Sunday, 27 February 2011

WHEN IRISH EYES ARE CRYING

When Irish Eyes Are Crying
 By Michael Lewis – Vanity Fair March 2011
First Iceland. Then Greece. Now Ireland, which headed for bankruptcy with its own mysterious logic. In 2000, suddenly among the richest people in Europe, the Irish decided to buy their country—from one another. After which their banks and government really screwed them. So where’s the rage?
In recognition of the spectacular losses, the entire Irish economy has almost dutifully collapsed. When you fly into Dublin you are traveling, for the first time in 15 years, against the traffic. The Irish are once again leaving Ireland, along with hordes of migrant workers. In late 2006, the unemployment rate stood at a bit more than 4 percent; now it’s 14 percent and climbing toward rates not experienced since the mid-1980s. Just a few years ago, Ireland was able to borrow money more cheaply than Germany; now, if it can borrow at all, it will be charged interest rates nearly 6 percent higher than Germany, another echo of a distant past. The Irish budget deficit—which three years ago was a surplus—is now 32 percent of its G.D.P., the highest by far in the history of the Eurozone. One credit-analysis firm has judged Ireland the third-most-likely country to default. Not quite as risky for the global investor as Venezuela, but riskier than Iraq. Distinctly Third World, in any case.
Yet when I arrived, in early November 2010, Irish politics had a frozen-in-time quality to it. In Iceland, the business-friendly conservative party had been quickly tossed out of power, and the women booted the alpha males out of the banks and government. (Iceland’s new prime minister is a lesbian.) In Greece the business-friendly conservative party was also given the heave-ho, and the new government is attempting to create a sense of collective purpose, or at any rate persuade the citizens to quit cheating on their taxes. (The new Greek prime minister is not merely upstanding, but barely Greek.) Ireland was the first European country to watch its entire banking system fail, and yet its business-friendly conservative party, Fianna Fáil (pronounced “Feena Foil”), would remain in office into 2011. There’s been no Tea Party movement, no Glenn Beck, no serious protests of any kind. 
True Love’s First Kiss
Morgan Kelly is a professor of economics at University College Dublin, but he did not, until recently, view it as his business to think much about the economy under his nose. He had written a handful of highly regarded academic papers on topics (such as “The Economic Impact of the Little Ice Age”) considered abstruse even by academic economists. “I only stumbled on this catastrophe by accident,” he says. “I had never been interested in the Irish economy. The Irish economy is tiny and boring.” Kelly saw house prices rising madly and heard young men in Irish finance to whom he had recently taught economics try to explain why the boom didn’t trouble them. And they troubled him. “Around the middle of 2006 all these former students of ours working for the banks started to appear on TV!” he says. “They were now all bank economists, and they were nice guys and all that. And they were all saying the same thing: ‘We’re going to have a soft landing.’ ”
The statement struck him as absurd: real-estate bubbles never end with soft landings. A bubble is inflated by nothing firmer than expectations. The moment people cease to believe that house prices will rise forever, they will notice what a terrible long-term investment real estate has become and flee the market, and the market will crash. “There is an iron law of house prices,” he wrote. “The more house prices rise relative to income and rents, the more they subsequently fall.”  The problem for Kelly, once he had these thoughts, was what to do with them. “This isn’t my day job,” he says. “I was working on medieval-population theory… I was in this position—sort of being a passenger on this ship and you see a big iceberg, so you go and ask the captain: Is that an iceberg?”
Kelly wrote his second newspaper article, more or less predicting the collapse of the Irish banks. By 2007, Irish banks were lending 40 percent more to property developers than they had to the entire Irish population seven years earlier. “You probably think that the fact that Irish banks have given speculators €100 billion to gamble with, safe in the knowledge that taxpayers will cover most losses, is a cause of concern to the Irish Central Bank,” Kelly wrote, “but you would be quite wrong.”
