Saturday, 15 September 2012

Why the IMF therapy is not working in Ireland

After a remarkable economic success based on market capitalism, Ireland has drifted back into misery since the crisis of 2008 and risks turning into a Southern European type of state capitalism. Back in January 2011 we explained in this blog (see here) why the IMF program for Greece’s external adjustment would not work. Some of the reasons given then apply equally to Ireland (or Spain for that matter).

First, the Troika misdiagnosed the situation as a liquidity problem while in fact Ireland and Greece faced a solvency problem (albeit of a different nature).

Then, they treated the problem of excessive leverage in the wrong way. The two major mistakes in Ireland were the conversion of private debt into public debt and the reliance on internal devaluation to deleverage. It is easy to see why both policies were wrong.

Ireland had a typical situation faced by a family with irresponsible children that took excessive debt to pay for gambling losses at the Casino (or in its case to speculate in real estate). An obvious option to erase gambling debts was to default on the casino loans (in the case of the Irish real estate bubble the British and German banks). They could be charged with allowing bets that the gambler could not pay. One alternative would be to demand a debt restructuring involving partial debt forgiveness and a longer repayment period, so that with the help of family and friends (i. e. grants by national and EU institutions in the case of Irish borrowers) they could repay the remaining debt without damaging the credit of his family. Another alternative would be to ask the casino to accept an IOU without a redemption date (in case of the British and German banks accept money printed by the ECB).

Yet, the casino owners decided instead to force the collection of their loans from the children’s parents (i.e.Irish government). To save its reputation the family promised to honor the debts by putting them in their business balance sheet (the state budget in the case of Ireland). However, the debts were so huge that they would necessarily cripple an otherwise successful business (economy). It is easy to see why.

First, such an increase in leverage would bar the firm from market financing. Second, it would be forced to halt all modernization and maintenance investments. Finally, it would force the family to downsize by selling some of the best assets. Combining these three measures would inevitably lead to a lower competitiveness, declining productivity and a depressed local economy. As expected, in the last four years, investment in Ireland more than halved in real terms, while domestic demand declined by about one third.

However, the recourse to internal devaluation only made things worse. Imagine that the clientele of the parents business was mostly local (i.e. produced non-tradable goods in economists’ parlance). Therefore, cutting the wage of their workers would reduce its sales proportionally and reduce further the firms’ debt capacity.

Moreover, reducing nominal contracts in the labor market without a concomitant reduction in credit markets would inevitably lead to an increase in non-performing loans (which in 2011 indeed rose from 12% to 20%).

It is obvious that the policy of switching the debt burden from the private to the public sector only made things worse in Ireland. What we said about Greece applies equally to Ireland. It has only three options: a) to force a significant hair-cut on its bond-holders, b) to receive a major grant from other EU countries, or c) a mix of both. None of these is a pleasant solution but there is no other way out.

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