February 24, 2010
The land has reverted to the price you’d get from a farmer for putting a donkey out to graze on it
For the past year, this column has been warning of a “triple lock” in the Irish banking system, which would financially incarcerate the Irish people for a generation.
The triple lock would solder the people to the banking system in a suffocating embrace forcing us to borrow from tomorrow to pay for yesterday and, in the process, destroy the opportunities of today.
Now with the Government upping its stake in Bank of Ireland, this prediction — regretfully — is coming to pass. The worst thing is that it doesn’t have to be like this. The latest news that some development land in Athlone valued in the boom at â‚¬31m is now worth only â‚¬600,000 has truly terrifying implications for all of us, because it means NAMA will bankrupt us, and the triple lock implies that we can’t sever the fortunes of the people from the fortunes of the bank.
Let’s just recap what I mean by the triple lock. The first lock was the bank guarantee, the second lock was NAMA and the third lock was the “forced” nationalisation of the banks. It is important to remember one overriding fact: we do not need Bank of Ireland or AIB. This truism needs to sink in. There is nothing sacrosanct about either, nor is there anything sacrosanct about the debts these banks have run up. These debts have nothing to do with us.
Yes, we need a banking system or a couple of functioning banks, but they don’t have to be AIB or Bank of Ireland as constituted at present.
At this stage, the Government should be trying to give the banks away for free to a large European bank. This is what you would do if a sweetshop were in trouble and banks are no different. Any new owner, taking the opportunity of having cash, not debt, in a downturn, will do a deal with the creditors. This is how normal bankruptcies work.
What big bank wouldn’t want to take on the Irish deposit base of â‚¬175bn, the branch network and the banking possibilities of a European country? The new owners would do a deal with the old creditors. The way this is done in the real world is that the creditors are told the game is up, there is no cash left in the kitty, but if they are prepared to take stock of the new parent bank, they can get something out of their Irish misadventure. Obviously the new owners of Bank of Ireland would roast the old creditors, but, hey, that’s capitalism!
The only way new credit will emerge in Ireland is if there is a new banking balance sheet. And the only way a new banking balance sheet will emerge is if the big banks are given away to a healthy bank for free and the old creditors told where to go — to the back of the queue.
The problem for us in Ireland is that the people who are drafting our laws locking us to the banks do not understand this, because they are not capitalists; they are legalistic functionaries, civil servants and bankers trying to hold on to their jobs. In short, they are consummate insiders with their interests vested in the old status quo who can’t see that the old status quo is the problem.
As a result, these insiders are all too happy to give the outsiders (the people) the bill without any thought of how we are going to raise this money. This is why the Finance Minister can come on radio and talk blithely of billions here and there without appearing to consider just how much money this is and how much we have to produce to earn these sums he is tossing about.
Listening to politicians and bankers/brokers using these figures is like witnessing demented generals in the last stages of a war moving imaginary armies on a map — battalions that have long been vanquished.
About 18 months ago, the ‘guarantee’ was constructed to avoid this endgame. The logic of the guarantee was to buy time to get the banks to sort out their own mess. Implicit was the notion that the banks were to look to the market — not the State — for capital and, if there were to be a ‘bad bank’, the banks (not the taxpayer) would have to fund it from their own resources.
On the night the guarantee was first mooted, the ‘bad bank’ was touched on too. The bad bank would be a skip into which we threw our withered land portfolio. The State would raise the money, but the banks would pay for this out of their profits and the taxpayer was not to be touched.
Unfortunately, and not surprisingly given the way our country runs, the banking ‘insiders’ hijacked these ideas last year and have left us with the pathetic situation we are in where they get away with it and give us the bill.
To see how pathetic the reality is, let’s go back to the site in Athlone and extrapolate. The value of this land has fallen by 98pc from â‚¬31m to â‚¬600,000. So, after all the hype about Ireland and its new wealth, the price of the land has reverted to the price you’d get from a farmer for putting a donkey out to graze on it.
In the Commercial Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly — who is emerging as a hero in all this — said that his original presumption (from his experience in the Commercial Court in the past year) that land prices had fallen by 70-80pc was now put “in a cocked hat”. So he thinks 70-80pc falls in land prices are too optimistic.
So if we look at the breakdown of NAMA’s ‘assets’ and see what this new reality means for the banks and us, we see that there will be â‚¬51.5bn of land and development assets and “associated loans” transferred. If we apply Mr Justice Kelly’s discount based on what he has seen so far, we are looking at a hole of possibly â‚¬40bn, where we will borrow â‚¬51.5bn from the ECB, for assets worth a little over â‚¬10bn.
Obviously there will be some assets that will be worth more. In addition, some of the assets that are in the UK or the US will recover reasonably quickly, but given that the lion’s share are in Ireland, a massive discount should be expected.
Whatever the gap, someone has to plug it and, although the NAMA plan is over 10 years, no one in their right mind believes that development land in Athlone will ever again be worth â‚¬31m — nor should it be.
In fact, permanently cheap land should be the aim in order to give us a comparative advantage. But permanently cheap land would impoverish the landlords and their financial backers — the very people who have got us into this mess and the very people NAMA is devised to rescue. So someone has to pay for the bailout.
According to the triple lock system devised by the Government, we the people — the outsiders — will plug this gap. This is grand larceny overseen by the insiders. Someone has to shout “stop”!