Michael Lewis has a must-read article on the Irish economic crisis in Vanity Fair this month. The Irish situation is much, much worse then the United States. The country is in debt to the tune of a hundred billion Euros for a population that is one hundredth that of the US. This would be equivalent to the US being ten trillion dollars in debt, which is three times the US budget. Ireland had lagged behind the rest of Europe economically for most of its history and then astonishingly became one of the richest countries in the world right before the crash. It is now back to being a developing nation. The crisis was a result of an out of control real estate bubble fueled by completely irresponsible lending. Right after Lehman Brothers went under in September of 2008, the Irish banks came under extreme stress. Then in possibly one of the stupidest acts in modern history, the Irish government decided to guarantee all of the banks losses. This included both depositors and bond holders, the latter which included foreign countries and Goldman-Sachs. I think this is a sad example of how a decision based on either incomplete or fraudulent information can lead to such dire consequences. One bit changed the life of an entire nation. Here is an excerpt
Vanity Fair: Back in September 2008, however, there was evidence that he wasn’t. On September 17 the financial markets were in turmoil. Lehman Brothers had failed two days earlier, shares of Irish banks were plummeting, and big corporations were withdrawing their deposits from them. Late that evening Lenihan phoned David McWilliams, a former senior European economist with UBS in Zurich and London, who had moved back home to Dublin and turned himself into a writer and media personality. McWilliams had been loudly skeptical about the Irish real-estate boom. Two weeks earlier he had appeared on a radio show with Lenihan, and Lenihan appeared to him entirely untroubled by the turmoil in the financial markets. Now he wanted to drive out to McWilliams’s house and ask his advice on what to do about the Irish banks.
The peculiar scene is described in McWilliams’s charmingly indiscreet book, Follow the Money. Lenihan arrives at the McWilliams residence, a 45-minute drive from Dublin, marches through to the family kitchen, and pulls a hunk of raw garlic out of his jacket pocket. “He kicked off by saying if his officials knew he was here in my house, there’d be war,” writes McWilliams. The finance minister stayed until two in the morning, drinking tea and anxiously picking McWilliams’s brain. McWilliams came away with the feeling that the minister didn’t entirely trust the advice he was getting from the people around him—and that he was not merely worried but confused. McWilliams told me that he sensed that the mental state of the Department of Finance was “complete chaos.”
A week later the department hired investment bankers from Merrill Lynch to advise it. Some might say that if you were asking Merrill Lynch for financial advice in 2008 you were already beyond hope, but that is not entirely fair. The bank analyst who had been most prescient and interesting about the Irish banks worked for Merrill Lynch. His name was Philip Ingram. In his late 20s, and a bit quirky—at the University of Cambridge he had studied zoology—Ingram had done something original and useful: he’d shined a new light on the way Irish banks lent against commercial real estate.
The commercial-real-estate loan market is generally less transparent than the market for home loans. Deals between bankers and property developers are one-offs, on terms unknown to all but a few insiders. The parties to any loan always claim it is prudent: a bank analyst has little choice but to take them at their word. But Ingram was skeptical of the Irish banks. He had read Morgan Kelly’s newspaper articles and even paid Kelly a visit in his university office. To Ingram’s eyes, there undoubtedly appeared to be a vast difference between what the Irish banks were saying and what was really happening. To get at it he ignored what they were saying and went looking for knowledgeable insiders in the commercial-property market. He interviewed them, as a journalist might. On March 13, 2008, six months before the Irish real-estate Ponzi scheme collapsed, Ingram published a report, in which he simply quoted verbatim what British market insiders had told him about various banks’ lending to commercial real estate. The Irish banks were making far riskier loans in Ireland than they were in Britain, but even in Britain, the report revealed, they were the nuttiest lenders around: in that category, Anglo Irish, Bank of Ireland, and A.I.B. came, in that order, first, second, and third.
For a few hours the Merrill Lynch report was the hottest read in the London financial markets, until Merrill Lynch retracted it. Merrill had been a lead underwriter of Anglo Irish’s bonds and the corporate broker to A.I.B.: they’d earned huge sums of money off the growth of Irish banking. Moments after Phil Ingram hit the Send button on his report, the Irish banks called their Merrill Lynch bankers and threatened to take their business elsewhere. The same executive from Anglo Irish who had called to scream at Morgan Kelly called a Merrill research analyst to scream some more. Ingram’s superiors at Merrill Lynch hauled him into meetings with in-house lawyers, who toned down the report’s pointed language and purged it of its damning quotes from market insiders, including its many references to Irish banks. And from that moment everything Ingram wrote about Irish banks was edited, and bowdlerized by Merrill Lynch’s lawyers. At the end of 2008, Merrill fired him. One of Ingram’s colleagues, a fellow named Ed Allchin, was also made to apologize to Merrill’s investment bankers individually for the trouble he’d caused them by suggesting there was still money to be made on shorting Irish banks.
