| 10.7°C Dublin

Lenihan 'nationalises' majority of country's banking system

By Christmas, the Government will be controlling -- at a safe distance -- about €295bn of bank assets, seven times the amount of assets managed by NAMA.

It was a long time ago, but in September 2008, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was steadfastly opposed to nationalisation as a policy, but horrifying events and the poor quality of Irish banks' loan books have propelled him toward a solution he would have preferred to avoid.

Of course, nationalisation is an elastic word and technically AIB will only be 90pc-owned by the Government by year end. It will maintain a stock market listing and a small rump of non-government shareholders.

Likewise for Irish Nationwide and EBS, they are technically controlled through special investment shares, but ultimately they are nationalised in all but name (EBS could yet be bought by the private sector). Anglo, on the other hand, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Department of Finance.

If one adds their assets together, it means the Government has nationalised the majority of the banking sector, with only Irish Life & Permanent remaining entirely independent. Bank of Ireland is semi-independent, but the Government does hold a highly influential 36pc stake through the national pension fund.

This week's events copper-fasten government control over the banking sector, with the minister admitting for the first time that AIB will have to come under the State's umbrella for the foreseeable future.

Considering the scale of state involvement in retail banking, it is surprising the Department of Finance has not transferred policy for this area over to a new agency, such as the British agency UK FI, which manages stakes in Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley. In Ireland, the National Treasury Management Agency is performing a similar role.

One of the unanticipated consequences of NAMA has been to bring forward loan losses earlier than they would have been recognised under traditional IFRS accounting rules. In other words, NAMA has truncated the amount of time the banks have to spread out the pain of their loan losses.

This has been a NAMA achievement or a NAMA curse, depending on your perspective. It has forced losses to be faced up to, but equally it has forced capital injections to be front-loaded into banks at a time when the national economy is extremely weak and confidence in Ireland threadbare.

This week's dramatic events suggest that several senior bank executives could not live with this turn of events. The remorseless discounting by NAMA of AIB loans is what produced the extra capital requirement for that bank and that in turn seems to have triggered the departures of managing director Colm Doherty and chairman Dan O'Connor.

This will not worry NAMA one jot. The more credible the agency, the better and bigger the discounts, the greater chance NAMA will be profitable. Ultimately the losses have to be allocated somewhere -- NAMA either overpays hugely and the banks require less capital, or NAMA pays just above market value and the banks need extra capital. What has happened this week is the latter. NAMA has been more aggressive than anyone thought and the banks have been wrong-footed.


Of course, the position of Anglo remains somewhat hazy. The central case advanced by the Government is that €29.3bn will be the maximum amount of capital Anglo will need and €34bn is a worst-case scenario.

The Government knows one thing -- the kind of NAMA discounts to be applied to Anglo's major remaining property exposures. This will be 70pc at most or 67pc in a slightly better context. What the Government doesn't know is how Anglo's non-NAMA loans will perform.

This is more crucial than the NAMA loans -- once the NAMA loans move over and Anglo gets extra capital to compensate for the writedowns, that issue ends for the bank. But the performance of the non-NAMA loans will have to be tracked for many years, with the end result far from certain.

The clues provided by Anglo on this subject are not necessarily encouraging. The bank had €36.9bn of non-NAMA loans, according to its last set of results, and it had already taken impairments of €7.5bn on these, leaving a book value of €29.4bn.

If this group of loans take a NAMA-style discount, it would wipe out more than €20bn of assets, leaving the new recovery bank in serious difficulty.

Of course, the recovery bank will be able to do a lot of hoarding of assets, managing them out over a long period, meaning the losses can be better managed. But nevertheless the bank will have a licence and will not be immune from ordinary accounting rules.

For example, so-called 'loss events' force banks, even those in a long-term wind-down process, to recognise impairments in their loans. For groups of loans -- such as property loans -- a general slump in prices is enough to force banks to impair their loans and suffer the financial consequences.

It is hard to see how the new asset recovery bank can be entirely insulated from this. However, the bank has already taken a lot of writedowns as everyone knows and the new more modestly sized Anglo will ultimately never cause as much damage as old Anglo.

Irish Independent