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FactCheck: Did Michael Noonan tell "bare-faced lies" in the Dáil?

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck steps in to break up a fight between the Minister for Finance and the Opposition.

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A ROW BROKE out in the Dáil last week between Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Fianna Fáil’s Finance Spokesperson Michael McGrath.

In a debate about Fianna Fáil’s bill to force banks to lower their variable mortgage rates, Noonan claimed the publication of McGrath’s bill had wiped 10% off the value of state-owned Irish banks shares.

McGrath fiercely disputed the claim, and Sinn Féin TD Eoin O’Broin later accused the Minister of telling “bare-faced lies”, on RTE Radio 1′s Saturday with Claire Byrne.

Time to step in and sort this out.

(Remember, if you see something you regard as a “bare-faced lie”, email factcheck@thejournal.ie).

Claim: The publication of Fianna Fáil’s variable rate mortgage bill caused state-owned Irish bank shares to fall by 10% that day
Verdict: FALSE by some margin, but Minister Noonan later said he was referring to an 11-day period, not one day.

  • It is absolutely true that there was a 10.5% drop from 9-17 May
  • The publication of the bill may have played some role in the decline, but there were several other plausible explanations for it.

What was said:

So we all know what we’re talking about, here’s what Michael Noonan said in the debate on Tuesday evening.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The day you republished your bill, Deputy McGrath, bank shares went down by 10% across the line. Irish bank shares went down by 10%. So if you take the total value of the Irish taxpayers’ holdings in the bank, the publication of your bill dropped it by 10%.

The Facts

11/5/2016. Silicon Valley Announcements Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

It’s not clear from that statement alone which date or which banks Noonan was referring to.

A Fianna Fáil spokesperson told us the party had asked on 6 May for permission to introduce the bill. On 12 May they asked for permission to present the bill to the Dáil, and debates followed on Tuesday 17 May and Wednesday 18 May.

A spokesperson for Minister Noonan told us the key date, by their reckoning, was 9 May, “the day that Deputy McGrath began publicising the re-publication of his Bill.”

The “re-publication” here, refers to the fact that McGrath and Fianna Fáil first introduced their bill last June, before it was voted down by government TDs.

In any case, let’s check those three dates.

There are three banks in which the state owns a significant portion of shares: AIB (99.8%), Permanent TSB (74.92%) and Bank of Ireland (13.95%).

It’s very important to note that only 0.2% of AIB shares are actually traded on the stock market, so the share price is not a particularly reliable gauge of the bank’s actual value, and should be viewed in that light.

However, using official Irish Stock Exchange data, we calculated the total value of shares owned by the Irish taxpayer at close of trading from 5-17 May, and found these changes:

noonanshares1

  • On 6 May, the total value fell by 0.23%, from €24.2 billion to €24.13 billion
  • On 9 May, it fell by 1.26%, from €24.13 billion to €23.83 billion
  • On 12 May, it fell by 2.68%, from €23.61 billion to €22.98 billion

Noonan’s spokesperson, however, told us that AIB share prices were not included in their calculations, for broadly the reasons set out above.

So we checked the total value of state-owned shares in just Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB at close of trading from 5-17 May.

noonanshares2

  • On 6 May, the total value of state-owned shares in the two banks fell by 2.88%, from €1.97 billion to €1.92 billion
  • On 9 May, it fell by 4.22%, from €1.92 billion to €1.84 billion
  • On 12 May, it fell by 3.27%, from €1.8 billion to €1.75 billion

As you can see, there is no calculation method for any of the three dates in question which shows a drop in the value of state-owned bank shares by anywhere close to 10%.

Minister Noonan’s claim, as articulated in the Dáil on Thursday, is therefore entirely FALSE.

What did he mean to say?

noonandail Source: Oireachtas.ie

We asked Michael Noonan’s spokesperson whether he accepted that his claim in the Dáil last Tuesday was false, and if he would be retracting it.

We did not receive a substantive response to that question, but our attention was drawn to remarks the Minister made to reporters two days later, on Thursday, when he re-articulated his position:

When Michael McGrath first began to publicise his intent to publish the bill on the 9th of May, between that and the 17th of May, the average decline in Bank of Ireland and PTSB was about 10.5%. And that’s what I referred to in my speech.

That 11-day time frame is very different to what the Minister claimed in the Dáil, but if you’re interested in seeing it evaluated, read on.

Between those two points in time, the total did indeed fall by 10.5%, from €1.92 billion to €1.72 billion.

If we include AIB share prices, the total fell by 16.3%.

The only possible explanation?

When asked, the Department of Finance did not provide evidence to support the claim that the re-publication of the bill had caused the 10.5% drop from 6-17 May.

How does Fianna Fáil explain that decline? A spokesperson told us:

A numbers of factors have influenced bank share prices in recent weeks. AIB announced a reduction in rates on 9 May and PTSB provided a trading update on 11 May.
…It made absolutely no mention of political action in relation to standard variable rates.

That’s true. You can read the PTSB trading update here.

Noonan told reporters on Thursday that the Permanent TSB statement had been favourable, and “more good news than bad news.”

