Posts By Conor McCabe

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Always the Artists: Week Three of the Bank Inquiry

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“Shadows never go away.
Might be you don’t see them,
but they’re always clinging to your heels.”

A Song of Ice and Fire

When I was a child in primary school my way of dealing with Irish class was to find a word in the question that matched a word in the text and hope for the best. The sentence I would find would be the one I’d read out. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But, it was a plan, and it helped me get through the hour.

In the absence of any understanding of the grammar, of the way the words actually relate to each other, you grab what you can and try to make sense of the situation.

In terms of the bank guarantee and bailout, and the different narratives that are being thrown out there, we can’t really do this – we can’t just pick out single words, single events, and use them to make our story. We need to have enough of an overview of the dynamics at play in order to make sure we don’t stray from the path as we go forward.

In other words, we need to understand the grammar that holds it all together, and one of the objectives of the bank inquiry is to fulfill this role.

It helps, of course, to have witnesses that understand this, and with Professor Patrick Honohan last week I’m not sure it did.

On paper the purpose of Honohan’s appearance before the Bank Inquiry Committee was to discuss his 2010 report, which looked at the regulatory and operational failure within the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator’s office. On the day itself, however, the proceedings were dominated by talk of the 2008 bank guarantee – the decision itself and supposed cost.

Honohan initially said that the net cost of the guarantee would be somewhere in the region of €40 billion. When he was challenged on this he revised the figure and, indeed, the parameters, acknowledging that his figure wasn’t for the guarantee alone but for the subsequent bailout. Even with this, Honohan had not factored in added costs such as interest repayments. The moment he gave the definitive-sounding figure of €40bn, though, he had handed the journalists the following day’s headline.

He followed his €40bn with another brash statement – that Brian Lenihan had been ‘overruled’ by a more senior politician with regard to saving Anglo Irish Bank. It was obvious that the ‘more senior politician’ he was referring to was Brian Cowen.

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Peter Nyberg Bank Inquiry Evidence, 17 December 2014

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I do not think it is fair to say people partied. People just lived a little better than they otherwise would have done because of the bubble.” Peter Nyberg under questioning from Deputy Pearse Doherty, 17 Dec 2014.

Peter Nyberg’s appearance at the Irish bank inquiry marked the beginning of the context phase, the purpose of which is to set the scene for the causes and consequences of the bank guarantee and bailout. The context part is going to last for a few months, and it may not be until April before the committee starts calling people actually involved in the guarantee decision and its aftermath. So, for those looking for fireworks you may have to be a little bit patient I’m afraid. However, the context phase gives us the opportunity to do what it says – to place the guarantee within a wider framework than that of the personalities involved in the tense meetings of the night of 29 September 2008. It allows us to see the bigger picture; that is, if we want to see it. It is by no means certain that such a road is one that the various actors involved in Irish finance would choose for themselves. Alongside this, the committee is itself working within a context where narratives around the crisis have already been formed, most notably the “asleep at the wheel/regulators/bad apples/nobody understood/auditors/collective psychology” theme. I’ll come back to this later as this is something that popped up during Nyberg’s (quite dry and uninspiring) testimony, but it is worth flagging now because in the search for the truth as to what happened we have to deal with a story that has had six years to bed itself down. The analogy that is closest to explaining what I’m getting at here would be that of a cover story, but it is not as calculated and Machiavellian as that. We’re dealing here with an ideology – Nyberg admits as much in his testimony – and the way that the ideology of modern finance made sense of the world before the crash is the way that it made sense of the world after the crash. It couldn’t grasp the nature of the problem then, and it is incapable of making sense of it now. It knows that the problem was structural, but because it has such a vested interest in the continuation of those structures and practices, it has to find a way of addressing systemic failure without changing the architecture. Its solution, its way of squaring the circle, is to treat the crisis as a managerial problem. Asleep at the wheel / regulators / bad apples / nobody understood / auditors / collective psychology / etc etc etc. What is needed is better managers, better regulators, better auditors. It is a bit like if a car crashes because of faulty brakes, the solution is to find a better driver.

