Monday, 31 August 2015


The Chinese stock market has fallen 40% from its 2015 peak. By comparison the US market is only 10% down from its 2015 peak, and the Euro zone only 15%.

House prices in major Chinese cities are out of reach of most employees. 

Air quality in the same cities is poor because China relies disproportionately on coal as a source of energy. 

Meanwhile China does not have a comprehensive welfare state, so Chinese families have to rely on savings, sometimes in the form of stocks and shares, and house property, to provide for their retirement. The fall in the stock market will thus have a direct effect on many Chinese families.

I have visited China a number of times in the last few years. 

On one of those visits, in 2013, I drew the attention of my Chinese audience to the then latest IMF report on the country.

It contained warnings that will sound familiar to those who have studied recent Irish economic history.

The IMF talked, even then, of the risks in China of 

  • “a steady build up of leverage eroding the strength of the financial sector”,
  • “a boom in non traditional sources of credit”, and of the need to take
  • “steps to reduce moral hazard to ensure that banks do not engage in potentially destabilizing competition” .

On the other hand, The IMF recognised that China has very well capitalised banks.

Most commentators believed that the Chinese Communist party, with its immense concentration of talented people in key positions, would be able to manage the huge structural changes required in the Chinese economy. It was believed they could impose technocratic solutions more easily than would be possible in a democracy.

The changes required include

  • a  managed  dissipation of the stock market and housing bubbles, 
  • a shift China away from reliance on investment in physical infrastructure to support the economy, to a  western style reliance on consumer spending.At one stage China was pouring up to 40% of its GDP into physical investment. When one is investing to that extent, one is bound to be putting some of the money into projects that will never yield a return.
  • a shift away from coal to cleaner energy sources and
  • the inauguration of a welfare state which would facilitate the development of a consumer led economy and less speculative investment by savers trying to provide for their old age

The fact that the Chinese authorities have now had to revert to a policy of currency devaluation is worrying.

It suggests that the authorities are not as firmly in control of the situation as one might have thought, and may not be able after all to manage the structural changes required, without the sort of political turbulence we have seen in democratic countries.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015


This article from the Wall Street Journal highlights a huge moral and political question for our times....the extermination of long established Christian communities in the Middle East. Some of the refugees, described so graciously by David Cameron as a "swarm", are Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq.

While not the primary cause, Western interventions, like the invasion of Iraq, contributed  to the plight of Christians there. Western support for rebels in Syria is also worsening the position of religious minorities in that country.

People fear the arrival of refugees in the West, and suggest they will become a burden. But experience shows that previous refugee flows, like the East European Jews, the Ugandan Asians, and the Lebanese Christians have quickly become self supporting and active contributors to economic development in their host countries.

People look back and ask themselves why their governments failed to provide refuge for Jews fleeing the Nazis in the 1930's and assume smugly that, knowing what we now know, this generation would do better.

The present response to the Middle Eastern refugee crisis throws that into doubt. In fact there is less excuse now, because many Western societies are ageing, and actually need an influx of younger people.

Monday, 17 August 2015


Revised article for “Irish Times”

We will only have an intelligent debate about spending and taxation, in the forthcoming Irish General Election, if we know that spending and revenue estimates for all the following five years, and if the policy choices that underlie them, are accurate and fully explained

The Spring Economic statement by the Irish Government was criticised, mainly because it contained “nothing new”.

This type of criticism showed how little had been learned from the recent economic crisis. A constant search for novelty in annual budgets is what got Ireland got into difficulty in the first place. New” initiatives” in budgets from 2000 to 2007 eviscerated the tax base, and led to unsustainable spending commitments.  In that deluded era , if the annual budget did not contain a  new and costly announcement , the Minister would have been accused of lack “vision”!

Now the same chorus is beginning to be heard again. Memories are indeed short.

In  the debate on the Spring Statement, Minister Brendan Howlin said  the government was “now planning expenditures on a multiyear basis”, and  that Departments are operating under “multi annual expenditure ceilings”.  

Although these ceilings are legally mandated, are they firm enough, or can they be  too easily raised without serious questions being asked?

Certainly, in the 2000 to 2006 period, the second and third year ceilings on spending were fictitious.  It turned out that spending in the second year exceeded the” ceiling” by 6%, and the third year by 12%. Low figures were put on paper, but the decisions needed to stay within the figures were not taken. This was politically understandable, but financially disastrous, as we now know.

Since 2011, three year spending ceilings have been much firmer in most Departments, but not in all. 

In fact, one Department, Health has been responsible for 70% of the breaches in the ceilings (which altogether totalled over 600 million euros ). 

This should not be. Health spending should be predictable.

When allowance is made for the relative youth of the Irish population, Ireland is nearly the highest spender on health in the OECD.  But health outcomes here are only average. We have the second highest number of nurses per 100000 people, and 5th highest number of physicians of 34 countries surveyed by the OECD.

As the population ages, pressures on health budgets will further increase. 

Brendan Howlin has pointed out that the ageing of Irish society will add 200 million euros per year to health costs and that high birth rate will necessitate the appointment of 3500 extra teachers by 2021.

Next year, the natural growth in demand for existing services public spending will on its own increase spending by 300 million euros, without ANY change in policy.

Furthermore, the  Government is obliged  to reduce public expenditure as a percentage of GDP up to 2020 by its Stability Programme published in April.

