Friday 30 September 2016

Mandarins deliver a self-serving take on banking crisis

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Kevin Cardiff ran the banking division at the Department of Finance for much of the crisis
Kevin Cardiff ran the banking division at the Department of Finance for much of the crisis

The best brains in the Department of Finance over the last 12 years were defending their actions during the boom and bust at the Banking Inquiry last week.

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It was like a bad trip down memory lane with much of the contribution from former secretaries-general of the department engaging in a rather self-serving interpretation of events.

A lot of the focus was on the night of the guarantee - and Kevin Cardiff, who ran the banking division for much of the crisis, gave very strong and honest evidence about the limited choices on the night. Details were a lot more sketchy about why so little action was taken in the preceding 12 months.

The overall consensus among the mandarins was that they had too willingly accepted the Central Bank's analysis of the banks and were caught out.

"Sorry about that. It was a mistake," seems to be the united chorus. Yet, the warning signs were obvious to anyone who wanted to look for them.

The civil servants all "regretted" making the mistake of not seeing the crash coming.

They are not expected to have a crystal ball - but they are expected to ensure that if something does go wrong, the public finances are insulated against the risk.

The failure was not managing the risk, as opposed to not seeing the crash coming.

Former secretary-general Tom Considine gave a somewhat bizarre interpretation of what transpired in public spending on his watch (from 2002 to 2006), which were the bubble years. He said they had introduced buffers in the economy, including the decision by Brian Cowen as finance minister to shut down property reliefs in 2006. He said those measures had been inadequate. You can say that again Tom!

The reality is a little more complex. These property reliefs were due to finish in 2006 having been extended to that point by Cowen's predecessor, Charlie McCreevy. Cowen announced a review of them in December 2004 - his first budget. A year later, when he announced that they would come to an end, he actually extended many of them beyond their 2006 deadline, some for six months, others for two years.

This followed extensive lobbying from property interests.

This was a "phasing out" process which ended up costing us all a fortune. Back in 2006, Cowen would not sign a statutory instrument which would have prevented developers using a legal loophole to cut their tax bill on property deals. It was a flagrant misuse of legislation by developers which he could have stopped with a signature. He said he didn't want to interfere in the property market.

Was that the advice from his senior civil servants or did they vehemently disagree?

If they disagreed, they weren't saying it to the inquiry.

Considine implied that none of it made any difference anyway, because politicians were applying more and more pressure on spending from 2003 onwards.

At the end of the day, all he and his colleagues can do is advise, he said.

"Now you can always criticise us for saying if we had provided the advice, if we had shouted louder or something, but you know, you can't ignore the fact that that's how it works."

It appears that a summary of the crash by the top Department of Finance civil servants would read: "The Central Bank gave the wrong analysis on the banks and the politicians spent too much money."

That is it in a nutshell.

Some of the evidence portrayed senior civil servants more as mannequins than mandarins. Far from being influential Sir Humphrey-types, using their experience to protect the dumb minister from himself, they just accepted what the boss said.

Of course, the politicians do make the final decisions - but why did none of these top civil servants bring into the banking inquiry, the advice they gave which they say the politicians chose to ignore? Does it exist?

We do know there were warnings and concerns during the boom from within the department. They weren't communicated strongly enough. Civil servants know good advice depends on how it is delivered, and with politicians it has to be routinely put in their faces.

Walsh and O'Leary have quite a bit to talk about

Whenever the biggest players in an industry form a new lobby group, you have to think that competition could suffer. Too much cooperation by big players isn't always intrinsically good.

With that in mind, it is hard to know what to make of the initiative by Europe's five largest airlines to form a new industry lobby group. It comes at a time when there is greater competition within Europe between the low-cost operators and the older flag carriers, and a greater global competitive threat from Asia and the Middle East.

It is hard to figure out how Ryanair's Michael O'Leary and IAG's Willie Walsh will convince the EU to do something about the likes of striking French air-traffic controllers, or help with subsidising the airline industry right now.

One problem is that they are making too much money. Ryanair grew profits last year by 66pc to €867m, while IAG is turning the corner since its acquisition of Iberia, and has upgraded profit forecasts for this year by 20pc. Throw into the mix its €1.5bn cash offer for Aer Lingus - it has just sent out the formal offer.

Even the DAA is growing profits rapidly on the back of passenger growth. Last year, passenger numbers at Dublin Airport hit 21.7m - their highest since 2008. Strip out domestic passenger numbers and international travel and Dublin Airport nearly hit 2008's level of 23.5m passengers.

The new group is made up of IAG, Ryanair, Air France-KLM, Easyjet and Lufthansa. Walsh's IAG has already left one aviation association because it disagrees with its stance on tackling the competitive threat from the Middle Eastern airlines.

Walsh disagrees with Air France and Lufthansa on the liberalisation of the market, where he is a major backer of competition, but is in the new group with them. Besides, his biggest shareholder at IAG is a Middle Eastern airline.

So if they can't agree on very much and won't get far on what they do agree on, what will they end up talking about?

Transparency and Quinn/IBRC settlements

Talks between Sean Quinn's family and the IBRC liquidator Kieran Wallace look set to resume - but, this time, through a High Court mediation process. Talk is always good, but it is hard to see what Wallace can give in the process. The Quinns could drop their €2.3bn legal action, in return for what?

Perhaps the Quinns have a stronger case than many have believed up to now. Perhaps there are legitimate questions around the security over the loans taken out by the old Anglo Irish Bank.

In balance-sheet terms, IBRC's financial position has been weakened to the tune of tens if not hundreds of millions by the Quinn scheme to put assets beyond reach.

Sean Quinn may be bankrupt, but it has never been made clear how much money his family has. The €2.8bn of CFD loans were secured on shares in Quinn companies, properties and personal guarantees. The personal guarantees have never been exercised because the court case has been pending. Executing these guarantees after the court case would be messy and costly.

Regardless of the finances, an agreed out -of-court settlement would hide the detail of what happened for good.

Sunday Indo Business

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