How Much Would Ireland Benefit from Replacing the Promissory Notes with a Long-Term Bond?

Lots of people I’ve spoken with about the dreaded Anglo promissory notes are mystified at why the Irish government seems willing to replace the notes with a 40-year bond.  Isn’t it just replacing one kind of debt with another? Won’t we just end up paying more over the long-run? Here‘s a post where I try to answer these questions. Warning: This is a tricky topic and it’s an unusually wonkish post.

Ireland Debt Negotiations: Not About Interest Rate on Promissory Note

The byzantine complexities of the IBRC’s promissory note-emergency liquidity assistance arrangements are such that it is inevitable that even the smartest of people will get confused.  Unfortunately, Irish Times reporter Arthur Beesley (who does excellent work covering Brussels) came a cropper in this morning’s article on the negotations over restructuring Ireland’s bank-related debt.

Arthur’s article discusses the issues as follows:

On the table is the provision of about €30 billion in bonds from a European bailout fund to the former Anglo Irish Bank to replace expensive State-funded promissory notes …

The release of European bonds to the former Anglo would be in addition to the €40.2 billion Ireland is receiving from European sources under the original bailout agreement.

This is one element of the package which would certainly necessitate parliamentary votes in a number of countries.

The key issue in this part of the negotiation is the rate of interest which would be charged on any bonds from the temporary European Financial Stability Facility or its successor, the ESM.

The basic idea is that the Government would remain on the hook for EFSF or ESM bonds given to the former Anglo but that the annual interest rate charged would be far lower than the 8.2 per cent which applies now.

Precisely what rate would be charged remains subject to negotiation, the official said.

Under present arrangements the State would pay €16.8 billion in interest by 2031, bringing the total cost of the Anglo note scheme to €47.4 billion.

This description misses the key issues at stake here in a number of ways.

The problem with the promissory note arrangement is not that it causes the state to incur high interest costs. In fact, the opposite is the case. The 8.2 percent interest rate quoted here relates to interest payments that the state is making to IBRC, a state-owned institution. This is one arm of the state paying another so the interest rate has no impact on the state’s underlying debt situation.

In the same way, the IBRC uses its promissory note payments to repay its ELA debts to the Central Bank of Ireland (another arm of the state) and the (lower) interest rate it pays on ELA also has no relevance. The Central Bank returns the profits it makes on these ELA loans to the state (see its 2011 annual report).

What is the interest cost to the state of the current arrangement? As I described in detail in this paper, the Central Bank takes in the principal payments on ELA and then retires the money that it created when granting the ELA in the first place. This reduces the balance sheet item “Intra-Eurosystem Liabilities” which the Bank currently pays 0.75% percent on.

So the effective interest rate to the state of the promissory note arrangement is 0.75%, not 8.2%.  The problem with the current arrangement is not the interest rate but rather the schedule for repayment of the principal, which will see a punishing 2 percent of GDP paid over each year over the next ten years.

The article mentions a figure for the total cost of the promissory notes of €47.4 billion. However, because most of the interest cost is returned to the state, the true net cost is far lower. Effectively, the total cost will be the €31 billion in principal on the notes that were issued plus the cumulated interest costs calculated at the ECB refinancing rate. This will be far less than €47.4 billion.

In relation to substance, the article suggests the negotiations are focused on replacing the promissory notes with bonds from the EFSF and or ESM, which could then be repo’d with the ECB allowing most of the ELA borrowings to be paid off. The state would then provide EFSF\ESM with the funds to cover the annual interest on the bonds with funds.

One version of this arrangement could see the bonds pay out €30 billion in 2042, with the Irish state providing the principal to EFSF\ESM and IBRC finally repaying the ECB.  A more likely scenario would see a gradual repayment of the principal via repayment of ECB and retirement of the EFSF bonds.

If these bonds are placed directly rather than borrowed from the market, then one could argue that they should carry an interest rate of close to zero, since the EFSF is no longer adding a profit margin to its cost of funds (and the cost in this case is zero).

An arrangement of this type could mimic the low interest cost to the state of the current arrangements while adding a long-term schedule for repayment of principal.  However, it carries with it some serious political complications. As the Times article notes, this arrangement would require political approval throughout Europe and that may be difficult obtain. In addition, this debt would have to be repaid even if Ireland left the euro because of its official status, while a post-euro Central Bank of Ireland would have the option of agreeing to a unilateral restructuring of the promissory notes.

An alternative arrangement that avoids these political risks is to simply alter the current arrangements to have the promissory note schedule be far more back-loaded than at present. This requires only the agreement of the ECB. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, there is a strong argument that it is time the ECB could Ireland some slack.

No Mr. Noonan, NAMA Does Not Borrow From the ECB

One of the great myths about the Irish economy that has circulated in recent years is the idea that the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) has borrowed money from the European Central Bank. I tried on various occasions in the past to observe that this is not the case without having any impact. However, I had hoped that the people running Ireland understood how NAMA works. Apparently this was too much to hope for.

Here‘s Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, in the Dail yesterday (H/T NAMA Wine Lake):

The money which we accessed for bridging finance from NAMA was money which is due to be repaid to the ECB for the loans it gave to NAMA to acquire the impaired assets in the bank. Again, it is ECB money that is providing the bridge. What will happen is that when the circle is completed and the shareholders give their consent, which is my expectation, the NAMA funds will be restored and NAMA will do what it intended to do last month, namely, it will repay another portion of what it owes to the ECB.

Just for the record (and I know now for sure I’m wasting my time) NAMA has issued bonds to the Irish banks in return for property assets. It can redeem those bonds as it acquires cash for the property assets. The bonds can be used by these banks as ECB-eligible collateral. However, NAMA is not a bank. NAMA is not ECB-eligible counterparty. NAMA has never borrowed, and will never borrow, from the ECB.

Promissory Note Arrangement an Exercise in Political Optics

From a public relations point of view, the revised promissory note arrangement has been a great success for the Irish government. This editorial in the Sunday Independent declared

In the staring match between Ireland and the EU and the ECB, the other guys blinked first.

The Irish Times, only slightly more restrained, headlines the new promissory note arrangement as a “coup” for Michael Noonan.

What is supposed to have been achieved? Apparently, the Irish state has saved having to make a cash payment to IBRC with the burden of the payment being delayed until 2025.

In reality, a quick inspection of the announcement makes clear that neither of these claims are true.

The Irish state has not been saved making a cash payment: NAMA, an arm of the state, has provided €3.06 billion in cash to the IBRC, which IBRC is using to repay Emergency Liquidity Assistance loans, just as the ECB (the blinking guys) had always insisted.

In a separate arrangement, the government are planning to have Bank of Ireland provide a one-year loan to IBRC so that NAMA can be repaid and the state’s cash levels (including NAMA) can be restored to what they were prior to the ELA payment. IBRC will need to repay this loan next year.

Because the state is providing cash to IBRC to make its promissory note payment, the only thing added to what was already supposed to happen is that the state has arranged a one-year loan from Bank of Ireland.

Is arranging short-term loans from Bank of Ireland—a bank that has limited access to capital markets and is looking to shrink fast to meet troika-imposed deleveraging targets—a route to putting Ireland’s debt on a more sustainable path? Clearly not.

So the deal does literally nothing to improve debt sustainability. It also compromises the supposed operational independence of NAMA and raises questions about state intereference with the majority-private-owned Bank of Ireland.

For these reasons alone, this arrangement is an unwelcome development. However, in addition, it appears that the shenanigans surrounding this arrangement have seriously upset European officials who are better able to see what is going on than the Irish media.

This story from Arthur Beesley of the Irish Times likely illustrates the attitude of our EU colleagues.  In relation to Minister Noonan’s comments that he now wants a wider deal to replace the promissory notes altogether, the story reports:

“This risks further antagonising the ECB governing council,” said a euro zone source.

“His remarks were not helpful, particularly on the day after the bank agreed to facilitate an operation designed purely to give him an opportunity to make a statement saying that the payment of the promissory notes was settled with bonds.”

The Euro zone source is making clear that, as far as they are concerned, this deal was purely about optics.

I suspect that pennies may start to drop in Ireland about what has been arranged when Bank of Ireland have their shareholder meeting. For now, though, I’ll let it drop.

Promissory Note “Deal”: Not What Had Been, Em, Promised

Yesterday’s promissory note announcement was so complex that one might imagine that the government’s officials have been cooking up the various different elements for months. However, there is some fairly strong evidence that the additional elements (the role of NAMA and Bank of Ireland) reflect last-minute changes forced on the government by the ECB’s refusing to give any ground.

The reason I was surprised yesterday afternoon to hear of NAMA and Bank of Ireland’s involvement is that the shape of the deal that was supposed to be announced had been pretty well flagged beforehand and yet this deal was different.

What had been flagged in the moments leading up to the announcement was the IBRC were going to receive their cash payment from the promissory note but (and this is the crucial bit) rather than use it to repay ELA, they would use it to purchase a bond.  The actual announcement say them make an ELA repayment via incurring a debt to Bank of Ireland that must be repaid next year.

Why do I say the original plan was a cash payment to be used to purchase a bond? Well, for starters, there’s the IBRC’s own annual report, released yesterday morning but presumably sent to press a few days beforehand. On page 168, it describes the proposed arrangement as follows:

Following an outline request, made on behalf of the Minister for Finance, the Bank is in discussions with the Department of Finance and the NTMA regarding a settlement proposal to utilise the funds due from the next instalment under the promissory notes on 2 April 2012 to acquire an Irish Government bond with an equivalent value.

“Utilise the funds … to acquire a bond” can’t really mean anything other than receiving a cash payment and using it to buy a bond rather than pay off ELA.

Then we had Governor Honohan’s appearance at the Oireachtas Finance committee on Tuesday. Honohan was given a number of chances to describe the deal in the offing and in each case chose to describe it as a cash payment that would then be used to buy a bond.

For example, here’s an excerpt from Deputy Michael McGrath’s questions

Deputy Michael McGrath: In the course of public disclosure, originally made early last week, of the shape of the deal on this month’s payment, it was stated the cash payment would be made by the State to Anglo Irish Bank but that in return the bank would buy an Irish Government bond.

