The Celtic Cougar

Why Ireland's economy only looks good from afar.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The Eurozone is back in the news this week with what at the surface level is a good story — Ireland is leaving the European Union/International Monetary Fund bailout mechanism and regaining its economic sovereignty. Five years after it became the first European country to enter a post-financial crisis recession, Ireland is being heralded as a model for how austerity can put a nation back on its feet. There is no question that the country’s temporary sacrifice of economic freedom halted what was one of the steepest declines in relative wealth in modern history. However, the reality is that Ireland has yet to hit rock bottom, and when it does, it will likely remain there for a very long time. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny may have been right when he said that leaving the bailout sends a "powerful signal internationally, that Ireland is fighting back, that the spirit of our people is as strong as ever." But the government has not prepared the public — or potential outside investors — for dangers that continue to lurk in the Irish economy or the stark choices that lie ahead.

The roots of Ireland’s economic crisis are relatively straight forward: The country’s roughly 4.5 million people needed a $117 billion bailout in 2010 because key banks had no money, the nation had gone on a spending and credit binge, and the government could not finance its borrowing to fund its public sector without an outside infusion of capital. Necessary as it was, the bailout struck deep in the Irish psyche because it meant the country had lost its economic freedoms The bailout struck deep in the Irish psyche — it meant the country had lost its economic decision-makers in Brussels after being praised for so long as the "Celtic Tiger." To sustain its bailout commitments as a member of the Eurozone, Ireland embarked on a deep economic austerity program — widely praised in financial capitals — that cost each Irish citizen roughly $13,700, on average, though the final cost will be far higher.

Ireland subsequently witnessed skyrocketing unemployment, deep economic recession, and painful budget cuts combined with rising taxes and fees. But the economy has since started to stabilize. Unemployment today is down to a still staggering 12.8 percent (although it would be much higher if Ireland didn’t export so much of its talented labor force to help build other nations’ economies.) The country’s borrowing rates on 10-year bonds have also dropped considerably — to 3.47 percent — down from a Eurozone high of 14.2 percent in 2011. There have also been improvements in the housing market, at least around Dublin. Yet through the third quarter of this year, an unsustainably high 18.5 percent of Irish homeowners had missed a payment on their mortgage, and three quarters of those in arrears more than 90 days had yet to be restructured. Against this precarious backdrop, insisting on a return to economic sovereignty could very well put Ireland’s modest gains at risk.

Ireland’s government recently rejected the option of sustaining an EU credit line as a backstop, should internal or external surprises make self-financing of borrowing to sustain the economy impossible. In effect, it gambled that a strong statement of confidence will be popular at home and attract investment from abroad. But the opposite is just as likely to happen — that questions about the sustainability of Ireland’s economic stability will deter the same international investment. Either way, external investment in Ireland has done little to advance its economy since 2001 — when an unregulated property binge began to fuel high levels of growth — and is not the solution to the country’s continued economic crisis. Foreign direct investment has helped sustain existing employment levels in that sector, but because of Ireland’s low corporate tax rates it has had only a marginal effect on the country’s deeper economic problems. Ireland wins bragging rights for hosting the headquarters of major European business operations for Google and Facebook. But these companies don’t employ large numbers of Irish people and they put little money back into the Irish economy. 

In fact, Ireland’s tax policies, long criticized in Europe, have raised questions among some of the country’s closest allies in the United States. Earlier this year, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) referred to Ireland as a "tax haven" and alleged that it was inappropriately shielding American companies like Apple, which they said was holding $44 billion in off-shore accounts, in part taking advantage of Irish tax rules, from tax liabilities at home. Ireland has since indicated it will close loopholes in its tax laws which allowed companies like Apple to pay an actual tax rate of 2 percent. Still, the U.S. senators remain skeptical, saying in October: "Hopefully, the answers will demonstrate that Ireland is ready to close the door on these egregious corporate tax abuses enabling multinational tax avoidance."

Ireland’s central challenge is a sustained lack of indigenous economic growth, due in large part to the unwillingness of banks to support risk taking and lend money to small and medium-sized businesses. Meanwhile, rents and operating costs are high, making it difficult for many businesses to survive, let alone grow. Ireland’s public sector wages remain among the highest in Europe. A failure to address this problem means that even deeper budget cuts are likely, as are heftier taxes on an already heavily burdened public. Meanwhile, Ireland has the third highest deficit in Europe and its debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is 117.4 percent; both are unsustainably high.

Ireland’s 2014 budget cuts about $3.4 billion more from domestic government spending. But if Ireland is to sustain self-financing on the open markets, these cuts may actually be woefully insufficient. Deeper cuts, however, might rattle the existing governing coalition, which includes a sizeable Labour Party minority that draws its political backing from constituencies most harshly impacted by budget cuts. Whatever the final number for continued austerity, the country faces a serious dilemma because the same cuts that are necessary to make self-financing possible will also further deflate the domestic economy, inhibit domestic spending and constrain economic growth.

At its current rate of economic growth — about 0.2 percent for 2013 and an optimistic projection o
f 1.8 percent for 2014 — Ireland is not even on track to meet assumptions on interest terms for the bailout it just departed. The government has raised capital in reserve — roughly $34 billion — which it says will keep Ireland solvent through 2014. Having thrown away its credit lifeline to Europe, however, Dublin will likely find it much harder to secure a new bailout should it need one in six months or a year.

The tragic reality often lost in Ireland is that the bailout it just exited was not designed to help the country’s economy recover; it was designed to contain the Irish crisis so it would not spread further in Europe, while also protecting against foreign exposure from Ireland’s dodgy banks. The tragic reality is that the bailout Ireland just exited was not designed to help the country’s economy recover.Today, Ireland’s banks are capitalized — although the banking sector remains weak and under considerable international scrutiny — while public sector spending, private debt, and underwater mortgages all remain high. If the government does need another bailout, the terms aren’t likely to be favorable to the Irish people and could put its low corporate tax rate at risk — something that might have been avoided by accepting the European Union’s precautionary credit reserve line. No question, Ireland’s decision is a welcome one in Europe, as the country’s restored economic sovereignty takes the European Union off the hook for sustaining the Irish economy.

As it exits the bailout, the government and media in Dublin understandably want to promote a new image of Ireland — one that is back on its feet and has learned hard lessons. However, the harsh realities and serious risks to the Irish economy that remain cannot be swept under the rug. Widespread inability to meet personal debt obligations, high unemployment, heightened food insecurity, and soaring murder and suicide rates are just a few examples of the depth of searing pain that has left a tragic imprint on the Irish landscape. 

Meanwhile, Ireland has only a limited capacity to promote investment in areas that could grow the domestic economy. Ireland could, for example, position itself as a global higher education hub while also investing heavily in wind and wave energy production — leading the way for a new kind of globalization and progressive economic development. But in a climate of further austerity — required to restore and sustain Ireland’s economic sovereignty — the country’s capacity to invest in future economic development is much diminished.

In 2009, Irish economist Morgan Kelly, one of a handful of economists who was consistently right in warning of Ireland’s economic collapse, wrote: "By 2015 we will have seen what happens when jobs disappear forever…. Ireland is at the start of an enormous, unplanned social experiment on how rising unemployment affects crime, domestic violence, drug abuse, suicide and a litany of other social pathologies." Little has changed since then to suggest this timeline of assumptions should be changed. The only difference is that now Ireland’s leaders are flying without a net — understandably hoping for the best but so far failing to plan for the worst.  

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