Michael Lewis has written a lengthy, but rewarding, analysis of the financial crisis in Ireland, including a treatise on the tactical subtleties of throwing rotten eggs at banking chairmen.
“In 1997 the Irish banks were funded entirely by Irish deposits. By 2005 they were getting most of their money from abroad…Since 2000, lending to construction and real estate had risen from 8 percent of Irish bank lending (the European norm) to 28 percent. One hundred billion euros—or basically the sum total of all Irish public bank deposits—had been handed over to Irish property developers and speculators. By 2007, Irish banks were lending 40 percent more to property developers than they had to the entire Irish population seven years earlier. “You probably think that the fact that Irish banks have given speculators €100 billion to gamble with, safe in the knowledge that taxpayers will cover most losses, is a cause of concern to the Irish Central Bank,” (Morgan) Kelly (professor of economics at University College Dublin) wrote, “but you would be quite wrong.”
“The Irish real-estate bubble was different from the American version in many ways: it wasn’t disguised, for a start; it didn’t require a lot of complicated financial engineering beyond the understanding of mere mortals; it also wasn’t as cynical. There aren’t a lot of Irish financiers or real-estate people who have emerged with a future. In America the banks went down, but the big shots in them still got rich; in Ireland the big shots went down with the banks. Sean Fitzpatrick, a working-class kid turned banker, who built Anglo Irish Bank more or less from scratch, is widely viewed as the chief architect of Ireland’s misfortune: today he is not merely bankrupt but unable to show his face in public.
“There’s no such thing as a non-recourse home mortgage in Ireland. The guy who pays too much for his house is not allowed to simply hand the keys to the bank and walk away. He’s on the hook, personally, for whatever he borrowed. Across Ireland, people are unable to extract themselves from their houses or their bank loans. Irish people will tell you that, because of their sad history of dispossession, owning a home is not just a way to avoid paying rent but a mark of freedom. In their rush to freedom, the Irish built their own prisons. And their leaders helped them to do it.
“As the scope of the Irish losses has grown clearer, private investors have been less and less willing to leave even overnight deposits in Irish banks and are completely uninterested in buying longer-term bonds. The European Central Bank has quietly filled the void: one of the most closely watched numbers in Europe has been the amount the E.C.B. has loaned to the Irish banks. In late 2007, when the markets were still suspending disbelief, the banks borrowed 6.5 billion euros. By December of 2008 the number had jumped to 45 billion. As (Joan) Burton (the Labour Party’s financial spokesperson) spoke to me, the number was still rising from a new high of 86 billion. That is, the Irish banks have borrowed 86 billion euros from the European Central Bank to repay private creditors. In September 2010 the last big chunk of money the Irish banks owed the bondholders, 26 billion euros, came due. Once the bondholders were paid off in full, a window of opportunity for the Irish government closed. A default of the banks now would be a default not to private investors but a bill presented directly to European governments.
“…the Department of Finance 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…Ingram had done something original and useful: he’d shined a new light on the way Irish banks lent against commercial real estate.
“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…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.
“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 (Irish finance minister) 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.
“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.”