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For Some Vicious Mole of Nature: Making Sense of The Irish Bank Crisis

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God will forgive them.
He’ll forgive them and allow them into Heaven.
I can’t live with that.”

Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)

What are we to make of the Irish Banking Inquiry, which began its public hearings last week. For myself, as I said in Shop Floor in September, I think it provides an opportunity for progressives and we should make use of it.

As to what I mean by that, well, take this quote from a 2012 paper by Gregory Connor, Thomas Flavin and Brian O’Kelly, entitled ‘The U.S. and Irish credit crises: Their distinctive differences and common features’, published in the Journal of International Money and Finance (available as a pdf here).

It is not clear that Anglo Irish Bank represented a systemic risk. Anglo Irish had a limited retail presence; it operated by making large-scale commercial loans funded by institutional borrowing. Other banks may have wanted Anglo Irish included in the government support schemes since, as was subsequently revealed, many developer loans with different banks were secured with the same collateral, creating a complex web that would be difficult and costly to unwind if Anglo Irish alone were allowed to fail.” (Connor et.al. 2012: 63)

The key to the Irish bank guarantee and subsequent sovereign debt crisis is right there in that complex web of developer loans with different banks. That’s the rabbit hole, the one we need to fall into, in order to make sense of this whole mess.

But let us be clear: although the loan book is key, this is not just about developers and their bets.

For example, the loans for commercial property speculation cannot be separated from the tax incentives approved by the Oireachtas and various finance ministers; nor from the legislative and regulatory environment that finance and property speculation demanded of, and received from, the Irish State.

Alongside the finance/speculator/state core lie the professional sectors that benefited hugely from this environment – that is, accountancy, law and real estate.

There is also the issue of the media in Ireland – private and public, the newspapers as well as RTE – which as a sector not only benefited from property speculation via ad revenue, but at a deeper level shared (and continues to share) much of the ideological framework which gave an intellectual sheen to such base and futile speculation.

When we take these dynamics and place them within a historical time-frame, we start to observe a reconfiguration of the Irish State, from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, which parallels the shift in profit-seeking strategies within Western capital, from production to rentier. Ireland’s role as a comprador state, that stays the same, albeit one that shifts from the grazing fields of Meath to the glass towers of the docklands.

The best way to make sense of a ‘complex web’ of social, political, economic and cultural forces is to apply a relational approach, not a causal one.

A world seen through causality is binary, whereas a relational approach is dynamic – it allows us to see the various forces in motion, bouncing off each other, as they create new tensions and contradictions.

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Socialist Party Resignation Statement

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This statement has been drawn up by the following recently resigned members of the Socialist Party: Andrew Phelan, Megan ni Ghabhlain, Richard O’Hara, Pamela Rochford, Stephanie O’Shea and Jimmy Dignam.

Notes:

Tragically, Rob Ryan passed away before this statement was completed but he played an important role in the debates that took place around the process of its writing. He repeatedly expressed agreement with the key issues contained within this statement and we feel it is vital that we acknowledge his contribution. We have included links to articles that elaborate further on some arguments made within this document as many of the topics described have been written on extensively before.

After our recent resignations it became clear to us that whilst differing on some issues there were some core reasons behind all our resignations. We hope that this document can be a contribution to the debates currently taking place around what kind of mass Party is needed to rebuild the workers’ movement and play a crucial role in overthrowing Capitalism. While not claiming to have the answer to this question we feel it is important for us to offer our criticisms not just of the Socialist Party or the Committee for a Workers International but Trotskyism1 as an ideology.

We are aware that the political movement that has been defined as Trotskyism has a wide and varied history, however for the purposes of this statement we will discuss mainly Trotskyism as practised by the dominant Trotskyist parties in contemporary polity and especially the version of Trotskyism dominant in the Irish and British left; that is the Committee for a Workers’ International, the Internatonal Socialists and the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. These parties and international groupings share tendencies discussed below that we believe point to serious issues with the ideology of contemporary British and Irish Trotskyism itself.

