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Stephen Kinsella: Stark reality is we are facing into a lost decade

The writer Gertrude Stein coined the phrase 'The Lost Generation': those people who came of age and were damaged by World War One. The French called them the 'Generation au Feu', the 'generation in flames'.

These people lost what they might have been had the war not happened. For many, Stein's 'Lost Generation' represents a loss of potential more than anything else.

This week sees the IMF describe a lost decade for Ireland as a result of the property boom and bust and the repayment of the huge debts the State incurred in cleaning up the mess created by politicians, bankers, and above all, regulators.

In its most recent report the IMF ran a fairly simple forecast, to try to work out how long it would take for household consumption in Ireland to return to pre-crisis levels.

The result? Ten years. From today.

That's 2023. Put in context, that means the 74,000 children born here last year will be in secondary school when the Irish economy reaches levels of domestic demand seen in 2007. We will have a lost decade. A decade in flames.

But what, exactly, is lost? Economists call the output a country can sustain over the long term its potential output, and for Ireland it is between 2pc and 3pc. But it has jumped around a lot over the past few years.

For a small, open economy like Ireland, potential output is actually very hard to compute reliably but, estimation issues aside, the difference between where we will be and where we could have been without the crisis and its aftermath is the true cost of our national obsession with property.

The costs come in cuts, of course, but also in state services that don't get developed, health programmes not funded, research not done, schools not built, taxes not paid, jobs initiatives not taken, jobs not created and resources not used. Potential that's lost, never to be recovered.

Reading the IMF's latest assessment actually leaves me feeling rather bitter, because even after all the money the taxpayer has put into them, even after more than €25bn of government cuts and tax increases – the only thing we are doing well, apparently – the banks are still bunched. The banks' problems come not just from the overhang of bad debts, and the very slow working out of those debts, but also from decreased lending to the SME sector, which is curtailing growth.

The IMF wants to see more action on repossessions and loan workouts in the short term, and I think they'll get their wish.

The IMF does not use restrained language in describing the banks as depending entirely on a European solution.

It writes: "To assure prospects for durable exit, a solution to [banks'] structural profitability challenges needs to be developed as part of the European leaders' commitment to examine the situation of Ireland's financial sector with a view to further improving the sustainability of Ireland's well performing programme."

Despite giving up the blanket guarantee only a few weeks ago, the banks are still our major problem, and the workout of their distressed loans, as it begins, will change Ireland's approach to debt still further. The IMF hopes European banking reforms will save us.

Japan had a lost decade in the 1990s. It left a generation of Japanese people with no interest in debt of any kind, either personal or business-related. And this lack of demand for credit has stopped the Japanese economy from growing.

Even today, Japanese households have a smaller exposure to debt such as home mortgages and consumer credit, than their Western counterparts.

That's what happens when we see workouts of credit on this scale: a 'Generation au Feu'.

Stephen Kinsella is a lecturer in economics at University of Limerick

Irish Independent