Michael Lewis on how Merrill Lynch stuck the Irish people with 106 billion euros in debt.
Ireland’s financial disaster shared some things with Iceland’s. It was created by the sort of men who ignore their wives’ suggestions that maybe they should stop and ask for directions, for instance. But while Icelandic males used foreign money to conquer foreign places—trophy companies in Britain, chunks of Scandinavia—the Irish male used foreign money to conquer Ireland. Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was to buy Ireland. From one another. An Irish economist named Morgan Kelly, whose estimates of Irish bank losses have been the most prescient, made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that puts the losses of all Irish banks at roughly 106 billion euros. (Think $10 trillion.) At the rate money currently flows into the Irish treasury, Irish bank losses alone would absorb every penny of Irish taxes for at least the next three years.
In recognition of the spectacular losses, the entire Irish economy has almost dutifully collapsed. When you fly into Dublin you are traveling, for the first time in 15 years, against the traffic. The Irish are once again leaving Ireland, along with hordes of migrant workers. In late 2006, the unemployment rate stood at a bit more than 4 percent; now it’s 14 percent and climbing toward rates not experienced since the mid-1980s. Just a few years ago, Ireland was able to borrow money more cheaply than Germany; now, if it can borrow at all, it will be charged interest rates nearly 6 percent higher than Germany, another echo of a distant past. The Irish budget deficit—which three years ago was a surplus—is now 32 percent of its G.D.P., the highest by far in the history of the Eurozone. One credit-analysis firm has judged Ireland the third-most-likely country to default. Not quite as risky for the global investor as Venezuela, but riskier than Iraq. Distinctly Third World, in any case.
There is an interesting part in the article that shows the role the Irish papers had in not exposing the problems and had been duped into playing a role of being a booster of Team Ireland.
Kelly wrote his second newspaper article, more or less predicting the collapse of the Irish banks. He pointed out that in the last decade they and the economy had fundamentally changed. In 1997 the Irish banks were funded entirely by Irish deposits. By 2005 they were getting most of their money from abroad. The small German savers who ultimately supplied the Irish banks with deposits to re-lend in Ireland could take their money back with the click of a computer mouse. Since 2000, lending to construction and real estate had risen from 8 percent of Irish bank lending (the European norm) to 28 percent. One hundred billion euros—or basically the sum total of all Irish public bank deposits—had been handed over to Irish property developers and speculators. By 2007, Irish banks were lending 40 percent more to property developers than they had to the entire Irish population seven years earlier. “You probably think that the fact that Irish banks have given speculators €100 billion to gamble with, safe in the knowledge that taxpayers will cover most losses, is a cause of concern to the Irish Central Bank,” Kelly wrote, “but you would be quite wrong.”
This time Kelly sent his piece to a newspaper with a far bigger circulation, the Irish Independent. The Independent’s editor wrote back to say he found the article offensive and wouldn’t publish it. Kelly next turned to The Sunday Business Post, but the editor there just sat on the piece. The journalists were following the bankers’ lead and conflating a positive outlook on real-estate prices with a love of country and a commitment to Team Ireland. (“They’d all use this same phrase, ‘You’re either for us or against us,’ ” says a prominent bank analyst in Dublin.) Kelly finally went back to The Irish Times, which ran his article in September 2007.
A quick look back at the role of media in all of these failures (and also the WMD debacle) was that the media moved from a role of rigorous scrutiny and was co-opted by the need to be on board with the mood of the people. We saw it before in other booms and in the United States with the WMDs. This seems simplistic but with the cuts in newsrooms, does anyone expect anything differently. When was the last time your local paper broke a really big or complex story open? It does happen but when reporters are supposed to write more articles, more blog posts, and waste more time on Twitter, there isn’t a lot of time for the traditional three martini lunch or long form journalism. Those that want to do investigative pieces aren’t likely to stick around at a paper when they are just a word mill which accelerates the trend towards one source stories. (for the record, we get two copies of The StarPhoenix at work and two editions of our Kindles at home) I am biased towards the media (there goes my FOX News career). We never had a lot of money growing up and corners had to be cut to make ends meet but from the first day in our new house in 1984, there was a StarPhoenix there and every page was read. We grew up with my mom always lecturing us that “you can watch the news but you won’t understand the issue until you have read the paper.” When I first started to travel by myself when I was 15, mom always lectured me to pick up a local paper from a news stand. Even now when I am travelling, I find some time to pick up a cities flagship paper, whether in Chicago for work or Las Vegas for a vacation because I am supporting someone looking for the truth. It scares me when the media abdicates that roll, whether it is the local media not wanting upset a powerful football coach and losing access, when it’s not wanting to run an article because it goes against popular (and flawed) economic ideas or doesn’t want to come across as unpatriotic in the aftermath of 9/11 (anyone found any WMD’s lately?)
The papers were right, “he was either for or against us”. Except Kelly was the one that was for Ireland and the papers were against it. They just didn’t realize it.