Turning bank debt into equity will save us from Nama ruin


History shows Nama-style bad banks are profoundly corrupt and corrupting institutions. If Nama didn’t happen, the alternative would involve minimal cost to the taxpayer and banks would manage their business without political interference

WHILE MOST economists by now simply dismiss Brian Lenihan’s utterances on the economy as “not even wrong”, this is to miss the Minister’s almost eerie ability to predict exactly the opposite of what is going to happen. Merely to contradict Brian Lenihan is virtually to guarantee that you will later be credited with supernatural prescience.

Who else, as Irish bank shares plunged 13 months ago, could conclude: “Our banks uniquely have weathered this storm . . . We are in a zone of financial stability in a very troubled financial world.”? Two weeks later, having been panicked into his catastrophic bank liability guarantee, the Minister assured us that we had “the cheapest bailout in the world so far”, and six weeks later averred that: “It is not the function of the Government to fund or bail out the banks.”

The effortless miscalculations, the assured non sequiturs, the lofty indifference to facts: all reveal Brian Lenihan as a master of what Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt defined succinctly in his 1986 paper, On Bullshit.

The Nama legislation, as expected, piles up this material on an Augean scale. Prices have fallen 47 per cent; the long-term economic value of property is 30 per cent below its peak value; the loan-to-value ratio is 77 per cent; prices only need to rise by 10 per cent in 10 years for the State to break even.

To subject these almost poetic flights of ministerial imagination to any sort of rational analysis will seem to many like vandalism, but that is what God made economists for.

First, the estimate that prices have fallen 47 per cent. The reality is that prices can only exist when there is a market, and the market for commercial property and development land has disappeared.

A less futile exercise is to ask how much Nama would have cost at the end of similar credit-fuelled price bubbles. A decade after their peaks, Tokyo land prices had fallen by five-sixths, while Irish farmland, adjusted for inflation, had fallen by three-quarters. Had Brian Lenihan bought €77 billion of either, applying the proposed Nama discount of 30 per cent, he would have lost €35 billion-€40 billion on our behalf, or roughly €20,000 per taxpayer, and that is before adding interest.

At a quarter of national income, Nama would dwarf the cost of previous bank bailouts, which varied from about 3 per cent of GDP in Sweden to 14 per cent in Finland and Japan.

Most baffling of all the Nama numbers is the proposed discount of 30 per cent, implying that the “long-term economic value” of property is at 2004 prices. Not one shred of evidence is offered for this assertion, the keystone of the Government’s strategy.

At first, I thought that this mystical 30 per cent number embodied Fianna Fáil nostalgia for a vanished era of innocent greed; a hope that we would wake up one morning and find ourselves back in 2004 forever, basking in the benevolent gaze of Bertie Ahern and Seán FitzPatrick. The reality turns out to be a lot more mundane. The EU simply forbade Lenihan to pay any more. This is not through any dismay at seeing Irish taxpayers fleeced by their Government, but for fear that they will be stiffed into carrying out an Iceland-style rescue here.

The figure of a 77 per cent loan-to-value ratio is equally fanciful. It will take years for the courts and Fraud Squad to disentangle multiple personal guarantees and imaginary collateral. The situation in Anglo Irish Bank appears particularly grave.

Finally, there is the assumption that the Irish Government can continue to borrow forever at low rates from the European Central Bank. However, the ECB is making no secret of its dismay at being turned into a credit union for feckless Micks, and is anxious to end such emergency lending facilities within the next year.

Once the ECB slams the window on its fingers, the Government will be forced to borrow at market rates of 5 per cent or more. In the next decade, this will add another €25 billion or so to taxpayers’ losses from Nama.

Property speculation was a mania that swept every level of Irish society, from hairdressers buying apartments in Bulgaria to dentists taking out second mortgages to join commercial property syndicates. Business owners were not immune to the lure of effortless wealth, and many borrowed heavily to gamble in property.

As one banker put it: “We are happy to restore their credit line as soon as they repay us the €15 million they borrowed to buy that land bank on the edge of town.” The destruction of the Irish commercial class, who we might have hoped to be an engine of export led recovery as they were in the 1990s, is likely to prove one of the most enduring and costly legacies of the property bubble.

Forcing banks to lend to SMEs will only compound our problems. One condition of the Japanese bank recapitalisation in 1999 was that they lend to small firms, but the effect was to heap a second layer of non-performing loans onto existing property losses.

As well as being expensive, history shows Nama-style bad banks to be profoundly corrupt and corrupting institutions. After the financial crisis in 1931, the US, Germany and Austria all set up bad banks which turned into conduits for directing funds to politically connected enterprises.

Bad banks are the means for governments to choose which oligarchs will survive to emerge even stronger than before. They do not just happen to behave in a corrupt and anti-democratic manner: it is what they are designed to do.

And do not forget that, even after the crushing expense of Nama, Irish banks will still be seriously short of capital. Under the current, deliberately lax, international bank regulations, AIB and Bank of Ireland need capital of around €8.5 billion.

Financial markets, which assume that Nama will go through, value their existing capital at around €3 billion, and adding Government preference shares of €3.5 billion leaves them short about €2 billion each. Once stricter capital requirements are imposed next year (the so-called Basel 3 process), this shortfall will probably rise to €6 billion.

Nama then, will turn out to be expensive, corrupting, and inadequate. While the abject, almost endearing, eagerness of the Greens to please their Fianna Fáil masters means Nama is almost certain to go ahead, it is perhaps worth asking what would happen if it did not.

All that needs to be done is for ownership of Irish banks to be transferred to their bondholders. This process of converting debt into equity occurs sufficiently often in banking to have a name: resolution. Resolution offers a way for Irish banks to be adequately recapitalised at no cost to the taxpayer, and able to manage their business without political interference.

Under existing Irish corporate law, this transfer would be a recipe for centuries of litigation. That is why most other industrialised economies have, or are introducing, special legislation to resolve failing banks with limited judicial review. Particularly impressive is the UK’s Special Resolution Regime introduced last February, which could easily serve as a template for similar legistlation here.

Instead we will get Nama. Brian Lenihan assures us that Fianna Fáil’s monument to a decade of waste, corruption, and ultimate ruin will not be wasteful, corrupt, and ultimately ruinous.

Let us hope that, for once, he is not wrong.

Morgan Kelly is Professor of Economics at University College Dublin.

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