Cantillon on Central Bank Bond Sales

I seem to have annoyed someone with my post about the Central Bank’s bond sales, judging by this discussion of the issue by the Irish Times Cantillon column.

When the promissory notes were swapped for long-term bonds held by the Central Bank last year, various people pointed out that the faster the pace of sales of the bonds to the private sector, the smaller the gains from the swap would be. See for example, my post on this and also Seamus Coffey’s similar conclusions.  I don’t recall anyone disputing this point at the time.

Now, however, Cantillon is here to tell us that this point is “simplistic”.  Apparently, it “ignores the fact that the bank cannot hold the bonds to maturity.”  So who is doing this ignoring? Not Seamus. Not me – our calculations on this have always assumed the Central Bank will sell the bonds.

What then about all this stuff about this being a great time to sell the bonds? You wouldn’t know it from Cantillon’s long-winded discussion but this really is a pretty simple issue.  If we sell the bonds now, we start paying interest straight away and this adds to the cost for the Exchequer.

Of course, it is possible that yields on Irish sovereign bonds may rise so much in the future that we could end up paying more in interest by delaying the bond sales—we extend the period of time that cost is zero but at the expense of much higher interest costs later and this latter factor ends up dominating. With the ECB committed to low interest rates for the foreseeable future, the Irish economy recovering and the debt-GDP ratio falling, this doesn’t seem like a scenario we need to worry too much about.

Cantillon’s final point – that ultimately what’s going in is that faster sales “diffuses at least some of the anger felt in Frankfurt that Ireland in effect obtained monetary financing for itself via the deal” – is of course spot on.  Alas, little is likely to be done to diffuse the anger felt in Ireland about the ECB’s actions during the crisis.

In Ireland, Even Bad News is Good News: Bond Sale Edition

There is lots of good economic news coming out of Ireland these days. GDP is rising at an impressive rate, unemployment is falling, government bond yields are very low and the public finances are improving significantly. In fact, things are so great now that even unmitigatedly bad news is presented as good news.

Thanks to Lorcan Roche Kelly for alerting me to this gem this morning.

So why is the Irish Times article so bad? It reports that the Central Bank is speeding up its sales to the private sector of the bonds it received in place of the promissory notes and that it is now going to sell more than the minimum pace of sales signalled last year. The article clearly signals to readers that this is a piece of good news and does not suggest any downside. The reality is that there is no upside whatsoever to the sales. This is a bad news story all the way.

Why is this? The current arrangement features the Central Bank owning bonds issued by the government.  The government pays interest on these bonds, these interest payments add to the Central Bank’s profits, and then these profits are eventually recycled back to the government. So as long as the Central Bank holds on the bonds, the net cost of this debt to Exchequer is precisely zero.

What happens when the bonds are sold to the private sector? The annual interest payments now go to private sector investors and don’t get recycled back to the government. So the cost is no longer zero.

The replacement of the despised promissory notes in February 2013 with the new bonds acquired by the Central Bank was widely presented as a big improvement for the Irish state. However, economists emphasised at the time that any benefits depended on the pace of sales. See, for instance, the bottom part of this blog post, which illustrates how a faster pace of bond sales can undo most of the perceived benefits of swapping the promissory notes for longer-term bonds.

But surely there must be some goods news here? What of these capital gains the article refers to? This has occurred because Irish government bond yields have fallen since these bonds were issued to the Central Bank. This means they can be sold for lower yields than the par value they had when the Central Bank purchased them, thus implying a profit on disposal.

The private sector investors who buy these bonds will receive the coupon payments set out in the original bond contracts (they pay Euribor plus 263 basis points) but the capital gain made by the Central Bank means that, on net, the interest cost of the sold bonds to the Irish state will equal the new lower yields. Again, the idea that movements in bond yields would influence the ultimate cost of these bonds was flagged in various discussions of the operation last year, include my own post on it.

So the good news here is the Irish government bond yields have fallen and the net cost of selling these bonds is lower than it would have been a few months ago. But selling them at all still means the cost of these bonds goes from zero to positive: From now on, the bonds are going to have an annual cost to the Exchequer, whereas as long as the Central Bank held them there was no net cost at all. A faster pace of sales thus raises costs for the Exchequer.

Like I said, not a good news story.

