Monday, January 19, 2009

Poisoning the banking system

YESTERDAY’S CATASTROPHIC collapse of Irish bank shares stems directly from the Government’s proposal to nationalise Anglo Irish Bank. With the Government’s finances already buckling under the collapse of our bubble economy, financial markets began to fear that with the added burden of Anglo’s debt, the Irish State cannot afford to finance itself, let alone support the remaining national banks.

Facing the imminent collapse of the national financial system, the Government needs to perform a ruthless triage. The worthwhile banks need to be maintained by any means necessary, including nationalisation, while Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide must be allowed to collapse.
At the original crisis meeting on September 29th, Brian Cowen claimed that the blanket guarantee to all six banks was given “on the basis of the advice from those who are competent to so advise the Government”.

That does not appear to have been the case.

According to a source of mine very familiar with what happened at the meeting, extending the liability guarantee to Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide was strongly opposed by representatives of the Central Bank and the Department of Finance (who reportedly came into the meeting with a draft Bill to rescue only four institutions). However, I am told they were overruled by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, who were supported by the Financial Regulator and the Governor of the Central Bank on the grounds that a sudden liquidation of Anglo’s assets would not be in the national interest.

It is still worth asking what would have happened if Brian Cowen had listened to the Department of Finance and allowed Anglo Irish to sink? The answer is: very little.

Developers would have gone bust and commercial property would have become more or less worthless, but that is going to happen anyway, with or without Anglo Irish. Depositors of Anglo Irish would have been paid off in full, and the hit would have been taken by the international financial institutions that hold around €22 billion of its bonds.

These bondholders are professional institutional investors who signed up for higher returns on Anglo debt in the knowledge that they were facing higher risks. They are, moreover, insured against their losses through insurance contracts called Credit Default Swaps.

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