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Banking on the short-term — The government is selling 'part' of its 13.9% stake in Bank of Ireland. But why now?

Finance minister Paschal Donohoe announced the six-month sale process yesterday.

Image: Leah Farrell

EVEN BY ITS own lofty standards, the degree of upheaval in the Irish retail bank sector over the past 12 months has been remarkable.

Headlines about branch closures, job cuts and market exits have almost become run of the mill.

So yesterday, when the Department of Finance announced plans to sell at least some of the State’s remaining 13.9% stake in Bank of Ireland (BoI) over the next six months, it almost felt a little quaint.

But there’s no doubting the significance of the announcement, both for banking in Ireland and from a historic perspective.

The question on everyone’s lips is why now?

“The main and only reason that we are doing this… is because I’m very confident about the future of the Irish economy,” Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe told Newstalk yesterday.

That’s certainly part of the story.

‘Throttled’

Almost exactly a year ago, Donohoe said that he expected Irish taxpayers to retain their bailout-era shareholding in BoI, AIB and Permanent TSB for “a number of years to come”.

With the economy — and the banks’ share prices — being throttled by the uncertainty of the pandemic at the time, there was a distinct sense that the government had missed its window to ditch its stake. 

But if a year is a long time in politics, it’s practically a geological age in banking at the moment.

In June of last year, BoI shares were being sold at around €2.05, close to a four-year low. This was about a month after the Francesca McDonagh-headed lender published interim results showing a €21 million loss for the first quarter after the bank set aside €421 million to deal with a potential wave of Covid-linked loan defaults.

In total, the bank would set aside €1.1 billion for this purpose, driving it into a €374 million loss in the first year of the pandemic.

But BoI returned to profitability in the second half of 2020 and has had a strong start to the year, posting better than expected numbers in its first-quarter trading update, published in April. 

Another important factor in BoI’s improving fortunes is the impending exits of Ulster Bank and KBC Bank from the Irish market, announced earlier this year.

BoI is in talks with KBC Bank about acquiring the Belgian lender’s deposits and its €9 billion loan book.

If the deal is completed and receives regulatory approval, Ireland’s mortgage lending market — already bedevilled by a lack of competition — will effectively become a two-horse race between BoI and AIB.

And so it’s only natural that investors have taken a more positive of the bank’s shares in recent weeks.

Just 12 months on from Donohoe’s remarks, BoI’s share price had more than doubled to €4.60 at the end of trading on Tuesday, the eve of the minister’s big announcement. 

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Donohoe roundly denied that the KBC negotiations or Ulster Bank’s exit had anything to do with his decision to begin the process now.

However, he said, “it wouldn’t be credible” for him to deny that a deal would impact the value of Irish bank shares given how they have changed the “competitive dynamic” in Irish banking. 

Pointing upwards

With the economy reopening and forecast by the ESRI and others to largely shrug off the impact of the pandemic by 2023, all the arrows are pointing upwards for the bank’s share price (in theory, at least).

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why eyebrows have been raised by the timing of the announcement — even at around €4.60, BoI’s share price is still heavily depressed compared with where it was in 2018.

At the beginning of that year, BoI shares were trading around the €8 mark before a broad slump in European bank stocks began to take hold from which many of the biggest players are yet to fully recover.

“The value of her shareholding [in BoI] back in 2017 was €1.1 billion,” Sinn Féin finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty told the RTÉ News at One yesterday.

“Today it’s valued at somewhere in the region of €650 million. That’s nearly half a billion euro of a reduction. So there is a serious question as to why the minister has decided that the time is right, given that we are seeing a recovery in the share price, they have doubled in the last year.

“It would be envisaged that as we come out of the pandemic as we see more economic recovery, there that the bank share prices would increase in value.”

For Donohoe, this is exactly the point.

From where he’s standing, it’s impossible to divine where bank share prices will be in the next 12 months.

In the short to medium term, however, improvements are expected as lending and general business levels ramp up again in line with the reopening of the economy.

If BoI manages to close the KBC deal and emerge victorious in its scramble for Davy Stockbrokers, the bank’s share price could be in for a further lift in the coming weeks and months.

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‘Rapid pace 

Donohoe’s plan is for the shares to be drip-fed to the market over a six-month period on behalf of the State by Citigroup.

An undisclosed price floor will be set under which the shares will not be sold.

“The number of shares sold will depend on market conditions, amongst other factors,” the department said in a statement.

In other words, the plug can be pulled if the price dips significantly, “in order to ensure that the taxpayers’ interest is protected”.

Even still, it’s not hard to find objections to Donohoe’s gamble or the political principles underpinning it.

The Financial Services Union has queried the decision, coming as it has after 12 months of huge upheaval for the sector.

“In the last couple of weeks, the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach have both publicly commented on the need for a review of banking in Ireland,” said FSU General Secretary John O’Connell in a statement.

“Change is taking place in the sector at a rapid pace and there is common agreement that a strategic discussion needs to happen involving all stakeholders on the future of Banking in Ireland.

“The sale of the state shareholding in Bank of Ireland should have been part of that discussion and not taken prior to that review taking place.”

On the opposition benches, there is no shortage of TDs who believe that divesting from the banks in general — a long-time goal for Donohoe and his Fine Gael party colleagues — is a bad idea, particularly in the midst of a housing crisis.

Given the Ulster and KBC exits and their implications for competition in the mortgage market, calls have ramped up in recent months for the government to use its existing shareholdings to create a ‘third force’ in the sector.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar even agreed with the idea in principle in February and said it’s something he wants to “explore”.

In this context, Labour Party finance spokesperson Ged Nash described the BoI sale as “short-sighted”.

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Mick Barry, meanwhile, told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme that State-owned banks are needed “so that there can be cheap loans and mortgages” to tackle the housing issue.

Naturally, there is little appetite for this in the government at the moment given its party political make-up.

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