Analysis/Comment
Irish Economy: State bank guarantee tolls the death knell of the Celtic Tiger; Fairytale ends debunking the myths and exposing the reality of foundations built on quicksand
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Oct 4, 2008 - 6:12 PM

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President George W. Bush signs the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (a.k.a the $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan) in the Oval Office Friday, Oct. 3, 2008, at the White House - - With the end of the Celtic Tiger and the construction boom, Ireland is now more dependent on US firms for its prosperity, than any other developed country.

Irish Economy: Celtic Tiger RIP- The dramatic events in Dublin, early on Tuesday, September 30th, when the Irish Government agreed to issue a State guarantee, with a value in the range of €400 - €500 billion, underwriting the Irish banking system, tolled the death knell of the Celtic Tiger and definitively brought down the curtain on the remarkable 15-year period of economic growth in Ireland. While some advances will endure as the fairytale ends, the debunking of the myths that have become ingrained during the period and the exposure of the reality of foundations built on quicksand, leaves the economy without a credible road map and an overwhelming dependence on American economic fortunes.

William Butler Yeats wrote in his poem, Easter, 1916, All changed, changed utterly: /A terrible beauty is born, but what is striking about the Celtic Tiger period, is how little fundamental change occurred in Ireland, during the period.

By the mid-1990's, Ireland had updated most of its Victorian era social laws and in 1995, a referendum on removing a constitutional ban on divorce, was approved. However, despite the marketing of Ireland as a progressive European country, with a huge talent pool of educated young people, it's striking how conservative the society has remained, beyond social issues. There has been no political reform of any significance and the system, which is dominated by local clientisim, continued to produce second-rate politicians who lacked both vision and competence to take better advantage of a temporary boom. The glacial pace of broadband development in Ireland coupled with a professional survey earlier this year of a sample of more than 5000 which confirmed that 51% of Irish people never use the Internet, illustrates a big gulf with for example Denmark and South Korea, when it comes to adaptation to a changing world. Even today, from my own experience of running an Internet company for almost 12 years, I can attest to the snail's pace adaptation to the web and it's not only the old codgers in their 40's or 50's, who are at fault.

The splurge of public money on impressive e-services such as the ROS tax system, which was developed by US consultancy firm Accenture, gives the impression of progress, but with most of its 1,600 Irish head count involved in public services, how long can this be afforded?

T.K. Whitaker (b. 1916 ), the renowned Irish civil servant who was responsible for the 1958 Economic Development report that was the genesis of the Celtic Tiger, chaired the Constitution Review Group, which reported in 1996 and recommended a partial list system for Dáil elections, to improve the standard of Irish parliamentary representation, without changing the multi-seat PR system. The report was ignored.

So as the former social worker, currently Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Mary Coughlan, whose main job is making jobs announcements on behalf of American companies, cooed this week about the "terrific endorsement that Ireland can satisfy the needs of such highly innovative and technologically advanced companies" as Facebook and "another fantastic development for the thriving medical technology industry in Ireland," neither she nor the State enterprise agencies who are allies in spin and spoof, can promote a credible path for the future, beyond the dependence on American companies.

Voters have been tolerant of a system with limited accountability, where the buck stops nowhere. Farmers make huge windfall gains from land sales for development, in a country that is 4% urbanised and property developers are the main funders of the dominant political party Fianna Fáil. It is a classic system of crony capitalism.

Ireland is effectively run as a one-party State. Non-party members of the Dáil (parliament) who are bizarrely termed "independents," sell their support in return for a five year period of security and "goodies," that they can extract for their constituents, while smaller fringe parties such as the Green Party, are bought off with other "goodies" for their core supporters e,g. the prospect of a carbon tax to "save the planet,"while having zero impact on for example economic policy or institutional reform. The defunct Progressive Democrats (PDs) were cheerleaders of tax cuts during the construction boom and went along with the fantasy that they and government colleagues, had invented the free lunch.

