government has guaranteed the debts of the Irish banks which are in turn so large that the Irish economy cannot finance them. The flagrantly imprudent behaviour of the two Irish banks concerned, left uncontrolled by the Irish government, has brought the Irish economy to its knees.

Any further loans are just not repayable. Ireland either needs real rather than pretend capital to refinance its banks, that is gifts and/or equity stakes not loans (no private investor is going to put equity in), or for creditors to take a discount or 'haircut' on the banks' repayment obligations, by perhaps as much as 50%.

I would be surprised if the Irish government doesn't manage to achieve this in due course: that depends on whether other Eurozone ministers place a higher price on keeping the Eurozone in its present form intact, or on saving their own taxpayers' money, and in particular at what point German ministers lose their nerve when faced with a forthcoming election and electors unhappy with financing the deficits of Ireland, Portugal and Spain. We will probably have a combination in a year or two of both these new loans being written off or turned into notional equity, and compulsory creditor discounts.

Predictably, the Scottish bank RBS features prominently amongst those creditors who have made some of the past loans which are now likely to have to be discounted, as also does to a lesser degree Lloyds-HBOS. This is one of the reasons why the UK government is keen to help.

We also need the European Central Bank to stop accepting Eurozone sovereign debt at face value and start including a risk element in any further loans, so as to re-establish discipline and begin transferring sovereign debt funding (and the providing of equity to the banks concerned) back to the markets. I simply don't believe those who say the Eurozone is unsustainable. It is only unsustainable in the form in which it has so far been allowed to operate: and I fully expect that the UK in future decades will, or at least should, find its home in a reformed Eurozone.

The Irish government already knows how to play this: don't blink first.

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