February 6, 2011

Ireland: From Rags to Riches and Back!

Another excellent article on the Irish tragedy can be read here I'm adding below few interesting excerpts:

A single bank, Anglo Irish, which, two years before, the Irish government had claimed was merely suffering from a “liquidity problem,” faced losses of up to 34 billion euros. To get some sense of how “34 billion euros” sounds to Irish ears, an American thinking in dollars needs to multiply it by roughly one hundred: $3.4 trillion. And that was for a single bank. As the sum total of loans made by Anglo Irish, most of it to Irish property developers, was only 72 billion euros, the bank had lost nearly half of every dollar it invested.
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An Irish economist named Morgan Kelly, whose estimates of Irish bank losses have been the most prescient, made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that puts the losses of all Irish banks at roughly 106 billion euros. (Think $10 trillion.) At the rate money currently flows into the Irish treasury, Irish bank losses alone would absorb every penny of Irish taxes for at least the next three years.
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The Irish are once again leaving Ireland, along with hordes of migrant workers. In late 2006, the unemployment rate stood at a bit more than 4 percent; now it’s 14 percent and climbing toward rates not experienced since the mid-1980s. Just a few years ago, Ireland was able to borrow money more cheaply than Germany; now, if it can borrow at all, it will be charged interest rates nearly 6 percent higher than Germany, another echo of a distant past. The Irish budget deficit—which three years ago was a surplus—is now 32 percent of its G.D.P., the highest by far in the history of the Eurozone. One credit-analysis firm has judged Ireland the third-most-likely country to default. Not quite as risky for the global investor as Venezuela, but riskier than Iraq. Distinctly Third World, in any case.

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Ireland’s regress is especially unsettling because of the questions it raises about Ireland’s former progress: even now no one is quite sure why the Irish suddenly did so well for themselves in the first place. Between 1845 and 1852, during the Great Potato Famine, the country experienced the greatest loss of population in world history—in a nation of eight million, a million and a half people left. Another million starved to death or died from the effects of hunger. Inside of a decade the nation went from being among the most densely populated in Europe to the least. 

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More than a fifth of the Irish workforce was employed building houses. The Irish construction industry had swollen to become nearly a quarter of the country’s G.D.P.—compared with less than 10 percent in a normal economy—and Ireland was building half as many new houses a year as the United Kingdom, which had almost 15 times as many people to house. Since 1994 the average price for a Dublin home had risen more than 500 percent. In parts of the city, rents had fallen to less than 1 percent of the purchase price—that is, you could rent a million-dollar home for less than $833 a month. The investment returns on Irish land were ridiculously low: it made no sense for capital to flow into Ireland to develop more of it. Irish home prices implied an economic growth rate that would leave Ireland, in 25 years, three times as rich as the United States. (“A price/earning ratio above Google’s,” as Kelly put it.) Where would this growth come from? Since 2000, Irish exports had stalled, and the economy had been consumed with building houses and offices and hotels. “Competitiveness didn’t matter,” says Kelly. “From now on we were going to get rich building houses for each other.”


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The European Central Bank has quietly filled the void: one of the most closely watched numbers in Europe has been the amount the E.C.B. has loaned to the Irish banks. In late 2007, when the markets were still suspending disbelief, the banks borrowed 6.5 billion euros. By December of 2008 the number had jumped to 45 billion. In 2008 the number was still rising from a new high of 86 billion. That is, the Irish banks were borrowing 86 billion euros from the European Central Bank to repay private creditors. In September 2010 the last big chunk of money the Irish banks owed the bondholders, 26 billion euros, came due. Once the bondholders were paid off in full, a window of opportunity for the Irish government closed. A default of the banks now would be a default not to private investors but a bill presented directly to European governments. This, by the way, is why there are so many important-looking foreigners in Dublin, dining alone at night. They’re here to make sure someone gets his money back.


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In retrospect, now that the Irish bank losses are known to be world-historically huge, the decision to cover them appears not merely odd but suicidal. A handful of Irish bankers incurred debts they could never repay, of something like 100 billion euros. They may have had no idea what they were doing, but they did it all the same. Their debts were private—owed by them to investors around the world—and still the Irish people have undertaken to repay them as if they were obligations of the state. For two years they have labored under this impossible burden with scarcely a peep of protest. What’s more, all of the policy decisions since September 29, 2008, have set the hook more firmly inside the mouths of the Irish public. In January 2009 the Irish government nationalized Anglo Irish and its 34-billion-euro (and mounting) losses. In late 2009 they created the Irish version of the tarp program, but, unlike the U.S. government (which ended up buying stakes in the banks), they actually followed through on the plan and are in the process of buying 70 billion euros of crappy assets from the Irish banks.
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In October, Ireland’s Department of the Environment published its first audit of the country’s new housing stock after inspecting 2,846 housing developments, many of them called “ghost estates” because they’re empty. Of the nearly 180,000 units that had been granted planning permission, the audit found that only 78,195 were completed and occupied. Others are occupied but remain unfinished. Virtually all construction has now ceased. There aren’t enough people in Ireland to fill the new houses; there were never enough people in Ireland to fill the new houses.

Read More http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2011/03/michael-lewis-ireland-201103?printable=true#ixzz1DDUtsGQC

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