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Government gets the banks right -- three years too late

Anglo Irish chairman Alan Dukes recently said the biggest criticism of the government's banking policy is not the nature of it, but the time it has taken to execute it.

It was a telling remark. A crisis that began ostensibly in 2007 when Northern Rock could not access wholesale funding has been solved (or parked) in virtually every industrialised country on earth, except Ireland.

Solving the chronic undercapitalisation of the Irish banking system was always going to consume huge time, resources and energy, but the outgoing government earns no marks at all for the speed of its response.

Now, in the final days of the current administration, steps are being taken that could have been taken in 2008, 2009 or even belatedly in 2010.

These steps include winding down Anglo, winding down Irish Nationwide, re-distributing their deposits to other banks, deleveraging the whole system, selling off overseas non-core assets, bringing in private capital, requiring burden sharing from subordinated bondholders, dividing the system into viable and non-viable banks, releasing stress test results into the market, and bringing in powers to wind down distressed and insolvent banks as part of a resolution regime.

Some of these steps began in 2009 and 2010, but many are of a far more recent vintage and arrived far too late.

It is frustrating to think of how certain alternatives might have served us better. For example what if the government had discriminated between viable (clearing banks) institutions and non-viable institutions in 2008 when the guarantee was hatched.

Imagine how much lower the re-capitalisation bill would have been if Anglo and Irish Nationwide had been ringfenced from the terms of the guarantee and put into an alternative structure. The recap bill could have been drastically lowered, even by up to €35bn.

Yes it would have risked cantagion spreading to the other banks, but after a period markets would have embraced the banks getting full protection and would have embraced an Irish Exchequer with less contingent liabilities. The ECB could have funded Irish banks through this bumpy period, just as they are doing now.

If the decision had been made to treat different banks differently, the pressure which fell upon Irish government bond yields in 2009 and 2010 may very well have been reduced, though certainly not eliminated due to our fiscal non-bank deficit.

However, the wide generous scope of the 2008 guarantee (propping up even unviable banks) had an immediate effect on the Irish bond market.

The next morning after the guarantee was announced the cost of insuring Irish government bonds surged and never returned to its norms in the three years that followed. This was despite reassurances at the time about the guarantee never ever being "actually called on''.

The other problem which afflicted the Irish banks during this vital period was an expensive battle for deposits. Irish Nationwide and Anglo ended up depriving the Irish banking system (as in the clearing institutions) of precious deposits which meant their loan-to-deposit ratios were out of kilter with their international peers which meant they paid more for interbanking sources of funding. Calls to kill off Anglo so that others might live were ignored.

Things that weren't possible are now seemingly possible, starting with auctioning off Anglo's deposit book, most likely to another over leveraged Irish institution. Once these deposits are added to their balance sheet the recipient bank becomes overnight a better credit risk.

All of this is very sensible and wise policy making, but unfortunately it comes too late in the day.

Indo Business