The reality is that none of us can stand over calling ourselves Trotskyists. Furthermore we feel that Trotskyism by its nature can in many instances act as an obstacle to the development of a truly mass and democratic workers’ party. This is not to malign the contribution of many individual Socialists who are members of Trotskyist parties but to recognise the inherent sectarian nature of these parties and the damage they can do to the wider movement.

In this statement we would like to raise tactical differences that emerged between ourselves and the SP but more importantly criticisms of Trotskyism that seem to permeate such organisations to varying degrees.

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Ireland and the Shadow Banking System

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Now that we only have one copy have no copies of the first issue of the print edition of Irish Left Review left and the second issue is now available to buy either online or in these bookshops we are now publishing some of the articles from the first issue on the web. The first is Conor McCabe’s brilliant article on Ireland the Shadow Banking System.

Ireland and the Shadow Banking System

Bretton Woods and the Eurodollar Market

Conor McCabe

Ireland is a tax haven.  It is a hub in the shadow banking system.  The dominant form of business in the Irish state, the one to which national economic policy shapes itself, is that which accommodates the needs of foreign capital and finance, to the detriment of productive and social activity. This business model is an intermediary model. It is conducted by a middleman class which has positioned itself between foreign capital and the resources of the state. These middlemen are found within law, accountancy, stockbroking, banking and construction.

This is not to say that every successful business in Ireland is a middleman business, but rather that these businesses wield the most influence regarding national economic policy. The type of middlemen may have changed over the decades, but the way of conducting business has not.

The intermediary/middleman business model maintains and reproduces itself through the structures of the state. In other words, the class which benefits the most from this economic policy is also the class with the most influence over the dynamics of Ireland’s legal, education and political systems. Governments come and go but the structural dynamics of the state remain the same. As a result of the structural presence this class has within the state, policy change comes dripping slow.

The current privileged status of international finance and wealth management within Ireland – that is, paper assets over production – is the latest field of play for this middleman class. Upon independence it was live cattle exports to the UK and the transference of credit to the city of London; in the 1960s it was free access to the UK economy for international companies with branches in Ireland, followed by similar access to the EEC/EU, giving rise to construction, land and property speculation; all of this was underpinned by the selling of the State’s gas, oil and mineral rights to whatever bidder took the middlemen’s fancy.

The national resource that is for sale today is the right of an independent state to set its own laws and tax policy. In other words, it is Ireland as a mature democracy and legal jurisdiction, one that is recognised by international law that is traded by this middleman class for the private gain of its privileged players.

The current emphasis on paper assets over production reflects the fundamental changes in economic power relations which have taken place over the past forty years in advanced capitalist countries. This period has seen the financialisation of everyday life and the re-emergence of rentier capitalism. The move towards profit-seeking in paper assets is in part a response to the decline in the rate of profit and a tendency towards overcapacity in global manufacturing industries.  The pressure to return profits in a world of declining margins has seen reductions in social expenditures by national governments and stagnation in wages. The resultant decline in aggregate demand is an underlying factor in the explosion of price speculation over production.

This is part one of a two-part article on Ireland and the shadow banking system. The rise of the Eurodollar market and the decline of the Betton Woods system is covered here. The emergence of shadow banking and Ireland’s role in its operation will be covered in a future issue.

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Financialization, Housing and Dublin: Protest Outside Arthur Cox

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Small protest today outside the offices of Arthur Cox, Earlsfort Terrace, to highlight the financialization of the city and the role that law firms such as Arthur Cox play in this process.

This was part of the Right to Housing and the City campaign which will be launched across Europe tomorrow, with the Dublin event taking place at 2pm at Custom House Quay. All welcome.

[Photo by Aubrey Robinson]

Mick Byrne also has a column in The Journal on the reasons behind the protest.

