Saturday 7 December 2019

The €90bn double or quits gamble

Brian Lenihan's Nama plan may save the banks but it is wrecking the country, writes Daniel McConnell

"This is a letter of hate to those men of my country who have defiled it, men with manic fingers that led the feeble body of my country to its death." - John Osborne

Eighteen months ago, at the end of September 2008, this country was pushed off a cliff by the actions of a group of bankers. Late at night, our government was panicked into saving the cancerous Anglo Irish Bank and, in doing so, they mortgaged the future of this country on the fly.

Much has happened since then and, last week, AIB, the country's largest bank, announced a massive €2.6bn loss, the first in its history. It already has received €3.5bn from the taxpayer and is set to get another €4bn at least shortly.

However, without any trace of shame whatsoever, AIB boss Colm Doherty told us that despite our help, the cost of having a mortgage with his bank would have to go up.

The deeply wounded and long-suffering Irish public once again are the ones taking the pain in what is the greatest swindle in the history of this State -- Nama.

Already dogged by considerable delays and accusations of cronyism, Nama is struggling to maintain its credibility, with mounting calls for the Government to step in to temporarily nationalise the entire banking sector.

The two main banks, AIB and Bank of Ireland, remain as imperiled now as they were 12 months ago; their futures uncertain, their solvency in doubt, their lending sharply curtailed and the quality of their loans deteriorating further as land values continue to fall.

How did it come to this?

Last April, the Irish banking sector was in ruin and our international reputation was destroyed. Anglo had been nationalised, with the others teetering on the brink. A plan was needed.

In his emergency budget speech last April, Mr Lenihan unveiled his method of rescuing the banks. The objective of Nama, he said, "is to provide the banks with a clean bill of health, to strengthen their balance sheets, to considerably reduce uncertainty over bad debts and, as a consequence, ensure the flow of credit on a commercial basis to individuals and businesses in the real economy".

Mr Lenihan said that Nama was the best plan because over the next 10 years the property market would recover and it would trade its way to profitability.

The Taoiseach and several government minister repeatedly claimed that the creation of Nama would get credit flowing again in the economy -- claims that have since been dismissed by the banks, and which were cautioned against at the time by the IMF.

While everyone agreed we needed to fix our banks to save our economy, there was little consensus on the government's Nama plan, as detailed in panel below.

Fine Gael said Nama was a "€90bn double or quits" gamble by Fianna Fail on the property market. Its solution was that the State should establish a "good bank" with a credit facility of up to €20bn. "If individual banks have failed to make real progress, particularly in their negotiations with the bondholders, a Fine Gael government would then nationalise them," said leader Enda Kenny.

Labour said the banks should have been nationalised. The party opposed the bank guarantee scheme in September 2008 and had consistently advocated state control through nationalisation.

Party spokeswoman on finance Joan Burton said nationalisation was the safest policy, as it would not require early valuations to be placed on the transfer of loans that would be between different public bodies.

She said the Nama Bill was flawed by the section referring to long-term economic value, which was designed "to pay way over the odds for the banks' dodgiest loans on the pretext that the assets so acquired have an enduring value that is not reflected in the current market".

In response, the Government has repeatedly maintained that it wants to avoid nationalising the banks but has conceded that further state capital will have to go in to the big two, and it is looking increasingly likely that the taxpayer will own as much as 80 per cent of both banks.

The Government has always stated that it wanted to avoid wholesale 100 per cent nationalisation due to the difficulties it creates for funding the financial system and the sovereign.

When the State takes over the financial system, it becomes responsible for funding the system. Moreover, a statutory takeover (as was done in the case of Anglo) of the two main banks would mean the banks would no longer be listed on the stock exchange, which would make it difficult for the State to divest itself of its stakes.

But the problem is Mr Lenihan's Nama plan simply isn't working.

Firstly, the transfer of the Anglo 10 loans was due to take place in December, but will only happen at the end of this month, putting pay to any hopes of getting credit back into the economy quickly.

As we see on a daily basis, the lack of credit is choking the life out of this country. Businesses are closing at the fastest rate in recorded history, unemployment has spiked to 435,000 and once again our young people are forced to leave the country in order to find work.

Secondly, the valuation on the bad loans are far lower than the 30 per cent originally estimated. This means the taxpayer will have to pay more than originally expected with Standard and Poor's estimating the bailout could top €25bn.

Mr Lenihan and his special adviser Alan Ahearne have repeatedly stated that they hope private investors will want to buy equity stakes in the banks, but according to several leading economists, the chances of any private investment are virtually nil, leaving the entire burden on the shoulders of the taxpayer.

Karl Whelan, UCD economist, said: "My suspicion is that once the Nama loans are transferred, the size of the capital deficit in the big two banks will be so large that there will be limited interest from private investors. So if we want to keep these banks going, we are going to have to invest state funds."

Also, the Government has also not ruled out ultimately having to nationalise the banks if Nama doesn't work. So even from its strongest advocates, there are admissions that this huge €90bn gamble could yet still fail.

Thirdly, there is a public perception that Nama is nothing more than a bailout for the bankers and developers who created the mess in the first place.

Nama, the people believe, will be no more than a haven for insolvent developers and unless there is a degree of transparency never yet seen in this country during its lifetime, the perception of cronyism will dog it for its duration.

It will also, of course, be a source of multi-million euro fees for lawyers, valuers and expert consultants as its decisions are subjected to court challenges.

Fourthly, the lack of any criminal prosecutions of any of those responsible cut to the core of Nama and Mr Lenihan's credibility.

This weekend, Mr Lenihan conceded that the investigation being carried out by Paul Appelby, the Director of Corporate Enforcement, is still several months off from being finished.

"The Director of Corporate Enforcement has stated recently that it is not possible to put a timescale on the completion of his office's investigations at this stage. Several months' work lies ahead," Mr Lenihan said.

Whether we end up nationalising the banks or we don't, it is clear is that the banks have wrecked this country.

You and I -- the taxpayer -- are paying for it and will continue to pay for it for many many years, and those men who have defiled our country have so far gotten away scot free.

Sunday Independent

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