Friday, July 13, 2007

Irish Property Prices and the Dot Com Bubble...

From the Irish Independent, 9-Jul-07:

WARNINGS about the dangers of over-borrowing are nothing new. This newspaper has for several years been among the many voices calling for restraint and prudence. But the risks have become greater with the inexorable increases in interest rates and the change in the medium-term prospect of the economy to a lower level of growth.

It is necessary to emphasise that the forecasts are still optimistic and there is no need for alarm. Although we have to accept that the dazzling Celtic Tigers years have ended, we remain on course for the famous 'soft landing'.

'Restraint'? 'Prudence?' Are they smoking something? For years the Indo has been a cheerleader for the property industry, with the Irish Times not far behind. But then when you see the pages of industry paid Property Porn that both of them churn out each week it's hardly surprising that they have been tiptoeing around the very real prospect of a housing crash and accompanying massive negative equity that now faces the country, when they could avoid upsetting their readers by running more uncritical stories about novice Irish investors buying apartments in China. For the past few years every time someone such as the Economist or OECD produced a report warning that the Irish market was no longer connected to economic fundamentals they were poo-pood by the press and 'experts' from the property industry were called in to explain why 'things are different' in Ireland, the 'fundamentals are strong', etc etc.

All this reminds me of the mood in the days just before the dot com crash in San Francisco- Everyone was convinced The Rules' had changed:

The laws of economics just aren't relevant to us. We're different. And even if it does calm down a bit it won't turn into a slump.....

Even after the crash had started in San Francisco people who were right at ground zero simply didn't understand what was going on, as they had never seen an economic downturn before and either didn't know or (more likely) didn't want to accept what was happening. But then if you were a 23 year old wunderkind (no, not me!) on his second job outside college who was earning US$110K/Year you wouldn't want to either. At the time I was working for Organic Online, a boutique e commerce web site builder whose managers had spent 6 months picking out carpets and Aeron chairs for their prestigious HQ in the Baker Hamilton building when they should have been finding new business and preparing contingency plans for a downturn. Organic was run by Jonathon Nelson. Jonathon's Bio has this to say about the dot-com crash:

In 1999, at age 33, Jonathan took two companies public in less than a year: Accrue Software, Inc., a web measurement and analysis company that he founded in 1995, and Organic. Later, he guided Organic through its subsequent re-privatization.

'subsequent re-privatization'? What actually happened was that the company went from a capitalization of over a billion US$ to pretty much zero and vanished through the cracks in the floor of the stock exchange. When Organic had gone public Jonathon started showing up at the office in a stretch limo. By the time the stock price had halved from the flotation price it was a Lincoln town car and the day I decided to get the hell out of dodge he was showing up in a taxi (seriously). But even after we'd had three all hands meeting's in a row where the only good news was that we had x million remaining in the bank and two rounds of 25% layoffs people were still volunteering to be laid off because they 'needed a vacation and I can easily pick up a new job when I come back'.

Much of the same irrational enthusiasm has been present in Ireland ever since I moved back. I've spent the last 4 years hearing the exact same phrases uttered and have encountered the same blind faith that the future could hold no darkness. People have been paying prices that are completely out of touch with market fundamentals. I used to live in Walnut Creek, outside San Francisco. Property prices were high but then you were living in a region which if it had suddenly become independent would have become the 9th largest economy in the world. Serious wealth was being generated, even after the bubble, which to some extent justified the high property prices. Ireland simply isn't in the same league as the Bay Area. While there are a lot of multinationals around a lot of their operations exist because of tolerance of Ireland's favorable tax laws by GAAP and the US Internal Revenue Service. Were a radical tax shakeup to take place in the US or an isolationist 'America First' president to be elected the Irish economy could find multinationals shutting up shop overnight.

Ireland also has other peculiar factors that have allowed the run up in property prices to continue far longer than anyone thought possible -

  • A Cultural obsession with property ownership. This dates back to the Penal Laws which prevented the Roman Catholic majority from owning valuable property and the famine, which created an unwritten rule that you couldn't get married and start a family if you didn't own enough land to feed your wife and kids.
  • An expectation that the 'Average Joe' should be able to buy their own home.
  • A lack of manufacturing/engineering tradition. Because he Irish Republic never had much in the way of industry it's almost unheard of for someone who comes into money to invest it in anything other than property.
  • A history of economic underdevelopment. Ireland started off near the bottom of the European League. A period of economic growth was to be expected, and as a result the elite and media have been able to use the 'we're catching up' excuse instead of asking hard questions about sustainability.
  • No consumer credit system by US standards. As a result consumers may or may not be horribly over extended when it comes to debt. Nobody knows for sure - not even the people who lent them the money.
  • A government with an economic interest in high property prices. Up to 30% of the sale price of a house goes in tax.
  • No property ownership taxes. Which means that people have no incentive to size their house according to their needs and instead go for the biggest mansion they can afford.
  • An insistence on rearing ones family in a house with a garden as opposed to a large apartment. The vast majority of apartments are 1 and two bedroom. It's unusual for anyone with two or more kids to live in an apartment. But houses with gardens take up a hell of a lot more space, which means commutes get longer and it's harder to provide services.
  • A nation with a very poor track record of managing large infrastructure projects. We can't even organize a Barbra Streisand concert, let alone the construction of a couple of hundred thousand houses.

