Thursday 20 June 2019

Gavin McLaughlin: 'Holding on to stock may prove costly in long run'

  

The NTMA’s chief executive Conor O’Kelly. Photo: Tom Burke
The NTMA’s chief executive Conor O’Kelly. Photo: Tom Burke
Gavin McLoughlin

Gavin McLoughlin

NTMA chief Conor O'Kelly, the man effectively in charge of managing Ireland's money, warned during the summer that the bank stakes should be sold sooner rather than later.

But the Government didn't listen, and it must now defend its position.

As head of the National Treasury Management Agency, Mr O'Kelly doesn't get to decide what happens to our shareholdings in the banks - but he made it pretty clear that the Government should get on with it and sell.

That's not because he wanted the State to get a big windfall. Rather, it was because selling up and using the proceeds to pay down our national debt would help insulate the country against future economic shocks.

Despite the fact that there is a "boom-is-back" feel in some parts of the country, Ireland is still a heavily indebted nation.

That could count against us if the world economy takes a downward turn, triggered, say, by the US-China trade war.

A downturn would reduce Ireland's tax revenues, and make it more likely that we would have to turn to global markets for funding.

Having a higher level of debt would make borrowing from those markets more expensive, because international lenders would demand higher interest rates to account for the increased risk.

"We have to recognise just how vulnerable we are in the medium to long term while our debt is still as elevated," Mr O'Kelly said in July. "Relying on the investment markets to be always there for you...can be difficult."

Let's hope we don't have to find out how difficult. It may be that in a few years' time the banks' shares surpass the previous highs they have seen.

But the longer we hold on, the greater the chance that a new downturn will come along and throw the economy off the rails. And in that case, any money received from selling up may not be much good.

The Programme for Government's ban on the sale of more than 25pc of a bank by the end of this year was an unnecessary bind. No such bind should be present if the confidence and supply agreement is extended.

Irish Independent

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