Friday 20 October 2017

The dead certs you can bank on to make headlines next year

The old joke goes that God invented stock market analysts to make weather forecasters look good.

It has certainly been that way in Ireland for the past four years.

Certain analysts were still recommending buying Anglo Irish shares just weeks before it was nationalised.

Some economists predicted the Irish economy would grow by 3pc in 2009 and who can ever forget AIB paying out a dividend right in the middle of the financial crisis because apparently it had a resilient loan book.

Ireland may have aspirations to be an innovation island, but an island of forecasters we are not. But it's not just here.

The US media have been having similar fun with last year's predictions from banking analyst Meredith Whitney who provided the following gem: "There's not a doubt in my mind that you will see a spate of municipal bond defaults. You could see 50 sizeable defaults. Fifty to 100 sizeable defaults.

"This will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars worth of defaults,'' she said. Alas for Ms Whitney, the US is still waiting for such a cataclysm.

In that context one should approach trying to predict the future with some humility. But 2011 was the year when crystal ball gazing almost became a recognised science and everyone was undaunted in predicting, without a hint of self doubt, that the euro would break up and there would be widespread social disorder.

As the year closed, this had not happened either, but to keep the weather forecasters looking good, here is what might -- just might -- happen in 2012.

1. The eurozone will remain intact:

The year ended with make-or-break summits in Brussels and that is how 2012 will open too, with a EU summit scheduled for January 30.

Mercifully it will finally consider the rather important issue of unemployment in Europe, but the future of the euro currency area won't be far away.

Borrowing costs remain ruinously high across Europe and key European economies will have to roll over huge amounts of debt in the first quarter, but will their lenders let them?

The scale of this challenge should prompt the ECB, and its indirect political masters, to change tack and allow the Frankfurt-based bank to expand its balance sheet.

If the markets know a buyer of last resort is always standing on the sidelines, stability should return and the eurozone should limp on. As for Greece? Well that is another story.

2. Bankers will finally face charges:

Yes it will finally happen. An Garda Siochana will prefer charges against several individuals who previously led an Irish bank. The investigations at Anglo in particular are already well advanced and the DPP has done a lot of the preliminary groundwork.

But be warned, the lapse in time between the levelling of charges and a full trial is likely to be huge and the defence mounted by those accused is likely to be far stronger than many people think. All in all it will be a key year for corporate watchdog Paul Appleby.

3. Greencore will finally be taken out:

The shares are cheap at only eight times earnings and already one private equity player has had a look. It is hard to see CEO Patrick Coveney not allowing Greencore's shareholders to have a vote on any fresh approach.

The company's share price at 63 cent leaves thousands of its shareholders in the red, but something approaching 80 or 90 cent a share would help get a bid over the line. Greencore's margins are too low compared with many of its peers and it needs to be restructured.

4. CRH will bounce back:

The property market in the US looks to be scraping along the bottom and there are signs a recovery is under way. It should be likewise for the CRH share price, the most important stock price as far as every pension manager in Ireland is concerned.

Myles Lee and the CRH management don't feel the current price of €14.64 a share fairly reflects the company's fundamentals, but the dividend has been maintained and finally mergers and takeovers are under way, allowing CRH to pick up some bargains.

5. AIB will start to heal itself:

It will be very painful for the bank's employees, but new chief executive David Duffy is certain to put the bank on a radical diet in 2012. As Bank of Ireland views a route out of partial state ownership, AIB has to find some way to restore its ordinary trading margins and a low cost base is where he will start.

The bank has no private shareholders and they will only buy shares in it when it can show two things -- it can return some day to paying a dividend and its loan losses are truly past their peak.

6. NAMA will face the painful truth:

NAMA is the only agency that can truly set the price of land and property in Ireland and 2012 is the year the agency will do it. Already Grant Thornton are selling the Alliance apartment block in Dublin's Gasworks site (fully rented out) in the kind of sale NAMA will soon have to try. The Government is very anxious to see prices hit some kind of floor and in 2012 NAMA will be offering a mortgage product to get some of its own sites moving.

7. There will be a trail of destruction in the retail sector:

Hundreds, if not thousands, of shops were holding out for relief on their rents, but this is not going to happen since a Government U-turn shortly before Christmas. Now the full impact of the downturn is going to be felt, with even leading department stores like Clerys struggling to stay in the black.

8. There will be catastrophic losses at Eircom:

Bondholders are going to lose their shirts in Eircom in 2012 as the company enters an examinership process in either Ireland or the UK.

The specific purpose will be to hurt creditors badly, although no doubt the examinership process will talk about things like preserving jobs etc.

If 2011 was a bad year to hold a subordinated bond in an Irish bank, 2012 will be a bad year to be a creditor of Eircom.

9. Strikes will be back in 2012:

ESB and Aer Lingus are just two companies where strike action could be on the cards, particularly in the former where talks on cost cutting have broken down.

For Ireland this will be a pity -- because the number of days lost to industrial action had been falling rapidly in recent times.

But plans to address pension deficits and IMF-inspired proposals to sell off state companies look like putting unions in a confrontational mood.

10. The Financial Transaction tax-- it won't happen:

The Germans say it will, much of the rest of Europe is simply shrugging its shoulders about the possibility and Britain is completely opposed to even the thought of it.

Yes it has the support on paper of the European Commission, but approval from member states is still needed and that is unlikely to be forthcoming when it comes to the crunch.

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