Monetary Financed-Related Addendum: One point I omitted when I posted this is the following. Some may read this and say: Why can’t the Central Bank just hand back all of the money it receives from the bond sales to the government, not just the capital gain? The answer is that this would violate the agreement the Central Bank has with the ECB via how to unwind the Anglo situation.

The Central Bank loaned over €40 billion to Anglo\IBRC, most of it in the form of Emergency Liquidity Assistance. This involves the creation of new money. The ECB wanted to see the money issued in this fashion retired from circulation when the loans are repaid. IBRC was liquidated without repaying the loans and selling off the new bonds is the current method the Central Bank has agreed with ECB for how this money is to be retired (or “extinguished” as Patrick Honohan puts it).

So if the Central Bank received a bond with a face value of €1 billion, then a sale of that bond to the private sector should result in €1 billion in money being retired. I’m guessing, however, that if the bond is sold for €1.2 billion because yields have fallen, then the Central Bank gets to keep the additional €0.2 billion and still only retires €1 billion.

Alternatively, all of the €1.2 billion goes towards “extinguishment” but this process could mean we still have some bonds left over (which could be retired from the national debt) once the extinguishing is over. Either way, the €200 million capital gain in this hypothetical example reduces the ultimate net cost of the bond sales but does not change the fact that faster sales are bad news.

Options for Ireland’s Legacy Bank Debt

Prior to the recent European elections, I was commissioned by the Labour Party to write a briefing document outlining the nature of Ireland’s “legacy” bank debt and to discuss the potential options for reducing the burden associated with this debt.  The document has now been publicly released by the Labour Party and is available here.

With the two-year anniversary of the 2012 Eurosummit coming up in a few weeks, it is a good time to re-examine the commitments made by Euro area heads of state on this issue and for Ireland’s government to make the case for action.

Ireland Exits Bailout With No Backstop: A Good News Story?

After years of turmoil, Europe seems to finally have a good news story. Ireland will be the first of country to exit a “troika” program and yesterday its government announced that it would not even be seeking a “precautionary” credit line from Europe’s bailout fund, the ESM.  But is this quite the good news story that most people think it is? I’m not so sure. Indeed, I suspect yesterday’s announcement illustrates how political problems may undermine Mario Draghi’s plans to save the euro.

There is certainly some good economic news coming from Ireland. Targets laid down in the program for the budget deficit were met and while economic growth has been minimal and unemployment is high, employment is now growing again and a large stock of over €20 billion of cash has been built up via borrowings from financial markets and the troika. By the very low bar set by the recent economic performance of the euro area, Ireland is something of a success.

For these reasons, yesterday’s announcement that Ireland would not need a new bailout was not news. This has been known for some time. The news element here was the announcement that there would be no precautionary credit line. But is that actually good news?

Irish government politicians have been keen to claim that there is some good economic news in this announcement, that it “provides clarity” and “reduces uncertainty”.  In fact, the opposite is the case.

A precautionary credit line is something that doesn’t have to be used. Anything that can be done without a precautionary credit line can also be done with one.  However, without such a credit line, the Irish government run the risk of running out of funds and having to negotiate a new bailout or credit line under far less positive circumstances than currently prevail.  This adds to the uncertainties facing Ireland in the coming year, particularly given the possibility that Irish banks may need further recapitalisation next year.

Ireland’s finance minister, Michael Noonan, acknowledged yesterday that economic conditions may not be so benign next year. This should be seen as an argument for negotiating a credit line now but, strangely, Noonan used this observation as an argument for not seeking a credit line.  He seemed to be struggling to find anything better than weak talking points to explain the benefits of not having a credit line.

There is, of course, a narrow political benefit to the Irish government from this “clean” exit, because it allows them to triumph about the full restoration of “sovereignty.”  However, I don’t think they are so cynical as to have made this decision purely for that populist reason.  Instead, my assessment is that the precautionary credit line could not be arranged now because it was politically impossible and that the Irish government are merely putting a brave face on what is a bad outcome.

The political problem is that credit lines from ESM require the approval of all euro area member states and this was not going to be possible now. Germany still does not have a government as Angela Merkel’s CDU continue negotiations with the SPD to form a coalition. During these negotiations, the SPD has regularly insisted that they would not support an ESM credit line for Ireland unless the country followed a series of highly specific policy recommendations.

SPD requirements for approval of a credit line included raising the corporate tax rate and introducing a financial transaction tax. The SPD also ruled out any deal that involved used funds from the credit line to recapitalize banks.