In all of the above cases, debt-driven owner occupancy sectors dominate the housing market. It is no coincidence that from Spain to Ireland and from Hungary to Latvia, property bubbles emerged after widespread privatisation of the social housing stock in the preceding decades. Nor is it by chance that these same countries typically feature over-priced, under-regulated private rented sectors, leaving families little option but to seek a stable home through home ownership. Conor McCabe, in his book Sins of the Father, describes Ireland as a place were the ‘need for a home has been replaced by the need for a mortgage’ – and the same could be said for many countries across Europe.

But the unhappy marriage between housing and finance goes beyond the owner occupancy sector. Throughout the last decade social housing complexes in Dublin and Limerick were to be redeveloped under ‘public-private partnerships’ that relied on private finance. The local authority would give public land to developers for free, and the developer would build new social housing units while making a tidy profit from the construction of additional private housing.

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Padriac White and the Establishment of the IFSC

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The following extract is taken from The Making of the Celtic Tiger: The Inside Story of Ireland’s Boom Economy. Dublin. Mercier Press. (2000). It is Padraic White’s own account of the development of the Irish Financial Services Centre.

In the middle of 1973, the IDA launched international services as its latest product. At the time, this category included both technical consultancy services and computer services. However, within the IDA’s own research unit, work continued to identify and analyse other service products, including those n the financial-services area. One of the economists engaged in this task was Ken O’Brien, who later, as founder of Finance magazine, would provide specialist coverage of the Dublin financial centre. Our New York office befriended a Wall Street lawyer, Bob Slater, who was familiar with the then-exotic world of offshore banking – the reasons why banks set up in specialist offshore centres, the kind of financial activities undertaken there and the nature and number of jobs created in this developing sector.

As manager of the planning unit, I agreed to take on Bob Slater, both as a financial consultant on financial services to IDA and to produce a study of offshore banking systems. His report examined the success of Bermuda in creating jobs in financial services, and he was satisfied that Ireland could emulate its achievement. And so in 1978 – innocently, in hindsight – we set out to promote international financial services to the world, and did so on a pilot basis to test-market the reaction. The IDA executives embarked on their selling mission, armed with the expert conclusions of the Wall Street expert.

During the year the IDA team soon landed some big fish in the form of two US banks that had developed specific job-creating proposals. However, the agreement of the Central Bank was first needed. Michael Killeen* considered the proposals sufficiently important for himself to go with Jerry Kelly, who was negotiating the projects, and myself to make the case for Central Bank authorisation. The reaction was not encouraging and we left the Dame Street offices feeling rather dejected. We could not give the required assurances or promises of authorisations to our foreign bank clients. The projects died and we ceased to do any more financial-services promotion. Subsequently, it emerged the bank no stomach for the projects and would not approve them. However, the IDA could never get a clear reason for this. The most authoritative word which came back indirectly was that the Central Bank believed the offshore financial projects ‘smacked of a banana republic.’ (pp.323-4.)

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Selections from Finance Dublin Magazine, 1988

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These scanned pages are intended as an aid to research into the world of finance in Ireland. I’m going to try to post as much of the primary and secondary source material I come across as I can. The purpose here is purely educational.

Some quotes, just to give a sense of the articles below.

First, from Ray Douglas, group general manager, Treasury, of Allied Irish Banks, talking about Dublin’s biggest dealing room (January 1988, pp.37-38):

 

The commissioning of our new 80-position dealing room is Bankcentre is only the latest step in a long association between Allied Irish Bank and the global financial markets. In the mid-1970s AIB identified the emerging global financial markets as a major business opportunity for the bank… Our objective is to make AIB a significant niche player in the markets, trading on our own account, providing liquidity to the markets and acting as market maker in some specific areas…
During the 1980s the emergence of the new global financial markets in securities and in off-balance sheet instruments such as SWAPS* and FRAs** has provided a further range of opportunities for AIB.

SWAP
**Forward Rate Agreement

Ireland had been hot-wired into the world of swaps, derivatives and other off-balance sheet activities for at least twenty years before the crash of 2008. This was no ‘bad apple’ scenario.

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