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McClatchy-Tribune  08/08/2014 1:17 PM ET
Daily Mail, London, City Focus column [Daily Mail, London :: ]

Aug. 08--Celtic Tiger was the name widely given to the Irish economy as it registered breakneck growth at the end of the 20th century.

A procession of some of Britain's biggest companies were seduced by Ireland's 'economic miracle' which transformed it from one of Europe's poorest countries to one of its wealthiest.

Growth was fuelled by a huge property boom and a low tax regime, which has seen it become the European home for US multi-nationals including Google, Yahoo and Facebook.

British banks including HBOS and RBS, via its subsidiary Ulster Bank, were desperate to get a slice of the action and lent money to anyone with a pulse.

A few years later and Ireland has had to content itself with being the poster child for austerity since its 2010 bailout, after its economy imploded during the financial crisis and the property bubble burst.

Although the Irish economy is now in recovery mode, some of Britain's biggest companies are nursing the mother of all hangovers from their Irish adventure.

Yesterday two FTSE 100 insurers, RSA and Aviva, served up a reminder that their Irish woes aren't all done and dusted.

RSA is rebuilding after a pounds sterling 220m fraud in its Irish business, which together with big losses from bad weather last year have prompted a string of profit warnings and a pounds sterling 748m rights issue to shore up its finances.

It revealed yesterday that it took another pounds sterling 57m hit in Ireland in the first half of the year as it restructures its operations there, but said it expects to return to profit in Ireland next year.

RSA's problems in Ireland stem largely from fraud rather than the economic crash. In fact, the insurer weathered the storm fairly well and continued to turn a profit during the crisis.

But it now appears that this could have been illusory, as rogue former employees overstated the premiums they generated from customers.

Aviva's profits were ravaged in Ireland and it is only just emerging from a painful period of restructuring.

This has involved shedding half its staff, or more than 500 jobs, to create a leaner, meaner organisation. The division appears to be on the mend, and generated enough money to pay a cash dividend to the group last year for the first time in two years.

B UT the Irish troubles of Aviva and RSA are dwarfed by the problems faced by Lloyds and RBS.

Lloyds had to be rescued by the British taxpayer after it was crippled by the reckless loans issued by HBOS Halifax Bank of Scotland before the crisis.

Bank of Scotland was one of the most aggressive lenders in Ireland during the property boom. Under disgraced former HBOS chief executive James Crosby and BOS's international boss Colin Matthews it set a target to grow the business at a dizzying pace.

When the property bubble burst the results were catastrophic.

Bank of Scotland pulled out of Ireland in 2010 but the damage had already been done. Losses on bad loans hit an estimated pounds sterling 10.9bn between 2008 and 2011 with total losses of pounds sterling 12.8bn.

Some six years after the financial crisis kicked off, Lloyds still has more than pounds sterling 8bn 'impaired' commercial property, retail and corporate loans on its books which are unlikely to be repaid in full.

RBS has also had more than its fair share of problems in Ireland after indulging in its own reckless lending spree at the height of its property boom.

Since 2008, the state-backed lender has lost pounds sterling 17bn in bad loans from its Ulster Bank subsidiary this is approximately a third of all impairments across the bank.

Last year, Ulster Bank lurched to a loss of just under pounds sterling 1.5bn out of RBS's total losses of pounds sterling 8.2bn.

Some pounds sterling 4.8bn of dodgy Ulster Bank loans have been thrown into the 'bad bank' created by RBS at the start of the year to house its most toxic assets.

The estimated pounds sterling 15bn of capital pumped into Ulster Bank between 2009 and 2013 by RBS is seen by some in Westminster as a back door bailout of the Irish economy by the British Government which still owns 82pc of RBS.

MPs have privately said that Ulster Bank should have been handed over to the Irish government in 2010.

There are signs that Ulster Bank is finally turning a corner, generating its second consecutive quarterly profit this year.

But it has been one of the most painful rehabilitation stories in corporate history.

 

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