Burning bondholders and taking one for the team

(Posted on IrishEconomy as well.)

Before he became über-famous for his history of finance, The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson made his name in academia writing 'counterfactual histories'. Counterfactual histories are essentially 'what ifs', changing the outcome of one or two pivotal events, and taking history for a ride to see where subsequent events take you. A great example is what would have happened if Arch Duke Ferdinand hadn't taken a bullet to the neck in June 1914 from Gavrilo Princip. Would World War 2 have started? Another cool example is the effect on bridge engineering if 'Galloping Gertie' hadn't collapsed in 1940. Counterfactuals are useful because they allow us to explore the ramifications of what might have happened in the light of what actually happened.

Every citizen in the State has probably sat down at some point asked themselves what might have happened if the late Brian Lenihan hadn't handed out the blanket guarantee in September 2008 that put the taxpayer on the line for the banks' many failures. Everyone wonders what would have happened if the Regulator had done his job properly during the years of the construction bubble. And everyone on this blog, I'm sure, has wondered what the outcome would have been if we had burned some of the senior bondholders in bust banks like Anglo long before now.

Official wisdom, as handed down from the ECB as recently as yesterday, holds that confidence in the banking system is more important than individual banks' liabilities. So the taxpayer must be put on the hook for those liabilities in extremis. Serious people the length and breadth of the country queued up to endorse this policy. If you didn't--especially if you were an economist--you were being irresponsible and extremist.

The official position has changed slightly. Now it's just not worth it. We'd lose the 'confidence' of the markets for a mere 100 million euros if we burned the remained 3 billion of unguaranteed seniors.

Today's Sindo column by Colm McCarthy puts nails in the coffins of the serious people and their preferred policy. The counterfactual element comes through in this piece quite strongly. Colm argues, clearly and simply, that paying off bondholders of bad debt warehouses when the country is bust and within an EU/IMF loan facility is bonkers, and that there is a different way. Read the whole thing, but here's a key part:

It is unprecedented for bondholders in defunct banks to be paid by a country already in an IMF programme and unable to re-finance its own sovereign debt in the market.

It is an extra irritation to have to endure lectures from EU and ECB officials about their generosity to Ireland, as if the lucky beneficiaries were the Irish public.

The Irish Times interviewed departing ECB executive council member Juergen Stark and reported on Monday last: "He is dismissive of a renewed Government push to avoid repaying about €3.8bn of the senior debt in Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society. The ECB remains opposed to such an initiative and Stark says Ireland is 'not autonomous to take this decision'. The question is a 'non-issue' for the bank."

The phrasing is interesting. Ireland is ". . . not autonomous to take this decision". The government of an EU member state, accountable to its electorate, is not free, according to Stark, to decide whether or not creditors in utterly insolvent and defunct banks, no longer trading and in wind-down, should be paid by a Government which has not guaranteed these debts. The funds to pay these bondholders are being provided by the IMF and EU, since the country cannot borrow elsewhere. Each payment adds to a debt mountain already so large as to threaten the ability to service the State's own sovereign debt.

This column would be heresy, even one year ago. Now let's hope it contributes to a change in official policy with respect to the bondholders in Anglo, and perhaps in other banks. Colm closes his piece well, it's worth quoting:

It is bad enough to have to "take one for the team" without acknowledgement. It is much worse to see the team lose the game so ingloriously.