Sunday 11th May 2014
Ireland smothered by its own blanket guarantee
Europe needs to learn from its bad choices and transform itself into a true monetary union
Given the profound alteration in Ireland’s relationship with Europe since the last European elections in 1979, it is unfortunate that media coverage of the poll due on May 23 has consisted largely of parochial speculation about who will win in each constituency, a matter of no importance to anyone other than the candidates and their supporters.
There has been no discussion of party positions on European issues, since there appear to be none. There is no greater European issue than the failure of the common currency experiment and the continuing unwillingness to take the measures necessary to avoid a repetition. Not one Irish party has offered a vision of what a future European monetary union should look like, campaigning instead on complaints about austerity and unsupported promises of better jobs, decent wages and free water.
There are serious issues aplenty. In his recent book*, Philippe Legrain argues that the handling of the eurozone crisis by the EUCommission, and particularly by the European Central Bank, has been inept, deeply politicised and damaging to the broader European project. He is no eurosceptic, indeed his strictures are the more compelling because his concerns are those of a supporter of European integration. Legrain is particularly scathing about the actions of the European Central Bank under the presidency of Jean-Claude Trichet, including its dealings with Ireland.
The worldwide banking crisis became evident to even the less alert policymakers by the summer of 2007. The first European bank to go under was the German lender IKB, bailed out in July of that year. The source of its collapse was investment in US subprime mortgage securities peddled by Wall Street banks.
There were numerous other banking tremors during 2007 including several in the US and Northern Rock in Britain. The crisis erupted the following year, culminating in the Bear Stearns collapse and rescue in March and the Lehmans’ bankruptcy in September, followed promptly by the unravelling of the Irish banking system in the following months.
The textbook response to a systemic banking crisis is easily written: individual banks can be allowed to go under, particularly ones deemed to pose little threat to the broader financial system, but governments are understandably loath to let the broader banking system crash and invariably resort to ad hoc, often panicky, measures resulting in large taxpayer bailouts of bank creditors. These responses were universal in 2008 and 2009, the slow-motion panic in Ireland being merely the most egregious example.
Until such time as interconnected mega-banks are brought down to manageable size, small enough to fail at the expense of shareholders and creditors, governments will remain tempted to bail them out at taxpayers’ expense, even at the risk of bankrupting national treasuries and imposing losses on those who prudently lent to solvent governments rather than to dodgy banks.
Banks have not been required to raise extra capital in adequate amounts and many continue to pay dividends and extravagant bonuses, instead of using their operating profits to augment their thin capital buffers. As a result, they are reluctant to lend – and large areas of the eurozone continue to experience credit famine.
The result has been the longest and deepest economic downturn since the early years of the Second World War, instigated by an explosion in bank balance sheets devoted to poor lending and financed through excess debt with too little loss-absorbing capital. All of this was overseen by complacent central banks and regulators.
Only in the United States have measures been taken designed to ameliorate a repetition. In the eurozone, a policy of doing too little, too late remains stubbornly in place, currently enjoying a degree of apparent success through the untested expectation that the ECB will act as lender of last resort to the next round of bank busts. This expectation also explains the ability of over-extended European sovereigns to borrow at historically low interest rates in bond markets.
Legrain and numerous other writers have outlined a programme of reform in European banking which would offer better assurance that a repetition would be avoided. The mega-banks, some of which have balance sheets exceeding the national income of their home countries, are now ‘too big to save’ if there is another crisis. Too big to save means too big, and they should be broken up.
There should be far higher capital standards – all banks should have shareholder risk capital on hand adequate to handle the inevitable loan losses which will arise from time to time. Those who finance them through the medium of bank bonds should also stand to lose if things go wrong. The 100 per cent bailout of bank bondholders and wholesale depositors who backed the wrong horse has been perhaps the single most damaging policy mistake made by European policymakers throughout the crisis, resulting in an expectation that the exercise will be repeated and resulting in a huge hidden interest-cost subsidy to large European banks.
Misdiagnosis leads to quack cures and the initial European response, which persisted from the onset of the crisis into 2012, was that the eurozone’s problems derived from excessive budget deficits run by the countries experiencing the greatest liquidity strains. This line was peddled most vociferously by the European Central Bank whose line was followed slavishly by the EU Commission.