It wasn’t until almost exactly one year later, on September 29, 2008, that Morgan Kelly became the startled object of popular interest.  On September 17 the financial markets were in turmoil. Lehman Brothers had failed two days earlier, shares of Irish banks were plummeting, and big corporations were withdrawing their deposits from them. A week later the department hired investment bankers from Merrill Lynch to advise it.  It would have been difficult for Merrill Lynch’s investment bankers not to know, at some level, that in a reckless market the Irish banks had acted with a recklessness all their own. But in the seven-page memo to Brian Lenihan—for which the Irish taxpayer forked over to Merrill Lynch seven million euros—they kept whatever reservations they may have had to themselves. “All of the Irish banks are profitable and well capitalised,” wrote the Merrill Lynch advisers, who then went on to suggest that the banks’ problem wasn’t at all the bad loans they had made but the panic in the market. The Merrill Lynch memo listed a number of possible responses the Irish government might have to any run on Irish banks. It refrained from explicitly recommending one course of action over another, but its analysis of the problem implied that the most sensible thing to do was guarantee the banks. After all, the banks were fundamentally sound. Promise to eat all losses, and markets would quickly settle down—and the Irish banks would go back to being in perfectly good shape. As there would be no losses, the promise would be free.
The most plausible explanation for all of this, however, was Morgan Kelly’s narrative: the Irish economy had become a giant Ponzi scheme and the country was effectively bankrupt. But it was so starkly at odds with the story peddled by Irish government officials and senior Irish bankers—that the banks merely had a “liquidity” problem and that Anglo Irish was “fundamentally sound”—that the two could not be reconciled. 
What exactly was said in meetings on the night of September 29, 2008, remains, amazingly, something of a secret. The government has refused Freedom of Information Act-type requests for records. But gathered around the conference tables inside the prime minister’s offices was an array of top government and finance officials, including Lenihan, Cowen, the attorney general, and bank officials and regulators. Eventually they brought in the heads of the two yet-to-be-disgraced big Irish banks: A.I.B. and Bank of Ireland. Evidently they either lied to Brian Lenihan about the extent of their losses or didn’t know themselves what those were. Or both. “At the time they were all saying the same thing,” an Irish bank analyst tells me. “ ‘We don’t have any subprime.’ ” What they meant was that they had avoided lending to American subprime borrowers; what they neglected to mention was that, in the general frenzy, all of Ireland had become subprime. Otherwise sound Irish borrowers had been rendered unsound by the size of the loans they had taken out to buy inflated Irish property. That had been the strangest consequence of the Irish bubble: to throw a nation which had finally clawed its way out of centuries of indentured servitude back into it.
The report from Merrill Lynch, which touted the banks as fundamentally sound, buttressed whatever story they told the finance minister. Ireland’s financial regulator, Patrick Neary, had echoed Merrill’s judgment. Morgan Kelly was still viewed as a zany egghead; at any rate, no one who took him seriously was present in the room. Anglo Irish’s stock had fallen 46 percent that day; A.I.B.’s had fallen 17 percent; there was a fair chance that when the stock exchange reopened one or both of them would go out of business. In the general panic, absent government intervention, the other banks would have gone down, too. Lenihan faced a choice: Should he believe the people immediately around him or the financial markets? Should he trust the family or the experts? He stuck with the family. Ireland gave its promise. And the promise sank Ireland.
Even at the time, the decision seemed a bit odd. The Irish banks, like the big American banks, managed to persuade a lot of people that they were so intertwined with their economy that their failure would bring down a lot of other things, too. But they weren’t, at least not all of them. Anglo Irish Bank had only six branches in Ireland, no A.T.M.’s, and no organic relationship with Irish business except the property developers. It lent money to people to buy land and build: that’s practically all it did. It did this mainly with money it had borrowed from foreigners. It was not, by nature, systemic. It became so only when its losses were made everyone’s.
In any case, if the Irish wanted to save their banks, why not guarantee just the deposits? There’s a big difference between depositors and bondholders: depositors can flee. The immediate danger to the banks was that savers who had put money into them would take their money out, and the banks would be without funds. The investors who owned the roughly 80 billion euros of Irish bank bonds, on the other hand, were stuck. They couldn’t take their money out of the bank. And their 80 billion euros very nearly exactly covered the eventual losses inside the Irish banks. 

