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.