A pessimist would say that we've created a 'Perfect Storm' and that all hell is about to break loose. In fact David McWilliams has been warning of this for years, which I suspect has led to a drastic reduction in the number of dinner parties he gets invited to...

Monday, July 9, 2007

Conjuring Content Out Of Thin Air...

You'd have thought that the problem with running a newspaper would be coming up with good, original and factual content for it. Apparently it's not something they struggle with over at at the Irish Independent where a complete absence of newsworthy information can be turned into several column inches provided the author doesn't actually speak to anyone who has the slightest clue what they are talking about and chooses to ignore the one source he does go to. This story appeared in last Sunday's indo:

THE Irish Aviation Authority calls them "go arounds". But there was nothing merry about flight EI 481 when it aborted its approach to Dublin airport last Wednesday. The wheels were down, we had crossed Dublin Bay and I was watching traffic on the M50 as we prepared to land.

Then a mighty roar came from the engines and the aircraft's nose went up. Its wheels slammed shut as we flew faster and faster, banking right and disappearing back into cloud. Passengers fell silent. The first thought that crossed my mind was that it was a near miss - and I just hoped hard that there was no light aircraft or flock of birds in our exit path.

Then the pilot announced what had actually happened. A jet had been slow to clear the runway on which he was due to land.

The episode was "absolutely routine", according to the Irish Aviation Authority. Its spokeswoman thought that such evasive actions are required at Dublin about once a week but said that the IAA keeps no statistics on the total number of them. She said that both pilots and air traffic controllers are trained for them.

However, it later emerged that there were at least four such 'go arounds' at Dublin Airport in the past week alone. The IAA appeared to have no record of one of them.

Last Monday, said the IAA, a Ryanair flight had aborted its landing (sorry, 'gone around') when another aircraft that was lined up for take off developed a sudden fuel leak and was unable to depart. That same night, as Aer Lingus but not the IAA told me, its flight from Amsterdam (EI 609) 'went around' because of severe weather.

Last Wednesday, there were two 'go-arounds'. According to the IAA, an Aer Lingus pilot on flight EI 169 himself requested a 'go-around', because of the effect of wind on his approach, about two hours after the third Aer Lingus episode that has been described above.

Last Friday, Aer Lingus HQ was unaware of either of these 'go-arounds' on Wednesday.

Within a few minutes of its aborted landing, last Wednesday' flight EI 481 from Lisbon had circled over the sea and was down safely at Dublin Airport. While such episodes might be 'routine' they appear to occur more often than either the Irish Aviation Authority or airlines realise.

Source: Irish Independent, 7-Jul-07

Gosh, what a scoop! The problem is that go arounds are about as exciting as having to make multiple attempts to get into a parking space. There is no story here. None whatsoever. Now if he'd found out that there hadn't been a single 'Go Around' for weeks you'd have a major story, as safety would clearly have been compromised by people who were unwilling to exercise sound professional judgment.

Now, if the author had asked a pilot - you know, those guys with hats and small suitcases that wander around the airport - or even tried Google or Wikipedia this would have become blindingly obvious:
A go-around does not in itself constitute any sort of emergency (although it may on rare occasions be in response to an emergency). A properly executed go-around is a routine, safe and well-practiced maneuver.
But then where would his story be? The same level of diligence and fact checking was also applied to a story about last weeks Cessna Caravan Crash:
The 59-year-old pilot had in the past worked with CityJet and had flown more than 8,000 miles. He was very familiar with the Cessna.
8,000 miles? Anyone who knows anything about aviation can tell you that pilot experience is measured in hours, not miles. 8,000 hours is very experienced indeed. 8,000 miles is roughly how much ground you'd cover as a student, although it wouldn't be in a straight line. Instead if you were doing it in Ireland it would probably be spent going around in circles over Lucan. While spending 3 Euros a minute.

I know - I'm being totally unreasonable by expecting newspapers to actually provide news instead of endless fluff pieces about some woman called Katy French.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Vincent Browne and the Suicide Bombers...

