The lesson of Ireland’s fall from grace is that we must relearn how money and finance really work

Felix Martin's "Real Money" column.

The publication by the Irish Independent on 24 June of taped telephone conversations between senior executives of Anglo Irish Bank in the days after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 has served up a sad reminder of the catastrophe that has befallen the country that was once the European Union’s star performer.

 Asked how he had come up with the figure of €7bn for the emergency funding that was being sought from the Irish government, the bank’s then head of capital markets boasted that he had “picked it out [of] my arse” and admitted “. . . the reality is that actually we need more than that”. Asked why they were taking this loan from the public purse, he joked: “This is a €7bn bridging . . . it is bridged until we can pay you back . . . which is never.”

Of all the disasters of the eurozone debt crisis, Ireland’s fall from grace was the most spectacular. Until 2008 Ireland was the “Celtic Tiger” – a rare example of a European economy in which productivity growth rates exceeded those of the US and the government balanced its books. The crisis suddenly uncovered a very different picture: a Ponzischeme economy that had been built on a property bubble, inflated by hypertrophied banks run by a bunch of shysters.

Fortunately, Ireland has another and more positive claim to fame in this context. It happens to be blessed with one of the richest and most enterprising concentrations of economic academics and journalists in Europe today. If understanding what has gone wrong is the first step to building a better future for the eurozone, then Ireland is in the vanguard. An important new book, The Fall of the Celtic Tiger, by Donal Donovan and Antoin E Murphy, is a case in point.

Donovan and Murphy represent the strength and breadth of contemporary Irish economics. Donovan is an experienced technocrat, a veteran IMF staffer with scars from many financial crises to prove it. Murphy is a distinguished economic historian, as well as one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of monetary thought.

The great virtue of their book is that it does not flinch from asking the question that has been uppermost in the general public’s mind from the start but that has proved mysteriously elusive in most official discussion: who or what, at root, was responsible for the crisis? It is a question that is just as urgent in Britain and the US as it is in the eurozone and Donovan’s and Murphy’s study of Ireland provides a compelling answer.

Yet the answer is one that will seem counter-intuitive to many. This is because, as is the case in the rest of the world, there is already a well-entrenched conventional wisdom about the origins of Ireland’s crisis. This is that a cabal of venal financiers colluded with corrupt politicians to bamboozle incompetent regulators. The subtitle of the journalist Fintan O’Toole’s bestselling exposé Ship of Fools (2009) says it all: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger. Or, as the American director Charles Ferguson put it in the title of his Oscar-winning documentary about the US financial crisis, it was all an Inside Job.

There is ample truth to that version of events, as the recently exposed Anglo Irish tapes have once again demonstrated. Yet how was it that these individuals were able to dominate proceedings? How was the presence of a few bad apples able to spoil the whole harvest?

It is in addressing this crucial question that Donovan and Murphy make their most valuable contribution. The answer to what caused the Irish crisis, they argue, is to be found not at the level of vested interests but at the level of ideas.

The problem in Ireland – a problem that will sound familiar to those in the UK, the US and most other developed countries – was not just “a largely passive government, reckless banks and greedy property developers”. Underlying all of these was “the climate of public opinion”, which not only tolerated but actively endorsed the way these institutions operated.

Where did this unhealthy climate originate? Drawing on financial history, Donovan and Murphy show that Ireland is hardly the first society to get caught up in the idea that innovation and endlessly inflating asset prices are sure signs of success.

Drawing on the history of economic thought, they also show that what is distinctive about the 2008 crisis is that, on this occasion, these mistaken judgements were not just improvised in the heat of the moment, as they usually are. They were given the rigorous approval of a uniquely powerful analytical framework for understanding the economy that a generation of policymakers and the general public alike had imbibed with their mothers’ milk: modern, orthodox macroeconomics. The sin was principally one of omission. This dominant conceptual apparatus “saw little role for investigating the inner workings of the financial system since, ultimately, markets could be largely trusted to self-regulate”.

This analysis of what was ultimately responsible for the Irish crisis is of major significance because it urges a different cure from the ones that are usually offered. If the fun - damental problem was at the level of ideas, then it is at the level of ideas that reform is necessary. Economics must relearn how money and finance work and communicate that understanding to the public.

That might not sound as sexy or as im - mediately satisfying as shaking up the regulators, turfing out the politicians and putting the bankers on trial. Yet Donovan and Murphy are right that without an intellectual shift of this sort nothing will change in the long run.

In a summer when already the governments of Portugal, Greece and Cyprus have been straining once again under the pressure of the crisis in the eurozone, that is a message with wide significance.

A man walks past a Bank of Ireland cash machine. Photograph: Getty Images

Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.