This kind of micro-managing of other people’s economies was not what most people had expected ESM conditionality to look like. Given the existing raft of EU monitoring programs that exist (the six pack, the two pack, the macroeconomic imbalances) a sensible approach would be to require that a country seeking a credit line from ESM commit itself to meeting the recommendations on macroeconomic policy of the European Commission.

When Germany finally has a government and SPD politicians are firmly ensconced in ministerial Mercs, I suspect the desire to micro-manage Ireland’s affairs will recede. However, the damage may well be done. Having sold the Irish public on the idea that the credit line was something to be avoided, it seems unlikely that the government can change its mind next Spring.

This is the odd aspect of yesterday’s decision. Why not announce that Ireland was exiting the program without a precautionary credit line but that discussions about this issue were ongoing? One unattractive possibility is that Ireland’s leaders were asked by their German colleagues to make this announcement to remove it as an issue in the government formation negotiations.

Missed in yesterday’s discussion is that these developments have implications for the ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program. This is the program announced by Mario Draghi after his “whatever it takes” speech last year.  Under this program, the ECB can purchase unlimited quantities of a country’s government bonds. However, the ECB decided that countries could only avail of OMT if they had an agreement with ESM for a bailout program or precautionary credit line.

Ask yourself this: If star pupil Ireland couldn’t negotiate a precautionary credit line based on reasonable conditionality, what chance is there that a credit line of this sort for Italy will be approved by all countries in the euro area? OMT may have been cast as the plan to save the euro but getting it up and running may not be so easy.

Ireland’s Blanket Guarantee Supporters: Still Wrong After All These Years

Five years ago, Ireland’s government guaranteed almost all of the debts of six privately-owned banks.  The subsequent bailout of these banks has cost the Irish public over €60 billion with about half of this due to the now-notorious Anglo Irish Bank.

The Cause Of all Our Problems - Anglo Irish Bank

(Photo credit: infomatique)

One might have hoped that those who took the guarantee decision would now express regret. However, politicians from Fianna Fail and the Green Party, the parties then in government, still defend the decision. In continuing this defense, these politicians will undoubtedly now cite the recent article in the Irish Times by former IMF economist Donal Donovan, which claims that the guarantee was the “least worst” (in other words “best”) option available to the government.

Economics can be a tricky business and sometimes the true merits of policies run counter to peoples’ gut feelings. However, if you had thought that a decision to guarantee almost every euro owed by the Irish banks was a reckless one that maximised the subsequent cost to the public, it turns out you’re absolutely right and in this case the contrarian economist is wrong. Donovan’s arguments in favour of the particular guarantee offered by the Irish government ignore widely-understood best practice in crisis management and are based on a flawed understanding of legal issues.

Ireland’s banks were in crisis in September 2008 and there were strong arguments for some form of government intervention to preserve financial stability. Indeed, in the months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, most European governments offered guarantees of various forms to their banks.

However, with the exception of Denmark, these governments offered guarantees that were far more limited in form than the Irish one.  Specifically, schemes were put in place in the UK, Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere that guaranteed only new bond issues. (See this ECB report for a detailed description). This approach dealt with the problem at hand (banks having difficulties in getting funding) without making the public responsible for the full stock of debt that had been accumulated by their banks.

Most likely, other European governments were aware of the dangers of blanket guarantees. Research from the World Bank and the IMF had repeatedly demonstrated that guarantees of this type resulted in a substantial increase in the costs of banking crises.

While the “new debt only” approach to guarantees was adopted throughout the rest of Europe, it is dismissed out of hand by Donal Donovan who argues that the need to provide guarantees for new funding when existing debt subsequently fell due would have led to the government guaranteeing the same amount of money.   This ignores the reality that the Irish banks had plenty of “locked-in” long-term funding that could not have be pulled at short notice.  For example, as of September 2008, Anglo had €38 billion in liabilities with a maturity over three months (see its annual report).

Even after passing the guarantee, the Irish government knew within three months that Anglo was a rogue institution. So a “new funding only” guarantee would have allowed the government to apply well-understood resolution tools for closing Anglo. Retail deposits (which accounted for less than twenty percent of Anglo’s liabilities) could have been moved on to a new institution and the remaining “bad bank” could have been put into liquidation with unguaranteed creditors taking losses on their investments.

Those who argue that such a resolution would not have been possible should remember that both events have now occurred. Anglo’s deposits were moved to AIB in 2011 and the rest of the bank was put into liquidation this year.  Unfortunately, these actions were taken long after public money had been used to fill almost all the hole in Anglo’s balance sheet. I don’t wish to argue that an earlier application of these resolution tools would have been costless for the Irish public but they would have substantially reduced the burden on the public while maintaining financial stability.

Donovan’s article repeats an argument often rolled out by the last government to defend the form of the guarantee, which is that Irish law would not have allowed for a selective guarantee that covered some liabilities but not senior bonds.

This argument is based on a flawed understanding of debt contracts and the legal basis for guarantees. Contractual clauses for senior bonds that state that they rank equally with other liabilities are only operable in a liquidation. Independent of the outcome of any liquidation, governments are free to provide additional insurance to whichever creditors they choose. If Donovan’s argument was correct, then deposit insurance would be illegal because governments could not single out this class of creditors for special protection. In reality, no such prohibition exists.

The fact that the ECB used their influence in 2010 to convince the Irish government to continue repaying unguaranteed debt is cited by Donovan as a further argument that the blanket guarantee was unavoidable. However, these discussions took place after the Irish government had taken on all of Anglo’s debts which over time became debts to the ECB.  This gave the ECB enormous power over the Irish government in 2010. A limited guarantee in 2008 followed by a quick resolution and liquidation of Anglo would have kept the Irish government out of this precarious situation in the first place.

The final excuse offered for the blanket guarantee – that the government believed the banks had a liquidity problem but not a solvency problem – also lacks merit.

A liquidity problem did not require the guaranteeing of locked-in debts and, in any case, the evidence that the banks were heading towards a serious solvency problem was all around us by September 2008.  Brian Lenihan had already admitted the construction sector had come to a shuddering halt and warnings from economists and journalists such as Morgan Kelly, Alan Ahearne and Richard Curran should have given pause for thought before placing the debts of the banks on the public’s shoulders.

People are perhaps understandably tired at this point of again debating the merits of what happened five years ago. However, the additional debt piled on the public by the guarantee will make a big difference to ordinary Irish people’s lives in the coming years, forcing more fiscal adjustment than would be necessary if there was a lower level of debt.   And Ireland’s issues with problem banks are not necessarily a thing of the past.  A country that won’t learn from its mistakes will be condemned to make them again.

Fianna Fail may well be back in government in Ireland in a couple of years and their continued defence of the blanket guarantee policy increases the chances that such a guarantee could be put in place again.  Donal Donovan’s arguments, however well-meant they may be, do not provide reasonable justification for an approach to banking problems that is unsound, unfair and unnecessarily expensive for the public.

The Anglo Tapes, The Guarantee And Ireland’s Economic Crisis

Probably the biggest economic story in Europe this week has been the release of recorded phone calls from 2008 between executives of the now-notorious Anglo Irish Bank.  Anglo was a recklessly aggressively property development bank with, as the euphemism goes, serious corporate governance issues.  When the bank got into trouble, its liabilities were guaranteed by the Irish government.

The Cause Of all Our Problems - Anglo Irish Bank

(Photo credit: infomatique)

Paying off Anglo’s creditors ended up costing the Irish government over €30 billion, the equivalent of about 20 percent of GDP or about €6500 (or $8500) per person in the country.  The newly-released recordings (from the weeks prior the guarantee decision) show Anglo executives were aware that the bank was undergoing a severe crisis and needed more state financing than they were willing to admit to the public officials.  They also show a fairly contemptuous attitude to these same officials.

The Anglo tapes raise many questions and I’ll return to these questions later. However, for now I want to make a few points about the guarantee decision and the role that it played in Ireland’s economic crisis.

The reaction to the tapes in Ireland has, justifiably, been one of outrage. However, there is also a growing public perception that the fiscal austerity of recent years has largely been the responsibility of a few rogue bankers. I think this perception is incorrect and it would be a mistake for the public to ignore the crucial roles played by a far wider set of economic policy mistakes made by governments they elected.

Here is a new paper I have written titled “Ireland’s Economic Crisis: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. One of the points the paper makes is that Ireland would be undergoing a severe fiscal crisis even the state hadn’t spent a cent on its banks.  The public debt-GDP ratio went from 25 percent in 2007 to about 120 percent today while a sovereign wealth fund worth about 20 percent of GDP has largely been wiped out.

