Analysis

Monday 14 July 2014

Accepting uncertainty may be our greatest lesson to learn from Tiger

Gerard O'Regan

Published 08/12/2012|05:00

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Few people have been as successful in sussing the pulse of the Irish people over so many decades as Uncle Gaybo has. It has been central to the genius of his broadcasting career, remarkable on many levels but most of all because of its sheer longevity.

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As a rule – when Gaybo speaks, we listen. Back in the 1980s he famously assured us all "the country is banjaxed".

Little did he, or we, know that being "banjaxed" is a relative term. Much worse was to come, by way of the current unforgiving, recession.

The biggest single factor to help us get out of this nightmare will, of course, be an upturn in the European and US economies – but this remains but a flicker on the horizon.

In the meantime, the importance of clear thinking was never more paramount if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past. But most efforts at such clarity are so often muffled by the cacophony of blame culture which swamps the airwaves and much of the media.

Trying to analyse what got the country into the mess in which we now find ourselves is all too often done by easy scapegoating, coupled with narrow analysis.

Much of the post-Budget comment shows this still remains a kind of national bloodsport. It provides a convenient comfort zone, taking the responsibility for personal decision-making neatly out of the equation.

Gaybo earlier this week referred to the role of the banks with the following comment: "We put away wonderful money in Allied Irish Banks, Bank of Ireland, Irish Life and Anglo Irish Bank. All of these were safe houses ... "

One has to absolutely sympathise with Gay Byrne – who in earlier years lost a lot of money through the Russell Murphy affair – and indeed with the thousands of others who have been hit hard following the collapse in bank-share prices.

But the critical point is that these investments were not deposits designed to earn modest rates of interest with minuscule levels of risk. This was financial speculation. These were bank shares, which can always go up or down in value depending on the vagaries of the market.

There was no, and never can be, protection from the possibility of losing a whack of money from this kind of risk investment.

Once again let it be said that if any banker broke the law of the land, he or she should be arrested, brought to trial, and punished accordingly.

But what is consistently ignored in the current round of endless retrospective analysis, is that during the years when Anglo and other banks' profits soared, the shareholders luxuriated with the managements at each AGM, delighted that their investments were earning unprecedented amounts of money.

Let us all admit, that back in those halcyon days, we never thought this world of easy cash would ever end.

The bosses of the banks and their shareholders became entwined in an inexorable self-interested bond, as lending money to developers and other such risk-takers pushed profits, and as a result, share prices, ever onwards and upwards.

From an Irish perspective, the great unanswered economic question of our time, is that if there had been no international downturn, would we have had the proverbial "soft landing" so badly needed by our overheated economy?

We will never know. But it certainly would have mitigated the freefall into our current perilous position.

This recession will end some time. Then a whole new world will open up. Bank shares will inevitably start to rise again. And then some time after that, they will fall. Such is the seesaw world of speculative investment. The same applies to house and property prices. They, too, will either fall and rise, or rise and fall. Timing is everything for the would-be speculator. Getting it right can lead to huge gain.

Getting it wrong can lead to financial ruin.

Is acceptance of this uncertainty the greatest lesson we should learn from the Celtic Tiger? Vagabond bankers were an undoubted problem as was the lack of more comprehensive banking regulation.

But the risks of financial speculation will always remain. This has been the experience of millions of people, not only in Ireland but all over Europe, since this recession arrived almost overnight.

In the Tiger days, putting money into a bank savings account, or something as ordinary as the Post Office, was seen as a bit naff.

If only we knew then what we know now.

Irish Independent

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