Vincent Browne is an Irish newspaper columnist whose act appears to consist of figuring out which way public sentiment is going and then inventing an opinion that goes against it. It's a respectable way to make a living but every now and then he comes across as a complete eejit:

The clamour over the three "terrorist" incidents in Britain over the last few days speaks of manipulated hysteria, Islamophobia and a collective myopia over real dangers and disasters. Nobody has been killed. Minimal damage to property has been caused. A clear inference from these acts is that those responsible are amateurs, unlikely to pose a substantial threat.

Source: Irish Times, 4-Jul-07

Of course they were amateurs - professional suicide bombers are hard to come by, especially if you are looking for someone who's competent....

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Irish Restricting Air Travel To Curb Global Warming - A Case Of Leprechauns Voting For Xmas?

Recently it's become fashionable to point the finger at air travel as a cause of global warming. Apparently the proportion of CO2 pumped into the atomosphere by airplanes is a bigger problem than the fact that everyone in China and India wants to own a car. People get very excited about this and it's not unusual to see sentiments such as this being expressed in the letters page of worthy newspapers such as the Irish Times:
When will we and our governments take climate change seriously? If the growth in aviation is left unchecked the increased emissions in the skies above will cancel out any reductions made on the ground. If we are to have any chance of saving the biosphere we need to reduce and impose limits on our activities. That includes weekend shopping trips to New York. - Yours, etc, BRIAN DILLON, Ballyline, Callan, Co Kilkenny.Source: IT, 28-Mar-07
There's a big, big problem with this line of reasoning.

If we are to restrict out citizens from traveling abroad in the name of environmental preservation then we also have to accept that the same constraints should be applied to
inward tourism as well. Any other course of action is quite simply daft. The logical conclusion to such reasoning is:

The Prevention Of Tourism Act 2011

Main Points:
  1. All tourism banned. Business travelers to be vetted by the immigration authorities and moved around in windowless vans.
  2. The state tourism agency Failte Ireland to be banned. Membership to be a criminal offence and the leadership to be rounded up and charged with 'Directing Tourism'.
  3. The Ardagh Chalice reburied in a secret location
  4. The Book of Kells to be sold on Ebay.
  5. Huge signs with such messages as "Keep Moving" and "Have You No Homes To Go To?" to be erected on the nation's coastline.
  6. Unemployed people to be paid to discourage interest in landmarks and major public buildings (see photo).
Obviously this isn't going to work. While the complete destruction of the Irish tourist industry would be both entertaining to watch and would ensure that neither I nor any of my descendants have to put up with the two week physical and financial survival course that goes by the name of 'Irish Holiday' I just can't see it happening. More's the pity. The last time I went on a 'Holiday' in this country I found that my 'Relaxing Shannon Boat' trip involved battling 2 metre high waves in a 10 metre long boat during weather that was like something out of a frozen fish commercial.

(enters rant mode)

And that was a considerable improvement on the previous boating adventure which involved me discovering that while Aran Sweaters are both aesthetically appealing and warm they instantly become incredibly heavy if they somehow manage to get wet, say if you fall into water. Why is that the Fishermen wear the damn things? Not that I'm speaking from experience. I never fell into the Portuma Harbor while wearing one. And I defiantly didn't almost get run over by my so-called 'friends' when they decided that the best way to 'help' me was to reverse the boat, which meant that the propeller would be the first part of it to reach me......

(leaves rant mode)

On a serious note: The entire Irish economy is critically dependent on the ability to get to and from Ireland cheaply and reliably. Restricting Air Travel will become an electoral 'Third Rail'' issue once people actually figure out the implications.

Why I'm tired of writing to the 'Irish Times'.

Those of you who read the Irish Times would probably recognize my name from the letters page. Over the past decade or so I've had about 20 or so letters published, which puts me in the same league as Tony Allwright, another frequent scribe.

But over time certain patterns have become clear:
  • The IT doesn't have much of a sense of humor. In particular humor directed at causes they hold dear or which violates the norms of political correctness doesn't get far.
  • They appear to have pigeonholed me as some sort of neo-conservative right-wing loony who is a allowed a look-in whenever things are a bit quiet. I am openly very right wing by Irish standards (or rather the standards of the Dublin 4 elite who run the media) but that doesn't make me a neo-conservative.
  • In order to get a letter published it has to be short. All good writing should have a strong signal-to-noise ratio but in practice the space restrictions constrain my ability to advance an argument to a couple of sentences.
  • They rarely print my responses to people's responses to my letters (got that?).
  • They have a built in bias in favor of such dubious causes as the so-called Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who get a slightly different version of the same letter published every second week.
As a result I've decided to devote my energies to this blog for a while.

Since I have a rich vein of unpublished letters to mine as source material expect a series of articles on subjects which are no longer current.