Many commentators are reacting to the news that Ireland and the European Union are talking about economic support as some sort of great shock – I’m really not sure why: Ireland’s recent austerity budget should have been a sure sign that they were in deep trouble. The cuts they made were not those of economy, rather they were those of widespread panic.
Of course the admission from Dick Roche that Irish banks were facing “serious liquidity problems”, and his almost flippant statement that “[I don’t think] the appropriate response to that would be for the European finance ministers to panic.” has of course had the exact opposite effect. With a ring of Mr O’Reilly promising Basil Fawlty that all will be well; the Irish economy looks set to firmly hit the buffers when it finally uses up the money it has presently loaned at some point midway through next Spring.
Media outlets are of course fanning the flames, with the meeting today between European Union finance ministers in Brussels being described as ‘crunch talks’; and while undoubtedly the first agenda item will be the state of Dublin’s finances, it shouldn’t be forgotten that this is actually a regular monthly meeting – not an extraordinary quorum specifically called to negotiate bailing out Ireland.
But while it’s sure to be the star item on the agenda, quite what they’re say about Ireland remains a mystery: elements of the finance committee are sure to push for early action in the form of a bailout with the stability of the Euro being the key focus. Over the weekend a story filed by Reuters appeared to justify this assumption, with reports of a deal to shore-up that stability of the Irish economy [for the good of the euro] valued at an amount between 45€ billion and 90€ billion already underway.
With the ultimate bailout fund entirely dependent on how much trouble the Irish banks are really in yet to be revealed, it’s no real wonder that panic both political and on the markets is setting in – as it’s that ultimate amount that’s likely to be the figure that either scuppers or saves the Irish economy. A combined French, German & British dislike for taxpayers funding Ireland’s ludicrous bank assurance guarantee (which fully covered all losses, and not just those of the private citizen), is set to cause friction for the European finance committee bearing in mind Angela Merkel & Nicolas Sarkozy’s agreement a month ago for a new mechanism for securing sovereign debt, restructuring this debt in a way which would place private investors (most notably international bond holders) at risk for investing in countries that were heavily indebted or fiscally unbalanced.
The whole story though, is not yet on the table. It should not be forgotten that British and German banks are massively exposed to the Irish economy. Der Spiegel reported that during the European bank stress tests this summer, some of Germany’s biggest banks were revealed to be holding an estimated 101 billion euro ($138 billion) in Irish bonds. while British banks are exposed to a further 110 billion euro ($150 billion or £93.7 billion). Worryingly for both Britain and Germany a significant amount of that exposure is in taxpayer supported banks including RBS and the struggling Hypo Real Estate (which Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported as holding an estimated €10.3 billion portfolio in Irish debt).
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the financial powerhouses of Europe may have to swallow any plan for letting Ireland take the pain, the exposure closer to home most likely being seen to be too damaging economically and politically, but mark my words: any bailout will come with a litany of caveats. David Cameron will have nowhere to hide as under the noses of the coalition talks that followed this year’s election, then Chancellor Alastair Darling committed Britain to any future European bailout. He won’t however be alone, Angela Merkel is already leading the battle cry, and won’t be likely to stop if German taxpayers take yet another hit for bailing out a profligate nation to ensure the long term stability of the Euro.
This story is developing… as and when details come in I’ll write more.