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Ireland Seeks Bailout as ‘Outsized’ Problem Overwhelms Nation

Ireland applied for a bailout to help fund itself and save its banks, becoming the second euro member to seek a rescue from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said he expects talks on the package to be completed in the “next few weeks.” Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said the loan will be less than 100 billion euros ($137 billion), though he refused to give any further details at a press conference in Dublin today.

“A small sovereign like Ireland faced with an outsized problem that we have in our banking sector, cannot on its own address all those problems,” Lenihan said. Ireland may not draw down on the entire loan, he said.

The bailout follows two years of budget cuts that failed to restore market confidence as the cost of shoring up the financial industry climbed. After Irish bond yields soared in the past month, European authorities pushed Ireland to seek aid to prevent the crisis that began in Greece this year from spreading to other euro-area countries such as Portugal.

“It was inevitable. Ireland had no choice but to get financial help,” said Nicholas Stamenkovic, a fixed-income strategist in Edinburgh at RIA Capital Markets Ltd., a broker for money managers. “The market will still be waiting for the details of the assistance and the conditionality, but there should be a relief rally tomorrow.”

Bank Crisis

The cost of saving Ireland’s banks threatens a rerun of the Greek debt crisis that destabilized the euro region earlier this year. Lenihan said Ireland’s banks need a “contingent capital” fund and he indicated that the state will not be able to borrow in bond markets next year at current interest rates.

While the banks have been directed by the country’s financial regulator to have core Tier 1 capital ratios of at least 8 percent, Cowen said that “clearly, the markets are looking for perhaps a higher capital ratio.”

“Stress testing will obviously have to be undertaken in relation to the banking system” to determine how much capital may be needed, Cowen said.

Ireland’s lenders are reeling from the collapse of the property market in 2008, while the government’s finances have been eroded by the recession. An unprecedented budget deficit -- equaling one-third of economic output this year -- sent bond yields to all-time highs. Allied Irish Banks Plc, Ireland’s second-biggest bank, emphasized the fragility of the financial system on Nov. 19, reporting a 17 percent decline in deposits this year.

‘Firepower’

While Ireland may not fully use any cash it gets from the EU and IMF, Lenihan said the size of the package “is important to demonstrate” the “firepower that stands behind the banking system.”

The Irish turmoil has also reopened tensions about the governance of the euro region after German Chancellor Angela Merkel last month called for bondholders to foot more of the bill of European bailouts. Her stance, criticized European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet, sparked a bond market selloff.

The risk premium on Ireland’s 10-year debt over German bunds, Europe’s benchmark, widened to 652 basis points on Nov. 11, with the yield reaching a record 9.1 percent. The spread was at 541 on Nov. 19. In 2007, it cost Ireland less than Germany to borrow, with the yield on Irish 10-year bonds 77 basis points below the rate on bunds.

‘Celtic Tiger’

Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe when it joined the EU in 1973 along with Britain. Even with European subsidies, unemployment in the mid-1980s averaged 16 percent.

In the 1990s, lured by a 12.5 percent corporate tax, companies such as Pfizer Inc. and Microsoft Corp. helped Ireland export its way into becoming the “Celtic Tiger.” The jobless rate sank to 3.9 percent by 2001. In the decade through 2006, Ireland grew at an average annual rate of about 7 percent, the fastest among euro-area countries.

That expansion, together with easy credit, fanned a real- estate bubble. Home prices almost quadrupled in the decade through 2007. It went disastrously wrong for Ireland following the 2008 demise of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc ., which turned the slowdown in the property market into an implosion that engulfed the economy. The ISEQ stock index has plunged 70 percent from its record in 2007.

Irish Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan said total loan losses at the country’s lenders, including foreign-owned banks, total at least 85 billion euros, about half of GDP. Residential property prices have dropped 36 percent since 2006, based on an index compiled by Irish Life & Permanent Plc and the Economic & Social Research Institute in Dublin, requiring the bank rescue that is emptying government coffers.

“Whatever about the government, we need an immediate announcement on the banks,” Dermot O’Leary, chief economist at Goodbody Stockbrokers in Dublin, said in an interview. “The banks are the most pressing issue now.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Joe Brennan in Dublin at jbrennan29@bloomberg.net; Stephanie Bodoni in Brussels at sbodoni@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Fraher in London at jfraher@bloomberg.net

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