With the solitary exception of Greece, the eurozone crisis was a banking bubble, not an orgy of fiscal excess. From a long list, Legrain picks the botched bailout of Greece in May 2010 as the original sin of the euro debacle. European politicians led by German chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that Greece, which was heavily indebted to French and German banks, was solvent and worthy of official credit when just about nobody else shared that view.
In due course, Greece defaulted on unsustainable private bondholder debts to the tune of €100bn, the largest sovereign default in history. The French and German banks emerged largely unscathed, protected from the losses their carelessness had earned. At the time of the first Greek bailout, IMFofficials favoured a sizeable creditor haircut but were overruled by the politicians. When sanity finally prevailed and creditor losses were imposed, the default was inadequate – and Greece remains borderline insolvent to this day.
In Ireland, the panic decision to underwrite virtually all of the liabilities of the domestic banking system similarly protected capital providers to mismanaged banks from market discipline. By the time the balloon went up, Irish bank shares had been tanking for 18 months.
The blanket guarantee decision, which eventually cost enough to push the Irish State into insolvency and the tender mercies of the troika, remarkably still finds its defenders. In fairness to the European institutions, this initial decision appears to have been an Irish solo run but Legrain is clear-eyed about what the ECB did two years later.
He writes: “Eurozone policymakers, notably ECB President Trichet, outrageously blackmailed the Irish government into making good on its guarantee by threatening to cut off liquidity to the Irish banking system – in effect threatening to force it out of the euro.” He goes on: “This was a flagrant abuse of power by an unelected central banker whose primary duty ought to have been to the citizens of countries that use the euro – not least Irish ones.”
My guess is that a majority on the ECB governing council approved this decision and that it was not taken by M Trichet on his own initiative. Since the ECB, unusually among central banks, does not publish minutes of its meetings, no paper trail is available. The same performance was repeated in April 2011, when ECB threats were again used against the incoming Fine Gael/Labour Government on the same issue.
Legrain goes on to outline the reforms which would turn Europe’s dysfunctional and mismanaged common currency area into a proper monetary union, steps which have to date been taken only in part – to wit, the parts which least disturb the survival of the largely unreformed French and German banking systems.
This book, unfortunately lacking an index, is a spirited and readable account of the biggest policy failure to have afflicted the European project since its inception almost 60 years ago.
Irish water charges now means new loo rules
If it’s yellow, let it mellow
Goodbye your nice garden: If we have a summer like the one we had in 2013, then only the wealthy Irish people can afford to water their plants.
The water charges will cost the average household €240 a year, after the Irish Government’s last week. Each household will have a free allowance of 30,000 litres a year before water charges kick in – with an additional allowance to cover water used by under-18s.
Although Environment Minister Phil Hogan described that free allowance as “generous” last week, you will fly through it easier than you think. If you have an old-style flush toilet and you flush your toilet seven times a day, your toilet flushing alone could eat up your free allowance.
The average household uses about 140,000 litres of water a year, according to the Department of the Environment.
Trying to reduce that consumption to 30,000 litres in a bid to avoid water charges will be a major shock to the system. Here are seven things you will have to kiss goodbye to when water charges come on board this October – otherwise, you risk paying through the nose for water.
A full bath can use up to 80 litres of water – so you’ve no chance of staying within your free allowance if you have a bath a day. Most of us don’t have a daily bath – but even cutting back on your weekly bath could save you a small fortune.
Knocking a minute off your shower will save you seven litres of water a go, according to Jacob Tompkins, managing director of Waterwise, a British organisation that encourages people to conserve water. So you’ll save 2,555 litres a year by showering for a minute less every day – if you plan on having a shower a day.
As well as cutting your water usage – and keeping your water charges down – the shorter shower could save you about €150 a year in energy bills, said Tompkins. “It takes a lot of energy to heat water,” added Tompkins.
Switching your showerhead to an aerated or low-flow showerhead should also help to keep your water bills in check. These showerheads reduce the amount of water used – but should still give the feel of a normal shower.
One of the most important things you can do before water charges are introduced is to check for leaks, advised Graham Smith, the interim head of water with consumer lobby group the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland. Water leaks have cost businesses in the North thousands, according to Smith.
“The water in a leak will be counted as consumption,” said Smith. “If you have a leak, you could be hit with a major bill, depending on how big the leak is – and for how long it has been running.
