As the bailout of Ireland begins in earnest, many in the media are asking “What went wrong?”, and coming to some dubious answers. The circumstances are well known. Ireland saw a long boom before the financial crisis. That boom was accompanied by a large rise in house prices and a boom in building construction. After the financial crisis and ensuing world-wide recession, many Irish banks were bailed out by the government or nationalised. The Irish government practised austerity policies, increasing taxes and reducing expenditure. But, as the cost of the bailouts increased, so did the budget deficit.
Many commentators are now claiming that Ireland’s membership of the Euro was the underlying problem (for example, Peter Oborne. In this argument many sound economic ideas have been mixed with careless ones.
One argument is that if Ireland had not been part of the Eurozone it would have been able to devalue it’s currency. It’s true, that if Ireland still had the Punt then this would be possible but not as significant as many people believe. In today’s world with floating fiat currencies controlled by central banks there is no clear concept of “devaluation” any more. The economic prospects of the region encompassed by each currency and the policies of the central banks are taken into account by the exchange rate market, and the exchange rate fluctuates minute by minute. This means there are two different arguments. The first, which focuses on the private sector, is that when a country enters recession the value of it’s currency falls allowing a growth in exports. This is a dubious argument, but whatever its merits it could not have seriously improved the financial situation of the Irish banks or the Irish government. The second argument is that in a crisis the state’s central bank may create money and use it to pay debts and finance bailouts.
A modern state can easily create new money without having additional assets. If Ireland had kept the Punt, it’s own fiat currency, then the government could have bailed out the banks using newly created money. But, that would simply be a hidden tax. Inflation would ensue then holders of money and money-substitutes would see the real value of those assets fall. Holders of assets denominated in money such as loans and bonds would see those fall in value in real terms too. The tax would be paid by the people through this loss of purchasing power. Any permanent increase in the stock of money must lead to inflation, though there may be a time lag until it becomes noticeable. A temporary increase could only be achieved by withdrawing money from circulation afterwards, and that could only be done with taxation. That governments can create money to get themselves out of sticky situations is beneficial to governments, but not to the people they’re supposed to serve.
Critics of the Euro also claim that the Eurozone currency area could not have worked. According to this view the ECB must run monetary policy to suit the core Eurozone countries. But interest rates that are a good fit for Germany and France will cause problems in other Eurozone countries. There is some truth in this. In the years before the crisis, the ECB ran low interest rates to stimulate the northern European economies, particularly Germany and France which were struggling with rigid labour markets. A side-effect of that policy was the building booms in Southern Europe and Ireland which weren’t sustainable. Though there is some truth in this view, it’s still confused. The idea that labour market problems can be successfully compensated for by reducing interest rates is from Keynesian economics. The idea that central banks reducing interest rates to excessively low levels causes unsustainable booms is from Austrian economics. These views can’t be mixed because they come from conflicting theoretical starting points. It isn’t possible that Keynesian economists are right in France and Germany but Austrian economists are right in Ireland and Portugal. In my view the ECB’s low interest rates may have been an attempt to stimulate the Northern European economies, but that policy wouldn’t have worked under any circumstances. The ECB’s policy came at a cost to Ireland and the Southern European countries when the property bubbles burst, but that cost doesn’t reflect any benefit to the Northern European countries.
It’s true that a Central Bank faces greater problems if the currency area that it regulates spans many countries with different conditions. But, as we have seen, Central Banks can’t avoid recessions and crises even if they only regulate the currency of a single sovereign nation.
Many countries have found themselves facing the consequences of the bad decisions made by Central Banks. Ireland isn’t unique in that respect. What makes Ireland unique is the extraordinary lengths that the government have taken to support banks and property developers. In September of 2008 the Irish government guaranteed for two years all bank accounts with Irish banks and almost all loans to those banks. This September, when that guarantee was due to expire, it was extended for another three months. The government decided that rather than risk paying out on that guarantee they would bail out banks as and when they needed it. They nationalised the worst-affected bank – Anglo Irish Bank in 2008. So far, through several bailouts Anglo-Irish Bank has cost the Irish government €22.9 and the other banks have cost ~€10.1, though the extent of losses hasn’t been fully recognized and will probably be much greater. It is these debts that have caused Ireland’s budget deficit to rise much more than those of other countries.
There have been many rumours about corruption in the Fianna Fail and in Anglo-Irish bank. The actions of the former board of Anglo-Irish bank are under investigation by financial regulators and the police, the former CEO has been declared bankrupt. There are close links between the ruling Fianna Fail party and many property developers, that was the subject of jokes long before the crisis. The previous Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was investigated for receiving bribes from property developers. I think there’s probably some truth in these allegations of corruption. But the politicians that form the government had many ways they could abuse their power for personal gain. A politician has many ways he can make a little on the side without bankrupting his country.
It’s ideas rather than corruption that have created such a great crisis for Ireland. The government thought that the resources the state could lay claim to were inexhaustible. They believed that if the state guaranteed bank accounts that this guarantee alone would satisfy the markets. The Finance Minister Brian Lenihan once called the guarantee the “cheapest bailout in the world so far”. The government forgot that the power of the state isn’t magical. A government can transfer the liabilities of banks onto the taxpayers, but they can’t abolish them. Back in 2008, the government were worried that the failure of a bank would harm Ireland’s reputation, but in the long run their cure was worse than the illness.