Politicians in power have dined on the "fatted calf" for more than a decade and in or out of office, they will continue to do so, while their ineptitude and laziness will wreak havoc on thousands of lives. After all the years of an Exchequer awash with cash, more than 1 million Irish private sector workers have no occupational pensions because they lacked collective power to force action, and many of them will depend in future years on a measly State pension. In contrast, politicians themselves and other public sector staff, not only do not have to worry about the vagaries of the stock market but as retirees, will get the same increases - including future benchmarking - as contemporary holders of their last position.

Property-related activities accounted for almost two-thirds of outstanding private sector lending in June - - - - Chart from Central Bank's Quarterly Bulletin, published on Friday, Oct 3rd (See Box at bottom of page).

The Irish Times said on Friday, Oct 3rd, Irish banks had loaned €86.7 billion to the Republic’s property developers, by the end of June, to fund the construction of housing, offices, shopping centres and a range of other business premises.

Despite a falling market, the figure was around €17 billion, or 20%, more than a year earlier, and the calculation did not include the interest due on these amounts. The figure also did not include commercial property loans outside the State.

The most recent figures show that 80% of Anglo Irish Bank’s €68 billion loan book, just under €55 billion, is secured against Irish and British property. Anglo Irish is a particularly active lender to the commercial property sector.

Bank of Ireland’s loan book stands at €135 billion, 71% or €95 billion is secured against property. Of that figure, its Irish home loans come to €27 billion, while its British mortgages come to €34 million. This leaves it with an exposure of over €60 billion to other property loans in both the Republic and other markets.

AIB’s loan book tops €150 billion, and 60 per cent of this is secured against property. The most recent figures show that loans outstanding in the Republic were €71.7 billion, with mortgages accounting for €24.5 billion, leaving a balance of €47.2 billion secured against other properties in the State.

The Times says that commercial real-estate loans are made up of the money that banks advance to developers who are buying property, either land or buildings, from which they ultimately intend making a profit.

If the developers are building on the property, or adding value in some other way, that money is also borrowed. So any profits from land speculation are virtually always dependent on property values increasing.

For nine years, American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jnr wrote in relation to the Roaring Twenties, the US government had treated business as though it had “discovered the philosopher’s stone which could transmute the uncertainties of the capitalist system into permanent prosperity.”

In Ireland, Irish governments were afflicted with remarkably similar delusions in relation to construction, until recent times.

The politicians had a large supporting cast.

Thomas Gray wrote in the mid-eighteenth century, in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, that The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Maybe so, but when it's partytime, many find it compelling to be as President Lyndon Johnson once said "inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in."

The Irish "establishment" is a small one and like Gray's flow'r that "is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air," principles come with a cost.

Journalists like rubbing shoulders with the powerful and as for business, the State purchases €16 billion worth of goods and services each year. So, the politicians and senior civil servants wield significant practical power. I was once asked to draft a letter for a semi-illiterate, who aspired to be a Peace Commissioner. So I'm not surprised by the desire for membership of the boards of hundreds of quangos. Of course, the fees for such positions without any real responsibility, are more than pin money and a salary such as that of €182,000 paid to the head of the National Agency - nearly six times the average industrial wage, is plainly ridiculous.

Apart from taking a strong position on pay issues, IBEC, the main business representative body, shies away from issues that would put politicians' noses out of joint.

On issues such as governance and institutional reform, land development and ministerial incompetence, IBEC avoids controversy.

As for regulation, it has long been the precedent to appoint the chief regulator, the head of the Central Bank, from the Department of Finance. Thirty plus years doffing the cap to politicians, is hardly a recipe for independent regulation and the Financial Regulator Patrick Neary, who appeared on RTÉ's Prime Time television programme last Thursday, likely left viewers utterly confused by his attempt to compartmentalize the banks' potential huge bad debts problems from the general European inter-bank liquidity situation.

During the boom, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was the biggest booster of the property market and wondered in July 2007, why "cribbers" about the Irish economy didn't commit suicide.

Having the most expensive houses in the world and an increase of the number of empty houses in the period 2002-2006 by 122,000, was nothing to worry about.