Under it, GDP is set to grow by 3%, but public spending by only 1%. The difference is needed to allow for reduction of debt, as required by the Fiscal Compact the Irish people approved in a Referendum.

In essence, demographics are pushing spending UP, while tough debt reduction requirements are pushing it DOWN.

Of course, taxation can be increased too, but not by much, without risking a flight of capital and talent to elsewhere in the mobile, globalised, world in which we live.

So expenditure ceilings, for the forthcoming five years for each Department, including Health, will have to be set with rigorous honesty and courage, and then kept to. There can be no optimistic under estimates, as there sometimes were in the past. 

This natural increase in spending, without policy change, needs to be spelled out for each Department, and separated completely from any increase (or reduction) that is due to a policy change.

The budget system should incentivise local managements, who know their services best, to make the necessary savings and reallocations in time. They know how to do it in the least painful fashion.  That job cannot be done as easily by Merrion Street.

If a Department or service  finds itself on track to exceed its published annual expenditure ceiling,  for the present year or a future year, Dail Eireann should be immediately alerted. There ought to be a special procedure whereby both the Minister, and the Secretary General, explain the deviation.

The same should apply to any tax concession that turns out to cost more than estimated.  The criteria for this should be formalised  in Dail Standing Orders .

The Minister would account for, and quantify any policy changes, unexpected events, or recalculations, that account for an excess, and the Secretary Genera would account for any lapses in expenditure management.

This would ensure that the costing of future spending and tax commitments would  be “evidence based”.  

A family has to plan its finances five years ahead, and take corrective action if things are getting off track. 

Government should do the same.

Note ; As Minister for Finance in 1981, John Bruton published ”A Better Way to Plan the Nations Finances”, which advocated multi annual budgeting by the State.

Monday, 10 August 2015


“The Killers of the King”, by Charles Spencer, is as exciting and dramatic as any novel.

It is the story of the trial and execution of King Charles the First in 1649, and of the grisly fate of those involved in this trial and execution, after the King’s son, Charles the Second, became King in 1660.

It was not self evident that the Parliamentarians would execute Charles the First after they had defeated him in the Civil War. 

He was in captivity and there was a possibility that some sort of deal could be reached. But the King’s view of his rights as King did not allow him to make the sort of sincere, and far reaching, political and religious compromise that might have satisfied his captors.  The Parliamentarians were split internally and the revolutionary mood in the country pushed them towards the unprecedented step of trying and executing their King, and thus becoming regicides.

After the King’s execution in 1649, Parliament soon proved incapable of making other effective decisions. The country drifted towards dictatorship. Cromwell took up the semi monarchical role of Lord Protector, but when he died in 1658, his attempt to create an hereditary succession in power to his son failed.

Elements in his Army then eventually decided that the best way of avoiding political chaos and  restoring order might be to make a deal to bring back the legitimate monarchy in the person of the late King’s eldest son, Charles.

In return for the throne, Charles the Second  promised to let the victors in the Civil War keep their properties, pay the arrears owed to soldiers in the Parliamentary Army, and give a” free and general pardon” to the late King’s enemies. This was sensible on his part, because the people recalling him to the throne were almost all people who had fought and defeated his father in the Civil War.

But the “free and general pardon” had a loop hole. It allowed Parliament to exclude some people. Once on the throne, The King ensured that there was an exclusion from the pardon of those who had been involved directly in his father’s trial and execution.

These included the large number of former members of parliament, who had sat as judges in the King’s trial, and also his gaolers and his executioners. Many of the MPs in question had been generals and in Cromwell conquest of Ireland in 1650.  These were pursued with particular vigour by Irish agents in the King’s service, who had scores to settle.

The fugitives fled to the Netherlands (which afforded them little protection), to cities in Switzerland (which provided greater legal safety but was not proof against assassination,) and to the British North American colonies of Massachusetts, New Haven, and Connecticut. Indeed New Haven’s protectiveness towards the King’s killers was to cost it its independence and lead to its incorporation into Connecticut.

This book tells the individual story of all the figures on the King’s death list, and of how almost all of them were tracked down and killed. Some were tried and executed, others were assassinated.  Only one or two seem to have survived to die in their beds. One of those  who survived, in exile in Vevey in Switzerland, was Edmund Ludlow, who had been second in command of the Cromwellian Army in Ireland, and had shared in responsibility for the many atrocities of that campaign.

This book tells a dramatic story well, but it does not at all explore the motivations of Charles the Second. He is seen by history as cynical and politically skilful, rather than obsessively vengeful.

So why did he pursue this particular vendetta so fiercely?

Nor does it really explore how the regicides, who were generally very religious people, could reconcile killing their King with their tender consciences.

Monday, 3 August 2015


My view is that there was no need for anyone to be killed to attain Irish independence 

By purely non violent methods, the Irish Parliamentary Party, so unjustly denigrated by Pearse in 1915 in his address at the O Donovan Rossa funeral, had got Home Rule on the statute book in September 1914. It was not going to be reversed. 

Home Rule would have led on to whatever level of independence the Irish people wanted, and without the loss of life of the War of Independence and Civil War, which flowed directly from the 1916 Rebellion, and from its entirely foreseeable aftermath. 

The O Donovan Rossa funeral was used by the IRB to glorify violent methods. That was wrong. 

We can commemorate whatever we wish, but moral principles do not change, just because 100 years have passed. 

The bitter and futile experience of the past 100 years should have taught us that political violence has and had no useful place in Irish politics, now, or 100 years ago.