Monday 18 December 2017

All change at the Central Bank as it faces new challenges

Professor Philip Lane, Governor of the Central Bank
Professor Philip Lane, Governor of the Central Bank
Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

It's regime change, as well as a change of address, at the Central Bank - but how different will things be? They are fitting out the new headquarters down by the docks but fitting out a new mindset is a more challenging affair.

The new address was meant to read, "Anglo-Irish Bank" of course. The fact that it doesn't has much to do with the failings of the Central Bank - more than the Oireachtas banking inquiry was willing to probe.

"Irony" does not seem sufficient to describe the skeleton of what should have been Anglo being fleshed out to house the bank. With those ghosts somewhere in the steelwork, it is even more important that the regime be brand new and properly fitted-out as well. In his address to the Institute for International and European Affairs last week, Governor Philip Lane insisted that it was.

The structures are certainly new. Dr Lane stressed the fact that there is now a single EU supervisor - the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. This is indeed a dramatic change.

In which context, the insistence by Dr Lane that Department of Finance officials should not attend up to 17 meetings with IMF staff on bank and insurance supervision would seem to indicate a fundamental change of attitudes.

He is, after all, only the second governor not to have come from the ranks of the Department itself.

Anyone in the audience for his speech was bound to have noticed his own regime change, from senior academic to central bank governor.

He was not shy about illustrating the bank's new power - backed by the EU legislation of the banking union - and its independence, including when it comes to hiring staff and spending money. It was also a fairly masterly display of central bank speak, where what is between the lines is more important than what is on them.

In this he differed from his predecessor, Prof Patrick Honohan (who was also in the audience). To the end, he retained a quizzical air about the whole job, and regularly seemed to question it. That could, and did, cause trouble, but it was reassuring in its way.

One never thought one would have qualms about the Department of Finance getting its comeuppance, but qualms there are. The bank was always a creature of the Department, but since CJ Haughey's blitz on the constitutional proprieties, the department had increasingly become a creature of the politicians (other departments always have been).

The consequences of the resulting incompetence and subservience at the bank are, alas, all too painfully obvious. So one can see why the Department might have some of its visiting rights withdrawn.

I would have no worries about central bank independence, but that is when accountability comes into the equation.

The publication of minutes of the meetings of the board - now the Central Bank Commission - is welcome, and the latest ones have a useful report of discussions in Brexit.

Yet it is well-established that there tends to be over-reaction to booms and busts. The idea that senior Irish officials cannot hear what is said to IMF staff, and will be said to ECB staff, grates badly.

At the same time, while central bankers deserve credit for not over-reacting to the Crash in the way their predecessors did in the 1930s, thereby ushering in a Depression, they can be accused of not reacting enough when it comes to fixing Europe's banks.

There was a distinct sense of shock when the two main Irish banks fared badly in the EU stress tests. AIB's capital fell below the recommended minimum as a result of the simulated recession. Unlike 2008, and unlike the venerable Italian bank which is causing so much concern, AIB still had capital left.

Dr Lane seemed a bit put out by the reaction. Irish banks may still be near the bottom of the pile, but it is true they have made more progress than many others, having come from further behind.

The governor drew attention to the IMF's Financial System Stability Assessment, which came out a few days later. It was the usual extraordinary effort, with a team of ten analysts and dozens of meetings with just about everybody who has any connections with the financial system.

They constructed a pretty nasty recession, with unemployment rising to 11pc, a 10pc drop in house prices and a five percentage point increase in the cost of government borrowing.

Simulation it may be, but the IMF's models suggest something like this could happen if the Brexit negotiations go badly and spark general panic.

The Irish banks come out somewhat better than in the EU test; although one would see its capital fall below the approved minimum if its five biggest borrowers failed to service their loans. That would be an extreme case, but we do not know how extreme, because the IMF studies do not name names.

It is nice to be told that the system would not collapse but it would be even nicer to know if any particular bank might. However, it seems clear from the report that no bank was seen as losing all its capital.

The most valuable bits of the report may not be about banks at all. It is disturbing but somehow not surprising, to see that there is still no central credit register.

One of the reasons for the cataclysmic collapse was that banks did not know how much their big clients had borrowed elsewhere.

There are also unpleasant echoes from the IMF's comment that ECB attempts to create a uniform regulatory approach may not take sufficient account of the different conditions in member states. This is the fundamental problem of the whole EU, but one which no one knows how to address without unleashing reckless behaviour among the member states. But not knowing what to do is not a satisfactory excuse.

For Dame Street - soon to be North Wall Quay - the issue is how quickly Irish banks can return to at least the middle tier in terms of capital.

Shareholders are in no mood to put fresh capital into any bank; governments do not have the resources; and the outlook for profits is poorly.

Building up capital will be a slow business - certainly too slow for a Brexit crisis. There will certainly be no sympathy for the idea of imposing caps or cuts on variable rates for customers. The Bank will have a tricky job balancing the desire for more competition against the need for retained profits.

The main argument now for transparency is not to see if the banks are going bust, but to see if they are getting better quickly enough.

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