I read a lot of news articles, blogs and email newsletters relating to the economy and investing. Recently, Ireland has been mentioned more and more often. The general opinion outside of Ireland seems to be that we’re balancing on the edge of a cliff, and looking more likely to fall off than regain our balance.
Everyone has heard about the banking system collapse in Iceland, followed by protests and riots, the demise of the country’s currency and eventually the dissolution of its government. You’d think Ireland must be in a better position than this – after all, we’ve yet to even have the public services go on strike! But, as it turns out, Iceland’s estimated 2008 current account deficit is $3.25 billion; Ireland’s is over $8.6 billion (information taken from the CIA Rank Order – Current account balance). Out of a total of 188 countries ranked, Ireland comes in in 167th place.
So far in 2009 we’ve seen Anglo Irish Bank nationalised, followed by a spate of controversy over concealed director’s loans and loans to investors from Anglo Irish used to purchase shares of Anglo Irish. Whatever about the controversy, this piles another huge amount of debt onto the Irish current account, pushing our deficit even further. Following this, we’ve seen downgrades of Irish bank debt (eg. Irish Life & Permanent), further recapitalisation of Bank of Ireland and AIB and a letter from the former chairman of Nationwide Building Society saying the institution cannot survive without Government support.
On top of this, the European Commission has criticised the Government’s recovery plan, calling it too optimistic and saying it lacks clarity. The commission is recommending that Ireland face excessive deficit procedures, which amounts to a kind of peer pressure imposed by the rest of the EU on Ireland to sort out its balooning deficit. The two largest economies in the EU, France and Germany, believe they may need to bail out some of the smaller more “cash-strapped” members (one of those being Ireland).
What got us here, I believe, can not just be blamed on the worldwide credit bubble which built up after the dot-com crash. I believe blame lies also with a loose fiscal policy by the ECB coupled with a greedy Government that did nothing to subdue a rampant housing market. As well as this, the money the Government made from allowing this boom to continue was wasted (eg. Electronic Voting Machines, among other half-baked badly researched plans), and now when we need it, we don’t have it.
In the last few days I saw another article about Bank of Ireland offering low rates for the first year for first time buyers. Though not specifically stated in this article, I believe this decision was influenced by the agreement on the €7 billion bailout agreed with the Government. What happens after the first year, when the interest rate “would increase by a minimum of 75 basis points”? What happens over the next few years as inflation really takes hold, and we see interest rates above 5 and 6 percent? It looks to me like we’re just setting up the next round of foreclosures. After all, in America they called these “Alt-A Mortgages”. You get reeled in by the attractive rate for the first year or two, then get hit with much higher payments when the interest rates reset. We’d be better off leaving the market to decide a more appropriate price for our houses than trying to sustain a level of pricing above fair value by attracting people into the market. Anyone considering buying a new house should feel confident that they’ve paid a fair price for what they got and ignore what it was worth at the peak of the market. Just because you got something for half the price it used to be doesn’t mean you got a good deal!
I also believe that the bank rescues are a bad deal for taxpayers. Our Government has already shown that it can’t manage money well, by wasting billions of euro over the last 10 years. What makes them think they can run a profitable bank? And, of course, if they can’t (that should be when they can’t), it’s the taxpayer who has to support it. The banks should be let fail, and the viable parts sold off to pay off some of the bondholders. The shareholders and bondholders knew, or should have known, the risk they were taking in buying the shares and bonds. They should have to realise the loss from their bad investment decision, not be supported by taxpayers.
As a last point on this, I think the Government’s method of trying to recoup some money by imposing a pension levy on public service workers is unfair. The public service in Ireland, by and large, is badly run. The proper levels of accountability are not present, allowing people to get a “job-for-life” in the public sector, and do very little work. I believe if there was proper accountability, from the level of minister down to desk-jockey, we’d have a better run and cheaper public service. I do believe that the public service pension is a huge bonus (I heard figures quoted to say a private sector employee would pay 25% of their pay for a similar pension plan) and should either be taxed or removed, but the way the Government is implementing this now is wrong. They’d be better off to reduce numbers and improve productivity in the public sector. The pension levy can then be included in future employment contracts, and can be made sustainable through the contributions of those who will be receiving it.
This rant has been building for a while – apologies for the length of this post! If you have any comments on it, email them to me. I’ll update the post with any comments I receive.