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Monday 26 September 2016

The first five things the new Central Bank chief must do

So it's settled then. Philip Lane will be the new Central Bank governor. Dan White lists the five biggest challenges he faces

Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30

Dr Philip Lane, governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, outside Leinster House last week
Dr Philip Lane, governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, outside Leinster House last week

1 Resist pressure to ease the mortgage lending rules

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Twelve months ago, with house prices rising at an annual rate of 16pc (24pc in Dublin) and fears of a new house price bubble, the Central Bank announced that it was imposing tough new mortgage lending rules on the banks.

The new rules, which came into force in January 2015, ban the banks from lending homebuyers more than three-and-a-half times their annual income. Purchasers must also have saved a 20pc deposit.

The impact has been dramatic with the annual rate of national house price inflation falling to 9.5pc (8.2pc in Dublin) by August 2015. Unfortunately outgoing Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan got no credit for reining in house prices with enormous pressure from builders, bankers and politicians (including Finance Minister Michael Noonan, who last month called on the Central Bank to "tweak" the rules for first-time buyers) to water down the restrictions.

The new governor must stand firm against such pressure. Yes, first-time buyers face enormous difficulties with very few starter homes now being built. There are other ways of increasing access to the housing market for first-time buyers. Now that we have a local property tax the Government could reduce the proportion of the price of a newly-built house that goes in various taxes - more than 40pc as against less than 10pc in the UK.

As governor, Professor Lane will learn very quickly that he just can't win in his new job. If he does nothing and lets house prices rip, then he will be pilloried for not doing his job properly - while if he does intervene, he will feel the heat from the combined banking and property lobbies.

2 Build his own team

Dr Lane's appointment comes at a time of a management exodus at the Central Bank. Not alone is Patrick Honohan stepping down as governor, deputy governor Stefan Gerlach announced last month that he was quitting nine months early. Then last week John Coyle, the Central Bank's director of resolution and corporate affairs, handed in his notice.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: for the Central Bank to lose one senior executive might seem unfortunate, but to lose three in the space of just a few months looks like carelessness.

This string of high-level departures comes at the same time as the Central Bank is preparing to move to its new headquarters - the former Anglo Irish building - in Dublin's Docklands in 2016.

The new man should look at these departures as an opportunity to mould a new senior management team in his own image. With the firefighting of the post-Celtic Tiger years now largely behind it, the Central Bank needs a new management team for the fresh challenges that lie ahead.

3 Restore banking competition

One of the most damaging legacies of the banking crisis has been the virtual disappearance of competition from the banking market as the overseas banks either exited this country completely or drastically scaled back their Irish operations.

Halifax/Bank of Scotland bailed out in 2010, Danske pulled down the shutters on its Irish retail banking arm in 2012 while last week's decision by parent company RBS to fold its Northern Ireland operations into its main UK business has renewed fears about Ulster Bank's future in the Republic.

The withdrawal of the foreign banks has allowed domestic banks to jack up their interest rates, with the latest Central Bank figures showing that the average variable mortgage rate now stands at 4.26pc as against the official ECB rate of just 0.05pc. With the Irish economy now recovering strongly, it can surely only be a matter of time before such juicy margins entice foreign banks back into the Irish market.

While this would be good news for Irish business and personal borrowers, the Government (which is looking for buyers for AIB and Permanent TSB and its remaining 14pc shareholding in Bank of Ireland) might have another opinion on the matter.

Increased banking competition could rapidly erode the margins now being earned by the Irish banks on their performing loans and reduce the price which buyers are prepared to pay for the Government's bank shareholdings.

How will Dr Lane reconcile the need to encourage greater banking competition with the Government's desire to recover as much as possible of the €64bn of taxpayers' money which it pumped into the Irish banks?

4 Sort out the insurance sector

With the exception of the seizure of Quinn Insurance in 2010, most of the Central Bank's attention since the crash has been focused on sorting out the problems in the banking system rather than the insurance sector.

However, as the discovery of a huge hole in the balance sheet of RSA's Irish operations in 2013 (which ultimately cost its parent company almost €400m), the Setanta collapse in 2014, and the more recent difficulties at FBD demonstrate, the problems with insurance extend way beyond individual companies across the entire sector.

At the heart of the problem is the gradual unravelling of the insurance reforms of recent years, principally the establishment of the Injuries Board in 2004. As a result claims costs are soaring with the average High Court award jumping 34pc in 2014.

With the EU's tough new Solvency II Directive, which imposes tough new capital requirements on insurers, due to come into force at the beginning of 2016, this problem is almost certainly going to get worse before it gets better.

5 Straddle the Frankfurt/Dublin faultline

The Central Bank is a strange bureaucratic hybrid. The governor is appointed by the Minister for Finance, who also appoints most of the members of the Central Bank Commission (basically the Central Bank board), which oversees the operations of the Central Bank.

However, as a member of the Eurosystem of Eurozone central banks, the Central Bank of Ireland is also responsible to the ECB in Frankfurt. In addition, the 1991 Maastricht Treaty guarantees the independence of the ECB and the national central banks of the Eurozone member countries. Is the Central Bank Ireland's agent in Frankfurt? Or is it Frankfurt's agent in Dublin?

This potential conflict of loyalties is not just an academic question. As the dramatic events of November 2010 demonstrated, the interests of the ECB can diverge widely from those of national governments.

At a time when the Irish Government of the day was still furiously denying that this country would be seeking a bailout, Central Bank of Ireland governor Patrick Honohan went on RTE radio to say that Troika representatives were already in Dublin discussing the terms of a bailout.

We later learned that then ECB president Jean Claude Trichet threatened to cut off liquidity to Irish banks if bondholders weren't repaid in full.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny's description this week of the arrival in the Troika in Ireland as resembling a "bloodless coup" demonstrates that feelings from this episode are still raw.

When times are good this potential conflict can be masked. However, an economic downturn is virtually inevitable at some time before Dr Lane's term as governor expires in late 2022.

When this happens he could find himself having to perform a difficult balancing act.

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