It’s not too late. The request for aid may have been made. The negotiations may have started. But Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen can still refuse a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
It might sound like madness for a drowning man to refuse a lifebelt. But the decision the Irish make in the next few days will shape the future of their nation for a generation.
Ireland would be better off going bust than taking a loan. The conditions attached to a rescue aren’t worth it: Once it takes EU money, it will never get off the hook. And the Irish banks aren’t worth saving anyway. Defaulting on your debts is a far less scary prospect than usually portrayed.
The real question is whether Ireland’s politicians have the courage to take that step.
Last weekend, the Irish surrendered to pressure to accept an EU- and IMF-led package, similar to the deal hammered out for Greece earlier this year. There was no surprise about that. The markets had grown so nervous about Ireland’s finances and the cost of its bank bailouts that yields on 10-year government debt reached almost 9 percent this month.
The final amount of the bailout is still to be determined. So are the terms. This means, of course, that it isn’t too late. The deal may still fall through, particularly with a general election looming as support for the government wanes.
True, that would cause chaos in the bond markets. Trading in Portuguese, Spanish and Italian debt wouldn’t be a pretty sight for the few days after rescue talks collapsed. But the Irish should still say no.
First, the conditions are too onerous. The EU may demand an end to Ireland’s low corporate-tax rate. Its 12.5 percent rate has been a cornerstone of the country’s economy, attracting numerous businesses to relocate there. In 2008, two major U.K. companies, United Business Media Plc and drugmaker Shire Plc, switched their tax residence to Ireland to cut their tax bills.
Even if it isn’t explicitly part of the rescue deal, Ireland will come under pressure over the next few years to raise its corporate taxes, which take companies, government revenue and jobs from Ireland’s neighbors. It will be hard to explain to businesses in Dusseldorf why their high taxes are being used to help rescue competitors in Donegal.
Even so, it would be a huge mistake. Low taxes and an open business culture are what made Ireland successful. You don’t cure a sick patient by taking out a lung.
Second, the EU-IMF rescue looks like financial methadone. It numbs the pain and gets you off drugs, but it’s addictive. The cure can be worse than the disease. Months have passed since the Greek bailout, and there isn’t much sign of Greece accessing the capital markets. The yield on Greek bonds remains more than 11 percent. It’s a “Hotel California” package: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.
Third, this is mostly about rescuing EU financial institutions. It is the Irish banks that are in trouble, and if they go down, it will cause massive losses at other European lenders. But why should the Irish people worry about that? If French, German or British banks suffer big write-downs, let their governments deal with them. Ireland could just close its banks -- such a small country doesn’t need its own finance industry any more than it needs its own carmakers.
Fourth, Ireland risks tipping into an economic spiral. A key to the Irish economic revival of the last 20 years was reversing emigration. For a century, young Irish people went abroad to make their careers. When they started staying at home, it was a boon to the economy. If a generation is saddled with these debts, why not move to London or New York where the prospects are better? It’s already happening: Emigration is exceeding immigration for the first time since 1995. It will be the most highly skilled, energetic people who leave. How exactly is that going to help the nation recover?
Five, going bust isn’t so bad. Russia and Argentina defaulted on their debts. It wasn’t the end of the world. The financial markets portray it as a catastrophe, but that is mainly because bankers and bond investors stand to lose a lot of money. So long as it is done in an orderly, structured way, a default is often the best solution to a financial mess.
Underneath the property bubble -- which was caused by low euro-area interest rates -- Ireland has a competitive, export- oriented economy. September figures show exports rose 2 percent and the trade surplus increased. In a weak global economy, that’s a very decent performance.
If it defaults on its debts, Ireland can bounce back fairly quickly. If it accepts an EU bailout, it will be stuck in recession for a generation.
(Matthew Lynn is a Bloomberg News columnist and the author of “Bust,” a forthcoming book on the Greek debt crisis. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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