However, PTSB’s share price fell by 10.75% that day, the single biggest day-to-day decrease of any of the three banks in the last month.

The AIB announcement on 9 May, that it would cut its standard variable mortgage rate by 0.25% to 3.4%, preceded a 1% decline in its share price that day, far from the biggest drop in the last month.

This also wouldn’t factor into the Department of Finance’s 10.5% drop, because that figure only addresses Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB shares.

It’s difficult to identify for certain the primary causes of those share price changes in the 11 days between 9 and 17 May, but we can make a couple of observations.

Immediate impacts?

17/5/2016. Mortgage Interest Rates Issues Fianna Fáil Finance Spokesperson Michael McGrath Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Firstly, the fall in total Bank of Ireland/PTSB share values on 9 May was 4.22%, the second-biggest in the last month, behind 3 May, when the value of state-owned shares fell by 5.13%.

So whatever forces were at work that day, the share price fall in those two banks was a significant one.

What happened next

Secondly, the period since last Tuesday’s debate would appear to somewhat undermine the claim that Fianna Fáil’s mortgage rate legislation hurt Irish bank shares in the run-up to that date.

6-17 May

Michael McGrath began publicly discussing the bill in a significant way on Friday 6 May, in an Irish Examiner article.

On Monday 9 May, he appeared on Morning Ireland, and discussed the bill for three minutes at the end of his eight-minute interview.

A Google News search for “Fianna Fáil mortgage” yielded four Irish articles on mortgage rates that day, three from the Irish Independent, and one by the Irish Mirror. All four focused primarily or exclusively on AIB’s mortgage rate cut announcement that day.

A Reuters article with the headline “Irish opposition to test new government with mortgage rate bill” was syndicated by BusinessWorld.ie and several other foreign news outlets.

Between 10 May and close of trading on 17 May, there were six news reports focused on the Fianna Fáil bill, in the Irish Times, Irish Examiner and Sunday Business Post.

17-23 May

27/4/2016. Central Bank Annual Reports Central Bank Governor Philip Lane. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

On 17 May (after trading closed for the day) the legislation was debated in the Dáil for the first time, and advanced to a second stage debate, which took place the following evening.

On 18 May, Michael Noonan withdrew a government amendment that would have delayed further debate on the bill for another six months.

Over the following days, there was extensive coverage focused on the Fianna Fáil bill in the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Sunday Business Post, TheJournal.ie, the Irish Examiner, RTE, and the Irish Mirror.

Some of that coverage was critical of the bill, including analysis (reported in the Irish Times) by Davy Stockbrokers, which warned about the pitfalls of Fianna Fáil’s proposals.

One intervention in particular made the prospect of the legislation’s implementation appear increasingly realistic.

On Thursday 19 May, RTE reported that Central Bank Governor Philip Lane, a crucial figure, who had previously called Fianna Fáil’s proposals “a very crude instrument with many downsides”, told a conference in Dublin:

We don’t think having legislative caps is the best way to ensure competition, but we will work not just to the spirit but to the letter of every law that comes in.

Remember that the rationale behind Michael Noonan’s allegation was that publicity in advance of the bill, starting 9 May, had caused the 10% drop in share prices.

So you might reasonably think that Irish bank shares suffered even more after 17 May, as the legislation gathered momentum in the Dáil, media coverage stepped up, and the Central Bank Governor committed to implementing the bill, if it were passed into law.

In fact, though, there was a 1.5% increase in the value of state-owned shares in Irish banks between 18 and 23 May.

If we remove AIB from the equation (as the Department of Finance is quite reasonably doing), the increase was even greater, 5.3%.

This could suggest a “correction” in the market, as shareholder confidence levelled off and recovered after the initial impact of publicity around the legislation.

But it could well also suggest that publicity surrounding the anticipated introduction of an opposition bill was not the blow to Irish bank shares that Minister Noonan is claiming.

The chart below tracks the performance of state-owned shares throughout the period in question, with reference to a few events discussed in this article, and cited by both the Department of Finance and Fianna Fáil.

noonanshares3 Source: Click here for a larger version of this chart

Conclusion

Those events are far from an exhaustive list of potential factors in the rise and fall of Irish bank shares over the last month.

By definition, Michael McGrath’s re-publication of his mortgage bill could not have been the only factor in Irish bank share trends between 9 and 17 May.

So we can fairly safely dispense with any claim that it was solely responsible for the 10.5% drop in Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB shares during that time period.

And the improving performance of Irish bank shares after 17 May certainly casts doubt, retrospectively, on the logic behind Michael Noonan’s claim.

If the relatively little publicity surrounding the promised presentation of the bill caused shares to fall, why did warnings from analysts, a commitment from the Central Bank Governor, greater publicity and the actual presentation and advancement of the bill accompany an increase in bank shares?

Ultimately, however, we can’t say for sure. So we cannot verify the claim that the re-publication of the bill caused a 10% drop in shares from 9-17 May.

Remember, though, that that’s not actually the claim made by Michael Noonan. What he said in the Dáil during Tuesday’s debate has been shown above to be FALSE by some margin.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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