Now it's time to play the blame game
Politicians, banks and builders have led us a merry dance and we must not stay quiet, writes Gene Kerrigan
Published 05/10/2008 | 00:00
Two meetings -- one in Washington, the other in Dublin -- both with agendas set by bankers. Look at what happened at those meetings and we'll know a lot about how we got into this banking mess, and what's likely to happen next.
The first meeting was in a basement room at the offices of the US Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, on April 28, 2004. The heads of the five big US investment banks had long besieged the SEC with demands for the scrapping of what was known as the "net capital" rule.
Under this rule, banks had to keep a cushion of billions of dollars, to guard against losses. Scrap the rule, demanded the banks. Release this money, so we can gloriously expand into the exotic world of "mortgaged backed assets" and "derivatives". Of course, in order to be prudent, only the biggest of the banks, with assets above five billion, should be allowed to take the risk.
For over 20 years, following the Thatcher/Reagan "revolution", the mantra was deregulate, free the market, down with the nanny state. Politicians bowed, regulators simpered, the media cheered. For a quarter of a century, the world was shaped in the image of the freebooting capitalist.
This wasn't business. It was gambling.
In an audio on the New York Times website last week, you could hear the SEC commissioners in 2004, giggling as they bowed unanimously to the bankers' demands.
"If anything goes wrong, it's going to be an awfully big mess," said commissioner Harvey Goldschmid. "I keep my fingers crossed for the future,'' said commissioner Roel Campos, as he rolled the dice.
In no time, one of the banks, Bear Stearns, was lending $33 for every dollar it had in capital. The other investment banks did likewise.
Aware of how complicated these new-fangled financial instruments were, the SEC allowed the banks to monitor their own activities.
And the debt spiralled and the bankers were paid glorious bonuses as they drove their own banks and the global banking system to the edge of a precipice.
Last week, there was a meeting in Dublin.
By now, the global banking system is chock-a-block with bad debt, deliberately hidden within complex "mortgaged backed assets". Banks are afraid to lend to one another, as all collateral is suspect. So, business freezes, jobs are shed, shares plunge, pensions dwindle.
And the Bush solution (buy the bad debt from the banks at top dollar) had been initially rejected by Congress. It was a banker's solution. Designed by Bush's treasury secretary, Henry Paulson. And Henry, then head of Goldman Sachs, was one of the bankers who in 2004 demanded and got the "net capital" rule scrapped.
"Help us", the Irish banks told the Government last weekend, as their shares collapsed. It wasn't a request, it was a demand. For weeks, the Government and the bankers had fretted as the global meltdown continued. In public, Brian Lenihan was assuring us that we weren't in trouble, not like those silly Yanks. "Our banking system has shown resilience in the face of such banking trends," he said in Galway on September 15.
"Our banks uniquely have weathered the storm to date despite many more venerable institutions being unable to do that."
When Liveline listeners expressed their fears, Lenihan personally contacted the head of RTE, blackguarded Joe Duffy and arranged to have the people shut the hell up.
We don't have an audio recording of last week's meeting between Lenihan, Cowen and the bankers. But we know what happened. As requested by the bankers, the State will guarantee all bank deposits and loans. Here's Cowen: "On the advice of the relevant people who have the competent authority in this area, I had to make that decision." Mr Cowen's advisers are locked into the banking culture. The banks got precisely what they wanted. Their shares soared.
From 1994 to 2000, surfing on the global boom, the Irish economy thrived, GDP growth was 10.7 in 1997, the year Ahern/Harney/Cowen came to office. By the time the McCreevy tax cuts came into effect, in 1999, the boom was ending. From 2000 to 2007 the government gloried in its property bubble.
The tax cuts didn't cause the boom, they were the result of it. Far from generating revenue, they squandered it. Nevertheless, deluded by its own crude ideology, at one with free market extremism, the Ahern government threw caution to the wind. The banks and the builders were like two dogs locked in a carnal act, threshing and inseparable. They needed water thrown over them. Instead, the government joined in, making this a unique and bizarre menage a trois.
Revenue from the property bubble allowed much-needed increases in public spending, but still we underfunded hospitals and schools. The proverbial "Top People" lapped it up. Thirty-three thousand millionaires (not counting the value of their homes) muscled their way to the top. Ministers and TDs entered the big money leagues. Bankers and HSE executives were on big bonuses. The banks are now in hock to the builders to the tune of €110bn. And the builders are awash with unsold properties. They don't want to lower prices, so they can't sell, so they can't pay their debts. Tax revenue collapses.
The politicians are busy passing on the blame. To us.
Here's Lenihan, washing the Government's hands: "We decided as a people, collectively, to have this property boom . . . That was a collective decision we took as a people." Here's his junior minister, Martin Mansergh: "I think there's maybe been some imprudence, with the benefit of hindsight, on the part of us all.''
On RTE, asked about making demands of the bankers, in return for the State guarantee, Mansergh's deference to the bankers was remarkable. He breathed the words "private companies", as though it was a holy phrase.
Let's remember that the banks have a criminal history -- their engagement in complex tax frauds in the Eighties cost this country dear. They did what they did to maintain market share, because the criminality was, they said, "industry wide". When it comes to trust, the banks are way overdrawn.
For the past eight years, in a blatant circle-jerk, the bankers, builders, speculators, estate agents and politicians behaved as though they believed the insane property bubble would inflate endlessly.
Any doubters they denounced as treasonous, even when prices got so ludicrous that you could buy a chateau in France for half the price of a dowdy 3-bedroom flophouse in Dundrum.
People continue to do what they know. Even when it doesn't work. This government hasn't had an idea in eight years. It believes in construction. So do the bankers. And the builders believe in cheap credit and high prices. So, the game continues.
Our money guarantees the bankers, who can get easier credit, so they can take it easy on the builders, who can maintain their prices so they can pay their debts to the banks. Oh, here comes a budget -- let's stick it to the poor and the sick, so we can give the property bubble a few reviving puffs.
A phrase you hear everywhere these days is, "We are where we are". Don't look back. Don't ask how we got here. Don't play the Blame Game. As the hapless Sarah Palin put it, "There's just too much finger-pointing backwards".
Instead, shut the hell up, keep your opinions to yourself, leave it to Daddy Cowen. And the bankers and the builders. Stay quiet, don't resist, we know what we're doing.
Or, in a world where the Daddy figures now clearly haven't a clue, where they prepare to pile pain on the vulnerable, perhaps it's time to look back. To play the blame game. To be loud in our resistance.