Fantasy and Reality
A number of bank economists during the boom, doubled up as mortgage salesmen while peddling themselves as"experts" in the media and the then prevailing air of unreality is illustrated by property man Ken MacDonald who wrote in the Sunday Independent in early 2007: "Why do we allow scaremongers and doomsayers with unfounded pessimism and unbridled negativity dictate our thinking and blunt consumer confidence? The Irish economy is the envy of the world. Job creation is phenomenal with more than 7,000 new jobs being created each month - despite the gloomy attention given to periodic job losses in some sectors.

Unemployment stands at 4.1%, the lowest in Europe; there are 750,000 more people in the workplace than a decade ago. We have revitalised cities and towns, a conveyor belt of entrepreneurial business people operating successfully on a world stage, a rich cultural and artistic heritage, a vibrant talented young population, rising by almost 100,000 per year, confident in their own and their country's destiny. We should be celebrating our success on a daily basis. In any event, the Irish love affair with property will continue undaunted despite the knockers.

The line - a conveyor belt of entrepreneurial business people operating successfully on a world stage - was absolute bullshit and delusion.

The boom was initially triggered by the opening of significant operations in Ireland by US world-class companies in the high-tech, pharmaceutical and financial sectors at a time when Irish demographics provided a ready labour pool. By 2006, these companies were  responsible for 90% of Irish exports.

The windfalls from the property boom, for developers and farmers were invested in overseas commercial property. Since 2001, about €60 billion (equity and borrowings) was invested by the Irish in commercial property. In the same period, less than €1.5 billion in venture capital, flowed to Irish-owned companies.

Apart from CRH, Ryanair, INM and Denis O'Brien's Digicel, what Irish companies have made a big splash on the international stage?

The Irish-owned high tech sector is on life support.

Apart from the former Riverdeep, which is now a significant operation as Houghton Mifflin Riverdeep , IONA has been acquired by a US company and most of the others are struggling.

The Bank Of Ireland reported in December 2005, that only 3% of Irish SMEs are of medium size with more than 50 employees. Overseas expansion and exporting are dependant on businesses growing to a medium sized enterprise, yet the bank's research indicated that only 7% of Irish SMEs intended to expand abroad in 2006. This contrasts sharply with the UK where medium enterprises, which employ 30% of the workforce, are the powerhouse of the economy.

As for MacDonald's statement: "Job creation is phenomenal with more than 7,000 new jobs being created each month" :-

In total 86,000 jobs were created in 2006, according to the CSO. The strong growth in the Construction (+28,400) and the Health (+18,700) sectors accounted for just over 55% of the annual increase in the numbers employed. Only 6,000 jobs were created in the tradable goods/services sector of the economy, according to policy advisory agency Forfás.

Irish full-time employment in manufacturing and internationally traded services fell 10,297 from 315,418 in 2000 to 305,121 in 2007 while the total workforce expanded by 605,000 in sectors such as construction, public services, distribution, retail and other services.

The contraction of the US financial services sector, will have an impact on Dublin's International Financial Services Center (IFSC) , as will the downturn on American investment in general.

The Central Bank says in its latest Quarterly Bulletin (see box below) that Ireland was ranked as the twelfth largest services exporter in 2006, accounting for 2.5% of global services exports. The contribution of services to overall exports has more than doubled since 2000, amounting to 43%.

Nevertheless, the computer services sector remains Ireland’s largest services exporting sector, representing one-third of services exports last year.

When combined, the services export shares of business and computer services totalled 61.7% in 2007.

Europe accounts for the bulk of Ireland’s trade in services — approximately 60% of services exports in 2006. Services exports destined for the US accounted for a further 15% of total services exports. Accordingly, around 75% of Irish trade in services is destined for the US and Europe. Within Europe, the UK is Ireland’s largest services trading partner, featuring prominently on both the services export and import sides.

