(Niall Carson, Associated Press)
Ireland’s bailout set at $89.4b
Nation must use pension reserves
(Niall Carson, Associated Press)
BRUSSELS — European Union nations agreed yesterday to give $89.4 billion in bailout loans to Ireland to help it weather its massive banking crisis and sketched out new rules for future emergencies in an effort to restore faith in the euro currency.
The rescue deal, approved by finance ministers at an emergency meeting in Brussels, means two of the eurozone’s 16 nations have now come to depend on foreign help and underscores Europe’s struggle to contain its spreading debt crisis. The fear is that with Greece and now Ireland shored up, speculative traders will target the bloc’s other weak fiscal links, particularly Portugal.
Ireland’s prime minister, Brian Cowen, said his country will take about $13 billion immediately to boost the capital reserves of its state-backed banks, whose bad loans were picked up by the Irish government but have become too much to handle.
Another $33 billion will remain in reserve, earmarked for the banks.
The rest of the loans will be used to cover Ireland’s deficits for the coming four years.
EU chiefs also gave Ireland an extra year, until 2015, to reduce its annual deficits to 3 percent of GDP, the eurozone’s limit. The deficit now stands at a modern European record of 32 percent because of the runaway costs of its bank-bailout program.
Cowen said the accord, reached after two weeks of tense negotiations in Brussels and Dublin to fathom the true depth of the country’s cash crisis, “provides Ireland with vital time and space to successfully and conclusively address the unprecedented problems that we’ve been dealing with since this global economic crisis began.’’
However, in a surprise accounting move, European and IMF experts decided that Ireland first must run down its own cash stockpile and deploy its previously off-limits pension reserves in the bailout. Until now, Irish and EU law had made it illegal for Ireland to use its pension fund to cover current expenditures. This move means Ireland will contribute $23 billion to its own salvation.
The three groups offering funds to Ireland — the 16-nation eurozone, the full 27-nation European Union, and the global donors of the International Monetary Fund — each have committed $29.8 billion. Extra loans from Sweden, Denmark, and Britain are included within the EU contribution totals.
Ireland’s finance ministry said the interest rates on the loans would range from 5.7 percent to 6.05 percent.
Ajai Chopra, the deputy director of the IMF’s European division who oversaw the Dublin negotiations, confirmed Ireland’s government would have freedom to set its own spending and tax plans.
He said Ireland will have 10 years to pay off its IMF loans, and that the first repayment won’t be required until 4 1/2 years after a drawdown. Greece, in contrast, has three years to repay its loans, but at a lower interest rate of 5.2 percent.
Chopra said Ireland’s decision to use its pension reserve fund had helped win the confidence of those who offered help. He declined to say if negotiators had demanded Dublin use its reserves under terms of the deal.
“It makes total sense to use them at this time. I think this is quite unique in this type of arrangements and it will be taken as a sign of underlying strength,’’ he said.
Cowen told a press conference that Ireland had no choice but to take help, because international investors had decided that lending to Ireland was too risky and were demanding unreasonable returns.
The yield on 10-year Irish bonds rose Friday to a euro-era high of 9.2 percent.
“If we didn’t have this program, we would have to go back to the markets, which as you know are at prohibitive rates,’’ Cowen said. “We would pay far more.’’ Still, analysts and opposition leaders in Ireland warned that the country of 4.5 million was taking on a bill it could not afford to repay at rates exceeding 5 percent.
Michael Noonan, finance spokesman of the main opposition Fine Gael party, said he believed that fellow EU members — particularly Germany, the eurozone’s bankroller — did not want to give money too cheaply to Ireland, for fear Dublin would grow addicted to it.
Noonan said the loans were “pitched high to drive us back into the market,’’ and would encourage Ireland to pursue maximum austerity measures to reassure the bond markets.
To shore up longer-term confidence in the euro, EU finance ministers also agreed on a permanent mechanism that from 2013 would allow a country to restructure its debts once it has been deemed insolvent.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of Eurogroup, which represents the 16 euro nations, said private creditors would be forced to take losses only if ministers agreed unanimously that the country had run out of money.