A couple of weeks back, myself and three economists made a bet about whether the Government would be able to get a "deal" on today's €3.1bn payment to the former Anglo Irish Bank. I took the "they'll do it" side of the wager because nobody else would, and agreed to pay €20 to each of their (three) charities if the Government didn't pull it off.
Four days after Finance Minister Michael Noonan finally announced the outcome of those most laborious talks, the four of us (who consider ourselves somewhat expert on the topic) still can't decide who won. Did Ireland get a deal or didn't we? Did we get something that materially improved Ireland's position, or were we frog-marched into sticking with the status quo and doing what Europe demanded of us?
Last week's 11th-hour announcement was steeped in enough complexity to make Dan Brown novels look like something out of an Ann and Barry book. Ireland got to effectively give the former Anglo a €3.1bn bond instead of cash, so instead of Ireland paying €3.1bn now, we get to pay €3.5bn in 2025.
The former Anglo (AKA the taxpayer) also gets to pay Bank of Ireland €40m so BoI will turn the new bond into cash. The European Central Bank gets its €3.1bn back from old Anglo, and then gets to dole out about the same amount to BOI. Ireland gets to borrow €3.1bn less this year -- but still has to find an extra €90m in the 2012 Budget to fund a higher interest bill.
On D-Day, one Finance type quipped: "If we can get everyone to understand it, we'll be doing well."
But cynics could easily argue the opposite -- if everyone understood what had happened, Finance would be up the proverbial creek because everyone would realise Ireland hadn't actually won anything at all.
The row as to who won and who lost -- between me and the economists, and between Europe and Ireland -- will no doubt rage on for months to come, if not years (in much the same way as people still argue about whether we did well to offload a 35pc stake in Bank of Ireland to foreign investors for €1.1bn last summer or whether we were hoodwinked).
What is abundantly clear, though, is that the much bigger deal about the remainder of Ireland's banking debt will have to be a lot transparent and a lot more obviously 'good' than the smoke and mirrors-style financial wizardry we saw last week.
Ireland is looking to refinance as much as €40bn of banking debt, most likely through cheap, long-term money from Europe's bailout fund.
The immediate objective is to reduce the massive annual burden of paying off the €30bn IOU originally given to Anglo and Irish Nationwide, and to make the rest of the banking sector healthier. The ultimate objective is to convince the money men that Ireland's debt is sustainable, so we can get back into the markets in 2013 and avoid the dreaded second bailout.
Markets like straightforward solutions, where wins and losses are obvious, and expected risk and reward can be measured with reliability. They do not like complex, obtuse solutions that could be viewed as either good or bad, depending on which way the wind is blowing or how the stars are aligned. In other words, another deal like this week's could well do nothing to achieve our ultimate aim of getting back to the markets, even if those who argue it's "good'' for Ireland are ultimately right. It's not enough for a deal just to be inherently good, it must also be seen to be good. Success must be unequivocal.
Whatever the cheerleaders might say about the deal's merits, they certainly can't say that the benefit of what's been agreed is so self-evident Ireland's success is unequivocal. Which means me and the economists will probably end up flipping a coin -- if we can agree whether to flip a euro or a punt.