State ‘ready’ to tap €300bn fund

Ireland will have a list of investment-ready infrastructure projects ready to benefit from a €300bn EU fund, and could be willing to guarantee loans made to SMEs, Finance Minister Michael Noonan has said.

Roads, bridges, schools and health centres would be included in the list for EU investment, he said following a meeting of EU finance ministers.

It is hoped the EU fund will be just one element of the type of investment needed to lift the economy out of stagnation and low inflation, with the ECB pressing governments to support their quantitative easing.

ECB president Mario Draghi said he is going ahead next month with his plan to purchase asset-based securities — buying mortgage and other loans from banks so they in turn have funds to lend to starved businesses.

But he also wants to be in a position to buy lower-grade or slightly more risky loans, such as those made to SMEs, but they would need to be guaranteed by their national governments.

While Germany has said it is opposed to this, the Netherlands has said it is not interested and France has not yet made its position clear, several smaller countries appeared to be willing to back Mr Draghi’s request for a government guarantee for what he referred to as mezzanine securities.

Mr Noonan said he was in favour of Mr Draghi’s plans. “Mr Draghi has made very interesting announcements directed at the low inflation in Europe and I hope it’s successful. The bank is independent, they make their announcements but I’m in favour and I’ve been looking for these kind of initiatives for years”.

How this would affect Irish banks and their loans and to what extent they would benefit would have to be worked out between the Irish Central Bank and the ECB, he said.

The details of how the €300bn European Commission fund would work were currently being drawn up and the European Investment Bank will be involved in it, Mr Noonan said.

He had already told his officials to draw up a list of suitable projects so that funds could be drawn down immediately they become available, he said.

These would include big and small projects to do with energy, roads and social infrastructure like schools and health centres, the minister said. He did not know if the State would be required to put in matching funds.

The ministers emphasised that it was essential for countries that had not to carry out structural reforms and get their economies under control. Economics Commissioner Katainen said Ireland, Spain and the Netherlands were very good examples of countries that had “started to profit from structural reforms”.

The ministers all agreed to Ireland’s request to waive their credit rights on the EU loans so that the Government can repay most of the IMF’s loan over the next 18 months, borrowing the money on the markets at around 2%, more than half what the IMF is charging.

The legal and technical details will be worked out now and the NTMA will be free to do the swap once the German parliament has given its approval and the Swedes that had a general election over the weekend.

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