IN Brian de Palma’s classic film ‘The Untouchables’, Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner, gathers around him a team of incorruptible police officers, hardened by years of crime fighting, to take on the power of the mob. The real-life hero behind the move was an old, street-wise Irish-American cop, Jimmy Malone, played by Sean Connery. The term “Untouchables” describes this particular group of men who were straight, above the temptation of both bribery and flattery and, as a result, were the only type of men capable of infiltrating the mob.
The success of the Untouchables was due to the tightness of the group, whose interest was in restoring law and order to the US. Whereas cops in the past had been bribed by the mob, these guys were driven by a sense of honesty and national duty. Their success in cracking the Mafia was due to their incorruptible nature.
Brian Lenihan might now consider putting in place his own bunch of financial untouchables to delve deep into the banking system, with the national interest to the fore.
As the financial markets’ meltdown continues, Mr Lenihan’s move last week is being seen as part of a global solution to the banking crisis. Three countries have already copied the idea and others could follow suit. All the other ideas that have been tried — such as bringing toxic assets under state control, forcing mergers or allowing banks to go bust — have failed to stop the havoc.
So what will?
Well, perspective is important. We need to know where we want to end up when all this is over. Although it is difficult to appreciate now when banks in Europe are falling like skittles, it is important to appreciate that all financial crises are temporary in nature. Eventually, they either blow themselves out, leaving huge devastation in their wake or, more often, they are blown off course and are snuffed out by the heavy artillery of government intervention. The reason the crisis in Europe has become more critical in the past 24 hours is that the prospect of coordinated government intervention does not appear likely. Not surprisingly, the markets are panicking.
Taking a step back from the hourly bad news, it is therefore crucial to stay calm and look beyond the mayhem. We know where we want to end up. Ireland needs to have a functioning, if chastened, banking system which is well capitalised and capable of shouldering the recovery. More than that, the banking system needs to be part of the State’s arsenal in fighting the downturn and ushering in a potential upswing.
In short, as a price of the State’s guarantee, Mr Lenihan has to engineer a situation where the banks are working for him. After all he just saved them, using our financial credibility as a sovereign nation rather than injecting cash.
“So what’s the problem?” you might ask. Surely a grateful banking system would aid the minister who has thrown it a lifeline? Well, unfortunately it doesn’t work like that and at the moment the banks are equally as likely to work against the State as work with it.
Let’s take a look at the State’s interest and the banks’ interests. The State needs to get the banks to write down loans as quickly as possible. It needs the balance sheets of the Irish banks to be cleaned up as soon as possible. The reason for this is that the State’s interest is in a banking system that takes a large loss now due to bad debts in property, draws a line in the sand and moves on. Such a move would allow the banks to start lending again to good Irish businesses whose dynamism is needed to ensure we pull out of the recession as soon as possible.
In this scenario, banks need to eat into shareholders’ capital and, most significantly, raise new capital.
There is likely to be significant consolidation in the banking system but this will not be enough and new capital will be needed.
As it is probably the only institution that will lend to the banks at this time, the State should take significant equity in exchange for any new injection of capital.
In addition, the State should take a substantial interest rate and equity option from the banks for this recapitalising loan.
In four years’ time, there should be a more robust banking system with shareholders who have paid for the excesses of the past and us, the State, owning a significant portion of the equity.
The key here is that the State pushes the timetable and accelerates the cleaning-up operation.
The banks lose out here because they have to give away equity for free, they will have outsiders on their boards and, more to the point, the guilty board members and senior management will pay with their jobs. Further, knowing that there are no bids in property today, crystallising losses now or at anytime soon, prevents the banks any upside in a recovery, whenever that comes. Therefore, the banks have an interest in slowing all this down. The banks’ interest is to hide behind the guarantee, not write down loans as quickly as the State would like and allow international financial markets to recover so that they can refinance without giving too much equity away to the taxpayer. This would protect individuals but most crucially, from the State’s perspective (because retribution is not particularly productive), it would retard any putative recovery. This is the Japanese solution and involves putting the vested interests of the banks and their big clients (developers) first, in an effort to avoid realising losses.
In the national interest therefore, Mr Lenihan needs to see detail of the banks’ balance sheets to assess how quickly the crunch in the credit markets can be cleared. The best solution is obviously for both sides — the banks and the government — to work together, probably meeting half way on many issues.
This can be achieved the “hard way” or the “easy way”. The easy way is for a contrite banking system to “fess up” to bad loans, and possible corporate malfeasance. This way trust can be rebuilt and the system recover. However, if the banks refuse to play ball and forget we’ve propped them up with our guarantee, then Mr Lenihan has to play hard.
This means calling in The Untouchables. These would be the toughest, straightest men in Irish finance who pledge to work in the national interest. Due to the excessive coziness of Irish banking, they will need to come from outside the banking cartel. Bring them in from abroad if needs be. Let them go into the banks and force the pace. The banks need to know the State is now in the driving seat. They can cooperate in the national interest or not. If they do, the guarantee will work smoothly and the crisis will pass. If they don’t, the Untouchables will force them. The stakes are far too high and the world too uncertain, to be left in the hands of those who brought us all to the brink last week.