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.

Resolving Europe’s Banking Crisis

I’m giving a presentation tomorrow afternoon at the annual Dublin Economics Workshop conference in Limerick. (For those of you who don’t know these things, the Dublin Economics Workshop’s annual conference has always been held outside of Dublin ….)

The presentation is titled “Resolving Europe’s Banking Crisis” and provides facts and figures on Europe’s credit crunch, explanations for the sources of this problem and scenarios for the upcoming European banking stress tests.

Mr Draghi, The Vicious Circle And The Stress Tests

I was in Brussels on Monday and attended the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee for its latest meeting with Mario Draghi. The main topic of the meeting was the ECB’s new job as supervisor of the euro area’s banks. I came away from the meeting very concerned about two issues: The effect of banking problems on sovereign debt and the credibility of the upcoming stress tests.

Mario Draghi, President of the European Centra...

Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank. (Image credit: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)

The Vicious Circle

The decision to allocate the ECB the task of single supervisor for banks stems from the June 2012 meeting of euro area leaders which declared “We affirm that it is imperative to break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns.”  It was also agreed at that meeting that the euro area’s bailout fund, the European Stabilisation Mechanism (ESM) could be used to recapitalize banks that were in difficulty. For many at the time (including me) this statement was an important positive step.

Because Europe’s leaders would not agree to money being provided to banks in other countries without assurances that these investments had solved problems and could guarantee a return for taxpayers, it became politically imperative that there be a pan-euro-area supervisor of banks that could be relied on to provide an independent assessment.

The ECB has been chosen to do this supervisory job and its first task will be to undertake an assessment next year of the health of the approximately 130 banks that it is to directly supervise. Details on the upcoming assessment process are sketchy at this point other than that it will contain an asset quality review, a balance sheet assessment and stress tests run in conjunction with the European Banking Authority.

MEPs at Monday’s meeting repeatedly questioned Mister Draghi about what would happen if a bank failed the upcoming assessment and needed a large injection of capital. One potential answer was that the proposed new Single Resolution Mechanism, effectively a form of European FDIC, would provide the funds.  However, this mechanism won’t come in to place until 2015 and when it does it won’t have any money: As with the FDIC, it is to be funded over time via contributions to banks.  In the future, the Resolution Fund could borrow from the ESM but it is unclear if this could ever actually happen and highly unlikely that plans will change to see the Resolution Fund swing into action next year.

Instead, Mister Draghi repeatedly emphasized that “national backstops” were the key mechanism for dealing with banks that needed more funds (see reporting here and here.)  This shows how little progress has been made in breaking the vicious circle referred to in last year’s summit statement.

The euro area’s leaders have agreed to a grand plan under which at some point in the fairly distant future, the cost of dealing with bank failures won’t fall directly on the taxpayers unfortunate enough to reside in the same country as the bank. However, for now, Draghi’s comments ensure that national taxpayers remain first in the firing line when banks fail. In this sense, the current vicious circle that actually prompted the June 2012 summit has gone from something that it is “imperative” to remove to something that is effectively official European policy.

Credibility of Stress Tests

The continued reliance on “national backstops” seems likely to affect the credibility of the upcoming stress tests. ECB officials have repeatedly criticised the previous stress tests undertaken by the European Banking Authority for their lack of credibility. Implicit behind this criticism is the assumption that the ECB tests will be tougher, with more negative valuations for bank loans in arrears or other distressed assets.

Draghi’s statements about national backstops, however, undermine the credibility of the new exercise before it has even started. He insisted on Monday that it is realistic for national backstops to be used to sort out banking problems, even in countries like Spain or Greece. Given the perceived size of banking problems in these countries as well as existing levels of public debt, this is effectively an early signal that the new stress tests will not uncover many problems.

The balance sheet assessments will feature many outside advisors who will provide technical expertise in coming up with figures for capital shortfalls. This is a lucrative business and consultants who wish to be re-hired have an incentive to give the answer the client wants. Draghi waxed lyrically on Monday about how

One of the outcomes we expect from these tests is to dispel this fog that lies over bank balance sheets in the euro area

and expressed confidence that the condition of Europe’s banks was improving. This happy message will be taken on board by the outside consultants.

The hiring of Oliver Wyman as the ECB’s own consultant doesn’t do much to boost the credibility of the upcoming assessments. Leaving aside their infamous award to Anglo Irish Bank as the world’s best bank in 2006, this firm carried out stress tests on Spanish banks last year coming up with a €60 billion recapitalisation figure that few consider credible. (For comparison, the Irish state coughed up €64 billion for its banks — Ireland is a lot smaller than Spain and Spanish house prices are still falling.)

Of course, it’s also possible that the bank assessments will be realistically tough and, where public funds cannot be used, the ESM could be called on to provide money for recapitalization. However, the €60 billion currently earmarked for potential use by ESM is a small figure relative to the size of Europe’s bad bank assets and, even then, it seems unlikely that Germany, Finland and the Netherlands will budge from their position that ESM cannot be used to replace losses on “legacy assets.”

A final scenario consistent with the possibility of tough stress tests is that, where national governments don’t have the funds, there will be significant bail-in of bank creditors with bondholders and possibly depositors losing out. Given the chaotic implementation of the Cyprus bail-in and the lack of progress on resolution authority, I seriously doubt that the European institutions have the capacity to execute a simultaneous multi-country programme of bank bail-ins while maintaining financial stability.

That leaves the path of least resistance: Weak stress tests that see the vast majority of banks pass and the problems with bank assets continue to be largely ignored.  With so many new institutions in place, perhaps a gentle run-through was the best that could have been expected from this exercise in any case, with more serious tests reserved for down the road when the banks are in better condition and disagreements about resolution have been settled.

In the meantime, Europe’s weak banks are likely to continue in their zombie state, squeezing credit to firms and households and holding back the recovery that Europe so desperately needs.

Vermont Exit from the Dollar Would Have Little Impact

Following Landon Thomas Jr’s New York Times report “For Euro Zone, a Cyprus Exit Would Have Little Impact”, we’ve been assessing the impact of an exit from the dollar zone of Vermont.

A former staffer at the International Musing Fund told us “There have been too many bailouts in the United States; it’s time to remove the air bags and we need to start with Vermont.” He favoured a plan in which Vermonters would see their bank deposits redenominated into a new currency to be known as the maple (with smaller denominations known as Vermont coppers). Currency controls would be introduced that would prevent them from moving their money out of Vermont.

“This is not a Lehman,” the former staffer mused, when asked about the impact on the rest of the U.S. economy. “I mean, Vermont accounts for barely 0.2 percent of U.S. GDP. To be honest, unless you lived in Vermont, you’d barely notice this new currency thingy.”

Others worry not so much about the effect on the rest of the US of Vermexit (as it has become known) but about the effect on the citizens of Vermont itself. “I guess they’d still have skiing and stuff but you would see genuine poverty in a US state,” said Angelo Gabrielo, an analyst at Humanix, an investment bank.

Unconfirmed reports suggest the Governor of Vermont is in Ottawa for emergency talks with the Canadian government. Asked about the existence of plans to toss Vermont out of the dollar zone, a Canadian government spokesman said “I have no idea what you’re talking aboot, eh?”. Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury spokespeople said “No comment”.