Ireland

Irish central bank governor Patrick Honohan writes:

The focus should be increasingly on measures that can help unblock growth. One dimension which, in my personal view, has not yet received the attention it deserves is the potential for mutually beneficial risk-sharing mechanisms. A variety of financial engineering options could be considered going beyond the plain vanilla bonds currently employed. 

Markets remain nervous about Ireland after yesterday’s stress test results – despite the fact they appeared thorough and the €24bn recapitalisation they recommend matches expectations. This has prompted Europe’s biggest clearing house LCH.Clearnet to again raise the margin requirement on clearing of Irish debt, back up to 45bp from 35bp. Effectively, this increases the cost of holding Irish bonds and decreases the cost of shorting them.

Should all this post-stress-test stress lead to another downgrade, as seems likely, Dublin will be protected to a large degree by a lifeline from the ECB, which has pre-emptively suspended its collateral requirement for the country. 

Irish stress tests reveal a capital shortfall of €24bn, comprising:

  • Allied Irish – €13.3bn
  • Bank of Ireland – €5.2bn
  • Irish Life – €4bn
  • EBS – €1.5bn

Note: Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society were not included in the exercise because their loan books are being wound down. Anglo was fully nationalised in January 2009 and Nationwide is “effectively state-owned”. Both have required substantial state aid.

The headline figure of €24bn is better than many expected, particularly since about a fifth of it is for an additional capital “buffer” that goes beyond the 10.5 per cent tier one requirement in the base scenario, and 6 per cent requirement in the adverse scenario. Without this additional requirement, the recapitalisation requirement would be €18.7bn. The Irish central bank seems to have gone for the warts-and-all approach, which bodes well for the reliability of the numbers.

As well as raising new capital, banks will need to sell many of their non-core assets, following a deleveraging plan agreed with the central bank “in order to transition to smaller balance sheets and a more stable funding base”. They will separate assets into core and non-core, gradually selling off the latter. But shareholders, take heart: first, this will not be done in a hurry; second, the losses this will inevitably incur are already factored into the analysis: 

Ralph Atkins

The sums involved in propping-up Ireland’s banking system are so great – and the chances so small of them falling dramatically any time soon – it was inevitable the European Central Bank would want to find a better, longer term solution.

Currently, the total amount of ECB liquidity and “emergency liquidity assistance” provided by the Irish central bank, both essentially on an ad-hoc basis, is not far south of €200bn.

Hence news at the weekend that the ECB is looking at some kind of facility for eurozone banks in restructuring is not surprising. We have known for some time that the ECB was looking at ways to deal with “addicted banks” – those totally reliant on its liquidity and unable to fund themselves normally in financial markets. Ireland’s banks clearly fall into that category. 

Cast your mind back to the good old days, when a high yield meant 6 per cent and nervous market talk might culminate in whispers of a bail-out. Compare and contrast with the situation now, where two states have long since passed the point of bail-out and there is real and present danger of a default.

Much focus is on Portugal, lined up somewhat unwillingly for the next cash injection. It must make an unappealing prospect as two already-medicated patients have just taken a sharp turn for the worse. Yields on Irish bonds rose nearly an entire percentage point during trading yesterday to touch 10.7 per cent. As a reminder, Irish yields were about 8 per cent at the time of the bail-out. And it bears repeating: Irish yields are above bail-out levels even though Ireland has been bailed out. Ditto Greece.

Eurozone leaders are due to begin a scheduled meeting in Brussels about now. They’ll have plenty to discuss. A possible bail-out of Portugal will certainly be on the agenda but it might not make the top of the list. After all, 

Irish banks may need more than the €10bn set aside for them in the bail-out, the Irish finance minister has said.

Michael Noonan said in Brussels today that recapitalising Irish banks could not take place till stress tests were completed, but that he would be “surprised” if €10bn were enough. The Irish Independent claimed over the weekend that “a further injection of between €15bn and €25bn could now be needed”. Mr Noonan told reporters he expected the size of the shortfall to be revealed by stress tests, whose results are due to be published by the end of March. 

Ireland’s new PM turned down an offer to improve the terms of the bail-out deal – and the Irish public are overwhelmingly behind him. Seventy-eight per cent of those polled think Mr Kenny was correct to refuse trading higher corporate tax rates for lower rates on bail-out loans.

Ireland’s troubles remained notably unaddressed in a bold agreement between eurozone ministers early on Saturday morning. In a sign of ongoing market stress, yields on Irish government debt have continued to rise today, unlike those of Greece, Spain and Belgium, which have fallen. 

The ECB is succeeding in its mission to wean Irish banks off emergency eurozone support – but at a cost. Data from the Irish central bank suggest that support for Ireland’s banking sector rose €18.9bn in the month to February 25 to stand at €70.1bn (red on the chart). ECB support fell €9bn to stand at €116.9bn (blue on the chart). This means that combined assistance rose €10bn to €187bn, a new record. As you can see on the chart, combined assistance (the total height of the bar) dipped in the month to January, but has now risen again, suggesting banks’ needs are growing.

For the Irish central bank, assistance to the banking sector (under “Other assets”) now constitutes more than a third of total assets. Indeed, assistance for banks is approaching half of the country’s GDP. As David Owen, chief European economist at Jeffries points out: “There is a school of thought that this €70bn or so of emergency liquidity is a contingent liability of the Irish state and so should be treated as such. If so, then outstanding Irish government debt-GDP could soon be heading towards 175 per cent. It will be interesting to see what the IMF says on the subject, when it publishes its assessment of the economy and debt dynamics 15 March.” Indeed it will.

A look at the data on Greece and Ireland should stay the hands of policymakers keen to bail-out Portugal. If those two bail-outs were intended to reassure markets, they have failed. Clarity on bondholder rights might be a better target.

Ireland was bailed out in November. Despite knowing €85bn is on tap, markets priced Ireland’s ten year cost of debt at a record high yesterday: government bonds trading in the secondary market closed at 9.39 per cent. See green line on chart, right. (Note: this number does not affect the Irish government directly since they do not finance their loans from the resale market: it is a proxy for the rate the government would have to pay to borrow from the market at auction.) These record levels are more than a percentage point higher than levels that prompted the bail-out, and just higher than the previous record which occurred post bail-out (since yields, bizarrely, rose).

Greece was bailed out in May. But Greece’s ten year cost of debt touched a record 12.82 per cent during yesterday’s trading. Their ten year debt closed at 12.68 per cent, second only to a rough patch in January. Bail-outs are useful when there’s a temporary cashflow problem – but continued and rising market stress should tell us that something else is at play. 

The European Central Bank was guilty of a “major failure of supervision” in not restraining lenders from fuelling the property bubble in Ireland, says a former prime minister.

John Bruton, premier in the 1994-97 centre-right, Fine Gael-led coalition, on Monday accused British, German, Belgian and French banks of “irresponsible lending . . . in the hope that they too could profit from the Irish construction bubble.” Mr Bruton said in a speech to the London School of Economics that banks had “lots of information available to them about spiralling house prices in Ireland”. They were supervised by their national central banks and by the ECB which “seemingly raised no objection to this lending.”