February 3, 2010
It’s been nearly 18 months since the Government announced its bank guarantee. Anglo Irish Bank was nationalised over a year ago and it is coming up to a year since the Government first mooted the NAMA plan. Yet nothing has actually been done since then. Not a single loan has been transferred to NAMA. There has been lots of talk, lots of bluster and point scoring, but still credit in the economy contracts, house prices continue their slow strangling decline and, most significantly, the rest of the world has moved on.
Why the delay? One interpretation is that our government doesn’t understand that speed is crucial. If we compare our stagnation with other countries that have been faced with national bankruptcy, we compare dreadfully.
Look at what the Swedes achieved in their crisis of 1993 when their property market collapsed along with their banks. In the four months between November 1993 and February 1994 Sweden issued a bank guarantee, set up and transferred all the bad loans to a bad bank, committed state money only after all the private money had been wiped out, let some weak banks go bust, nationalised some big ones and devalued their currency by 40pc!
Sweden took all these decisions quickly in order to save the economy. The financial markets saw that the country was serious about sorting itself out and money cascaded back into Sweden. In a short time the Swedish crisis was over and the casualties were those who caused the problem — the banks and the big landowners. The devaluation allowed industry to recover quickly by becoming hyper-competitive.
So, is the reason for our inactivity the Government’s failure to understand that speed and significant policy change are crucial to getting out of the mire quickly? Or is it that they understand this perfectly, but also cynically understand that if they can brazen it out for another two years they might just be able to run an election campaign on the fallacious myth of taking “hard” decisions?
By adopting the latter tactic, the Government can divide the country between the “insiders” and the “outsiders”.
The insiders are those who have a stake in the society and, therefore, will support a government that is taking decisions that protect their dwindling stake. The insiders prefer the certainty of a tarnished status quo to risking the unknown of a rejuvenated country.
The outsiders are those with no stake in the society, who therefore have most interest in fundamental change. During the boom, some outsiders got inside the tent for a few years, but now they are back outside, in negative equity. They are likely to emigrate or go on the dole as they dutifully did in the crises of the 1950s and the 1980s.
The cynicism of the current approach is that it gives a political party, which is playing the percentages, a chance. On the other hand, it means the recession is longer than it should be. Credit dries up and the country is fixed in a holding position, which is sustainable as long as the Government can borrow abroad and the insiders are kept in a state of nervous anxiety rather than acute fear about their future. This allows the insiders to see the outsiders as, at best, a worrisome nuisance and, at worst, a threat to the insiders’ standard of living. The outsiders quickly become the enemy.
Playing the insider/outsider game allows the ruling party to experiment with what could be described as “ground hurling”. Ground hurling means you keep close to your marker, don’t do anything dramatic and see how the ball breaks. Ground hurling allows a team that shouldn’t have a hope in hell to eke out a win and rob the prize.
Think of this in political terms. We are now faced in Ireland with the pathetic spectacle of the Government protecting the rotten status quo based on the entirely mendacious strategy of political survival rather than national renewal. This starts with the banks. Forget patriotism, self-preservation is the name of the game.
The ongoing public sector versus private sector debate is also part of the bigger insider/ outsider tactic, as it creates false skirmishes. This new conflict is a by-product of the failed “a lot done, more to do” economics of this government. But expediently, this row actually helps the Government because it detracts from the real issue of who mismanaged the economy to such an extent that we ended up here. As smokescreens go, the public/private fight on radio and TV current affairs shows suits the Government.
The reality is that most Irish families are made up of workers who work in both private and public sector. Most families are made up of a small business person, a civil servant, a student, a pensioner, an employee of a private company and someone on the dole. There is no public/private divide.
It is entirely made up to detract from the real issue, which is that the present administration, their senior civil servants, who are supposed to run and regulate the country, and the insiders at the top of the banks and property companies destroyed this economy. This is the one and only issue. But that is not the issue the Government wants discussed so it sets up roadblocks, like the private versus public wage debate.
This is also what the NAMA strategy is based on. The Government argues that it is patriotic to save the banks and the bondholders of the banks because not to do so would undermine the “credibility” of Ireland. What do you think actually undermined the credibility of Ireland? Could it possibly be appalling management of the economy in the past five years?
It is not patriotic to lumber the next generation with the debts of the last. This is not patriotism, it is theft. But for a political power base desperately clinging to power, saving the banks and borrowing to do so is a strategy based on buying time and hoping something will turn up. If it works, Fianna Fail saves itself from obliteration at the cost of hundreds of thousands of extra outsiders being forced — unnecessarily — to go on the dole or emigrate. But they are outsiders, so who cares?
In Sweden of the 1990s, the government took a different approach. It fired those responsible. It nationalised the banks. It made sure all the stockholders’ funds were wiped out before it put a penny of government money into the bankrupt banks. In so doing, Sweden learnt from the disaster. The main lesson is a simple one, which is that the “more of the same” approach is not good enough.
This country needs to be fixed, not patched up. We don’t need tinkering about with the old model. We need to see through the present government strategy. It is not about renewal but is all about keeping its incompetent fingers on the levers of power until something turns up. In so doing, it is aided and abetted by the ECB, which will keep the Irish banks afloat because it is afraid of an embarrassment such as a default within the euro.
The only way it can achieve this is by allowing the banks to mortgage the next generation with more useless borrowing to keep land prices falsely underpinned using the new device called NAMA bonds.
That’s the game — and they dress it up as patriotism.
More fool us if we go along with it.