It would have been difficult for Merrill Lynch’s investment bankers not to know, at some level, that in a reckless market the Irish banks had acted with a recklessness all their own. But in the seven-page memo to Brian Lenihan—for which the Irish taxpayer forked over to Merrill Lynch seven million euros—they kept whatever reservations they may have had to themselves. “All of the Irish banks are profitable and well capitalised,” wrote the Merrill Lynch advisers, who then went on to suggest that the banks’ problem wasn’t at all the bad loans they had made but the panic in the market. The Merrill Lynch memo listed a number of possible responses the Irish government might have to any run on Irish banks. It refrained from explicitly recommending one course of action over another, but its analysis of the problem implied that the most sensible thing to do was guarantee the banks. After all, the banks were fundamentally sound. Promise to eat all losses, and markets would quickly settle down—and the Irish banks would go back to being in perfectly good shape. As there would be no losses, the promise would be free.
What exactly was said in meetings on the night of September 29, 2008, remains, amazingly, something of a secret. The government has refused Freedom of Information Act-type requests for records. But gathered around the conference tables inside the prime minister’s offices was an array of top government and finance officials, including Lenihan, Cowen, the attorney general, and bank officials and regulators. Eventually they brought in the heads of the two yet-to-be-disgraced big Irish banks: A.I.B. and Bank of Ireland. Evidently they either lied to Brian Lenihan about the extent of their losses or didn’t know themselves what those were. Or both. “At the time they were all saying the same thing,” an Irish bank analyst tells me. “ ‘We don’t have any subprime.’ ” What they meant was that they had avoided lending to American subprime borrowers; what they neglected to mention was that, in the general frenzy, all of Ireland had become subprime. Otherwise sound Irish borrowers had been rendered unsound by the size of the loans they had taken out to buy inflated Irish property. That had been the strangest consequence of the Irish bubble: to throw a nation which had finally clawed its way out of centuries of indentured servitude back into it.
The report from Merrill Lynch, which touted the banks as fundamentally sound, buttressed whatever story they told the finance minister. Ireland’s financial regulator, Patrick Neary, had echoed Merrill’s judgment. Morgan Kelly was still viewed as a zany egghead; at any rate, no one who took him seriously was present in the room. Anglo Irish’s stock had fallen 46 percent that day; A.I.B.’s had fallen 17 percent; there was a fair chance that when the stock exchange reopened one or both of them would go out of business. In the general panic, absent government intervention, the other banks would have gone down, too. Lenihan faced a choice: Should he believe the people immediately around him or the financial markets? Should he trust the family or the experts? He stuck with the family. Ireland gave its promise. And the promise sank Ireland.
Even at the time, the decision seemed a bit odd. The Irish banks, like the big American banks, managed to persuade a lot of people that they were so intertwined with their economy that their failure would bring down a lot of other things, too. But they weren’t, at least not all of them. Anglo Irish Bank had only six branches in Ireland, no A.T.M.’s, and no organic relationship with Irish business except the property developers. It lent money to people to buy land and build: that’s practically all it did. It did this mainly with money it had borrowed from foreigners. It was not, by nature, systemic. It became so only when its losses were made everyone’s.
In any case, if the Irish wanted to save their banks, why not guarantee just the deposits? There’s a big difference between depositors and bondholders: depositors can flee. The immediate danger to the banks was that savers who had put money into them would take their money out, and the banks would be without funds. The investors who owned the roughly 80 billion euros of Irish bank bonds, on the other hand, were stuck. They couldn’t take their money out of the bank. And their 80 billion euros very nearly exactly covered the eventual losses inside the Irish banks. These private bondholders didn’t have any right to be made whole by the Irish government. The bondholders didn’t even expect to be made whole by the Irish government. Not long ago I spoke with a former senior Merrill Lynch bond trader who, on September 29, 2008, owned a pile of bonds in one of the Irish banks. He’d already tried to sell them back to the bank for 50 cents on the dollar—that is, he’d offered to take a huge loss, just to get out of them. On the morning of September 30 he awakened to find his bonds worth 100 cents on the dollar. The Irish government had guaranteed them! He couldn’t believe his luck. Across the financial markets this episode repeated itself. People who had made a private bet that went bad, and didn’t expect to be repaid in full, were handed their money back—from the Irish taxpayer.
In retrospect, now that the Irish bank losses are known to be world-historically huge, the decision to cover them appears not merely odd but suicidal. A handful of Irish bankers incurred debts they could never repay, of something like 100 billion euros. They may have had no idea what they were doing, but they did it all the same. Their debts were private—owed by them to investors around the world—and still the Irish people have undertaken to repay them as if they were obligations of the state. For two years they have labored under this impossible burden with scarcely a peep of protest. What’s more, all of the policy decisions since September 29, 2008, have set the hook more firmly inside the mouths of the Irish public. In January 2009 the Irish government nationalized Anglo Irish and its 34-billion-euro (and mounting) losses. In late 2009 they created the Irish version of the tarp program, but, unlike the U.S. government (which ended up buying stakes in the banks), they actually followed through on the plan and are in the process of buying 70 billion euros of crappy assets from the Irish banks.