Despite the recent dominance of services exports, Ireland remains a net importer of services. At a sectoral level, Ireland’s services trade deficit is driven by sizable imports in two sectors, namely, royalties and licences and the business services sector. The business services sector is Ireland’s largest services importing sector, accounting for 43% of overall imports. Payments of royalties and license fees accounted for around one quarter of Ireland’s services imports last year.

An NCB Sockbrokers' economist said in 2007 that the departure of US chip giant Intel, Ireland's largest industrial employer, would be no big deal. A service company such as an aircraft  leasing firm, with 1% of Intel's staff of 5,000 or less, could record the same annual revenues.

So treat some of the mantras on service exports with caution.

Dr. Garret FitzGerald wrote in the Irish Times in 2006 that during the brief Celtic Tiger period from 1993 to 2001, our living standards rose by one-half. But this was due to two special factors - both of which were essentially temporary in character.

The first was the impact upon our national productivity of a quite exceptional inflow of new US investment. For a number of years Ireland, with only 1% of Europe's population, attracted up to 25% of all US greenfield industrial investment in our continent. The new technology and skills that this inflow brought contributed to a 4% annual increase in output per worker at national level, ie productivity.

The second factor, which played an even larger role in boosting our living standards during this time, was the huge increase in the total number of people at work, and the corresponding drop in the proportion of dependants in our population. Several factors contributed to this: the exceptional inflows of young workers emerging from the educational system and of women transferring from "home duties" to the labour force, and also the flow of unemployed people returning to work and of recent emigrants coming back to jobs here.

Within a decade these inflows into our labour-force reduced from 230 to 115 the number of dependants that every 100 workers had to support, either directly within their families or indirectly through taxation.

The construction sector employed 126,100 in early 1998 and 282,000 by the end of 2006 when housing output peaked at 88,000 (92,000 including social housing).The Central Bank says employment within construction increased from about 9% of the total workforce in 1999 to 13.3% in 2007.

Labour Finance Minister Ruairi Quinn had announced a restrained budget in advance of the 1997 general election. The annual GDP growth rate for the year was 11.5% -- the peak for the Celtic Tiger period and also an all-time high in the 1971-2007 period. (SEE - Table 13: Budgetary and Economic Statistics - Sept 2008.)

Source credit: www.irishnewsarchive.com

On June 05, 1997, the Irish Independent famously ran its front page editorial titled  - - "For years we have been bled white - now it's payback time" - - a day preceding the general election and by 2008, the beneficiaries brought economic ruin in the interval,  deliver a payback to the people. Ignorant politicians, aided and abetted by vested interests in a democracy of many shortcomings, travelled on the road to perdition and blew the best opportunity ever, to put the Irish economy on a sustainable course. The people had given the prudent Ruairi Quinn the boot. His successor Charlie McCreevy, now a member of the European Commission, opened the spending and property tax inducement throttle full blast but despite double digit annual public spending growth, he could not match Quinn's growth record.

Fianna Fáil and their sidekicks in the PDs, claimed like President Herbert Hoover in 1929, that they had found the magic formula for prosperity and the property boom took off.

Property tax incentives that attracted high earners to invest in property and write off the value over a seven-year period against income, which were introduced in the grim 1980's, were now extended in both geographical area covered and range.

Crucially, McCreevy cut the capital gains tax from 40% to 20%, which made investment in property compelling for earners in a rising market, who were paying the top tax rate of over 40%. The rise in the number of empty housing units to 266,000 according to the Census 2006, suggested that many buyers were hoping for a quick profit rather than have the hassle of renting. Banks obliged with 5-year interest only loans and the European Central Bank cut its benchmark rate to 2% in mid-2003.

Accountants and lawyers became active in selling property both in Ireland and overseas, as it was also much more compelling than conventional services.

Ministers bragged about the entrepreneurial spirit in the Irish economy but the only serious game was property while the US-dominated sectors operated in a parallel universe.

 

In November 2004, the then Finance Minister Brian Cowen, disclosed that the State collected 28% of the cost of each new housing unit in taxes (e.g. VAT @13.5%, PAYE, PRSI) and public charges.

