We’re still on the hook despite €3.1bn debt delay plan

Writing in the Irish Independent on March 13, I argued we should pay the debt our democratically elected leaders signed us up for, but not now, when the economy is struggling to regain upward momentum.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan announced on Wednesday that negotiations were under way to postpone the €3.1bn payment due at the end of March

Instead, it was widely concluded, a government bond would be written to meet the payment, effectively pushing the repayment of the €3.1 bn out to 2025, when the shell that holds all of Anglo's debt is supposed to be wound down.

You'd think I'd be reaching for the Babycham, but no. I was left perplexed by the whole thing.

The key to understanding all this messing about with bonds and notes and made-up money is to understand the funding problems of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC), the shell that holds all of Anglo and Irish Nationwide's assets and liabilities.

The promissory notes are on the asset side. On the liability side is around €42bn worth of emergency lending assistance -- money that was created by the Irish Central Bank to help fund Anglo when no one else would. When the promissory note gets paid off, the emergency lending assistance amount is reduced at the same time.

To understand the drama in the situation, you must see that the IBRC can't exchange the emergency lending assistance with the ECB for cash to run its day-to-day activities.

That's a liability for it.

Nor can it exchange its so-called assets, the promissory notes, in the same fashion. Substituting a government bond for the €3.1bn payment makes sense for IBRC, because it can hand that bond to the ECB in exchange for cash. Funding problem solved, yes?

Well no. That's just the principal. We need to think about the interest rate charged on the promissory note -- around 8.25pc. And the interest rate charged on the bond which will need to be paid out each year on the 13-year bond until 2025, at which time the €3.1bn in principal will have to be paid back too.

Right now IBRC gets most of its funding from the interest rates on the promissory notes, one of its main assets. The bond will need to replace this funding, and will need to do so in a way that makes sure this bank -- which will never lend again -- stays solvent, meaning the value of its assets is greater than the value of its liabilities. No mean feat.

What's stressing me out about this announcement is its relative lack of subtlety. For months we've been hearing about technical discussions between the ECB, the IMF, and the European Commission. For months we've heard whispers about moving the tracker mortgages from our pillar banks to the IBRC to replace the promissory notes, to simultaneously (and elegantly) heal the balance sheets of our private banks and solve the promissory note problem.

We've heard about complex negotiations around debt writedowns and table thumping from the top chaps and chapettes in the Department of Finance.

Yet what we get is a can-kicking, extend-and-pretend type exercise, and only for one year. What happens next year? Do we write a 12-year bond for that payment, and an 11-year bond for the one after that? Or will a more permanent solution be sorted by then?

Ultimately the taxpayer is on the hook for all of the losses of these dead banks. The question is how we pay these debts to get any chance of growth in the economy. We still don't have a full picture of the answer.

The financial wizards have had months to sort out the promissory note issue in a nuanced, complex, and comprehensive manner, and they haven't. This deal, if it comes off, is a rough, hacked-together and reactive one. Which makes me believe that either our masters in the troika aren't nearly as smart as I think they are -- or they have something else in mind as a more permanent, nuanced, and elegant solution.

 Published in the Irish Independent