Look, get with it - Ireland still has a young and able population
Finance Minister praised as 'one of the best in Europe'
Published 14/01/2010 | 05:00
WHEN your economy has painfully shrunk by more than 10pc, one might expect a little sympathy from the professionals who track such trends. But Willem Buiter, Citi chief economist, is having none of it.
Sitting in the comfort and warmth of the Shelbourne Hotel, he has no time for Irish people who like to sit around feeling sorry for themselves. Nor has he any time for governments that fail to find ways to revive their badly damaged economies.
Buiter, for example, accepts that Ireland has an export challenge. We export mainly to the UK and US and neither is going to be growing very strongly in the next five years. However, China -- indeed Asia generally -- will be.
According to Buiter, Ireland should not be resigned to its fate on this point and he has a novel remedy to the export dilemma, which he offers only half-jokingly.
"Sell Guinness in Shanghai. There might be 1.3 billion Chinese who'd like to drink a pint. You could wipe out the entire national debt that way,'' he laughs.
But leaving aside the helpful Guinness advice, he makes a broader point.
"By European standards, Ireland still has a young and able population. Look, get with it,'' he says bluntly.
Effectively, his message is that while this country has lost its economic confidence, there is definitely a way back for us.
Buiter is convinced of this -- more so than many Irish people, in fact. Last year, he was among a group of celebrated economists who worried that Ireland could default on its debts and effectively be forced out of the eurozone. He no longer thinks there is any danger of this and he credits the change in sentiment to one man, Brian Lenihan, whom he describes as "one of the best finance ministers in Europe''.
Ironically, Buiter was speaking at an event hosted by Citi that was attended by the Taoiseach. However, despite having a brief conversation with Brian Cowen, he seemed a far bigger fan of Lenihan.
A bit like an economic rock star, Buiter, who is a former Bank of England policy maker, is currently on a global tour, testing the temperature of the main regional economies. As he says: "There will be enough frequent-flyer points to visit my parents at Christmas."
Touching down in Ireland, he admires some things, notably the recent Budget, but not others -- particularly the bank-guarantee scheme.
Nevertheless, overall he is remarkably upbeat about Ireland's prospects, pointing out that virtually all western economies are in bad shape, so the analysis that really matters is what their governments are actually doing about it.
"Here, the picture is highly varied and this is where Ireland scores better than most of the other countries,'' explains Buiter. "In Ireland, from the political establishment down to the Irish citizen, the ordinary voter, it seems to be accepted that much of the damage was caused by self-inflicted excesses. There is now a willingness to do something about it.''
He says Ireland and its people had been living beyond their means for some time but that we have now accepted the need for a painful adjustment in order to remedy this.
By contrast, he points out, Greece and its people are still living in denial about the severity of their position.
He also points to the fact that some countries "chose'' to default on their debts, whereas Ireland is not going down this road and is therefore recovering relatively quickly. The prognosis, according to Buiter, is one that offers us hope.
"As long as the Government sticks to what it is doing, the markets will remain convinced.''
He says the medium-term prospects for Ireland are "bright'' -- as long as the current plans are adhered to. Cuts are in some ways the easy part; making sure that they are permanent is the hard act.
The chief economist of the 'Financial Times', Martin Wolf, recently told the Irish Independent the biggest problem facing Ireland was household debt and the impact on that debt of sharply higher interest rates.
Buiter agrees and says the problem could yet cause a relapse in the Irish economy.
"In that case, the solution is to change the debt,'' he explains. Banks should convert their debt into equity, taking a share in the value of people's homes. He says this stroke-of-the-pen solution should be achievable.
The alternatives, particularly repossession, make little sense to him. Firstly, there are the high legal costs and then there is the damage to people who are put out on the street. Instead, he urges that banks should take a stake in houses and when the market recovers they will be able to recoup their money.
"We need to get out of this balance-sheet logjam,'' he says. "It can be done, by intelligently designed mortgage structures."
He says that at present people who hold debt have too much power and this includes both banks and bondholders.
"The only losers so far in banks have been shareholders and that's wrong. Creditors have to be at risk too -- junior creditors and even senior creditors. Everyone has to cough up."
All of this only goes so far with Buiter, though.
"People still need to realise that if you take other people's money, you need to pay them back, with interest."
Moving to wider questions, as well as being concerned about what might happen to Greece, he is also very bearish on the UK, warning that it could lose its AAA status unless something decisive is done by this British government or the next one.
Consumers around the world will eventually find their confidence again, he predicts. Memories are finite.
"If women remembered the birth of their first baby, they'd never have a second child. At least, that is what my mother tells me,'' he jokes.
As for the world economy generally, the advanced western economies (and he includes Ireland in that category) will only have "mediocre" recoveries, but the emerging markets will be growing at 6pc plus. Conceding that this is "unbalanced growth", he says it's the reality of the world as we enter a new decade.
Buiter is not as bullish on China as some economists and admits there is "frothiness" in the air already but he doesn't see any crash or bubbles bursting in China for many years.