Heavy workload awaits new Central Bank governor Philip Lane

New governor Philip Lane has a strong reputation among his peers, writes Kyran Fitzgerald
Heavy workload awaits new Central Bank governor Philip Lane

Last week, the white smoke was finally issued from the chimney and Patrick Honohan’s successor as Central Bank governor was named.

Philip Lane is hardly a household name, but he has a strong reputation among his peers both at home and abroad.

He is viewed as a quiet, understated individual,and will in this sense present something of a contrast with Mr Honohan, a man who appeared to revel in the public side of the job, famously appearing on Morning Ireland to put the seal on the bailout by the troika in November 2010.

Mr Honohan came to the post with a unique skill set. He had worked as economic advisor to Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in the mid-80s and has worked for the World Bank.

As an academic, he studied financial crises and their impact.

Mr Lane, in turn, has been hugely productive as an academic economist.

He has published articles in leading journals, recently, on everything from The cyclical conduct of Irish fiscal policy to Corporate debt in emerging economies and A new start for the eurozone dealing with debt.

He was one of the key figures along with UCD economist Karl Whelan and the current head of the Fiscal Council, John McHale, in the establishment and operation of the innovative web forum, irisheconomy.ie.

This proved to be a lively forum for informed discussion at the height of the financial crisis.

Much has been made of his lack of experience in running an organisation, particularly one of the size of the Central Bank.

The bank traditionally has operated along civil service rather than commercial lines.

Mr Honohan and the former financial regulator, Matthew Elderfield, have presided over a major expansion in the bank’s workforce, but many of the changes have yet to fully bed down.

Mr Lane’s lack of hands-on management experience should be offset through the appointment of a deputy governor with experience in this area.

Dermot O Leary, chief economist with Goodbody Stockbrokers, does not have concerns on this score.

Central bankers, however, are in general faced with huge challenges.

At the US Fed, the chairman, Janet Yellen, and her colleagues face the ongoing dilemma, that of when to decide on a roll back of the huge quantitative easing programme, one that has boosted asset values.

The summer wobble in financial markets amid growing concerns about prospects in China, and in commodity producer economies forced the Fed to retreat from its plans to signal a move by raising interest rates.

Mr Lane will be joining the board of the ECB at a time when Ireland’s economic performance has begun to diverge from a sluggish eurozone.

In January, the ECB embarked on an expanded asset purchase programme which many in Germany, in particular, have opposed.

In theory, Mr Lane will not be there to represent the national interest, but in practice, he will be pushing to ensure that the interests of peripheral countries like Ireland are not sacrificed in the interests of the core as has happened in the past.

Economists believe that the new governor will have the respect of his peers, despite coming from a small member state.

He is close to the outgoing governor, Mr Honohan, who, in turn, was believed to be an ally of the ECB chief, Mario Draghi, a pragmatic figure, whose dovish approach to monetary policy has been vindicated.

In its latest quarterly report, the Central Bank pointed to continuing signs of financial improvement with a drop in mortgage arrears and a rise of almost 20% in household wealth in the year to the end of March.

However, it conceded that household arrears remain at high levels while financing costs for Irish borrowers remain well above the norm , despite rebounding confidence both at home and abroad.

The new governor has the skillset to come up with innovative solutions aimed at addressing this conundrum, which threatens to stall enterprise development within the State. Colleagues will be aware of his innovative thinking.

As far back as 1998, just ahead of the launch of the euro, Mr Lane warned of the drawbacks attendant in membership of a currency zone. He warned of the frequency of banking crises and recommended the creation of a Fiscal reserve fund to act as a buffer in the event of a banking crisis.

The very existence of such a fund would, he felt, “forestall panic induced attacks”.

It could also be used to finance a re-organisation should the banks fall into chronic difficulties. Sadly, this idea was not taken up. The ECB fell down badly in the whole area of regulation in the run in to the crisis.

However, financial regulation remains a huge and thorny area, not least for the Central Bank which, reporting to the new regulatory body in Frankfurt, must supervise the IFSC. This is likely to present a huge challenge to Mr Lane and his colleagues.

The challenges faced by central banks, national and super regional, look set to grow, given the spread of shadow banking, the long- term emergence of China combined with the overstretched nature of emergent economies, at present.

Mr Lane will be left with little time in which to contemplate his navel.

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