Anatomy of an Irish bubble

Michael O’Sullivan wrote an interesting chapter in “Understanding Ireland’s Economic Crisis” about Ireland’s bubble. He talked about the anatomy of a bubble and went through various examples from history. There are 3 stages of the bubble which he describes:

Stage 1 – Favourable shock

The Favourable Shock – in many cases this a change in economic policy or a technological shift. Examples:

The Mississippi bubble – the creation of paper money
Railways booms in the US and UK during the 19th Century bubble – 1990’s
Foreign Direct Investment – Ireland 1990’s

The above events enhance expectations of future economic growth and earning potential. What helps turn the boom into a bubble is the ease of credit – expansionary monetary policy (low interest rates), relaxed lending conditions etc. This then leads to rising asset values which allows corporate and the household sector the ability to take on more debt (leverage). In Ireland real interest rates (Interest rate – CPI) was 0% in 1998-2001 and was approximately -4% in 2000.

Stage 2 – Speculative growth

The Speculative Stage is one where the ecstatic enthusiasm for risk chases high returns and investment becomes speculation. A quote from J.M.Keynes describes the change in mood:

As the bubble gains momentum some people come to believe there is a greater fool who would buy their inflated assets. With this aura of confidence and supporting arguments from the periphery – e.g. “the world has changed” or “this time it’s different” – a mood of speculative optimism becomes rampant. An example of this positive rhetoric was from former Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern. He stated that those warning of the property bubble should “commit suicide”.

Stage 3 – Irrational Exuberance

Irrational Exuberance starts to dominate the “herd” and often this stage sees the sharpest and most bewildering rise in asset prices. However, there comes a time when this sort of frenzied activity cannot be maintained and eventually the bubble bursts. Most bubbles end with a tightening of monetary policy – higher interest rates – credit controls – limited borrowing potential. For Ireland, as was the case with other economies, the global financial crisis was the “lighting of the fuse”

The Irish Credit Bubble
Morgan Kelly wrote a paper on this and below is a chart from the book “Understanding Ireland’s Economic Crisis” which shows how bank lending assisted the bubble. In 1997 Irish bank lending to the non-financial private sector was only 60% of GNP compared with 80% in most eurozone economies and the UK. By 2008 bank lending grew to 200% of national income. Irish banks were lending 40% more in real terms to property developers alone in 2008 than they had been lending to everyone in Ireland in 2000, and 75% more as mortgages.

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