The Bad Financial Luck of the Irish

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Yesterday I argued that Irish austerity doesn't really tell us much about what the US should do.  Today it's worth talking about why, exactly, the Irish experience is such a poor model for the problems of the US.  Luckily, fledgling think tank e21 has done the hardest part of the job for me:  explaining the depth of the problems that Ireland faces.

For the U.S., there was never any question about whether the federal government had the capacity to arrest the panic. At its peak, the liabilities of the U.S. financial system were $17.1 trillion (D.3), or about 118% of GDP. Even if one assumed that assets were worth 20% less than liabilities - a highly aggressive and unlikely assumption - the cost of guaranteeing all of the financial system's liabilities would only be 23% of GDP, or equal to a one-time 50% increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio. Therefore, the implied guarantee of all financial system liabilities after TARP was highly credible.

(Chart) Eurozone/G10 Bank Liabilities relative to GDP

For other countries with larger (relative) financial sectors, the arithmetic was much different. The most obvious example was Iceland, whose banking system's liabilities reached nearly 1,100% of GDP in 2007. When its banks could not access wholesale funding markets, the government lacked the fiscal capacity to intervene credibly. The result was economic collapse. For other nations, it was less cut and dry whether the government could backstop its banking system's liabilities without incident (see chart above). The United Kingdom and Switzerland's banking system liabilities exceeded 400% of GDP. Both nations took actions to recapitalize banks and provide implicit guarantees of their liabilities - TARP-like programs to stand behind banks and assuage concerns of creditors without legally obligating the government to ensure no bank creditor suffered any loss. Conversely, Ireland, whose banking system's liabilities were also near 400% of GDP, decided to formally guarantee its banking system's liabilities.

While the Swiss and UK guarantees seem to have succeeded thanks to their banking system's international activity and broad diversification, the Irish guarantee has not been as successful, largely because of its banks concentrated exposure to a bursting domestic real estate bubble. The result has been a deeply insolvent banking system that some believe will ultimately push the Irish government itself bankruptcy. Barclays was the latest to warn that the government will likely have to renege on its guarantee and seek concessions from bank creditors if it is to avoid sovereign bankruptcy. As of August, the Irish banking system owed €95 billion to the European Central Bank (ECB), which means about 12% of all Irish bank assets are now financed through official liquidity facilities. This is only slightly below the 17% of Greek assets funded through official channels and a sign that the private sector is no longer willing to fund Irish banks.

The problem for Ireland is that the tax revenue that could otherwise be pledged to cover its banks' debts has plunged for the same reason its banks are in such trouble: the collapse of the real estate bubble. Irish house prices have fallen by 34% from the peak and have yet to stabilize. Irish wealth fell by about €150 billion in 2009, which would be roughly equivalent to an $8 trillion decline for U.S. households. Unemployment has spiked in the very sectors most responsible for growth in the recent past - real estate construction and finance. The same factors driving the banks' insolvency are simultaneously depressing employment, household spending, and tax revenue. The deficit stands at 14% of GDP, due largely to an economic contraction that sliced 10% off of the size of the Irish economy since 2008. The government's gross debt has nearly tripled as a share of GDP, rising from 25.8% in 2006 to 64% at the end of last year and could exceed 75% by the end of the fiscal year.

There are no signs that any of this is temporary or that adjustments made to date are sufficient to maintain access to credit. The initial austerity measures taken by the Irish government - tax increases and large cuts to public employee wages - seemed ambitious, but they turned out to be a drop in the bucket relative to the cost of the bank rescue. The Irish government created the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) to acquire property development and commercial real estate assets from banks at a sizeable discount to par. As with similar schemes, this government-sponsored fund faces a catch-22: overpay for assets and transfer losses directly to taxpayers or drive a tough bargain and further expose the banks' insolvency. To date, NAMA has recorded €30 billion of losses, or more than 10% of GDP. S&P estimates that ultimate losses will be between 29% and 32% of GDP. To put this figure in perspective, this would be equivalent to U.S. taxpayer losses on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of $4.2 trillion, or about 11-times the CBO estimate of $380 billion.

While some think Ireland could be saved through export growth given the number of international corporations that moved to Ireland to take advantage of the low corporate tax rate, the potential for export growth is limited by what the IMF suggests was a bubble in wages similar to the one in property prices. At the end of 2007, Ireland was proudly boasting that it had more Mercedes Benz per capita than Germany. The rise in wages brought about by a booming economy reduced competitiveness. Deflation has set in with prices falling by nearly 2% last year. Export growth will likely first require a period of prolonged deflation, which would result in a dramatic increase in the real cost of the large amounts of newly incurred debt. In short, the Irish economy is still reeling from a financial collapse that is several times worse than that of the U.S. Even the Spanish problems are mild by comparison, as only 4% of Spanish banking system assets are funded by the ECB and Spanish banks are more diversified and better capitalized.

Using Irish austerity as a dire warning to us relies on what I think are oversimplified comparisons.  Folks point out that despite austerity, Ireland's tax revenues have collapsed, and their debt is trading at a huge premium to Germany's--much bigger than the premium paid by Spain, which hasn't tried such draconian measures.  But Ireland's problems are really rather special.  For various reasons, including favorable corporate tax rates and an educated, English-speaking population, capital poured into the country for more than a decade, leading to a banking sector that was grossly inflated compared to the underlying economy.  The US banking sector is rather tame by comparison to most European nations--bank leverage at the beginning of the crisis was about equal to GDP, rather than the three to five times GDP found in many European nations.  But Ireland is almost in a class by itself.

That meant that when the financial crisis hit, Ireland's contraction was much worse--and much less amenable to government interventions that worked in other countries.  It's not surprising that their fiscal crisis is dire, their credit spreads rising.

In order to say that Irish austerity offers a grim lesson for us, you need to know the counterfactual:  how bad would growth, tax revenues, credit spreads have been without the austerity?  And because of the magnitude of their problems, it is far from clear that austerity has made things worse.

Now, even if austerity had made things better, that wouldn't necessarily be a guide for US policy--again, because their crisis is so much deeper.  Attempting to borrow and spend their way out of the crisis might have led to total collapse, but that wouldn't mean that it would have the same effect here, where our fiscal issues are more manageable.

That's why I think it's just not useful to bring it up in the context of the American debate.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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