Global banks set to avoid Irish losses

By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News

Image caption, Irish authorities are looking for a way out of their current financial woes

Back when the Irish Republic's economy was purring so contentedly that it got the nickname "Celtic tiger", banks from across Europe and the US flooded cash into the country to get some of the cream.

But now the cream has turned sour, should these overseas banks also now be made to suffer?

From 1995 to 2007, fuelled by low business taxes, the Republic's economy grew rapidly year-after-year. And there was big - seemingly easy - money to be made for overseas banks lending to their Irish counterparts.

Unfortunately, the Irish Republic's strong economic growth also fuelled a property boom that since 2008 has dramatically collapsed.

As a result, the government has had to bail out the main Irish banks to the tune of 45bn euros ($60bn; £39bn) to cover their bad property debts, effectively nationalising the lenders in the process.

'Haircut' threat?

However, the Republic's banks are still on an insecure footing, as confirmed by the analysis this week by eurozone finance ministers.

Meeting in Brussels, they said in a joint statement that "further reforms and stabilisation measures may be appropriate [for Irish Republic banks]."

This has raised the suggestion that overseas banks which lent so heavily to Irish banks - and in doing so helped to worsen the Irish property boom and bust - will have to see some losses on their investments. Or as the markets are calling it, "take a haircut".

Figures reveal what is at stake for the overseas banks.

According to the Bank for International Settlements, foreign lenders still have $170bn (£107bn) invested in Irish banks.

Of this total, $46bn has come from German banks, $42bn from British banks, $25bn from US banks, and $21bn from French banks.

Overseas reliance

With Irish taxpayers already facing big tax rises to help reduce the Irish government's overall financial woes - with a predicted budget deficit of 32% of GDP this year - most analysts say they cannot also shoulder the necessary cost of further supporting the Irish banking sector.

Image caption, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen has been putting on a brave face

The argument is that it would be easier for the Irish banks - and therefore by default the Irish government - to pass on some of the losses to the European banks.

However, the Republic's Taoiseach, or prime minister, Brian Cowen, and his finance minister, Brian Lenihan, continue to say this will never happen. Why?

They simply can't afford to. The Irish Republic is a small country, and therefore reliant upon substantial overseas investment.

To inflict losses on overseas banks would make them reluctant to invest in the Irish Republic in the future, thereby making it much more expensive for the country's financial institutions to borrow funds in the years ahead.

Perhaps more seriously for the Irish government, such a move would be likely to lower the country's overall credit rating, which would mean it having to pay higher interest rates on its government bonds.

Bail-out certainty?

For analyst David Buik of BGC Partners, it all means the Irish government will have to take the third option - ask for an emergency bail-out by the European Union.

Dublin has so far ruled out doing so, saying it would lose its "hard-won sovereignty" as the move would effectively hand over its economic decision making to Brussels.

But Mr Buik says ultimately Dublin will have no choice.

"Irish banks are already having huge problems raising funds [from overseas]," he says.

"Default on their overseas loans and no-one will give them even two bob again. And when the Irish government instead looks at raising taxes, it has very little room in which to manoeuvre.

"For example, they can't touch their famed 12.5% corporation tax. Otherwise all the overseas firms will simply say 'thanks very much, Ireland today, Poland tomorrow'.

"I'm hearing they'll introduce Ireland's first [household] property tax, but that isn't going to raise enough for the government."

Daniel McLaughlin, chief economist at Bank of Ireland Global Markets, agrees that the Irish government won't penalise overseas banks, but is far more upbeat about the Irish economy.

"The interesting thing about all this is that Ireland produced a five-year fiscal plan in 2009, which was accepted by the EU, and we haven't deviated from that.

"So it is not as if Ireland has done something at variance with what the EU required. That may be puzzling a lot of people.

"The difference [between the Irish Republic and the UK] is that we are a tiny, and as a result 85% of the government deficit is funded from abroad.

"So taxpayers will have to pick up the bill for everything, it is hard to disagree with that."

But as Mr Buik reiterates, Irish taxpayers simply cannot afford to shoulder both the government and the banks' debt woes.

He says: "The Irish government is chancing its arm, thinking that things will improve and they won't need the EU bail-out.

"I say to them, Rumpelstiltskin, in your dreams."

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