“To check for a leak, take a meter reading when your water meter is put in, then make sure all your water taps and radiators are turned off – and check the meter. If the meter is still turning, you might have a leak.”
If you have a leak, contact Irish Water. Under Irish Water’s ‘first fix free’ scheme, the company should repair the leak for free – as long as the leak is outside your home and identified within a certain time of your water meter being installed or water charges beginning. Leaks outside your home can often be traced to the water pipe leading to your property – or the main stopcock on the road into your home.
If the leak is in your home, such as from a burst or badly fitted water pipe, you will need to hire a plumber and cover the cost of repairs yourself.
If it’s yellow, let it mellow
Flushed toilets account for about one-third of the water used by a typical family, said Tompkins. “Look at how you’re flushing the toilet,” added Tompkins. “For example, do you really need to flush it every time you put a tissue into it?”
A dual flush toilet – where you can choose the amount of water that will be used with each flush – could be worth investing in. Dual flush toilets typically use between four and six litres of water a flush – compared to the 13 litres used in an old-style flush system, according to Waterwise.
A cistern displacement device, which takes up space that would otherwise be occupied by water, could also be worth installing in your toilet cistern. The device, which reduces the amount of water that is available for flushing, can save up to 5,000 litres of water a year, according to some experts.
A running tap can easily use six litres of water a minute, according to Smith. So before water charges kick in, get out of the habit of running the tap when brushing your teeth.
Use a bowl to wash up the dishes rather than leaving a tap running.
Adding a tap aerator can help reduce the flow of water from your tap and, therefore, the amount of water used.
That dripping tap that keeps you awake at night should also be fixed. “A tap that drips once a minute throughout the day will use up 30 litres of water a day – and that adds up over the year,” said Smith.
Tarmac the lawn
Using a hosepipe to water the lawn will cost you a fortune. Although attaching a trigger nozzle to the hosepipe can reduce the amount of water used, using a water butt is a better idea.
Water butts allow you to catch large amounts of rainwater and to use that rainwater then to water your lawn or flowers. “Rainwater is better for your plants than treated water,” said Smith.
If you live in a terraced house and have no down spout on your house, you should maybe consider tarmacing over the flowers.
Don’t wash recyclables
Running the washing machine or dishwasher when it is half empty will be an expensive waste. Make sure you fully load your dishwasher or washing machine before turning it on.
Avid recyclers should think twice about cleaning recyclables before binning them.
HSE admits big mistakes made on medical cards removal from needy Irish people
A leading HSE official has admitted that the recent removal of discretionary medical cards from some patients was ‘indefensible’ and says he believes the current medical card eligibility system should be replaced.
John Hennessy, the HSE’s National Director of Primary Care, was speaking at the annual conference of the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) in Galway.
In response to queries from the floor from GPs about needy patients who had had their medical cards removed, Mr Hennessy said medical card eligibility was a difficult issue and it if was easy it would have been fixed a long time ago.
“There are some things that have happened that are clearly indefensible,” Mr Hennessy admitted, adding that this type of situation should not be allowed occur in future.
Mr Hennessy told the conference he believed that the system of assessing eligibility for medical cards was outdated, and it was high time it was replaced.
Bray Co. Wicklow GP Dr Rita Doyle, whose disabled patient was the subject of a discretionary medical card removal recently highlighted in the media, told the meeting that the removal of these cards was ‘single most evil thing our society is standing over’.
She said if the discretionary medical card issue was not sorted out she would have no stomach for taking part in the planned free GP care scheme for children under six.
Mr Hennessy commented that this case was an example of ‘how we should not be doing things’
“We need a different scheme, he said.
Dr Declan Larkin, a GP from Galway, told the ICGP meeting his medical card patient list had been reduced from 800 down to 600.
Mr Hennessy pointed out that there was considerable variation in the issuing of discretionary cards from county to county. It varied from five per 1,000 population to 50 per 1,000 between some counties.
He said he had no interest in a ‘two or three tier health system’, but in a good quality service.
He said the currrent medical card scheme was not fit for purpose and a new one was needed. He suggested that the future provision of universal access to GP care could provide a solution.
Health Minister James Reilly recently announced that in the wake of the controversy over the removal of medical cards from vulnerable people, the possibility of having a ‘third tier’ of medical card was being looked at.
The Galway meeting also reiterated concerns among GPs about the Government’s plans for the under sixes scheme, and in particular about the draft contract for the scheme, which they say is unworkable.
