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What is O’Brien’s motivation to put Cowen on the Topaz board?

Posted on by David Murphy

Brian Cowen's reputation was damaged by the country's economic collapse - but he could bring value to Topaz's board

Brian Cowen’s reputation was damaged by the country’s economic collapse

By Business Editor David Murphy

So why would Denis O’Brien want Brian Cowen to join the board at Topaz?

Part of the answer came on the same day as the announcement that the former Taoiseach was appointed as a non-executive director of the petrol retailer. Continue reading

Putting coding on the curriculum

Posted on by Will Goodbody


From September, coding will become a mandatory part of the curriculum in British schools

From September, coding will become a mandatory part of the curriculum in British schools

By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent


This week saw the inaugural Tech Week Ireland taking place. Run by the Irish Computer Society (ICS) with support from ICS Skills and Science Foundation Ireland: Discover, its aim is to engage, challenge and inspire Primary and Secondary students to interact with technology in a new way, and encourage them to consider a career in IT. Over the week, 42,000 people – mostly children – have been taking part in events in schools, libraries, Scouting Troops and many other locations. Getting an introduction to new technology, seeing what it can do, and hopefully getting some ideas about what they would like to do with it in the future.

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Tell us your feelings

Posted on by Sean Whelan

The survey shows that businesses are increasingly optimistic about the Irish economy

The survey shows that businesses are increasingly optimistic about the Irish economy

By Sean Whelan, Economics Correspondent

An interesting new economic indicator has been released by KBC Bank and Chartered Accountants Ireland.

It’s a Business Sentiment Index, of the sort that several other countries have, but – until now – Ireland has lacked.
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Neary not the only one with questions to answer on crisis

Posted on by David Murphy


The Anglo Irish Bank trial highlights the importance of a full banking inquiry

Patrick Neary, the former CEO of the Financial Regulator, has been rightly excoriated in the Anglo trial.

The case shed light on one specific transaction and revealed an astonishing and indefensible failure of regulation.

However, that one deal did not bring down Ireland’s banks. They collapsed due to over-lending in a property market which had gone wild.

No banker has been or will be put in the dock for lending money in the boom which they would never recover.

However, there are other key figures whose involvement in the banking crisis should be subject to the same level of scrutiny as Patrick Neary.

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Income tax relief?

Posted on by Sean Whelan

The Minister of Finance is trying to find a way to increase tax bands - but he will have to make the lost revenue up elsewhere

The Minister of Finance is trying to find a way to increase tax bands – but he will have to make the lost revenue up elsewhere

By Sean Whelan, Economics Correspondent

“ My officials constantly model and examine potential options for changes to the tax system for my consideration as part of the overall Budget package”, said Michael Noonan in a written reply to Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty in February.

I have been told that one of those potential options – modeled and examined – is to raise money through an increase in the Universal Social Charge to “compensate” for a change to the income tax bands to provide relief for those taxpayers who enter the top 41% income tax band with earnings that are below the average industrial wage.

So how much would have to be raised under such a scheme?
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Boucher’s veto is a blow to State’s debt plan

Posted on by David Murphy

Richie Boucher said Bank of Ireland would veto any deal that involved a mortgage debt write-off

Richie Boucher said Bank of Ireland would veto any deal that involved a mortgage debt write-off

By Business Editor David Murphy

Bank of Ireland’s CEO Richie Boucher has waved two fingers at the Government’s efforts to resolve the personal debt crisis.

Last week Mr Boucher told the Oireachtas Finance Committee his bank would veto any insolvency deal involving a write-down of mortgage borrowings owed by an owner occupier.

It means that one of the two largest banks in the country has dealt an enormous blow to the agency set up by the State to handle the personal debt headache.

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Dog whistle politics and the next Budget

Posted on by Sean Whelan


Michael Noonan is unlikely to have much scope for sweeping tax cuts in Budget 2015

By Economics Correspondent Sean Whelan

Sometimes it really is amazing how people only hear what they want to hear. Last week’s ESRI quarterly commentary is a case in point.
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Reflections on my first year as Science & Tech Correspondent

Posted on by Will Goodbody

It's been a busy year for science and technology

It’s been a busy year for science and technology

By Will Goodbody, Science and Technology Correspondent


Last week marked twelve fast-paced, fun, demanding and extremely interesting months since I was appointed as RTE’s first Science and Technology Correspondent.

Over the course of that first action packed year, I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing Nobel prize winning scientists, the bosses of some of the biggest multinational tech firms and the leaders who frame and influence science and research policy here and elsewhere.

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IMF focuses on distressed loans

Posted on by Sean Whelan



IMF estimates that non-performing loans in the Eurozone banks amount to €800 billion

The latest IMF Global Financial Stability Report contains a substantial item on distressed bank loans in the Euro Area.

It comes to the conclusion that “without significant policy efforts to address the burden of nonperforming loans, some economies may find that they remain stuck in the mire of low profitability, low credit, and low growth”.  Isn’t there some phrase invoking the name of Sherlock Holmes that’s appropriate for revelations like that?

But still, the IMF attempts to quantify the scale of the problem – it thinks non-performing loans in the Eurozone banks now amount to €800 billion (getting on for five times Irish GDP).  The vast bulk of this distressed debt is corporate, not household mortgages.  And it is concentrated in the banks’ home markets.

The IMF has defined the “weak tail” of corporate exposures as those firms whose earnings before interest and taxes are less than their interest expenses.  Such firms account for 20-30% of corporate debt in Italy, and 30-40% of corporate debt in Spain and Portugal (2012 average figures).