The State was collecting an average of €100,000 from every housing unit built, but such a total bounty from construction, was only a temporary windfall.

Site costs as a percentage of the total cost of a house also rose during the boom and the windfalls for developers and farmers were invested in commercial property overseas.

Economist Jerome Casey, who is editor of the Building Industry Bulletinin a report in 2003, said that site costs account for 42.5% of the cost of a house nationwide. Casey said that typically in the mid 1990s, Durkan Brothers sold apartments off O'Connell Street for £35,000 to £40,000 (€44,440 to €50,790) for which the site cost was £5,000. Both the Irish Council for Social Housing and private house builders reported city house site costs at up to 50% of the house price. Outside the cities, site costs can represent up to 40% of the house price. For the country as a whole, site costs may now constitute 42.5% of the house price, an increase of almost 30 percentage points on the pre-boom position. In Dublin that increases to 50%. Overall the Irish figures are grossly out of line with the rest of the developed world.

In the US land accounts for 20% of the total cost of a house. In Denmark the figure is similar while in Portugal the land factor drops to 15%.

Land accounts for 23% of the cost of roads projects in Ireland, but just 12% in England, 10% in Denmark, 9.4% in Greece and 1% in Iceland. A further 2% of the €18.5bn provided in the Government's Transport 21 for road building over the next decade will go to archaeologists.

In Greece, one of the country's with the richest archaeological treasures, has managed to build new roads while spending far less than Ireland on either land compensation or archaeology.

Irish farm land prices are now the highest in Europe and Dublin office rents are among the highest in the world - - - more than double Toronto's and almost twice the level in Brussels - capital of the European Union.

 

Property-related taxes jumped from 4% of total government revenue in 1995 to 16% in 2006.

Property-related lending now accounts for almost two-thirds of outstanding private sector credit loans.

Listening to a number of Irish economists using the term "demographics," it often struck me that Africa should be a byword for prosperity using such a criterion.

In the Irish Times, in May 2007, before the last General election, Michael Casey, former economist at the Central Bank asked: Are politicians chasing a poisoned chalice prize: electoral victory only to preside over an unavoidable recession?

Casey wrote that: "There are two historical reasons why such an economic slow-down seems probable. First, the Celtic Tiger and subsequent years constituted Ireland's "catch-up" period. There is, however, no evidence internationally that a country, having caught up on its peers, can then move ahead of them in a sustained way.

Theory would suggest that what is far more likely to happen is that the country would revert to the growth path of the peer countries - about 2% in Ireland's case.

The second reason is that even if Ireland's potential growth rate is as high as 4-5 %, it must be remembered that this is basically a long-term average. Since we have been growing over the past 15 years by well in excess of this, it follows that the growth rate must fall for a considerable period to well below the average of 4-5%.

Other less theoretical reasons for expecting a slow-down can be divided into two groups: those that were latent even in the boom years of the Celtic Tiger and those that emerged during the past five years.

In the earlier period, say the 1990s as a whole, it became apparent by looking behind the headline figures that there were serious problems beginning to emerge in relation to loss of competitiveness and unsustainable rises in property prices. Towards the end of that period, the rise in the value of the euro was singularly unhelpful to Irish exports to non-European countries.

The lack of preparedness of the public sector to cope with huge infrastructural demands, and the inevitable mistakes, levied serious costs on the economy."

Casey referred to a number of the often highlighted issues that have arisen in the economy, including a fall in productivity and says that the latter : "is a worrying development, bad in itself and also because it casts doubt on the extent to which Ireland Inc has transformed itself into a knowledge economy.

It is hard to avoid the impression that the economy will run out of steam in a couple of years and there is little that any government will be able to do to offset it. We may get lucky again if foreign direct investment picks up but there is now much more competition for this sort of investment.

On the demand side we don't have control of interest rates or the exchange rate. We can't count on fiscal policy if only because of the apparent inability to estimate revenue. Social partnership will not provide any solutions and may become more fraught - recent pay claims by nurses and teachers do not bode well. And the stand-off regarding medical consultants' contracts is positively dangerous."

