Ghosts of debt and jobs will haunt economy

Tue, Dec 29, 2009, 00:00

OPINION: By 2015, Iceland will almost certainly be a lot better off than Ireland because it dealt decisively with its banks

WHILE THINGS are hard to predict, the future, especially the situation of the Irish economy, is so stark that even an economist can make some predictions that stand a chance of being right.

Two ghosts of Christmas will haunt Ireland in 2015: jobs and debt.

For 20 years, the Irish economy experienced extraordinary growth. Unfortunately, this growth came from two separate booms that merged imperceptibly into each other. First we had real growth in the 1990s, driven by rising competitiveness and exports. However, after 2000 competitiveness collapsed, and growth came to be driven by a lending bubble without equal in the euro zone.

As Michael Hennigan of Finfacts (www.finfacts.ie) has pointed out, of the half million jobs created in the last decade, only 4,000 were in exporting firms; and fewer people now work in IDA-supported companies than in 2000. The Irish economy has been faking it for a decade.

Now that the property bubble has burst, people hope that exports will once again become the engine of our salvation. The problem is that, back when we were becoming rich by selling houses to each other, we priced ourselves out of world markets. Wages have risen by one-third here compared with Germany since 2000. Restoring competitiveness will be an arduous task where nobody, outside the banks and ESB, will see a pay rise for a decade, and many will take pay cuts.

Whether desirable or otherwise, leaving the euro is not possible for a mundane reason. Changing currencies takes a lot of organisation, as we saw when the euro was introduced. If the Government announced that a New Irish Pound will be introduced in 12 months, everyone would rush out to withdraw their savings in euro and wipe out the banks.

Prolonged mass unemployment is a disaster not only for its victims, but for all society. The great Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson showed how the disappearance of low-skilled jobs in the US during the 1970s led to the social collapse of black ghettos.

In Ireland for the last 20 years we saw this process working in reverse, as rising employment turned what had been sink estates into decent, if not wonderful, places to live. Finding a job does more for the disadvantaged than a legion of social workers: people’s sense of self-worth is transformed by being able to earn the money to do ordinary things like own a car, buy toys for their kids at Christmas, and take their family on holiday.

While many commentators argue that the benefits of the Celtic Tiger flowed exclusively to the wealthy and connected, this is nonsense. The benefits went overwhelmingly to ordinary people in the form of something that Ireland had never seen before: abundant jobs. By 2015 we will have seen what happens when jobs disappear forever, particularly from less educated men who were able to earn a good living in construction. In effect, Ireland is at the start of an enormous, unplanned social experiment on how rising unemployment affects crime, domestic violence, drug abuse, suicide and a litany of other social pathologies.

We will be forced to discover the consequences when people, who had worked hard to make decent lives for themselves and their children, find themselves reduced to nothing. Less than nothing in fact because, unlike the unemployed in the past, people now losing jobs are weighed down with debt and facing the terrifying prospect of losing their homes.

Debt will be the second ghost of Christmas 2015. Back in 1997, when exports drove real growth, Irish banks lent little by international standards. By 2008, Ireland had twice as much debt for its size as the average industrial economy: banks were lending a third more to property developers alone than they had been lending to everyone in Ireland in 2000.

It was this tidal wave of credit that inflated house prices and launched the construction boom that drove wages and government spending to unsustainable levels.

To fund this suicidal lending, Irish banks borrowed heavily internationally, and now must pay it back fast as the world realises that our recent economic miracle was less in the spirit of Adam Smith than of Bernard Madoff. As Irish bank lending returns to ordinary international levels, property prices will fall by at least two-thirds from their peaks.

However, five years from now, property prices could have been driven far lower than that by a deluge of sales of unsold, foreclosed and abandoned homes.

Mass mortgage defaults caused by unemployment and falling house prices are the next act of the Irish economic tragedy. As well as bankrupting our worthless banks all over again, the human cost of tens of thousands of families losing their homes will be enormous but, because the Government has already exhausted the State’s resources taking care of developers with Nama (National Asset Management Agency), there is very little that can be done to help these people.

Most people, of course, will not lose their jobs and homes. However, even they will be forced painfully to relearn something our parents already knew: beyond a small mortgage, debt swiftly turns into pure poison that will eat away your prosperity and happiness.

One response to large-scale home repossessions that will be attempted is to buy ghost estates for public housing to accommodate evicted home owners, providing ample opportunities for good old fashioned petty corruption.

For grand corruption, though, we will have to look to Nama. By allowing the banks to dictate the terms of their bailout, the bank rescue was turned into the most lucrative and audacious Tiger Kidnapping in the history of the State, with the difference that, like the sheriff in Blazing Saddles, the bankers held themselves hostage.

Bad banks like Nama were tried on a large scale in the early 1930s in the US, Austria and Germany; and proved to be profoundly corrupt and corrupting institutions, whose primary purpose was to funnel money to politically connected businesses. The German bank is best remembered for setting up what we would now call a special purpose vehicle to fund the presidential election campaign of the odious Paul Hindenberg.

Bad banks do not just happen to be corrupt and anti-democratic institutions, it is what they are designed to be. Effectively, bad banks give governments the power to choose which of a country’s most powerful oligarchs will be forced into bankruptcy, and which will be resuscitated to emerge even more powerful than before.

Nama will get to pick which of the fattest hogs of Irish development will be sliced up and fed, at taxpayer expense, to better connected hogs (remember that Nama has been allocated at least €6.5 billion, considerably more than the Government saved by draconian budget cuts, to “lend” to favoured clients).

While Nama may have momentous political consequences, it has already failed economically: the Irish banks are still zombies, reliant on transfusions of European Central Bank funding to survive until losses on mortgages and business loans finally wipe them out. In the next few months we will discover if the State bankrupts itself by nationalising the banks; or if it has the intelligence to free itself from bank losses by turning the foreign creditors of banks into their owners, as Iceland has just done with Kaupthing bank.

It is ironic that by 2015, having devalued its currency and dealt decisively with its banks, Iceland will almost certainly be a lot better off than Ireland.


Morgan Kelly is professor of economics at University College Dublin

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