Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Things can only get better for Republic of Ireland's ailing feline

Stress tests, by their very nature, aren't pleasant for the contestants. Some people thrive on stress while others crumple under the pressure and it's this latter group that the test is designed to highlight.

The Republic's banks, two of whom have considerable presence in Northern Ireland, can't have enjoyed the last couple of days when their share prices fell like a stone as worried investors feared the worst from the government's stress tests.

As it turned out minister for finance Michael Noonan said the four banks under the microscope - AIB, Bank of Ireland, EBS and Irish Life and Permanent - need €24 billion, a few billion less than the €30 billion which had been feared. Don't let that fool you.

It brings the total figure for bailing out the republic's banks to €70 billion and that's going to cost the Irish government.

The money it will have to stump up to bail out the banks could have been spent boosting the economy so the opportunity cost is there for all to see. But that's old news and today's revelation doesn't come completely out of the blue - as the share prices of the banks involve will testify - and much of the money to pay for the bailout is already in place. Lending isn't likely to get any easier to secure, but then again, it wasn't likely that a good result would have led to a turning on of the taps.

The factor we should be more worried about is the health of the Republic's economy. Cross-border trade accounts for the bulk of our exports and it's in all our interests to see our nearest neighbour succeed.

For all the shouting we may do about how beneficial a cut in corporation tax would be for our own economy, I would imagine we'd be in a healthier state if the Republic's finances recovered the rosy glow that shone from the face of the Celtic Tiger.

That same feline is currently looking like it's spent some time in the airless confines of a newsroom and has a bad dose of the flu.

Even in the immediate aftermath of today's news there's a slight effect on trade with our own country with the euro, dented by the weight of the Republic's bailout, falling against sterling. That makes our exports more expensive for buyers from across the border and also for those in the rest of the Eurozone.

And that's only one small side effect of the whole affair. Alas, there may be some time before the Republic's economy picks up but the plans to form two banks and reduce the banking system to a size appropriate to the country's economy are bound to be welcomed by the wider global investment community.

Patrick Honohan, the Irish Central Bank's governor, said that by forcing banks to hold even more capital, confidence will be restored to the sector and presumably to the economy.

Let's hope he's right because his description of the current situation is dire.

"The country has been left with an appalling legacy: a legacy of debt, of unemployment, of emigration, of falling living standards and of low morale."

I wonder would the Irish government be able to borrow Tony Blair's old electioneering theme tune by D:Ream?

As far as the Irish banking system is concerned, things can only get better. Rolling that tune out tune out again would really be a stress test.

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