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Maeve Dineen: Nervous wait for banks ahead of January withdrawal figures

PERHAPS the most chilling statistic to come from the Central Bank in some time was the revelation that €40bn left Irish deposits in December.

While most of us were worrying about snow and what to get aunty Mary for Christmas, large companies and many individuals were busy pulling billions out of the country -- money that is not likely to return.

We have become used to big figures, but €40bn really is a staggering sum to lose in one month. It is almost equivalent to the value of all the companies listed on the ISEQ, for example.

It is more than the projected cost of rescuing Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks and more than half the money we are getting from the IMF and Europe to shore up the banks.

For so much money to leave Ireland in such a short time suggests that many companies were panicking. Most corporates, and many individuals, have their money locked into high-interest accounts with penalties for early redemption.

It is not hard to believe that many firms chose to pay the penalty and take their money out of the country in a hurry.

But the process is a strange one when viewed from afar. The ECB is putting the money into the empty vaults of our domestic banks and then those vaults are being emptied again by depositors who are moving the ECB's money elsewhere.

The helpless taxpayer picks up the bill. How long this can continue is anybody's guess, but we all know that it cannot continue indefinitely.

Just why there should have been so such money leaving the banks in the days after the IMF/European bailout remains something of a mystery. Did the bailout itself surprise savers? It seems unlikely.

It was always likely and, if anything, the bailout seemed calculated to reassure investors that there was enough money sloshing around, although it had to be said that the usual measures of economic confidence, the stock exchange, bond yields and the like, have hardly moved in the two months since the bailout was revealed.

We probably have to go back to the events that led up to the bailout for a real explanation for the run on our banks -- the last weeks of November, when public musings by ECB council members on the need to curtail liquidity support to banks were almost daily events.

While comments by the Axel Webers of this world do not get much attention here, and FG's Michael Noonan struggled and failed to remember his name on Friday, they're carefully watched by the world's financiers.

Back in November, it was clear that some senior players in the ECB were getting anxious about how much money was flowing into the Irish banks and wanted to row back, which led to public musings about stopping the transfers from Frankfurt to Dublin.

Money left both bank accounts guaranteed by the Irish State and bank accounts in the IFSC that were not guaranteed by the State, which suggests that the trigger for the flight of deposits was pulled outside Ireland, but the truth is that we will never quite know.

Perhaps the January figures will give us a partial answer. If the flight has continued there is something else amiss. If the flight of deposits was limited to early December, then it was caused by the ECB. Either way, it was another very bad month.

It will be a long time before these deposits come back into the system and it will be even longer if our politicians, on their election trail, continue to trot out their ill-informed guff such as saying they will tell the president of the ECB Jean-Claude Trichet what to do, burn bondholders without consequence and leave the banks to take care of themselves.

Irish Independent