Bank-related costs have been about 40 percent of GDP, with about half of that due to Anglo. This means that large fiscal deficits, rather than bank-related costs, have accounted for the majority of the build-up in net debt over the past few years. Even without spending a cent on Anglo, Ireland would have a debt ratio of 100 percent of GDP and a large fiscal deficit.

The additional debt due to bailing out bank creditors certainly played a crucial role in Ireland having to enter an EU-IMF program in 2010. However, while it is easy to blame external bodies for the pain associated with austerity, Ireland’s policy makers have had little choice over the past few years in relation to tax increases and spending cuts.

As I discuss in the paper, Ireland’s fiscal crisis is largely the consequence of the extreme over-concentration of the economy in the years prior to the crisis on the construction sector.  Lax banking regulation allowed an excess supply of credit to fuel a huge housing bubble, construction activity was off the charts and the government relied heavily on revenues from this sector to finance tax cuts and spending increases. Once the bubble popped and the construction sector collapsed, the government was left with a massive loss of revenues and a substantial increase in welfare spending.

Without budget cuts, Ireland was heading for deficits of over 20 percent of GDP in 2009 and even this year, after years of spending cuts and tax increases, the deficit is still over 7 percent of GDP.  Deficits on this scale were not sustainable for a euro area member state, so Ireland would be undergoing austerity today even if the EU and the IMF had never arrived to provide funding.

This point is important because it makes it all the more difficult get the public to accept tax increases or spending cuts when they view these cuts as simply the fault of a group of rogue bankers. This viewpoint also distracts from the rogue economic policy making of elected politicians and senior civil servants.

Worth noting is that this is the second Irish economic crisis of my lifetime. Sometimes, the current era feels like a repeat of my teenage years with fiscal crises and high unemployment blighting the country.  To avoid another future crisis, debate in Ireland needs to move beyond blaming Anglo’s bad eggs towards asking wider questions about how to run their economy on a sustainable basis.

Having made these points, I want to emphasize that I do not at all agree that the bank guarantee was a correct or unavoidable decision, even given what Irish policy makers knew at the time. This is the position put forward by Irish economists, Donal Donovan and Antoin Murphy in an extensive chapter on the guarantee in their new book. (In fact, Donovan and Murphy argue that the guarantee would have been the correct policy even if the authorities knew the true state of the banks so that it would cost 40 percent of GDP!)

This book makes a number of points I disagree with but, since it’s not available for people on the internet to read, there is perhaps little point in going into too much detail here. I will quickly make two observations.

First, the strength of the arguments made by Donovan and Murphy is well summarized by their argument for why it may have been reasonable to include subordinated bank debt in the guarantee.  They argue that

It has been suggested that, given the high degree of uncertainty, if not panic, prevailing, attempts to fine-tune the coverage of the guarantee might not have been well understood by markets the following morning and could have derailed the overriding objective of restoring confidence in the Irish banks.

This is a bizarre argument. For starters, the guarantee was fine-tuned because undated subordinated debt was excluded. However, the idea that financial market participants would have been “confused” that the government failed to guarantee debt that is explicitly contractually required to take losses in the event of a liquidation simply defies belief. I spoke with many financial market professionals in the years after the guarantee and their only reaction to the guaranteeing of subordinated debt was confusion as to why it was included.

More importantly, Donovan and Murphy’s extensive chapter does not consider the most obvious alternative to the type of guarantee offered by the Irish government. This alternative was to guarantee deposits for some period of time as well as specified new bond issues but to leave previous bond issues uncovered.

This ECB paper from 2009 details the emergency measures taken by all EU countries and shows that guaranteeing new bond issues only was the approach taken by almost all countries.  Such a guarantee would have had the exact same impact in providing a (temporary) improvement in the funding situation for Irish banks without unnecessarily guaranteeing the bonds owned by investors who had unwisely given money to a recklessly-run bank.

Anyone who thinks there was no way to tell in “real time” that the guarantee was a bad decision is advised to watch this video of my colleague Morgan Kelly’s instant reaction to the decision. The arguments of the other participants in the debate also give you an idea how weak the case was for making this decision.

So the guarantee decision was a bad one and exacerbated the losses associated with Ireland’s banking crisis. But the austerity being suffered in Ireland has wider causes than the behavior of a few bad apples at Anglo Irish Bank and debate on future policies needs to focus on a wider set of issues than how to deal with rogue bankers.