Once known as the “Celtic Tiger” for its sustained record of double-digit economic growth, Ireland is now in the midst of a financial tsunami. Unemployment is soaring, economic activity is contracting, banks are over-loaded on toxic assets and government spending is out of control. In many ways, Ireland seems to be a microcosm of the United States, only with a Gaelic accent. However, sheer size and the status of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency has delayed the full replication of what Ireland is currently experiencing. For that reason, what is occurring to the Irish economy in the present may be a window of what might soon lie ahead for the United States.
The strength of Ireland’s economy during its glory years was largely based on the seeming success of the globalization economic model. International businesses, especially in the high technology sphere, set up shop on the Emerald Isle, taking advantage of a well educated, cost-competitive workforce in close proximity to the European mainland, and an economy fully integrated into the Eurozone. This globalized corporate presence ended the historic migration of Irish workers overseas, as the local economy’s demands even drew immigrants from Eastern Europe into Ireland. The increase in domestic opportunities contributed to a massive explosion in property prices. Irish banks bet heavily on securitized assets, as the financial sector assumed a leading role in the Irish economy. This is a scenario we have seen elsewhere, and led to Ireland being especially vulnerable to the consequences of the Global Economic Crisis.
Since the onset of the synchronized global recession, the Irish economy has undergone a rapid contraction, erasing almost overnight the economic gains of the past several years. Unemployment in the Irish republic stands at near 11%, and is likely to get much worse. According to Ireland’s Central Statistics Office, the nation’s GDP shrank by 7.5% in Q4 of 2008. Added to these grim numbers hangs the dismal situation characterizing Irish banking and financial institutions; approximately $110 billion of toxic assets are eroding their balance sheets.
The Irish Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, has reacted with desperation. Recently, his government unveiled a second emergency budget. Ireland’s finance minister, Brian Lenihan, submitted a spending plan that contained a smorgasbord of selective tax increases and spending cuts. These steps were taken in recognition of the dual emergency facing the Irish economy. The once “Celtic Tiger” is not only incurring massive unemployment and social distress; the collapse in revenues has driven the nation’s budget deficit through the roof. The steps proposed by Lenihan sought to reduce the government’s budget deficit from nearly 14% to about 10.75% of GDP. These steps were not nearly enough to comfort the worried rating agencies. Standard and Poor’s has removed Ireland’s coveted AAA rating, while Moody’s downgraded all 12 Irish banks.
With expenditures of 55 billion euros and revenues falling below 35 billion euros, Ireland is facing the daunting paradox confronting a growing host of nations, including the United States. The politicians maintain they cannot implement draconian spending cuts in the face of severe human hardships being created by the Global Economic Crisis. Yet, mathematical realities may constrict the ability of political leaders to infinitely borrow money in order to maintain high structural deficits. With the rating agencies having made their move, the ability of Ireland to finance its deficits through the largess of the global credit market will become increasingly more problematic. It appears that the IMF may be the ultimate lender of last resort for Ireland, and that kind of assistance will impose costs of its own.
The economic catastrophe facing Ireland will cause sorrows that cannot be suppressed by a pint of Guiness. Nothing less than national insolvency threatens this once robust economy. And lest the United States pretend that the economic collapse now underway in Ireland is irrelevant to its own situation, the elements that have brought down the “Celtic Tiger” are almost identical to those now eating away at the very foundation of the U.S. economy.
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