David McWilliams, the Irish media economist, in his new book, Follow the Money: The Tale of the Merchant of Ennis, chronicles the story of the dooming of the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath. However, he appears to have become a short-termist like his cast of villains and many other Irish people, during the boom years.
Global imbalances between an oversaving Asia and an overspending America, have been blamed for the international credit spree that preceded the crash. In Ireland, imbalances on self interest/common interest and the short-term/long-term, were at the root of the failure to grasp the best opportunity ever, to put the Irish economy on a sustainable basis.
It has been easy generally to demonise all developers and "greedy" bankers but most people go with the flow and in the money economy, there is little respect for sacrificial lambs. For example, the concept of the whistleblower is viewed positively in the abstract but it's a lonely position in real life. It is not a coincidence that the silence of senior clerics in the Irish Catholic Church about child sex abuse was replicated in the boom at the top of the public service. No senior manager took a public stand against any policy or the lack of one, including sham benchmarking and the ones who got their back teeth in retirement, are living on comfortable pensions, boosted by it.
Ireland has been particularly afflicted with a poor governance system of limited accountability; politicians unfit to hold high office; an electorate tolerant of incompetence and a culture of Victorian secrecy on public spending, which protects insiders. This is the context of an economy on the road to ruin with a potent cocktail of short-termist politicians; cronyism and gullible infantry.
The publisher's product description reads: "We catch up with old friends, Breakfast Roll Man and Miss Pencil Skirt, and meet new characters like the Merchant of Ennis, Shylock and the Godfather. We have late night tea with Brian Lenihan, are charmed by Miriam O'Callaghan and cross swords with Seanie Fitzpatrick. We learn why the average drug dealer on the side of the street has more in common with the banker than either would care to mention, as we follow the money -- in both rackets -- from its source at the very top right down to the 'buy now, pay later' deals at rock bottom. Why should we trust the people who got us into this mess in the first place? They were wrong then and they are wrong now. The politicians, bankers and developers think they can hand us the bill and walk away from the carnage."
David McWilliams, a former outsider who had wanted to become an insider with an influence on policy but the short-term lure of keeping a more than a year old scoop of a September 2008 meeting with the Minister of Finance, Brian Lenihan, at the height of the financial crisis, for the new book, has put paid to that. Earlier this year, he persuaded the Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin to hold a forum for prominent business managers from the Irish diaspora, to help generate ideas on promoting Ireland overseas. It was held at Farmleigh house, Dublin, last September.
It is likely that Brian Lenihan will be reluctant to include proposals from the Farmleigh forum in the December Budget - - in effect giving bragging rights to McWilliams, after the latter broke a verbal confidentiality agreement in respect of the September 2008 meeting.
Last month, the Sunday Times reported that the economist received €4,000 for moderating two discussions at the forum and was paid €6,000 for “consultancy and promotional activities.”
Irishwoman, Fionnuala Sweeney, a presenter from CNN who also moderated one of the discussions, declined to accept her fee as employees of the US broadcaster are not allowed to be paid by other sources.
This week, McWilliams was reported as saying that it would unreasonable to suggest he shouldn't be paid, saying that it would be akin to"asking your plumber to fix your drains for nothing."
That may be so but the general lack of concern about conflict of interest in Ireland has the highest paid presenters/journalists at the State broadcaster RTÉ, able to receive free BMW cars as"Brand Ambassadors" - - suspended by the German car company during the recession; members of local councils with commercial property interests entitled to vote on land rezoning and former Anglo Irish Bank directors Seán Fitzpatrick and Lar Bradshaw, sitting in at a conference call at which the board of the State agency, Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) of which Fitzpatrick and Bradshaw were members, approved the €412m purchase of the former Irish Glass Bottle site at Ringsend, Dublin - - a deal partly-financed by Anglo Irish Bank. Lisneys has put the current value at €60m and the State agency has incurred a paper loss of €87.5m.
There is also the relevant point, as to why the Irish Government should pay as much as €4,000 for a few hours spent chairing discussions?
The book discloses how a "nervous and fidgety" Brian Lenihan, arrived late at David McWilliam's home, in the aftermath of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, to discuss a State guarantee for the Irish banks.
"He got to the point quickly. He was sitting opposite me and he had a habit of looking around rather than catching my eye as if he expected someone to join us at any minute. I told him we were on our own, just the pair of us and the puppy.
He leaned over and, in a hoarse voice, almost whispering, he said: "What would you do?"
I walked him out to his car and he reiterated the fact that his officials would explode if they knew he was there. I said I wouldn't tell a soul if he didn't," the author wrote.
At the end of September 2008, the Irish Government agreed a State guarantee of the deposits and debt of six Irish financial institutions.
"In time, Brian Lenihan's move yesterday will be seen as a masterstroke and a practical blueprint for the new financial architecture which will emerge from this global crisis," David McWilliams wrote in an Irish Independent column.
McWilliams was subsequently disappointed by Lenihan's bailout of bankers and developers, as he sees it, via the establishment of the State "bad bank" NAMA.
The book's remedy for Ireland's economic woes is to quit the euro.
However, when an intelligent economist puts forward such a momentous proposal, without giving attention to the many big risks in such a move, there is inevitably a suspicion that he is playing to the gallery.
Earlier this year, when McWilliams suggested Ireland should ditch the euro, he got prominent attention in the UK media.
The Daily Telegraph reported: "This is war: countries have to defend themselves," said David McWilliams, a former official at the Irish central bank.
Devaluation generally works but as the IMF said this week, the next decade will be one of retrenchment in the developed economies and a new Irish currency would have a stormy debut.
As to the IMF taking over the liquidity funding role of the European Central Bank, the Fund would surely insist on effectively running the economy.
Besides foreign lenders would not accept funny money.
There is the argument that in 1993, conventional wisdom said that if we devalued, the economy would implode, investors would take flight and we’d pay for years. In the event, we were forced to devalue and the economy boomed.
Ireland devalued at a time of an international currency crisis but it had minimal impact on exports from Irish-owned firms,
SEE the tables in this Finfacts article.
As for the bulk of exports, 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 boom was driven by Intel, Dell, HP and so on, not by devaluation.
Later in the decade, US companies supported Ireland adopting the euro and its businesspeople in places like Santa Clara and Palo Alto, California and Seattle, Washington State who would be the key constituency on whether the euro should be abandoned.
The Irish-owned export sector is not significant.
Most US operations in Ireland are global operations and profits overseas are generally used for investment overseas and the euro is the world's second biggest trading currency.
Economist Jim O'Leary wrote in The Irish Times last January: "pretty well all balance sheets in the economy, those of households, banks, the non-bank corporate sector and the government, are denominated in euro. If this remained the case, the effect of devaluation would be to cause acute and widespread financial distress and an unacceptably high level of ongoing foreign currency exposure for domestic residents.
The logic of devaluation therefore would call for balance sheets to be redenominated in domestic currency, which would meet strong resistance among creditors and might in a great many instances be subject to a successful legal challenge.
In addition, there is the huge technical challenge that would be posed by the transition from euro membership to a restored national currency. This would require a great deal of public planning and preparation (no easy tasks in themselves – particularly when the public administration system is already under acute stress). But it would also present a clear invitation to all those firms and individuals with domestic bank deposits to move their funds offshore in anticipation of recommendation and devaluation. The result would be that the banking system would grind to a halt.
The balance of the argument so far is tilted heavily against renouncing the euro, so heavily as to render the idea academic. And that’s before factoring in the political considerations, which are compelling in their own right."
Brian Lenihan said last March : "The Eurozone is not going to break up. For Ireland to leave the euro would be like for Texas to leave the dollar area or for Cornwall to leave the sterling area. Were there even to be a suggestion of it there would be widespread hoarding of the euro currency in advance, so you would end up with a dual currency country rather than a single currency country."
The "Merchant of Ennis," in the title, is a GAA star turned property developer; how about a former central banker turned developer! According to Liam Collins of The Sunday Independent, in July 2006, David McWilliams and businessman Kevin O'Shaughnessy, established Saval Villas Limited, based in Dalkey, the principal objects of the company being the "development and selling of real estate." The company was listed for voluntary strike-off by the Companies Office, last month.
The Sunday Times reports today that the author has earned €450,000 from a two-book deal from Gill & Macmillan.
David McWilliams repeatedly warned about the out-of-control property market over many years as did Finfacts. Now as a high-earning media insider, he risks capture.
SEE: Finfacts article, Sept 2009: Irish Central Bank declared its impotence before launch of the euro; Why Spain's biggest banks survived huge housing boom