Greece Debt Tragedy Upstaged by Ireland’s Bank Crisis

by Jeff Reeves | March 31, 2010 10:59 am

While Greece is stealing the spotlight as sovereign debt woes threaten to cripple the nation’s public sector, Ireland’s balance sheet has quietly been getting worse — and now its debt problems are so bad it could have the dubious honor of beating Greece to bankruptcy.

That’s because a very pricey government bank bailout is adding to the already ballooning deficit of this nation. Some experts sees Ireland’s debt-to-GDP ratio topping 10% in 2010 and to 80% by 2012 without intervention!

Ireland is already $95 billion in debt for 2010, and on top of that, it’s essentially nationalizing its banking sector for tens of billions of dollars more. But because it’s buying assets — albeit “toxic assets” with very little real value — those expenses aren’t on the balance sheet as sovereign debt. Quite a trick of math!

Unfortunately, just because those numbers are in a different column on a spreadsheet doesn’t mean that Ireland can avoid the serious costs. Early this morning, Ireland announced it will offer its banks nearly 22 billion euros (or $30 billion) in taxpayer money to meet stiff new capital requirements. The government already has substantial ownership of the nation’s two largest banks, including a 16% stake in the Bank of Ireland (IRE[2]) and a 25% stake in Allied Irish Banks (AIB[3]). IRE and AIB shares have been soundly punished as a result, with both trading down more than 50% since October.

Worse than the government interference in the banks is a government ordered fire sale of assets to make up the shortfall. Allied Irish, for instance, was ordered to sell assets in the United States, Britain and Poland that totaled about 7.4 billion euros or about $10.1 billion.

Greece’s debt woes (and those of other beleaguered borrowers like Portugal and Spain) have actually compounded Ireland’s problems, since more nations are competing with the U.S., Europe and Japan to borrow money on the international markets. There just simply aren’t enough investors out there willing to front the cash.

And the amount of cash needed is staggering. Greece needs $15.6 billion by the end of May and that much again in August and November. Ireland needs even more due to its banking problems to the tune of $110 billion over the next 12 months to stabilize its bad banks.

So why haven’t we heard as much about Ireland’s debt if its so large? Well, mostly because the toxic assets don’t appear as debt as mentioned before. It’s easier to rail against Greece for spending so frivolously, while some think the bank bailout in Ireland is not the fault of the leadership in Dublin. The other reason could be that Ireland’s bonds are poised to outperform those of every other euro member except Austria this quarter, as investors bet it will be more successful than countries such as Greece in cutting its budget deficit.

But whatever the reasons for the difference in coverage, this much is clear: Ireland is racking up debt that’s quickly dwarfing that of Greece. And investors better take notice if they want to protect themselves.

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