Half-Housed Assets

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“If you owe us £1,000, it’s your problem; if you owe us £1 million, it’s our problem” was how Justice Moriarty described the AIB’s attitude towards lending when he was chairing the tribunal investigating Charlie Haughey’s adventures with AIB.

How right he was. While we read the good news about the American government’s using vast amounts of Chinese money to rescue the global capitalist system from total collapse, we shouldn’t think that takes us all out of the path of disaster.

The Irish are bound to go the same way in 2009 that Spain is going at the moment. Like us, the Spanish have been enjoying an enormous property boom for the last few years. And, as in Ireland, it has just come stuttering to a halt, prompting a massive rescue from the Spanish government as the sector struggles “with high debt, plunging prices and an overhang of unsold houses and flats.”

This is where Ireland is headed, but we’re probably going to experience something much worse.

As I pointed out in a comment thread in April 2007 on Slugger (itself following a post from here), construction constituted 23% of the Irish economy at the height of the boom. That was twice the EU average (which was 12%). So property going belly-up is very bad news indeed for us. While we talked up the role of investment and industry in the Celtic Tiger, we forgot that a whole lot of what looked like wealth was actually us sticking increasing amounts of our money into private debt. And if we have £1000 problems, it’s also given the banks £1m-style concerns (for a serious series of discussions, see UCD’s Morgan Kelly). 30% of their loans are to property developers who now find that they can’t sell houses.

Ireland’s property development business model has proven very dangerous for the banks. They’ve been caught short in two directions. First, they lent to the developer who was essentially selling off the plans (or as good as), in the certainty of a quick return. Second, they’ve been busily lending increasing amounts to mortgage payers in the knowledge that they could repackage the risks from those high-stakes several-multiples-of-income 100% mortgages and sell it on the credit default swaps (CDS) markets. But these have all gone down the hole. Banks can’t lend on wholesale markets so they can’t borrow to feed the mortgage frenzy. And they can’t offset their risky bets. AND the property developers have no customers so can’t repay their loans. AND the risky mortgage-payers are going to default.

On property developers, with the country strewn with half-finished developments, the banks have a series of unpalatable choices. They can shut indebted developers down and repossess more or less worthless (for now) unfinished properties. Or they can continue to send good money after bad to developers who have no revenue. Neither option is good for the banks but they seem to be letting the small boys go to the wall and are propping the big boys up. The question is: how long can that keep going?

On mortgage debt, the real hike in Irish unemployment is yet to hit. And also, we haven’t yet seen the shakedown from all those people who borrowed to the max when interest rates are low – unless their mortgages are fixed they’re at risk of losing their homes (even if they don’t lose their jobs). In other words, the banks are looking at inheriting a whole load of property that they can’t sell as their debtors go bust.

This was all predicated on a global trend towards treating debt as if it was money. The Irish problem is that we’ve just done it more than most both domestically through the property market and globally through hosting businesses in the IFSC. So our trouble is a hybrid of what we’re seeing from London and what’s going on in Spain. We’re in the worst of both worlds.

No wonder everyone is on the blower to Leinster House. The governmental failures have all happened already and the only option left is a huge dig out. That will be no easy thing, especially as Irish company and income tax revenues plummet in 2009. But it will be the best possible solution in the current circumstances.

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Notes:

The photo of the Old Irish Parliament House, now a branch of the Bank of Ireland on Dame Street was originally posted on Andrew Cusack’s Architecture Blog.

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