These private bondholders didn’t have any right to be made whole by the Irish government. The bondholders didn’t even expect to be made whole by the Irish government. Not long ago I spoke with a former senior Merrill Lynch bond trader who, on September 29, 2008, owned a pile of bonds in one of the Irish banks. He’d already tried to sell them back to the bank for 50 cents on the dollar—that is, he’d offered to take a huge loss, just to get out of them. On the morning of September 30 he awakened to find his bonds worth 100 cents on the dollar. The Irish government had guaranteed them! He couldn’t believe his luck. Across the financial markets this episode repeated itself. People who had made a private bet that went bad, and didn’t expect to be repaid in full, were handed their money back—from the Irish taxpayer.

In retrospect, now that the Irish bank losses are known to be world-historically huge, the decision to cover them appears not merely odd but suicidal. A handful of Irish bankers incurred debts they could never repay, of something like 100 billion euros. They may have had no idea what they were doing, but they did it all the same. Their debts were private—owed by them to investors around the world—and still the Irish people have undertaken to repay them as if they were obligations of the state. For two years they have labored under this impossible burden with scarcely a peep of protest. What’s more, all of the policy decisions since September 29, 2008, have set the hook more firmly inside the mouths of the Irish public. In January 2009 the Irish government nationalized Anglo Irish and its 34-billion-euro (and mounting) losses. In late 2009 they created the Irish version of the tarp program (NAMA), but, unlike the U.S. government (which ended up buying stakes in the banks), they actually followed through on the plan and are in the process of buying 70 billion euros of crappy assets from the Irish banks.

BRIAN LENIHAN’S FIRST EXPLANATION
A single decision sank Ireland, but when I ask Lenihan about it he becomes impatient, as if it isn’t a fit topic for conversation. It wasn’t much of a decision, he says, as he had no choice. The Irish financial markets are governed by rules rooted in English law, and under English law bondholders enjoy the same status as ordinary depositors. That is, it was against the law to protect the little people with deposits in the bank without also saving the big investors who owned Irish bank bonds.
This rings a bell. When U.S. Treasury secretary Hank Paulson realized that allowing Lehman Brothers to fail was viewed not as brave and principled but catastrophic, he, too, claimed he’d done what he’d done because the law gave him no other option. But in the heat of the crisis, Paulson had neglected to mention the law just as Lenihan didn’t bring up the law requiring him to pay off the banks’ private lenders until long after he’d done it. In both cases the explanation was legalistic: narrowly true, but generally false. The Irish government always had the power to impose losses on even the senior bondholders, if it wanted to. “Senior people have forgotten that the government has certain powers,” as Morgan Kelly puts it. “You can conscript people. You can send them off to certain death. You can change the law.”

BRIAN LENIHAN’S SECOND EXPLANATION
On September 30, 2008, in the heat of the moment, Lenihan gave the same reason for guaranteeing the banks’ debts that Merrill Lynch had given him: to prevent “contagion.” Tell financial markets that a loan to an Irish bank was a loan to the Irish government and investors would calm down. For who would doubt the credit of the government? 

BRIAN LENIHAN’S THIRD EXPLANATION
A year and a half later, when suspicions arose that the banks’ losses were so vast they might bankrupt the government, Lenihan offered a new reason for the government’s gift to private investors: the bonds were owned by Irishmen. Up until then the government’s line had been that they had no idea who owned the bank’s bonds. Now they said that, if the Irish government didn’t eat the losses, Irish credit unions and insurance companies would pay the price. The Irish, in other words, were simply saving the Irish. This wasn’t true, and it provoked a cry of outrage from the credit unions, which said that they owned hardly any of the bonds. A political investigative blog called Guido Fawkes somehow obtained a list of the Anglo Irish foreign bondholders: German banks, French banks, German investment funds, Goldman Sachs. (Yes! Even the Irish did their bit for Goldman.)