Celtic Tiger II: The Sequel

In February 2004, The Sunday Independent reported that Bank of Ireland's Dan McLaughlin was the toast of the Society of Chartered Surveyors annual dinner at the Burlington Hotel: "In a virtuoso performance, he declared that this country is currently enjoying an unprecedented "Golden Age of Construction" and - to thunderous applause - announced that "the Celtic Tiger is Back".

If the definition of an optimist is one who sees the bottle half full and a pessimist says it's half empty, the BofI economic guru left his audience of 1,300 property professionals in no doubt where he stands. "The economy in general has emerged from a period of sub-trend growth in remarkably rude health and is poised to enjoy a much more favourable global backdrop, which will propel Irish growth towards the potential of 6% over the next eighteen months," Dr McLaughlin opined.

Unlike the said Dr. McLaughlin, like many others in the Irish economy, I don't have a guaranteed income and it's a pity that he made a Faustian bargain rather than taking the words of the Scottish philosopher-economist Adam Smith, who is regarded as the father of the dismal science, to heart. In the Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776 Smith wrote: "A dwellinghouse, as such, contributes nothing to the revenue of its inhabitant; and though it is, no doubt, extremely useful to him, it is as his clothes and household furniture are useful to him, which, however, makes a part of his expense, and not of his revenue. If it is to be let to a tenant for rent, as the house itself can produce nothing, the tenant must always pay the rent out of some other revenue which he derives either from labour, or stock, or land. Though a house, therefore, may yield a revenue to its proprietor, and thereby serve in the function of a capital to him, it cannot yield any to the public, nor serve in the function of a capital to it, and the revenue of the whole body of the people can never be in the smallest degree increased by it."

Fear of running out of money in the modern economy
During the Celtic Tiger period, young people became more independent and dependent, as housing costs often deferred the departure from the family home.

A rising tide lifted most boats and the fear of unemployment became uncommon.

However, the fear of running out of money in the modern economy has to be experienced to be appreciated and will be an issue for many people in coming years.

The old community spirit no longer exists in most urban areas. People are simply on their own.

My abiding memory of my mother Johanna, is that she always seemed to have been knitting for one of her seven children in an evening, but she could never get the collar of what she called a "jumper" right. She once bought oily wool, which required the garment to be washed before wearing.

She had worked in England in the1937-1948 period and when an Englishwoman snapped about the "dirty Irish," my mother responded that at least the Irish could get rid of the dirt with soap and water!

The Irish navvies in the UK, hated working for one of their own as a foreman and during the Celtic Tiger period, thenouveau riche, also became common. In the 1960's, when my father who had been a small farmer, near Dunmanway in West Cork, worked for a period at Bandon Mart, and had a run-in with a nouveau riche manager, who said: "Call me Sir!"

My father thought me that respect should be earned! - - Hennigan-Wall Page

In March 2008, Eunan King economist at NCB Stockbrokers,said in a report: "The conditions for what could be described as a crash in the housing market do not appear to be in place. Interest rates have peaked at a relatively low level, fiscal policy is mildly expansionary and employment and earnings are still rising. At the same time the underlying demand for accommodation, driven by demographics, remains strong."

A report on investment intentions among corporates in 15 countries, relating to the coming five years, which was published in June, said that had "the research been carried out five or ten years ago, Ireland might have expected to feature as a preferred place to invest for many respondents looking for a business-friendly, low tax environment.

Today, corporations are looking elsewhere, and Ireland is not cited in any of the areas covered by the study."

The global economy is forecast to gradually recover from the worst economic crisis since the 1930's from 2010. Without the windfall gains from construction, it's back to basics for the Irish economy. The economy is more dependent on US companies than any other developed country but opening up markets overseas for new Irish firms will be a real challenge. Tax revenues from property transactions are unlikely to reach 16% of the total intake anytime soon. The penny has at last dropped that the free lunch hasn't been invented!

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