Staring into the black hole of financial debt in Ireland




Financial Armageddon ... economic holocaust ... Celtic Chernobyl ... journalists and commentators here struggled last week to find words to adequately express the scale of what has happened to us.

Normally, language like this would be way over the top. But this time, extreme though the language was, it seemed too weak to encompass the extent of the monumental disaster that has engulfed us.

The doomsday phrases were prompted by the awful truth about the Irish economy which was revealed last week. On Tuesday of last week, the Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan revealed for the first time to the Dail (Parliament) the true scale of what it is going to cost to rescue our banks.

I wrote about it here last week, listing the tens of billions that have to be provided, but like most people the gigantic scale of what was involved did not really sink in with me immediately. Somehow it did not seem real.

It took a few days. But now I get it. Now myself and everyone else here really understands the financial catastrophe that has befallen Ireland, and the implications for all of us in the coming years.

It's easy to get lost in the billions, although it helps if you remember that every billion euro so casually mentioned by the minister last week is actually one thousand million euro.

But numbers aside, what was happening to us last week was very simple -- Ireland was being mortgaged. Last Tuesday, March 30, 2010, was the day a huge millstone was hung around our necks. It was the most significant day in Irish economic history since we got out independence nearly a century ago.

So what happened last Tuesday? To save the Irish banks the Irish government (and therefore the Irish taxpayer) is taking on an enormous burden of debt that will take decades to repay.

We are talking about at least €90 billion -- with the strong possibility that this could increase to well over €100 billion -- a debt so enormous for a country this size that it will beggar us for years.

The scale of what is involved is almost beyond comprehension. The sums are so big that not just our present but our future is being mortgaged. We are being saddled with a gigantic mountain of debt.

What this means in practical terms is that we will all be paying more tax for years to come, and instead of that money going to improve state services it will go to pay the interest on the huge debt we have now taken on.

The money that should be spent on improving our hospitals and schools and welfare and the police and public transport and the roads and all the other state services so desperately in need of extra funds will be used instead to pay for rescuing our banks. It's all going to be swallowed up by debt interest and debt repayments.

From the heady heights of the Celtic Tiger just a few years ago, we have plunged into an economic black hole that will take us decades to climb out of. And it's all down to the appalling mistakes made by the golden circle of bankers, developers, incompetent regulators and politicians who got us into this mess.

The main bankers and developers who caused this crisis through their reckless gambling in the property bubble can't pay for their losses now, because most of them are bust. So the ordinary taxpayers -- who had nothing to do with what went on -- have to underwrite the bill. And the level of anger among ordinary people here now is frightening.

People here now realize that our economy is screwed and that their future and the future of their children has been blown away. They are seething with rage.

How did this happen? Why are the people who did this to us not in jail like Bernie Madoff?

People here want answers, and they want the people who caused this mess punished without any further delay. The anger on phone-in radio shows is frightening, and it's not just the rage against the bankers and developers and politicians that is so worrying.

The way people here are talking now, our sense of community, of being proud to be Irish and being optimistic about the future and our ability to be successful have all been eaten away by this crisis.

The way people here are talking now, it's grab all you can of the diminishing pile. It's everyone for himself, it's get out if you can, it's encourage your kids to emigrate, it's a cynicism about fairness and political accountability here that is so deep that our future as a just and caring society has been shattered.

What happened last Tuesday was that Lenihan spelled out to the Dail exactly how bad things are, and began the process which will result in us taking on €100 billion or more in debt obligations.

That colossal sum is the result of two things - the transfer of the bad property loans from the banks into state ownership under the National Asset Management Agency, and the recapitalization of the banks and savings and loans institutions that are now bust.

There are two main culprits in what has happened to us, Anglo Irish Bank and the Irish Nationwide Building Society. Both of these went absolutely crazy during the boom, lending billions of euros to developers with little or no security.

Anglo in particular was out of control, a small bank that grew at an astonishing rate from a loan book of a few billion to around €80 billion during the boom years. While the boom continued, Anglo could show high profits, so much that the biggest bank in Ireland, Allied Irish Banks, began to chase them to protect its share price.

Pretty soon it too was throwing the rule book out the window and loaning vast amounts of borrowed money to Irish developers for projects not just in Ireland but around the world, from China to the U.S.

Irish Nationwide, a building society or savings and loans, was smaller but almost as bad. Instead of just taking deposits from ordinary savers and giving loans to people who wanted to buy houses which is what a building society is supposed to do, it borrowed huge sums on money markets and got into commercial property lending and speculation.

The madness that Anglo and Irish Nationwide got involved in was not stopped by the Irish financial authorities, now a very sore point with people here. And although Anglo and Irish Nationwide were the worst, the madness infected all the financial institutions here.

Some went less crazy than others, but they're all bust now and have to be rescued, the government says, also a very sore point with people here.

Why not just let the worst banks go bust, particularly Anglo and Irish Nationwide? We can't do that, the government says, because that would mean burning the bond holders (the international money market people who lent the money to the banks) and that would destroy our international reputation.

The biggest bond holders are senior bond holders, the government says, like big investment funds and pension funds, and they have to be paid.

It's hard to swallow but the government is right about that. If we don't pay them we will never be able to get funds in the future (and don't forget Ireland is running a big budget deficit).

But there are also the unprotected subordinated bond holders, the guys who took a bigger risk for higher interest payments, and it's hard to see why the government is insisting on paying them in full as well. They took the risk and now they should pay the price, maybe getting back a fraction of their investment.

But the government is insisting all the bond holders have to be paid in full. The guys who gambled billions must get it all back. Why?

Lenihan’s argument is becoming less convincing by the day, as we learn more about the black hole we are in. There are a lot of couples here who bought a house during the boom for, say, a €350,000 mortgage, the house is now worth less than €200,000, maybe one of them has lost his or her job, they are battling to save their house, pay the utility bills, they can't afford a holiday, some weeks they can't put petrol in the car.

It's that bad for a lot of people here now. So when they read about banks being rescued and bondholders being paid in full and all this being done by piling a huge burden of debt on the back of every person in Ireland, you can understand why people here are so angry and disillusioned.

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