A mutual crisis

In the first of our series on faith in a financial crisis the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's Moder

‘Britain must have confidence’ said the prime minister, Gordon Brown, a fortnight ago.

His comment underlined the lack of confidence that is dogging the financial system, which he propped up with the introduction of a credit guarantee scheme to the banks last October.

Alert to the implications, some investors in the Presbyterian Mutual Society, based in Belfast, realised their money was not covered by the guarantee. This triggered a run on the liquid assets of the Society.

The Society operated an easy access policy to savings, so savers withdrew their money to the tune of £21 million within a short space of time. The directors applied to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry (DETI) of the Stormont Executive, to put the Society into Administration, and an Administrator took over on the 17th November 2008.

No new business is being accepted and savers cannot gain access to their money. This has placed many people in difficulty since they cannot pay bills due, nor meet commitments undertaken. Not only is lifestyle affected but also property and businesses, with a knock-on effect to jobs and livelihoods.

There are various links between the Mutual Society and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Only members of the Church can invest, and the Board of Directors is made up of Presbyterians appointed by the annual meeting of the shareholders. The Church has never had any operational involvement with the Society and the accounts are not presented to it for approval, but each year at the General Assembly meeting of the Church, a verbal report has been given commending the attractive dividend distributed. With that understanding, the Church, in general terms, drew the attention of members to the benefits described with a view to possible investment.

No one anticipated the difficulties that swiftly overwhelmed the Society in the autumn. We now realise that no financial institution is fireproofed against the credit crunch. The god of materialism has clay feet. There are those who feel the Church has misled them, and, because it has been pointed out that the Mutual is an independent organisation, that the Church has disowned them. Confidence in both the Presbyterian Mutual Society and in the Presbyterian Church has been shaken.

The Church is being pressed to do something to free up people’s savings or to return their money. However the Church has had no access to the books of the Society. The Administrator is severely constrained by law from divulging information. Recently he published his initial report revealing a deficit of around £100 million. People fear they will lose a substantial proportion of their money. Investors have had the opportunity to vote on five resolutions proposed by the Administrator in which he indicates how people might vote if they wish an orderly wind down over a period of time and thus get the best return. The alternative seems to be liquidation, increasing the losses. This will only become clear when the Administrator indicates what rate of distribution he can make.

The Church is able to offer limited help through some benevolent funds to those in dire need. As Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, I have written to the Prime Minister, asking for a meeting to put our case for government help, which would include the guarantee, but, also, to find some means to improve the liquidity of the Society and so stabilise the situation.

The Prime Minister has agreed, in principle, to meet the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of the Stormont Executive. I have also met several of the Northern Ireland MP’s at Westminster, local MLA’s at Stormont, and the Minister responsible for DETI. We have been encouraging Presbyterians to sign a petition on the Downing Street web site asking ‘…the Prime minister to provide similar guarantees to UK mutual societies as for banks.’ Printed copies of this have been provided for Presbyterians to sign in their local churches.

Christian faith is being tested, and, just as the principle of mutuality in financial terms has been under severe pressure, so the bond of caring fellowship is under strain. At such a crucial time, it is vital for all in the Church ‘…to carry each other’s burdens and in this way…fulfil the law of Christ.’ (St Paul’s letter to the Galatians chapter 6, verse 2)

Rt Rev. Dr W. Donald Patton
Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump