Olympian spirit a must to fix mess in Euroland

There’s nothing quite like a high-profile multinational event to highlight just how nation-bound we all are. Take the Olympic Games. During August and September I watched the Olympics and Paralympics in three different countries – Ireland, England and South Africa.

With the sole exception of Oscar Pistorius, each country’s media focused exclusively on their own athletes. The only events that were given media coverage were those in which that country’s athletes participated; news stories were about what gold, silver or bronze medals were won by those athletes. Breaking world records by “another” country’s athletes was considered of little importance.

When I arrived in Ireland in mid-August, I was sure all of Ireland would know about Caster Semenya and Chad le Clos. Nobody had heard of them, just as I had not heard of Katie Taylor, the Irish boxing champion. It seemed that in this global village we live in we had all scuttled into our own national rondavels to contemplate this multinational event.

Another high-profile multinational event, which has brought none of the exuberance of the Olympics but has reduced us all to near-rabid nationalists, is the global financial crisis.

Within a few months of Lehman Brothers’ collapse in 2008, the notion of a borderless global financial market had been surpassed by an obsession with the viability of individual national financial markets.

It was not just the Americans, British and Chinese who were obsessing about their own market but, more remarkably, it was the countries of the EU. Almost overnight the grand European project began to disintegrate. In terms of that bold project everyone in Euroland believed that they were part of a single-currency market that had no borders.

And so, the story went, there was nothing to distinguish Irish banks from German banks from Greek banks; they were all just European banks, which meant they could all borrow from the same source of funds and lend to the same customers. Behind this story was the determination of the European Central Bank (ECB) to increase the efficiency of capital by ensuring that it was allocated to whatever sector in whatever country that offered the highest returns. In Euroland national borders were not allowed to curb the efficiency of this allocation process.

This was why, as Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole tells it, Anglo-Irish Bank was able to increase its UK loan book by £1 billion (R13bn) in just six months between September 2004 and March 2005.

That billion, which was almost certainly borrowed from German and French banks, was pumped into British property funds. Essentially, the money went from Germany to the UK via an Irish intermediary with every player along the way getting a slice of profit from this multinational no-borders funding activity.

As Michael Lewis argues in Boomerang, the ECB’s goal of creating an integrated and efficient capital market enabled the previously extremely conservative German banks to indulge in an orgy of lending between 2003 and 2008.

However, when all hell broke loose, Euroland’s ill-considered project collapsed and nationality became all-important.

Suddenly it was the Irish who had borrowed all the money and so the Irish had to pay it back. Last week’s move by the ECB may go some way to addressing the chaos caused by multinational capital flows in an essentially national environment. But it will require Olympian efforts from all concerned if it is to succeed.