In Ireland, a Picture of the High Cost of Austerity… “Welcome to Hell,”
Tuesday June 29, 2010
In Ireland, a Picture of the High Cost of Austerity
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On Tuesday June 29, 2010, 4:30 am EDT
DUBLIN — As Europe’s major economies focus on belt-tightening, they are following the path of Ireland. But the once thriving nation is struggling, with no sign of a rapid turnaround in sight.
Nearly two years ago, an economic collapse forced Ireland to cut public spending and raise taxes, the type of austerity measures that financial markets are now pressing on most advanced industrial nations.
“When our public finance situation blew wide open, the dominant consideration was ensuring that there was international investor confidence in Ireland so we could continue to borrow,” said Alan Barrett, chief economist at the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland. “A lot of the argument was, ‘Let’s get this over with quickly.’ ”
Rather than being rewarded for its actions, though, Ireland is being penalized. Its downturn has certainly been sharper than if the government had spent more to keep people working. Lacking stimulus money, the Irish economy shrank 7.1 percent last year and remains in recession.
Joblessness in this country of 4.5 million is above 13 percent, and the ranks of the long-term unemployed — those out of work for a year or more — have more than doubled, to 5.3 percent.
Now, the Irish are being warned of more pain to come.
“The facts are that there is no easy way to cut deficits,” Prime Minister Brian Cowen said in an interview. “Those who claim there’s an easier way or a soft option — that’s not the real world.”
Despite its strenuous efforts, Ireland has been thrust into the same ignominious category as Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. It now pays a hefty three percentage points more than Germany on its benchmark bonds, in part because investors fear that the austerity program, by retarding growth and so far failing to reduce borrowing, will make it harder for Dublin to pay its bills rather than easier.
Other European nations, including Britain and Germany, are following Ireland’s lead, arguing that the only way to restore growth is to convince investors and their own people that government borrowing will shrink.
The Group of 20 leaders set that in writing this weekend, vowing to make deficit reduction the top priority despite warnings from President Obama that too much austerity could choke a global recovery and warnings from a few economists about the possibility of a much sharper 1930s style downturn.
“Europe is in a tough bind,” said Kenneth S. Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and now a Harvard professor. “If you want to escape default, the Irish path is the only way to go. But the Ireland experience points to the profound challenges that the current strategy implies.”
Politicians here have raised taxes and cut salaries for nurses, professors and other public workers by up to 20 percent. About 30 billion euros ($37 billion) is being poured into zombie banks like Anglo Irish, which was nationalized after lavishing loans on developers.
The budget went from surpluses in 2006 and 2007 to a staggering deficit of 14.3 percent of gross domestic product last year — worse than Greece. It continues to deteriorate. Drained of cash after an American-style housing boom went bust, Ireland has had to borrow billions; its once ultralow debt could rise to 77 percent of G.D.P. this year.
“Everybody’s feeling quite sick at what happened because things were going so well for Ireland,” said Patrick Honohan, the Irish central bank governor. “But we don’t have the flexibility to do a spending stimulus now. There’s no one who is even arguing for it.”
Mr. Honohan predicts growth could revive to a rate of about 3 percent by 2012. But that may be optimistic: Ireland, as one of the 16 nations in Europe that has adopted the euro as its common currency, is trying to shrink the deficit to 3 percent of G.D.P. by 2014, a commitment that could weaken its hopes for recovery.
These troubles sting many Irish, given the head start Ireland has on most members of the euro club. Its labor market is one of Europe’s most open and dynamic. After its last major recession in the 1980s, it lured knowledge-based multinationals like Intel and Microsoft — and now Facebook and Linked-In — with a 12.5 percent tax rate, giving Ireland one of the most export-dependent economies in the world.
Now, the government is pinning nearly all its hopes on an export revival to lift the economy. Falling wage and energy costs, and a weaker euro, have improved competitiveness.
Turning statistics into jobs, however, will be a herculean task. “Exports alone don’t drive a significant number of jobs,” said Paul Duffy, a vice president at Pfizer in Ireland.
Wage cuts were easier to impose here because people remembered that leaders moved too slowly to overcome Ireland’s last recession. This time, Mr. Cowen struck accords swiftly with labor unions, which agreed that protests like those in Greece would only delay a recovery.
But pay cuts have spooked consumers into saving, weighing on the prospects for job creation and economic recovery. And after a decade-long boom that encouraged many from the previous years of diaspora to return, the country is facing a new threat: business leaders say thousands of skilled young Irish are now moving out, raising fears of a brain drain.
David Stronge returned to Dublin in 2006 from an architecture job in Britain. “I wanted to come back here and get a piece of this action,” he said. “And I did for about a year. But then it started to tank.”
He moved to reinvent himself, returning to school with thousands of other Irish, in hopes that a higher degree would lead to better prospects. Mr. Stronge plans to seek alternative energy jobs in Britain once he gets his master’s degree in August.
“Ireland isn’t going to spend on infrastructure probably for another 10 to 15 years,” he said. “So you have to go to where the opportunities are.”
At the D Café, a sandwich shop facing a stretch of empty buildings in Dublin’s Docklands enclave, even that dream seems impossible. “If you’re self-employed and lose your job, you’re entitled to nothing, not even the dole,” said Debbie, the owner, who would only give her first name.
She transformed her convenience store into a deli when Liam Carroll, a property baron, threw up the nearby developments. But the tenants never came, and her business evaporated.
“It’s so destroying,” she said, gazing out the window. “We all live day by day, and we don’t know when it will ever pick up.”
Signs of the decline encrust Dublin’s streets. Boisterous crowds still mash onto the cobbles of Temple Bar. Yet farther out, “To Let” posters obscure the hollowed shells of once-vibrant cafes and clothing shops.
Fifteen minutes north of the city center, hulks of empty buildings form stark symbols of why Ireland must now hunker down. At Elm Park, a soaring industrial and residential complex, 700 employees of the German insurer Allianz are the lone occupants of a space designed for thousands.
In the impoverished Ballymun neighborhood, developers began razing slums to make way for new low-income housing. Halfway through the project, the financing dried up, leaving some residents to languish in graffiti-covered concrete skeletons. “Welcome to Hell,” read one of the tamest messages.
Now the government is debating whether to demolish developments it inherited from the banks it nationalized, and restore them to green pasture.
A bitter sense of regret punctuates chatter at any Irish bar, where the topic often turns to vilified bankers and politicians, or the latest jobless figures.
While no one is marching in the streets, the Irish do have a tipping point: Prime Minister Cowen, whose popularity has plummeted, agreed last week not to cut public wages again in the next budget. Many voters, having experienced the pain of austerity, are expected to express their anger in the 2012 elections.
“Then,” said Paul Sweeney, economic adviser to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, “the Irish for once are going to have their revenge served cold.”