Do you have change of a €25bn note?
PRESENT TENSE:IN 2004 Allied Irish Banks became embroiled in a furore when it was discovered to have overcharged foreign exchange customers to the tune of many millions.
At the time the figure was put at €14 million (it ended up costing the bank €65 million), and the initial number was enough to make it the lead story for most broadcasters and newspapers. There were rows in the Dáil. The bank’s then chief executive, Michael Buckley, neatly apologised by describing it as an “administrative cock-up”, as if someone had just crossed the wrong T.
On Monday Anglo Irish Bank revealed that its latest half-year losses amounted to roughly the same as it would cost to rent a black hole and throw the country into it. At the same time the bank admitted that it was beginning an internal investigation into the overcharging of customers by as much as €50 million.
A few years ago this would have been a lead story, a match to ignite the parliamentary hot air. This week? It was an addendum, an “and finally . . .”, just another pile of cash to throw on the green-tinged pyre. It seemed, in the grand scheme, almost inconsequential. After all, it would amount to a mere 164th of the total losses – or just over 0.6 per cent. It is a throwback to the days when we were faced with figures we could almost understand. But now it is a pittance. Sure, you’d pay that off in half a generation.
It is a reminder of just how vast the scale of the Anglo money pit now is. How mind boggling. Once again the media rightly spent a good deal of time trying to put the cost into some kind of context – how many space shuttles you could buy, that kind of thing – but there is an argument that no amount of analogies or graphics or football pitches full of imaginary money can ever truly get the scale across to the average brain.
There were figures this week that were comprehensible. Unemployment is at 450,000. In a country of four and a half million that’s a straightforward figure.
One in 20 mortgages is now in arrears; on any average street that can be grasped. One in eight of the workforce without jobs: it’s possible to think of these in personal terms, in groups of friends. You will know some of the people behind those statistics. You may be one of them.
But €8 billion or €25 billion? That’s way past fantasy statistics. It’s a riot of zeros. In fact, there has been occasional discussion about whether reports should always come trailing those zeros, so that the figures become comets burning across the pages. That way the reader would consistently be clobbered by €8,000,000,000 or €25,000,000,000.
But would that get it across any better than the analogies? Or the stats about Anglo’s half-year loss alone representing €2,000 for every woman, man and child in the State? (Which does, oddly, underplay it a little: many credit-card bills are bigger than that.)
We are told that we will be paying for it for the rest of our lives, and that our children will be paying for it too. But in one respect this is nothing new. We’ve been saddled with debt all our lives and are familiar with the idea of paying off sums over long periods of time, either on a national or a domestic scale. A lot of people left the boom with mortgages that will be with them throughout their journey from youth to retirement.
The irony of it, then, is that the head-spinning scale of the cost is so ungraspable that the pain can be appreciated only at the micro level. The Budget will act as a certain shock but will represent the wider hole we’ve found ourself in. A lost job or wiped-out shares will do it, obviously.
But it is tempting to suggest some way in which the particular, unprecedented national trauma inflicted on us by Anglo could be immediately conferred on every individual, so that we might all physically feel the pain of it rather than the dull shock and exhaustion; so that the weight of those zeros is tangible. Someone breaking into your house and stealing a few grand worth of goods. Or every child who sets up a bank account immediately incurring an overdraft of several thousand. Or Seán FitzPatrick just going from door to door with flapping albatrosses attached to millstones, and padlocking them around the neck of everyone, young and old, in the State.