Anglo Irish crash shows again why it's unwise to bet the farm

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 October, 2010, 12:00am

... representatives from opposition parties grilled Prime Minister Brian Cowen over the enormous cost of bailing out Anglo Irish Bank, the shaky real estate lender Ireland was forced to nationalise in January last year after Irish land prices fell as much as 70 per cent from their peak.

South China Morning Post, October 4

The word 'shaky' hardly describes it. Try 'total wreck'. The rescue of this bank is now expected to cost the Irish government up to Euro35 billion. This is the equivalent of HK$370 billion - and the Irish economy right now is only about the size of Hong Kong's.

Just think of that, the comparable cost of hosting nine Asian Games or building six high-speed railways to the mainland border, and the Irish taxpayer is to bear all this to keep just one bank in operation when several other Irish banks are also in trouble.

I take it back, Donald.

You are not in the same league when it comes to flushing money down the gurgler.

Then again, however, could the Irish have avoided it? Prices on their property market crashed by 70 per cent with the 2008 global economic crisis. Surely no financial system could have withstood such a blow without public assistance.

Could it?

Well, yes it could. Right here in Hong Kong it could and did. Following the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, property prices in Hong Kong also fell by roughly 70 per cent, and the resulting shakiness of the financial system is best expressed in the chart at right on mortgage delinquency ratios.

Yes, take a close look again. At no point in the aftermath of this crisis did the six-month delinquency ratio in mortgage payments reach even 1 per cent of total home loans outstanding. It is now at one-hundredth of 1 per cent, which can comprise little more than borrowers who have been sent to prison.

There is effectively no mortgage delinquency at all and, as to mortgages written off, haul out your microscope. Even at the height of the financial strain, it amounted annually to little more than one-tenth of 1 per cent of outstanding Hong Kong dollar loans.

So if Hong Kong could glide right through a major property crash with hardly a tremor to its financial system, what happened in Ireland to cause a financial crisis?

I think perhaps the most important difference is that we know all about property crashes in Hong Kong. We had one in the 1960s, we had one in the early 1970s, we had one in the early 1980s and then we had that thumper starting in 1998. Elsewhere in the world it is sometimes a revelation that property prices can fall as well as rise. Not here.

It has made our banks prudent about these things. As a result, the average loan to value ratio of new mortgages in Hong Kong is about 60 per cent. That's for new mortgages. Take the entire mortgage portfolio and it will be lower yet, although I don't have the figures. You can only take out a home loan in Hong Kong if you have a big personal stake in the investment, too.

It wasn't so with Anglo Irish. Much of its property lending was done on the basis of 100 per cent financing, with little due diligence on the borrower. This is asking for trouble and not only because it is imprudent. It actually contributes to the creation of property bubbles.

Then there is the whole business of lenders being too cosy with the directors of corporate borrowers, apparently one of the big weaknesses at Anglo Irish.

We had that problem, too, in the mid-1980s and about seven small banks, mostly with Malaysian connections, vanished. They had used Hong Kong deposits to fund Malaysian property losses.

Our prudential supervision has become much better since that time. Maybe I'm fooling myself about this, but I don't think so.

We don't do 'cosy' any longer, at least not to Irish standards.

There are, of course, many other reasons that people can cite for the difference. Send them along to the e-mail address above. I'm sure that what most of them will come down to, however, is that we still run the home-financing business as a business in Hong Kong.

Let's just hope our financial secretary takes heed and keeps our public purse out of this business. The lesson here is that he is likely to lose that purse if he puts it in.