Here’s the portion of Honohan’s answer relating to the cash payment.

Professor Patrick Honohan: With regard to cash payments, the detail is still not absolutely final. Assuming this arrangement works out, when it is complete – even if it takes a few more days – any cash payment would circle back. There will be no net cash outlay and any cash payment made by the Exchequer would come back.

Here’s Honohan replying to Deputy Pearse Doherty

Professor Patrick Honohan: That speaks to the issue of cash payment. A cash payment which is immediately extinguished by another transaction is still a cash payment which is valuable for communicating to markets that the Government does make its payments, even if the total effect of the transaction is to extinguish that cash payment and have the cash come right back to the Government in a prompt manner. I hope there is no tendency to get terribly excited about a cash payment which is rapidly extinguished.

Finally, when asked about Deputy Stephen Donnelly about IBRC’s cash needs, the Governor replied

Professor Patrick Honohan: The question I noted in particular related to how much cash IBRC needs. In fact, the objective of the plan is to eliminate the cash need by postponing it.

However, in actual fact, under the current plan the IBRC has a €3.1 billion cash need that it is honouring by means of a complex chain of transactions in which it borrows from NAMA and Bank of Ireland. There is no sense in which the IBRC’s cash needs have been postponed.

I can only assume that the “assuming this arrangement works out” element of Honohan’s reply to Michael McGrath didn’t actually work out. And the likely reason for this failure was that the ECB insisted, as it appears they had all along, that a €3.1 billion ELA repayment be made, something which required a cash payment.  That this cash has been temporarily sourced from NAMA and then Bank of Ireland doesn’t at all change the fact that this deal is not what had been flagged and does not have nearly the benefits of that deal.

Optimistic ministerial talk of “movement from the European authorities” seems highly misplaced.  (If the original proposal had gone through, there would have been some grounds for such a statement.) More accurate, I think, were junior minister Brian Hayes’s comments on Today FM to the effect that negotiating with the ECB was negotiating with bankers and you couldn’t get far with that, and that future negotiations needed to be with European politicians.

Promissory Note “Deal” Fails to Meet Low Expectations

Despite a lot of hype in recent weeks that the Irish government were going to arrive at a deal with the ECB that would reduce the burden imposed by promissory note payments to the IBRC, I had remained fairly skeptical that any announcement this week would represent significant progress.

In my last post on this issue, last Saturday, I had noted that any deal that was done was just in relation to the March 31 payment and did not affect future payments. I had written:

Is it likely that the ECB will agree at a later date to a more comprehensive restructuring of the promissory notes allowing for a systematic payment deferral? I would guess not. While you could argue that a deal on the current payment shows some flexibility on the part of the ECB, an alternative viewpoint is that six months of “discussions” failed to get anything other than a fairly meaningless one-off deferral.

My pessimism turned out to be too optimistic. In fact, it appears that the Irish government made essentially no progress with the ECB even regarding the current payment.

The arrangement arrived at today (ministerial announcement here) is so complex that it will bamboozle everyone and this confusion will provide plenty of cover for those who wish to claim that it represents useful progress. However, effectively what is happening is that the Irish government are providing the IBRC with a long-term bond, the IBRC are exchanging that bond with Bank of Ireland for one year in return for €3.1 billion in cash and this cash will be used to repay the IBRC’s Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) loans.

What has been achieved? In essence, the government has delayed paying out the cash for this year’s €3.1 billion but the IBRC (and hence the state) now has to repay Bank of Ireland this amount next year. This is effectively a one-year deferral of this payment, which is far worse than the long-term deferral of the payment that I had already described on Saturday as “fairly meaningless”.  Because the ECB have fully achieved their goal — getting a full €3.1 billion ELA repayment — calling this “a deal” with the ECB is hardly appropriate. Rather, it represents an arrangement with a privately-owned Irish bank that maintains the appearance of some sort of deal having been agreed with the ECB.

What further puzzles me about this transaction is that Governor Patrick Honohan described the plan to the Oireachtas Finance committee on Tuesday as follows:

The arrangement regarding this first tranche is very much in the direction in which I want us to go. It is a major step forward qualitatively in the approach.

I guess one could say it is “the direction we want to go” in the sense that this arrangement represents a deferral of the cash payment, however short-term. But the actual arrangement used to implement this deferral — borrowing the cash on a short-term basis from a privately-owned bank — is not at all a sustainable way to refinance a debt that amounts to almost 20 percent of GDP. So I fail to see how this is a major step forward, qualitative or otherwise (I had been puzzling about qualitative major steps ….)

Where does this leave us? In the same position as I reckoned we were last Saturday. No deal of any substance has been done with the ECB nor is one forthcoming. An arrangement to borrow long-term funds from EFSF or ESM to pay off IBRC’s debts and retire the promissory notes may happen. But it would require political approval across Europe, will not happen before Ireland passes the Fiscal Compact and would effectively amount to a second EU-IMF bailout with all the terms and conditions that this implies.