Cork GP Dr Brian Coffey told the meeting that the contract, which was presented to GP groups at a meeting earlier this year, had antagonised GPs and had united then as never before in opposition to it. He said the contract should be taken back and started on again, and should not be negotiated in its current form.
Mr Hennessy, in response, said it may have been better in hindsight to have appeared at the table with no draft contract document initially, but the decision was made at the time to produce the document.
GPs at the meeting also claimed that a ‘gagging clause’ in the contract would prevent doctors advocating for their patients and speaking out on health service deficiencies.
Dr Ilona Duffy from Co.Monaghan said hospital consultants under their contracts had been censured and penalised for speaking out on behalf of their patients.
Mr Hennessy disagreed, stating that if this really was the case, such a gagging clause had not worked very well on consultants. He said he had never known of a consultant who had been challenged or disciplined in any way in relation to comments they had made.
He said the relevant clause in the draft GP contract was never intended to prevent GPs advocating on behalf of their patients. “If it (the clause) needs an amendment to reflect that I would not see that as a problem.”
Mr Hennessy admitted there had not been enough dialogue between health management and GPs and as a result there had been mutual distrust of the respective motives of both sides.
He hoped that dialogue could now take place in a productive way.
“Talks about talks’ between the doctors’ union, the IMO, and Minister for Primary Care Alex White on the under sixes proposals were held on Friday and are set to resume later this week.
Obesity epidemic to hit Ireland by year 2030
Action now required states a study
A study has reported that over 84% of women and 90% of men would become obese or overweight by then. As usual, major contributors of this is unhealthy diet which includes high amounts of fats and sugar along with sedentary lifestyle, which includes very little or no exercise.
The study also reported that it is not only Ireland that will be affected, but the entire Euro zone countries as the prediction shows increase in obesity rates across almost 53 Eurozone countries.
As per the study, BMI of 25 and above was considered overweight and about 30 was considered obese. BMI measurements based on computer modeling shows trends that even countries that do not show any signs of obesity will suffer. For instance, as per the study by 2020, 47% of Dutch men and 44% of Belgian men will become either overweight or obese. It is important to note that French fries with mayonnaise are their favorite snack. Further 80 out of every 100 men in Spain, Poland and Czech Republic will become overweight or obese; with 75% of English men will be classified as the same.
Dr Laura Webber, lead author of the study informed in the UK Health Forum that the study presents worrisome picture predicting rise of obesity across European countries. She further stated that policies should be implemented to change the trends with immediate effect. In an interview with the Shots she informed that there is no shortcut to tackling this issue and policies should be initiated to ensure healthy eating, combined with active daily life.
Romania, the poorest country in Europe will also suffer with over 10% of women to be classified as obese or overweight. However, according to Dr Webber as the data was scarce, the actual figure might be higher. Further, she added that the obesity levels in children have not been factored into and hence this is an underestimated projection.
Scientists find link between Southern ocean winds and drying Australia
Researchers have established a new explanation for why southern Australia has dried out over the past few decades – and it is all to do with Antarctica.
A painstaking reconstruction of the past 1,000 years of Southern Ocean winds has found they are strengthening and moving closer to Antarctica.
The report in the journal Nature Climate Change has found the winds keep Antarctica cool and effectively pull storm clouds away from Australia.
Australian National University researcher Dr Nerilie Abram said those winds, known as the Southern Annular Mode, pose significant problems for farmers, particularly the nation’s south-west.
“As we see those westerly winds pull in tighter towards Antarctica, it means that the farmers in [southern Australia] are actually getting less of those storms bringing them that vital rain,” the lead author said.
The report shows that between 1300 and 1400AD there was a significant weakening of the winds, but Dr Abram said this recent strengthening was more than natural variability.
“That’s why having these long records [is so important],” she said.
“We can see that what’s happening now steps outside that envelope of natural variability and is something that’s unusual.
“We can then relate that quite clearly to the increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
Sceptics have pointed to the fact that Antarctica is not warming as fast as the rest of the world, as an example of the climate change threat being overblown.
Dr Abram said her work questioned some of those theories.
“We can explain Antarctica not getting warmer as quickly as the other continents by the strengthening of the westerly winds,” she said.
“Because as those westerly winds tighten around Antarctica, they actually trap air and they stop those warm winds from being able to come in over the continent.”