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The Indians show up to ruin AIB chiefs' party


George Osborne

George Osborne

George Osborne

AIB and Department of Finance chiefs have been fretting about when the State might start offloading some of its 99pc shareholding in the bank. They have also been battling it out over what interest rate to charge mortgage holders.

As the chiefs discuss, the Indians have showed up - namely AIB staff - looking for a 3pc pay rise. Bernard Byrne has barely had a chance to warm the CEO's seat at AIB and he is heading for the Labour Relations Commission to deal with the pay issue.

The bank staff union want a similar deal to Bank of Ireland. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. But perhaps the two banks are more like apples and oranges.

AIB is back in the black and made a pre-tax profit of €1.1bn last year. Management have slashed costs as the bank shrank in size after the crash. It has taken €350m out of its cost base from 2012 and 2014.

At the end of last year, AIB's wages and salaries bill was €599m and it had 11,047 staff on its books. That is an average of €54,022. This does reflect real wages for bank staff because it includes many higher paid executives which drive up the average figure. But it is an indicator.

Over at Bank of Ireland, at the end of December it had 11,292 staff and a pay bill for that year of €611m, or €54,109 per head. Bank of Ireland's total assets stood at €129bn. AIB's were €107bn.

This is all neck and neck stuff - but there are some pretty significant differences. After getting a €20bn bailout from the State, AIB took €1.1bn out of its balance sheet to plug a massive hole in its staff pension fund. It is now one of the best-funded pension schemes in the State.

Bank of Ireland received €4.8bn from the State and paid back €6bn, while the taxpayer retains a 14pc stake valued at about a further €2.2bn.

If anything, AIB management are doing their best. The bank has been instructed by Michael Noonan to cut its mortgage interest rates and now there is speculation that a sale of 25pc of the bank will be delayed until after the election.

If AIB is financially strong enough to award a 3pc pay rise to 11,000 staff, then it is strong enough to have an IPO. If it isn't ready to be sold, then it isn't ready to award pay increases.

Across the water in the UK, chancellor George Osborne has decided selling Britain's 80pc stake in RBS - even at a loss - is more important than holding on to it.

RBS shares rose on the news that the British government was to put its shares up for sale. A similar announcement would probably be good for AIB and the future of the banking sector here.

The sale of the British government's shareholding opens up fresh questions about the future ownership of Ulster Bank. It was retained following a government-inspired review, perhaps for political reasons as much as financial ones.

It is making progress now, but a new shareholder base might like a fresh look at it - especially in the event of a Brexit, with its Northern operations out of the EU and its Southern business in the EU.

On this side of the Irish Sea, the Government can't put everything on hold until the General Election.

Long list of boffins warn Noonan about spending

The ESRI couldn't have put it any more bluntly. The Irish economy is performing and therefore it doesn't need a €1.5bn stimulus budget. According to Professor Kieran McQuinn, co-author of the ESRI quarterly economic review, with the economy growing at a significant pace, "I don't really think you need to step into the breach from the Government's point of view".

Prof McQuinn does economics but he doesn't do elections. Dashing the hopes of all of those austerity-worn voters might seem easy from his point of view. But it isn't so easy when you land on the doorsteps and hand fury-stricken voters a leaflet with a nice picture of yourself grinning from ear to ear.

But Prof McQuinn's warnings should be heeded. He knows what he is talking about and he has form when it comes to spotting problems early on. During the week he warned how important it was to keep the lessons of the past in mind.

Back in 2004, he wrote a prescient article (as a Central Bank economist) in the Central Bank's Financial Stability Report. In it he issued a prophetic warning about the risk posed by a substantial fall in house prices and the damage it would do to the stability of the banking system. He went further - suggesting that, based on traditional models, Irish house prices were significantly over-valued.

He also identified, three years before the crash, the role of tax breaks, bank de-regulation and easy access to wholesale funding as driving house price growth. It was all there in black and white, for anyone to see on... wait for it... page 77!

The burial of contrarian views within the Central Bank was outlined by its former chief economist Tom O'Connell to the Banking Inquiry during the week.

He said the Central Bank had to "pull its punches" before the crash and Financial Stability Reports tended to include "re-assuring" summaries that did not correlate to their data.

This is extremely unlikely to happen now, not because it is a better Central Bank, but because it will have to toe the line with our paymasters in Frankfurt - the ECB.

The ECB will be happy with Ireland's recent economic progress, but alarmed at the idea that the politicians are going to splash the cash. Michael Noonan has been warned of the dangers by his own Fiscal Advisory Council and now the ESRI.

At least this time, Prof McQuinn is making page 1 news, instead of page 77.


Quinn Insurance collapse still stalks Central Bank

Speaking of regulation, Central Bank deputy governor Cyril Roux didn't pull his punches when dealing with a request in March of this year for information from the Department of Finance about the state of the insurance market.

Roux said the disjointed nature of the regulator's enforcement powers over non-life insurance companies was an "impediment to their effectiveness" and needed consolidation.

This isn't the sort of enforcement regime we are led to believe is in place in the "new" Central Bank. Insurance companies have been privately giving out about the level of intrusive regulation from Dame Street for quite a while.

Perhaps the real eye-opener came when Roux said the vacancy rate for staff in the enforcement division was 40pc because of government pay restrictions.

This is in a sector which gave us Quinn Insurance and a €1bn levy on all insurance customers as a result of its collapse.

Either enforcement rules and staffing levels in the insurance sector are good enough or they aren't. Anything in between suggests we have learned nothing.

Sunday Indo Business