Friday 30 September 2016

The five crash crises that haven't gone away and continue to hold us back

Published 09/06/2016 | 02:30

After years of austerity, workers will seek wage increases
After years of austerity, workers will seek wage increases

It is nine years since house prices really began to fall in Ireland in a summer that proved to be just the opening skirmish in a long and difficult war. A new expression entered our lexicon in August 2007; 'liquidity crunch'. Few knew what it meant as the crunch hit the British banking sector on foot of a US sub-prime mortgage crisis.

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At home we were still basking in our own feelings of financial invincibility when these cracks began to show. Our financial and political establishment was oblivious. For most people, things rocked on.

Bruce Springsteen's live in Dublin album hit No 1 in June of 2007. The Irish film 'Once', starring Glen Hansard, hit our screens. We beat Denmark 4-0 in a soccer friendly in Aarhus with two goals each from Robbie Keane and Shane Long. Steve Staunton was manager.

The financial storm really hit a year later and the rest is history. Irish people have been through the ringer of an enormous economic and financial crash, an IMF bailout and out the far side. But as the government parties learned in the general election earlier this year, we have to be very careful with assumptions about how far "out the far side" we are.

Genuine positives like sizeable GDP growth, 150,000 more people at work and a better business environment are being held back by several stark reminders of the long reach of Ireland's boom/bust years.

Here are five big legacy issues that haven't gone away but either remain unsolved or continue to act as a real drag on the economy.

1 The mortgage arrears crisis

This week it emerged that a growing number of professionals are seeking outside help with legacy housing debts, much of it stemming from buy-to-let investment properties bought during the boom. Investors who often used equity built up in their homes acquired properties on interest-only mortgages.

Nine years after house prices started to fall, these issues should have been long resolved. Instead they are only reaching a hiatus now. Many were on seven-year interest-only mortgages which ran out in the last three years. But banks are only starting to tackle these debts now.

Some have sold their loan books to outside funds, which are going after these people's primary residence in pursuit of debts accumulated on investment properties they may have forfeited in two years ago.

In other cases, their old bank is preparing to sell a portfolio of these loans and it is "tidying up" these accounts before the sale.

This isn't so much a new problem, as an old problem that is only being dealt with now. This situation is likely to get worse for many of these people as they struggle to do personal insolvency or debt deals with lenders that simply don't care.

Separately, by the end of last year there were still 92,000 mortgage accounts in arrears. Over 65,000 mortgages on principal dwelling homes or 8pc of the total were over 90 days in arrears. This situation is improving as banks do deals but tens of thousands of people cannot rebuild their lives financially with these legacy issues. As recently as March of this year 17pc or nearly one in five of Bank of Ireland's mortgages were in negative equity.

2 The housing crisis

As we know, the collapse in house prices, the implosion of the building industry and the bankruptcy of property developers saw a gigantic fall-off in house building. The crisis of homelessness and spiralling rents shows no sign of abating. On a social level it is deplorable. On an economic level it will continue to hold us back.

People spending a disproportionate level of income on rent will spend less elsewhere or have less to invest in their futures. High rents fuel higher wage demands which affects profitability and employment. Multinationals seeking to hire people in Ireland will find it more difficult. It seems the crisis is not being resolved on either a social or an economic level. Local authorities have failed to deliver any of the promised 1,500 social housing units promised a year ago, while the new government's housing crisis plan has been delayed for the summer.

Successive governments allowed the housing bomb to be primed in front of them but it can trace it roots back to the bust of 2008.

3 Industrial relations strife

Industrial relations problems are growing. It isn't so much that war has broken out, as the peace has ended. Unions criticised for being too close to the power brokers in the social partnership years are determined to get back on the industrial relations pitch. Many employees have seen their real income eroded during the austerity years and want some or even all of it back.

The collapse in corporate profitability and the Exchequer finances back in 2008 led to the wage cuts and austerity measures that many employees are now pressing to have reversed.

This will cause friction in the private sector and enormous pressure in the public sector. Public expenditure minister Paschal Donohoe will face an avalanche of demands for wage increases. Sticking to existing public sector pay agreements will be difficult but achievable, but expectations will continue to rise from the proposed new pay commission.

4 Public Services

Lots of public services were cut during the austerity years. In July 2008, almost eight years ago, Brian Lenihan announced the first round of public expenditure cuts.

They amounted to around €300m. The overall tax and spending adjustment that came in the following years ran to close to €20bn.

The outcome of the general election is adding to pressure to levels of public service restored.

We are seeing it on daily basis in media reports of the Garda Siochana and the A&E crisis. Even while overall spending on the health budget has increased in recent years, many people know the pressure those services are under.

That pressure on public services isn't just about A&E, it will come in relation to reopening Garda stations and specialist healthcare services such as mental health and education.

Money will have to be found to increase the government spend on public services even just to match the needs of a growing population. At the same time, expectations of tax cuts abound.

5 Emigration and unemployment

The turnaround in the economy has been better than many could have imagined but the cost in terms of net emigration has been shocking. Between 2010 and 2015 a staggering 244,000 Irish people emigrated, according to CSO figures. Around 97,500 returned to the country during that period, leaving a net emigration of 146,000.

That loss is immeasurable in the long run, as who knows how many will be back and what they might have achieved.

The new Junior Minister for the Diaspora, Joe McHugh, played it straight this week when he said the Government needed to be honest about the prospects of returning to Ireland rather than offering an open invitation to people who might not find work.

There are so many other legacies of the crash from a €200bn national debt and a €32bn bank bailout bill, to enormous private debt overhangs.

Equally, achievements in getting this far out of such a sizeable and painful economic shock should not be underestimated. But the human cost has also been enormous.

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