PARIS and DUBLIN — European nations were slow to bail-out bankrupt Greece last spring but are now pressing debt-addled Ireland to take a $100 billion stability fund check over Irish objections.
The government insists it has the funds to cover Ireland’s debts till next summer and insists it will find more conventional ways to avoid default beyond then. As a stop-gap, it’s seeking a smaller amount of European Union aid that won’t be accompanied by tough limits on government spending and a potential increase in low corporate tax-rates that helped fuel the high-flying “Celtic Tiger” economic model that has come crashing down in recent years.
The issue will heat up Wednesday ahead of an EU finance ministers’ meeting on preventing the bad-debt crisis that has hobbled the Irish economy from spreading to larger eurozone countries like Spain and Italy, which have debt problems of their own.
Whether Ireland will get its way remains to be seen. EU officials have been discussing a bailout in the wake of a 13-day Irish bond sell-off that only eased at the end of last week. Since June, the yield on Ireland’s benchmark 10-year bond has increased from below 5 percent to about 8 percent, reflecting a dramatic increase in investor fears of an Irish default. In recent weeks, the yield has been as high as 9 percent — a record since Ireland adopted the euro in 1999.
Stephen Kinsella, an economist at the University of Limerick, says bending to a full loan bailout is “more than likely going to happen” but warns that could drive yields even higher in the short term, as investors fret that the terms of a bailout will require current investors to to lose some of their principal. “A potential bailout would cause spreads to explode and make the state — and state-owned banks — unable to borrow,” he says.
The pressure on Ireland mounted today, with European Central Bank member Miguel Angel Fernandez Ordonez telling reporters in Madrid that “the situation in the markets in recent weeks has been very negative due… to the lack of a final decision by Ireland.”
Unlike Greece, which stunned markets when it admitted its economic statistics were fabricated and had been concealing the fact that it was nearly insolvent — Ireland’s problem comes from bad bank loans associated with a housing bubble. Ireland has been forthrightly repaying its debt for two years in full public view and has pumped $47 billion of taxpayer money into the Anglo-Irish bank since 2009, even as it instituted terrific budget cuts.
Next year federal spending is slated to fall by $8 billion, and by $12 billion by 2014. The crisis has raised the Irish deficit to 32 percent of GDP.
Irish finance ministry officials reiterated today that no “application” has been made to tap the eurozone stability fund created May 9 in the wake of the Greek crisis: “The Irish government continues its work on the four-year budgetary plan and budget for 2011. Ireland is fully funded till well into 2011,” a spokesman told the Associated Press.
But the issue for Germany, which has exerted significant influence in the crisis, and for France, is whether Ireland can actually finance its debt until next July, as it has said.
“France and Germany are pushing Ireland to tap into the stability fund mainly because they don’t believe figures that Ireland can finance its expenses until July,” says Bertrand Jacquillat, a member of the French Circle of Economists in Paris. “They want to reassure markets immediately, and avoid any contagion effect with Spain and Italy.”
The role of Germany is a sensitive one. Irish officials and leading economists blame German chancellor Angela Merkel for causing the recent Irish bond sell-off — claiming it stemmed from her insistence Oct. 29 on reopening the Lisbon treaty to create a permanent eurozone bail-out mechanism. The current $1 billion stability fund will expire in 2013, and Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed a new treaty at an EU leaders meeting.
The mere announcement of these new rules “proved devastating for confidence” in the Irish economy, says Royal Bank of Scotland chief economist Jacques Cailloux. Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said they “haven’t been helpful.” Under the new rules private investors must share the burden of losses instead of having them covered wholly by stability funds — which caused a panic early this month.
Merkel defended the measures and helped calm markets last week in Seoul by clarifying that investors will not be responsible for current debts or losses in the bond market until the rules go into effect in 2013.
But some analysts say the reassurance was late in coming, that Irish markets were forced to their knees, and any antidote may come too late.
“The situation in Ireland now very much resembles that of Greece before the ‘quick package’ bail-out last May,” says economist Cinzia Alcidi at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “Ireland may want to focus only on its banks, but it may be too little too late.”
Burning bridges or buring bondholders
“We should have burnt the bondholders in 2007 — the French and German banks who own the bonds in Irish banks — but now we can’t because it’s them we’re turning to now for bailouts,” says Kinsella.
Political fallout from Ireland’s fall from grace has been immense, but confused, inside the country. The government is weak if not fragile, but no opposition has rallied, despite a prime opportunity.
The governing Fianna Fáil and Green Party coalition is at an all-time low in opinion polls as the public rejects its policies and blames is for the decline in the country’s fortunes.
However, the main opposition party, Fine Gael, has been unable to parlay this into mass support, claiming just an estimated 31 percent of the vote.
Ireland’s Labour Party, long a minority “third force” in politics, has made gains — one poll saw it achieve a historic high with an estimated 23 percent of the vote — but is unlikely to be able to garner enough support to lead a new coalition government, should an election be called.