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Support of Anglo Irish Bank Strains Ireland

September 1, 2010 1 comment

August 31, 2010 International Herald Tribune by By LANDON THOMAS Jr.

DUBLIN — Can one bank bring down a country?

Anglo Irish Bank, the midsize Irish lender whose profligacy has come to symbolize the excesses of the real estate bubble here, is doing its best to find out.

No other country aside from Iceland suffered a banking bust as severe as Ireland’s during the financial crisis. Ireland was also the country that took the most direct route in tackling the problem, by recognizing upfront the bad loans of its devastated banks and transferring them to government ledgers.

Both the United States and Britain avoided such a move by taking stakes in their troubled banks and, in the case of Britain, insuring their worst-performing loans.

Now the Irish government’s strategy is being called into question as its credit rating suffers and its borrowing costs resume their upward trajectory. Ireland’s struggle to cope with its mounting bank losses could well be a harbinger for other parts of Europe and for the United States as stuttering economic growth and stagnant housing markets put further strain on bank balance sheets.

Anglo Irish, which on Tuesday reported a first-half loss of 8.2 billion euros ($10.4 billion) also said the government had injected an additional 8 billion euros ($10.16 billion) into the bank, bringing total aid so far to 22 billion euros.

Mike Aynsley, the bank’s chief executive, said Tuesday that he expected the government’s total investment in the bank to be about 25 billion euros ($31.75 billion). He added that commercial property, the bank’s core lending market, which is already down 60 percent, had not yet reached bottom.

“Anytime you see a correction like that, you will see carnage,” he said. “But we think that the 25 billion euros will be largely sufficient.”

Analysts here expect the bank’s defunct loans to hit 35 billion euros, or about 22 percent of Ireland’s gross domestic product — a hard-to-believe figure, given that Anglo Irish at its peak was just the third-largest bank in Ireland. In 2008, total Irish bank lending to households and nonfinancial companies was more than 200 percent of G.D.P. — by far the highest such ratio in the euro zone.

The growing losses at Anglo Irish and other Irish banks are expected to cost the government 80 billion to 90 billion euros, according to Standard & Poor’s, which says 35 billion euros will be needed for Anglo Irish — a figure the government and Mr. Aynsley say is significantly overstated.

The ratings agency said that the country’s banking liabilities would push its debt-to-G.D.P. ratio to 113 percent in 2012, higher than Spain’s and Belgium’s and approaching the levels of countries like Italy and Greece.

Last week, S.& P. downgraded Ireland’s credit rating to AA-minus from AA, a change that has driven the already steep yield, or risk premium, on 10-year Irish government bonds to new highs of 5.5 percentage points — second in the euro zone only to Greece’s 11 percentage points.

“This is out of control and the markets see it now,” said Peter Mathews, an independent banking and real estate consultant here, who for the last year has been waging a furious one-man crusade, warning of Anglo Irish’s escalating losses and calling for the bank to be liquidated — with bond holders, not the Irish taxpayer, taking the hit.

“How bad can it get?” Mr. Mathews said. “Irish debt paper could stop being tradable, and the outside agencies like the European Union and the International Monetary Fundmight have to come in.”

Mr. Mathews’s view in this regard represents an extreme. Economists at the Economic and Social Research Institute, an independent organization here, cite the government’s cash cushion of about 40 billion euros — much of it set aside at the outset of the crisis — as a crucial safety net that separates Ireland from Greece.

The government, for its part, argues that Ireland’s approach to bad loans — taking them off the balance sheets of the banks and then assuming responsibility for them — was correct.

“Our banks would have probably assumed zombie-like status if we had delayed in recognizing these impairments,” said John Corrigan, the chief executive of the country’s debt management agency. Part of his organization is the National Asset Management Agency, the government group that has spent the year buying bad loans from banks.

“The downgrade was deeply disappointing to us, but we still have a better credit rating than Italy and Portugal,” he said. And international bond investors, who own about 85 percent of the government’s debt, continued to buy its paper, he said.

Will the Anglo Irish loans lead to a buyers’ strike by investors?

“No,” said Mr. Corrigan with a vigorous shake of his head. “We have enough liquidity to take us well into the second quarter next year.”

While Mr. Mathews and the government may be opposed on how to handle the problem, they agree on how absurd the lending practices at Anglo Irish were.

Even by the standards of the global banking collapse, Anglo Irish stood out. From a loan book of about 75 billion euros when the government took over in 2009, Anglo Irish says that it has only about 12 billion euros in loans that it classifies as performing. The bank is expected to transfer 36 billion euros in troubled loans to the asset management agency — about half its existing loans.

“It was mad — a credit cocaine run,” said Mr. Mathews, his voice rising in frustration.

He was standing outside a gravel-strewn 25-acre plot, flanked by a housing project and the rough Dublin docklands. In 2006, as Ireland’s real estate frenzy reached its peak, a group of developers paid 412 million euros ($523.2 million) for this industrial site, backed by a 300 million euro loan from Anglo Irish.

Mr. Mathews, a former banker who now advises real estate developers, estimates that the land may now be worth only 20 million euros — if it can be sold at all.

It is not just in Ireland that the bank’s aggressive lending stood out. Through its private client division in Boston, Anglo Irish was one of the most wildly eager property lenders in the United States. It financed the construction of skyscrapers in Chicago and shopping centers in Boston, not to mention lending more than $500 million to a series of troubled and in some cases failed real estate projects in New York.

Most notorious of those was a top-of-the-market, $393 million mortgage in 2007 to the Apthorp, a luxury apartment building in New York that has been home to celebrities like the writer Nora Ephron and the actor Al Pacino.

After a series of legal disputes, the building’s developers are struggling to convert the complex into an upscale condominium. Anglo Irish recently said that rents on the units would be paid directly to the bank — an indication, analysts say, that the project’s developers may be facing further financing strains.

“It was just the height of hubris,” Mr. Mathews said as he drove away from the deserted development site in Dublin. “And why should Citizen Joe and Mary pick up the tab for this when it was the bondholders that had all the aces in their hand?”

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