State has until 2020 to repay €52bn, TDs told

The State must refinance €52bn in debt by 2020 – more than the entire national debt before the financial crash, the head of the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) has said.

The interest bill is trending towards €6bn, and could go even lower depending on where the low interest rate environment goes, Conor O’Kelly said yesterday. The interest bill currently totals €7bn.

But he warned the country remains highly indebted and vulnerable, with €52bn in debt repayments due to mature between October of this year and October 2020. “Just to put that in context, that maturing debt is in excess of the total national debt that existed in 2007,” Mr O’Kelly said. “So the interest rate environment, while we’re refinancing that debt during that period, will be critical in determining what the long-term overall cost of the national debt is in terms of interest bill.”

Gross debt, as a percentage of the value of the economy, is expected to fall to 74.3pc this year, 72.7pc next year and then hit 70.7pc in 2019. But the actual debt pile is projected to get bigger. This year it’s estimated at €204.5bn, rising to €209.8bn in 2018 and £212.8bn in 2019, according to Budget 2017.

It is four times the size it was in 2007. “There are very few countries in the world who have had their debt increase by that kind of multiple,” he said.

Mr O’Kelly told TDs at the Oireachtas Budgetary Oversight Committee that Ireland fares better than only Greece and Portugal in the interest-bill-to Government-revenue gauge and Government-debt-to-revenue gauge. “This is still a very indebted country and although the interest rate environment has allowed us to refinance and try and lower that interest bill, the stock of debt is still very high, very significant, and we have to bear that in mind.”

Mr O’Kelly said that while the interest bill on the debt pile could fall as low as €5bn, that depended on where the interest rate environment goes.

He credited the European Central Bank’s bond-buying programme known as quantitative easing – introduced to help boost inflation in the bloc – for helping to slash the overall interest bill.

In 2013, the interest bill for this year was projected to be as high as €10bn, he said.

“So we’re €3bn less than what was forecast only three years ago, on our way to being €4bn less, and that’s an annual saving versus what was forecast in 2013,” he said

“How has that happened? Where has that value come from? We’re disproportionately a high borrower nation, so we’ve been a disproportionate beneficiary of quantitative easing. That’s not withstanding the policy decisions. The improvement in our credit story is obviously a major part of that as well. You’re talking €3-4bn savings versus what we forecast.”How long that will continue remains to be seen, however. Having fought the risk of deflation for years, the ECB is now under pressure as higher energy costs feed into other prices, igniting calls for it to ease off the accelerator – particularly in Germany, where inflation is already close to the ECB’s 2pc target. An exit from stimulus may not be on the cards anytime soon. ECB President Mario Draghi has made it clear underlying inflation was too weak.

The NTMA also said it would have to “find a home” among the traditional investor for Ireland’s bailout debt, which it said would be up to €70bn.
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