Anglo recordings may lead to a less polite banking inquiry
Impact on efforts to wring concessions from Europe will take time to play out
The banking industry’s poster boy from hell: Anglo Irish Bank chief executive David Drumm (left) and chairman Seán Fitzpatrick at the bank’s 2006 AGM. Photograph: Alan Betson
It is hard to avoid writing about the the Anglo Irish tapes. So much has been written already already and apparently there is more to come. But, despite David Drumm’s seemingly endless repertoire of profanities, one suspects that what is to come will not have the same capacity to shock and that maybe the worst of the damage has been done.
On this basis it might be worth trying to figure out what the real longer term consequences of the revelations might be.
The most obvious is that we are going to get a better banking inquiry than we might have expected and will probably get it sooner than we might have hoped. How good it will actually be seems to be very unclear and much depends on who is talking. Some argue it will be toothless and amount to little more than political grandstanding. Others hope it will be profoundly cathartic. It may be all of these and less. We will see.
The other issue that will take time to play out fully is the impact all this will have on our efforts to wring further concessions out of Europe; namely some sort of retrospective investment by the new euro zone rescue fund into the Irish banks.
The issue here is not what Angela Merkel thinks. Despite her rhetoric, it is highly unlikely it came as any surprise to her that Irish bankers are no less capable of venality than their international peers. Although they do seem to have a more colourful turn of phrase and penchant for casual xenophobia than, for example, the various employees of Barclay’s bank who were caught up in the Libor scandal. Indeed she has a few not-very-clever bankers of her own, including the individuals who blew up the German Landesbanken with massive bets on subprime.
The issue is what Ms Merkel thinks her electorate will think. For the moment she thinks they are pissed off, helped no doubt in mustering their outrage by front page coverage in the German tabloids. That will fade, but the lasting effect can only be to incrementally increase popular opposition in Germany to the sort of policies that many hold are necessary if Europe is to climb out of this mess.
Some money for the Irish banks is only a sideshow to the bigger debate about austerity and the role of the ECB. Paradoxically, it would seem from reports over the weekend that the Germans are turning the Anglo tapes to their advantage, putting them forward as proof that a strong single European banking authority – run along German lines of course – is necessary and desirable.
Night of the living dead banks
Another – as yet imponderable – consequence of the public shock and anger over the revelations is whether it will force a rethink of banking policy.
The September 2008 guarantee has severely limited the Government’s options when it comes to the banks. Because it was on the hook for the losses, there was a perverse incentive to facilitate the banks in not facing up to their losses. The smaller the losses the better the national finances appeared. This remained the case even after we were rumbled in 2010 and forced into a bailout, primarily to meet the bill for the banks. The result has been a zombie banking system. Even now, with the end of the bailout in sight, it remains the imperative.
Hence the rather confused comments from Government Ministers about the Central Bank’s code on mortgage arrears, which is supposed to provide a framework for sorting out loss making mortgages.
Leo Varadkar waded into the debate last week, making two very bank-friendly points – the first being that people paying their mortgages should not have to subsidise those who don’t. The inference here is that we should welcome people being turfed out of their homes when the banks move to repossesses them. Apart from being a bit heartless, it does rather erroneously assume that there will be no additional costs for compliant mortgage payers in thousands of people losing their homes.
His other comment was that, as taxpayers, we should not encourage the banks to forgive people’s debts, since we will have to meet these losses via further capital for the banks. Here again, he seems to forget that we have already stuffed the banks with capital to allow them to do just this.
It may be music to the ears of the banks, but repossessions and minimal write-offs might not chime too well with the public in the wake of David Drumm’s unexpected encore as the industry’s poster boy from hell.