Ireland goes for bailout, mulls bank restructure

Ireland will seek a bailout from international lenders, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said on Sunday, ending weeks of speculation that it would need aid to prop up its banks and help it secure cheaper state funding.

The bailout -- which would be the second rescue package for a euro zone country this year -- would be less than 100 billion euros ($136.8 billion), he said, but did not give details of the likely cost.

"I will be recommending to the government that we should apply for a program and open formal negotiations," Lenihan told public broadcaster RTE. He said a plan to restructure Ireland's banks was likely to be a main feature.

However, he dismissed pressure on Dublin from other euro zone countries to raise low business taxes that have attracted many multinational companies to Ireland, saying changes to corporation tax were off the agenda and would hamper growth.

Sources have told Reuters Ireland may need 45-90 billion euros ($63-$126 billion), depending on whether it needs help only for its banks or to cover general government spending too.

If the government goes for a loan to cover three years' worth of state financing requirements it would need about 65-70 billion euros. Lifting the core Tier 1 capital ratios of the country's three largest listed lenders would add another 15 billion euros to that figure.

Yields on Irish government bonds have shot up during the current crisis, meaning that the state would have to pay prohibitively high interest rates to borrow commercially.

"It would makes sense for the government to borrow for three years given where yields are currently," said Brian Devine, economist at NCB Stockbrokers.

Bank Restructure Key

International Monetary Fund and European Commission officials have been in Dublin since Thursday to discuss financial aid to help Ireland cope with its banks, whose huge liabilities have sent Irish borrowing costs soaring.

"Because of the degree of their dependence and support from the European Central Bank it is essential that we deepen the approach to addressing the structural problems in the (Irish) banking system," Lenihan told RTE.

"The focus of the discussions is establishing a capital fund that will demonstrate that the banks have the firepower in the event that further losses materialize in them."

Irish banks, brought to the brink of collapse by exposure to a property and construction sector that slumped after the global financial crisis, have grown dependent on ECB funds and suffered an exodus of deposits over the past six months.

Crisis On All Fronts

Euro zone ministers will discuss Ireland's application for European Union financial help at a conference call on Sunday at 1700 GMT (12 p.m. EST), but no concrete amounts would be discussed yet, a euro zone source told Reuters.

The main concern for EU policymakers is Ireland's problems spreading to other euro zone members with large budget deficits like Spain and Portugal, threatening a systemic crisis.

In May the EU and IMF launched a 110 billion euro rescue package, the first of a euro zone country, aimed at pulling Greece back from the brink of bankruptcy. In return Athens promised harsh austerity measures which brought large numbers of Greeks onto the streets in protest.

Lenihan welcomed comments from French and German leaders that Ireland's 12.5 percent corporate tax rate -- a bone of contention for its euro zone partners -- should not be linked to Ireland's bailout. "That issue is off the agenda now, let's be clear about it," he said.

As well as a bank plan, the government will unveil details next week of a four-year austerity plan to save 15 billion euros, which Lenihan said would help to restore some confidence.

But calls are growing for the government to stand down over its handling of the crisis. Outside government gates on Sunday, someone hung a sign saying "Traitors" over the official "Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister)" sign.

Public sentiment reached boiling point this week after the government insisted publicly it was not in talks when informal discussions were in fact taking place.

Even politicians from within ruling Fianna Fail's own ranks added their voices to criticism of the government on Sunday.

"Fianna Fail as a party must change, and it must call an election -- even if it means that we will lose power," Fianna Fail lawmaker John McGuinness wrote in The Irish Mail on Sunday. "(Prime Minister) Brian Cowen must stand down."

Cowen, finance minister at the end of Ireland's boom years, will finalize the austerity program with the cabinet on Sunday.

Local media said the package would include a new property tax and cuts to the minimum wage, child benefits and job seekers' allowances. Tax breaks for higher earners may also go.

Unions say such measures may prove a tipping point.

"The talk now is of the budget, and effectively destroying the social welfare system. I think there is going to be huge civil unrest as a result of that," union leader Eamon Devoy told Reuters.

A spring election is likely even if the government manages to pass the first of its austerity budgets next month due to Fianna Fail's razor-thin parliamentary majority, which is expected to be cut further in a by-election on Thursday.

A coalition of center-right Fine Gael and center-left Labour is considered the likely successor, although they would be unlikely to deviate far from the austerity program, particularly if it is linked to the aid package.

[Source: By Jodie Ginsberg and Padraic Halpin, Reuters, Dublin, 21Nov10]

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