Michael Lewis Goes to Ireland

I’m a huge fan of Michael Lewis’s writing, having read Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, and most recently, The Big Short (all of which I recommend). In his latest piece for Vanity Fair, “When Irish Eyes are Crying,” Michael Lewis travels to Ireland to ascertain why the country is undergoing a financial crisis. It’s a lengthy and spectacular account of Ireland’s woes: population decline, real estate bubbles, and so much more. I pull the most notable quotes below.

On the spectacular population decrease of Ireland, and even more remarkably, the country’s likelihood to default (as judged by one firm):

In recognition of the spectacular losses, the entire Irish economy has almost dutifully collapsed. When you fly into Dublin you are traveling, for the first time in 15 years, against the traffic. The Irish are once again leaving Ireland, along with hordes of migrant workers. In late 2006, the unemployment rate stood at a bit more than 4 percent; now it’s 14 percent and climbing toward rates not experienced since the mid-1980s. Just a few years ago, Ireland was able to borrow money more cheaply than Germany; now, if it can borrow at all, it will be charged interest rates nearly 6 percent higher than Germany, another echo of a distant past. The Irish budget deficit—which three years ago was a surplus—is now 32 percent of its G.D.P., the highest by far in the history of the Eurozone. One credit-analysis firm has judged Ireland the third-most-likely country to default. Not quite as risky for the global investor as Venezuela, but riskier than Iraq. Distinctly Third World, in any case.

Michael Lewis met with Morgan Kelly, a professor of economics at University College Dublin, who:

learned that since 1994 the average price for a Dublin home had risen more than 500 percent. In parts of the city, rents had fallen to less than 1 percent of the purchase price—that is, you could rent a million-dollar home for less than $833 a month. The investment returns on Irish land were ridiculously low: it made no sense for capital to flow into Ireland to develop more of it. Irish home prices implied an economic growth rate that would leave Ireland, in 25 years, three times as rich as the United States.

Kelly wrote two newspaper articles, forecasting the imminent financial collapse in Ireland. His second article explained:

In 1997 the Irish banks were funded entirely by Irish deposits. By 2005 they were getting most of their money from abroad. The small German savers who ultimately supplied the Irish banks with deposits to re-lend in Ireland could take their money back with the click of a computer mouse. Since 2000, lending to construction and real estate had risen from 8 percent of Irish bank lending (the European norm) to 28 percent. One hundred billion euros—or basically the sum total of all Irish public bank deposits—had been handed over to Irish property developers and speculators. By 2007, Irish banks were lending 40 percent more to property developers than they had to the entire Irish population seven years earlier.

But it took a year for Kelly’s name to become widely known:

It wasn’t until almost exactly one year later, on September 29, 2008, that Morgan Kelly became the startled object of popular interest. The stocks of the three main Irish banks, Anglo Irish, A.I.B., and Bank of Ireland, had fallen by between a fifth and a half in a single trading session, and a run on Irish bank deposits had started. The Irish government was about to guarantee all the obligations of the six biggest Irish banks. The most plausible explanation for all of this was Morgan Kelly’s narrative: the Irish economy had become a giant Ponzi scheme and the country was effectively bankrupt.

I love this narrative from Lewis:

A banking system is an act of faith: it survives only for as long as people believe it will. Two weeks earlier the collapse of Lehman Brothers had cast doubt on banks everywhere. Ireland’s banks had not been managed to withstand doubt; they had been managed to exploit blind faith. Now the Irish people finally caught a glimpse of the guy meant to be safeguarding them: the crazy uncle had been sprung from the family cellar. Here he was, on their televisions, insisting that the Irish banks were “resilient” and “more than adequately capitalized” … when everyone in Ireland could see, in the vacant skyscrapers and empty housing developments around them, evidence of bank loans that were not merely bad but insane.

It seems like the lending practices in Ireland were even more lax than at the height of the housing boom in the United States:

An upstart bank, Anglo Irish, had entered their market and professed to have found a new and better way to be a banker. Anglo Irish made incredibly quick decisions: an Irish property developer who was an existing client could walk into its office in the late afternoon with a new idea and walk out with a commitment of hundreds of millions of euros that night. Anglo Irish was able to shovel money out its door so quickly because it had turned banking into a family affair: if they liked the man, they didn’t bother to evaluate his project.

How was the real-estate bubble different in the United States compared to Ireland?

The Irish real-estate bubble was different from the American version in many ways: it wasn’t disguised, for a start; it didn’t require a lot of complicated financial engineering beyond the understanding of mere mortals; it also wasn’t as cynical. There aren’t a lot of Irish financiers or real-estate people who have emerged with a future. In America the banks went down, but the big shots in them still got rich; in Ireland the big shots went down with the banks.

A telling passage about the history of the Irish people and their pride:

The Irish nouveau riche may have created a Ponzi scheme, but it was a Ponzi scheme in which they themselves believed. So too for that matter did some large number of ordinary Irish citizens, who bought houses for fantastic sums. Ireland’s 87 percent rate of home-ownership is among the highest in the world. There’s no such thing as a non-recourse home mortgage in Ireland. The guy who pays too much for his house is not allowed to simply hand the keys to the bank and walk away. He’s on the hook, personally, for whatever he borrowed. Across Ireland, people are unable to extract themselves from their houses or their bank loans. Irish people will tell you that, because of their sad history of dispossession, owning a home is not just a way to avoid paying rent but a mark of freedom. In their rush to freedom, the Irish built their own prisons. And their leaders helped them to do it.

A summary from Michael Lewis:

The blunt truth is that, since September 2008, Ireland has been, every day, more at the mercy of her creditors. To remain afloat, Ireland’s biggest banks, which are now owned by the Irish government, have taken short-term loans from the European Central Bank amounting to 86 billion euros. Two weeks later Lenihan [Ireland’s Finance Minister] will be compelled by the European Union to invite the I.M.F. into Ireland, relinquish control of Irish finances, and accept a bailout package. The Irish public doesn’t yet know it, but, even as we sit together at his conference table, the European Central Bank has lost interest in lending to Irish banks. And soon Brian Lenihan will stand up in the Irish Parliament and offer a fourth explanation for why private investors in Ireland’s banks cannot be allowed to take losses.

I like this note from Lewis (first time I’m hearing of it):

There is an ancient rule of financial life—that if you owe the bank five million bucks the bank owns you, but if you owe the bank five billion bucks you own the bank—that newly applies to Ireland. The debts of its big property developers—now generally defined as anyone who owed the bank more than 20 million euros—are being worked out behind closed doors.

And a whimsical aside: how do the Irish view America, and Americans view Ireland?

Two things strike every Irish person when he comes to America, Irish friends tell me: the vastness of the country, and the seemingly endless desire of its people to talk about their personal problems. Two things strike an American when he comes to Ireland: how small it is and how tight-lipped.

The entire piece is worth reading for the wonderful narrative and Michael Lewis’s conversations with Morgan Kelly, Joan Burton (Labour Party’s financial spokesperson), as well as bankers and commercial real estate developers.


Thanks for Jodi for pointing me to this piece, who has an excellent reading list of her own here and here.