BRIAN LENIHAN’S FOURTH EXPLANATION
Across Europe just now men who thought their title was “minister of finance” have woken up to the idea that their job is actually government bond salesman. The Irish bank losses have obviously bankrupted Ireland, but the Irish finance minister does not want to talk about that. Instead he mentions to me, several times, that Ireland is “fully funded” until next summer, which is to say that the Irish government has enough cash in the bank to pay its bills until next July. It isn’t until I’m on my way out the door that I realize how trivial this point is. The blunt truth is that, since September 2008, Ireland has been, every day, more at the mercy of her creditors. To remain afloat, Ireland’s biggest banks, which are now owned by the Irish government, have taken short-term loans from the European Central Bank amounting to 86 billion euros. Two weeks later Lenihan will be compelled by the European Union to invite the I.M.F. into Ireland, relinquish control of Irish finances, and accept a bailout package. The Irish public doesn’t yet know it, but, even as we sit together at his conference table, the European Central Bank has lost interest in lending to Irish banks. And soon Brian Lenihan will stand up in the Irish Parliament and offer a fourth explanation for why private investors in Ireland’s banks cannot be allowed to take losses. “There is simply no way that this country, whose banks are so dependent on international investors, can unilaterally renege on senior bondholders against the wishes of the E.C.B.,” he will say.

BRING ME A LITTLE IRE
Which way entire nations jumped when the money was made freely available to them obviously told you a lot about them: their desires, their constraints, their secret sense of themselves. How they reacted when the money was taken away was equally revealing. In Greece the money was borrowed by the state: the debts are the debts of the Greek people, but the people want no part of them. The Greeks already have taken to the streets, violently, and have been quick to find people other than themselves to blame for their problems: monks, Turks, foreign bankers. Greek anarchists now mail bombs to Angela Merkel and hurl Molotov cocktails at their own police.  


In Ireland the money was borrowed by a few banks, and yet the people seem not only willing to repay it but to do so without a peep of protest. Back in October 2008, after the government threatened to means-test for medical care, the old people marched in the streets of Dublin. A few days after I’d arrived the students followed suit, but their protest was less public anger than theater, and perhaps an excuse to skip school. (DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING, read one of the students’ signs.) I’d tapped two students as they stumbled away from the event to ask why they had all painted yellow streaks on their faces. They looked at each other for a beat. “Dunno!” one finally said and burst out laughing. Other than that … silence.

It’s more than two years since the Irish government foisted the losses of the Irish banks on the Irish people, and in that time there have been only two conspicuous acts of social unrest. In May 2009, at A.I.B.’s first shareholder meeting after the collapse, a senior citizen hurled rotten eggs at the bank’s executives. And early one morning in September 2010, a 41-year-old property developer from Galway named Joe McNamara, who had painted his cement mixer with anti-banker slogans, climbed inside the cab, drove through Dublin, and, after cutting the brake lines, stalled the machine up against the gates of the Parliament. 

The elderly egg thrower was a distant memory, but McNamara was still, more or less, in the news: declining requests for interviews. “Joe is a private person,” his lawyer told me. “He feels like he’s made his point. He doesn’t want any media attention.”
Two things strike every Irish person when he comes to America, Irish friends tell me: the vastness of the country, and the seemingly endless desire of its people to talk about their personal problems. Two things strike an American when he comes to Ireland: how small it is and how tight-lipped. An Irish person with a personal problem takes it into a hole with him, like a squirrel with a nut before winter. He tortures himself and sometimes his loved ones too. What he doesn’t do, if he has suffered some reversal, is vent about it to the outside world. The famous Irish gift of gab is a cover for all the things they aren’t telling you.
So far as I could see, by November 10, 2010, the population of Irish people willing to make a stink about what has happened to them has been reduced to one: the elderly egg thrower.

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