Despite additional provisioning efforts, the stock of impaired assets is still high relative to overall loss absorbing buffers, and has acted as a drag on bank profitability in stressed Euro area countries (defined by the IMF as Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Slovenia).

The IMF says there has been very little progress in restructuring corporate debt in the Euro Area, and this has left highly indebted companies unwilling to demand credit.  At the same time, banks have raised the interest rate charged on loans, further dampening demand for new loans and leading to fragmentation in bank lending rates.

Cuts in bank credit supply, and the low level of demand, have resulted in a fall in the stock of loans in the stressed Euro Area.  This has been a key element in the balance sheet deleveraging of the banks in these countries, according to the IMF.  It is also been a way of plumping up bank balance sheets in recent months, to make them look good ahead of the ECB stress tests.

Restoring bank balance sheets to strength and resolving the burden of non-performing loans are, says the IMF, key to restarting the flow of credit in the Euro area economies.

Obvious. So what’s holding them back?  The IMF lists four factors, starting with limitations in banks’ financial capacity- that is they don’t have enough provisioning buffers and capital (or shareholders funds).  This means they can’t take the hit if they sell on distressed loan portfolios at the kind of discounts need to shift them in the market.

Second, problems with legal capacity have slowed down the resolution of bad loans.  It lists difficulties in enforcing creditor rights, impediments to the sale of collateral, and long delays in processes.  It also says investors buying distressed loans demand a discount to compensate for these difficulties, driving down the prices of impaired assets.

Third, banks have operational capacity constraints in their efforts to resolve non-performing loans.  In other words, they just don’t have enough people with the required skills to deal with this many bad loans.

Fourth it points to “the immaturity of frameworks for out of court debt restructuring in some countries”, as well as a lack of mechanisms to foster creditor co-ordination.  It points to something called the “London Approach”, a framework defined and disseminated by the Bank of England in the mid 1980s to bring debtors and their banks together and broker restructured or amended lending arrangements.  Although the approach doesn’t guarantee a solution, it does allow for an efficient and timebound process for voluntary resolutions, away from the courts.


The IMF makes a number of recommendations for asset cleanup and resolution, including urging bank supervisors to increase the incentives for bank provisioning and write offs.  They should also ensure that banks with big capital buffers actually use them to crystallise losses.  “Institutions that are overcapitalised for precautionary reasons should use their capital buffers to help clean up balance sheets”.

Legal frameworks should be reformed and adequately resourced for timely resolution.  Although several countries (including Ireland) have overhauled their insolvency and bankruptcy regimes, they are being held back by “sluggish creditor co-ordination, a lack of new financing for companies undergoing restructuring, and an overburdened judicial system that is ill equipped to deal with large volumes of distressed debt”.

Doing these things will lead to the promotion of a secondary market in distressed debt, because they should help reduce the current gap between what banks think their non-performing loan portfolios are worth, and what the market is willing to pay for them.

Using specialised capacity for handling the stock of non-performing loans may also help, such as external management companies which would allow banks to pool operational resources for debt workouts, and enable more effective co-ordination of the resolution of companies with multiple creditors.

But non-financial corporates are not the only companies being crushed by debt.  Some banks are non-viable as well.  While European governments have used rescue mergers and eventual resolution for some banks, there has been marked reluctance to pull banking licenses.  Hence the IMF’s advice that any strategy to deal with the debt overhang in Europe also needs to include the resolution of non-viable banks.

Of course another way around the credit famine in Europe is to develop the non-bank financial sector (something John Moran at the Department of Finance is heavily involved in).  The IMF lists three suggestions for this.

Firstly, existing regulatory constraints on non-bank lenders acting as direct lenders to hard-to service borrowers (notably SMEs) need to be reviewed.  In some countries only banks are allowed to provide credit, while in others intermediaries with the capacity to hold long duration loans directly (such as life insurance and pension funds) have been excluded from doing so.

Second, market regulators should facilitate the listing of high-yield bonds by smaller firms.  It notes that Italy and Spain have both recently launched mini-bond markets for SMEs.  To help such markets, governments need to review restrictions on insurance and pension funds investing in such instruments.  The IMF even takes the Irish approach to solving all known problems – it proposes tax incentives (temporary mind you) “to help incubate the market”.

Finally it says impediments to the securitisation of loans need to be reconsidered.  This is particularly relevant for the insurance industry, where the incoming Solvency II directive makes the holding of securitised assets more capital intensive than holding the underlying loans directly.  It says restarting the asset-backed securities market on a sound basis should enable banks to release assets and capital to support lending elsewhere.

What it doesn’t mention is that asset backed securities – properly rated, priced and tradable through a market – are one of the asset classes the ECB is looking for as a means of launching a QE programme.  No wonder Michael Noonan said ““The mechanism would seem to be that the ECB would buy certain financial instruments in the banks – we had wanted to make sure we have the financial instruments in place if they are going to go in that direction”.

On the other hand, we have seen how Mario Draghi responds to “generous advice” from the IMF…..


Cold Comfort: Iceland after the crash

Posted on by David Murphy


Iceland’s decision to let its banking system fail has not saved it from a difficult economic situation

By David Murphy, Business Editor

Comment on this article via Twitter

This time three years ago, Ireland put €24bn into its banks to keep them afloat. It was hoped it would be the last occasion when the taxpayer would be tapped to fix the country’s lenders.

But another island in the North Atlantic allowed its banks fail in 2008 instead of rescuing them.

Now that both countries are recovering, it is worth examining how Iceland fared after its own decision to burn the bondholders and start new banks from the ashes.

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