Scars of the Irish crash still run deep

A decade after the onset of the property and banking crash, mortgage debt means households

Scars of the Irish crash still run deep

August is a quiet month. It can also be a cruel one, offering up bumper harvests for those of us hungry for hard news. After all, it was in the dog days of August 1914 that World War One was unleashed.

Several decades later, the skids were under the Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev and the USSR after coup plotters sent tanks onto the streets.

Almost exactly a decade ago, the Great Recession kicked off when, on August 9, the French bank, BNP Paribas, suspended three funds with major exposure to bonds backed by US sub prime mortgages.

It was followed in weeks by the run on the Northern English-based lender Northern Rock, the first, widely publicised at least, run on a UK bank in 150 years.

The sight of depositors lined up on the street outside its Dublin branch was unsettling.

Up to that point, it had been a standard enough year.

A student ran amok on the Virginia Tech campus killing over 30 people.

Helen Mirren bagged an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II. The first Apple iPhone went on sale. Rupert Murdoch snapped up Dow Jones, publisher of the the Wall Street Journal.

A bad drought in Australia pushed up global wheat prices.

But something more dangerous was stirring in the undergrowth.

Tremors began to be felt in the US housing market. Prices started to fall - by up to 15% in some areas.

In Ireland, house builders were beginning to feel the chill.

In January 2008, builders gathered in the Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin to consider their predicament.

It was possible to smell the fear around the hall, that night.

Within months, our economy was in free fall.

Fast forward to mid-August 2017. Global growth looks solid enough.

The eurozone crisis has abated — for now. The pressure points are largely on the political side.

Could another financial crisis emerge? Of course.

According to Alistair Darling, the British chancellor in 2007 and 2008, “the next crisis will probably come from where it was not expected, from causes that haven’t yet been identified. The lesson from 10 years ago is that something that starts as an apparently small ripple in the water can become mountainous seas very quickly.”

As he told the BBC, the scariest moment for him took the form of a phone conversation, in September 2008, with Tom McKillop, then chairman of Ulster Bank-owner the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).

The conservation involved RBS being a bank “about the same size as the entire British economy”.

Mr McKillop let it be known that his bank would run out of money early that afternoon. Not much notice, then.

There could be plenty of early warning signs.

Ireland ran a deficit on its current account of almost 6% in 2007. We were living beyond our means.

The annual budget deficit in the US was a sizeable 5%.

Diced up mortgages in the US were just part of a larger consumer bubble.

The Chinese balance of payments surplus at the time was around 10%. It has come down considerably since then.

We clawed our way back to recovery in Ireland, with balance of payments surpluses signalling progress.

The process was painful.

Meanwhile, the UK is currently running current account deficits and there is an overhang of personal debt.

Could a mishandled Brexit help to trigger a recession of the size of the early 1990s, triggering problems in Ireland, even in the event of an agreed UK departure from the EU?

Such a scenario is easy to envisage.

Former Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill believes that the global economy, at least, is much healthier than 10 years ago when he had warned of trouble ahead.

However, the Bank for International Settlements — which last time out failed to raise many red flags — this time has warned that we face a stiff test as central banks ease back on their quantitative easing policies which have helped to keep world interest rates at rock-bottom levels.

Interest rates are on the turn and recent dollar weakness may embolden the US central bank to act.

Fears about China, other fast developing economies, and Europe’s banks and struggling peripheral countries have abated for now.

Can we rely on this to continue?

Ireland has certainly rebounded since 2012, but the economy remains vulnerable to a broader based meltdown, where say, real interest rates rise as investors seek safe havens.

A year ago, Irish household disposable income was still 7% below the 2007 peak.

Ireland is still one of the most over- borrowed countries in Europe, in terms of the Government debt burden, indebted companies and households.

The national debt clock has ticked past the €203bn mark and when flattering official GDP figures are discounted, it stands, official figures show, still at over 100% of the real size of the economy.

Thanks to unsustainable mortgage debt, Irish home owners are around the third most indebted in the eurozone.

The long recession has also been accompanied by an accumulation in deficits in infrastructure, social and physical.

Then there are the psychological scars from the crash.

Ireland has moved forward, but remains highly vulnerable.

The economy is a bit like central Dublin at the moment — a rather messy work in progress.

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