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Ireland's rich suffer €350bn wipe-out

Wealth in property and financial assets in Ireland has fallen by at least €350bn in two years, wiping out most of the so-called Celtic Tiger "millionaires" in the process.

The enormous sum lost represents, when converted, almost half of the $1 trillion stimulus package announced by US President Barack Obama last month.

From a high two years ago, the property market collapse represents a loss in wealth of about €250bn, while the stock market crash equates to a wealth loss of almost €100bn.

Such a massive destruction of wealth has been a significant factor in the economic crisis here. Not only has it led to a collapse in Government revenue through a loss of taxes, it has also shattered consumer confidence.

Yesterday, an international research economist told the Sunday Independent that had policymakers taken "better decisions", the crash may have been avoided.

"High asset prices could have been kept up in some sense. There was no inevitability about the crash," Ciaran O'Hagan, who is head of rates research at Societe Generale in Paris, said.

In 2006, at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom, a Bank of Ireland Wealth of the Nation Report estimated there were 33,000 millionaires in Ireland, excluding principal private residence. The report examined the nation's wealth as measured by assets such as property, deposits and investment, and pension funds.

The report has been relied upon by many politicians and commentators on the crisis to support a demand for the Government to "tax the rich" in this week's Budget.

However, the fact is that much of the wealth generated in the Celtic Tiger years has been virtually wiped out by the stock market crash and property market collapse. The majority of the so-called new "millionaires", therefore, no longer exist.

Department of Finance figures show that the top 2.5 per cent of income earners pay a third of all income tax; the top 6.5 per cent pay half; the top 12.5 per cent pay two-thirds; and the top 20 per cent of income earners pay 77 per cent of all income tax.

The value of global financial assets, including stocks, bonds and currencies, probably fell by more than $50 trillion in 2008.

Mr O'Hagan puts the loss of wealth in Ireland at "well over €350bn".

"I believe, actually, that figure is probably an underestimate," he said.

"One chunk represents, simply, the fall in the capitalisation of Irish equities, that is their market value over the past two years, the market at its high two years ago. This amounted to nearly €100bn.

"The even bigger chunk reflects the fall in property prices. We are assuming here a 45 per cent drop in average house and land prices from peak. That might be too much, or too little. It is too much compared to published data. But if more of the housing stock [was] traded, I think 45 per cent to date is a fair estimate. I'd expect it to fall further. We then took each type of stock, owner-occupied houses, rented and so on, and applied the reduction. I believe, actually, that the figure [€350bn] is probably an underestimate. We erred on sign of caution to not become too alarmist."

Mr O'Hagan said: "Such numbers only hurt people, and the economy, to the extent we feel poor. However, much of this wealth has not transacted. You still live in your dear house, and it is still as beautiful as ever, or so you might think.

"The majority of people that bought shares two years ago probably still have them. And they just might go back up again."

He added: "The crisis, so far, has not destroyed much wealth -- at least real wealth -- like a war or a cyclone might. Paper losses on financial assets, nevertheless, are painful, particularly when deep, global and protracted like in this crisis. That does lead current consumption to fall somewhat."

However, Mr O'Hagan also said that had different policy decisions being taken worldwide, the crash may have been avoided.

"Maybe it all might have turned out differently had policymakers, mainly the Greenspans and Bernankes of this world, taken better decisions. With the benefit of hindsight, economists know now that those high asset prices could have been kept up in some sense. There was no inevitability about the crash."

He also said that much of the commentary in Ireland sees the problem in national terms.

"I would be far more worried about some external crises forcing Ireland into a catastrophic adjustment. I would less fear policy or political mismanagement within Ireland leading to disaster. The risk of such an externally imposed catastrophe can be reduced by getting the Government balance sheet more in order now."

The loss of financial wealth in Ireland, and worldwide, is enormous, and the consequences for the economies of the world are commensurate.

The World Bank has said that the global economy is likely to shrink for the first time since World War II, and trade will decline by the most in 80 years, an assessment which is more pessimistic than an IMF report in January predicting 0.5 per cent global growth this year.

"This crisis is the first truly universal one in the history of humanity," former IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus said last month.