WHEN: Monday, March 16th
Following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC EXCLUSIVE interview with Brian Cowen, the Prime Minister of Ireland. Excerpts from the interview will run during CNBC's Business Day programming today, Monday, March 16th and tomorrow, Tuesday, March 17th.
All references must be sourced to CNBC.
MARGARET BRENNAN, host: This is the first trade mission from Ireland to the US in more than 20 years. You just announced 1- to $200 million worth of deals with American firms. How important is America in the question of turning around Ireland's economy right now?
Mr. BRIAN COWEN: Well, it's usually a part--it's the first trade delegation led by a prime minister. I mean, obviously you've had other ministers leading trade delegations in the past. We export about 20 percent of what we produce to the United States, and the United States has been a key factor in the economic success of Ireland. In terms of the foreign...(unintelligible)...invested over $55 billion, over 450 companies located there, many of them in the high-tech areas, employing 90,000 people. What's not known, I think, because we've transitioned into the...(unintelligible)...economy is that there are a lot of Irish businesses which have internationalized, which have...(unintelligible)...into America. And we have, you know, many companies here located in America now, Irish-owned businesses who have taken over other businesses here in the States. They employ about 80,000 people. So there's far greater equilibrium, I think, in employment terms, in terms of of...(unintelligible)...taking place. We're a very open economy so, you know, obviously an upturn in the United States' economy is critical for us all in the world; but also in Ireland, because compared to other European countries we export far more in proportion to the United States than many of the larger economies in Europe do, because it's a much bigger domestic partner.
BRENNAN: Well, part of the boom that the Celtic Tiger experienced was in part because of government policies that created incentives for businesses to come to Ireland, a low tax rate. Given the climate, given the budget deficit and how high it is, can you continue those type of incentives in this climate now?
Mr. COWEN: Yeah. We're committed to maintaining that ecosystem in Ireland, because not only will the foreign direct investment...(unintelligible)...continue. I mean, last year was 7 percent up on '07. The Q1 this year is ahead of Q1 in '08. And so that's an important part of our strategy. But it's not a one trick pony. It's not just--that's not the only strategy we have. We're also invested heavily in research and development, international and in Irish business. The number of Starbucks is part of the enterprise ecosystem that we set up in Ireland through our fiscal policies and through enterprise...(unintelligible)...through the agencies that we have founded. They are helping Irish start-up companies. They--in the high-tech area, 300 in all in the last four years, many of them coming to the States and doing business. And as you said, we have 23 companies on this trade delegation. We're going to do significant business that could grow up to half a billion dollars in two, three years. So that's where we see the Irish economy going. Smart economy, one that is continuing to invest in education, research and development, help to commercialize intellectual property into the goods and services of the future. It's very much a similar agenda to what President Obama's talking about; his green tank sector, information technology, the whole biotech area. These are areas where we believe Ireland could be an innovation hub in Europe. And we want to, if you like, continue to spin off, to spin out what we get from much of the US investment that comes to Ireland. The business culture that comes, the pursuit of excellence, that culture of business excellence that helps us compete in world markets. These are a critical factor. So it's not just about the investment, per se.
Mr. COWEN: It's what comes with it. And the... unintelligible)...know-how that Irish...(unintelligible)...takes from it, as well.
BRENNAN: The big question here in the US, and the stumbling block for any forward movement seems to be the banking sector and stabilizing the crisis in the banking sector here in the US. In Ireland you have a similar, you know, real estate-born banking crisis. How close are you to stabilizing the banks? You've nationalized Anglo Irish, you've pumped more than 4 1/2 billion into two of your other biggest banks. Where are you in that process?
Mr. COWEN: Well, where we are is we've done a state guarantee last September, obviously, to guarantee our deposits. We've also...(unintelligible)...recapitalization problem, as you said, of having to nationalize one bank because of corporate problems, issues that arose there...
Mr. COWEN: ...had market support withdrawn from it. And we're also now in the business of managing risk. And it is important to point out that in our--the Irish banking system is not affected by any of this toxic paper problem that is dominating other banks crises around the world. We do, as you say, have this domestic property portfolio issue, but it's heavily managed and it's well securitized. We're mostly insured that that's managed out over time. And so from our point of view, you know, I suppose looking at our--the balance sheet, I suppose, our net debts at the beginning of this year, just 20 percent of GDP. We take into account as long we have in our national treasury management...(unintelligible)...each of the reserves we have in our national pension reserve fund. So we have a loan that--which should...(unintelligible)...we try to deal with the deficit problem going forward. But also our profit loss account, the deficit has arisen very quickly, it's been steep and severe. Been a big reduction in our tax revenues. So we are being more supplementary funded in this next month, because rates from revenues are also--and we're also--expense for savings, as well. As we begin, as we set out a plan over the next five, six years to actually bring that debt, bring that deficit back into balance over that period.
BRENNAN: And you have an emergency session to discuss that, I believe it's next month?
Mr. COWEN: We have a supplementary budget we're bringing forward.
Mr. COWEN: We have--in our first two months of this year, the results are disappointing. And we've moved quickly, we've...(unintelligible)...immediately because we want to show the seriousness of our purpose, of our intent to obviously control that deficit...(unintelligible)...putting it--reining it back in over time. But also, we're going to continue to invest into the...(unintelligible)...small and medium-sized business sector. It's important that--you know, for Ireland, we live--we live by our exports. That's how our national wealth has been created. For the first time in a quarter of a century you're seeing more demand reduce in terms of growth.
Mr. COWEN: So you know, this is affecting us all over the economy more quickly than others who have a larger domestic market to cushion against the effect of external recession.
BRENNAN: Besides what was the Celtic Tiger in terms of the booming economy, your stock market was also flying quite high. Here in the US Warren Buffett is seen as not only one of this country's greatest investors, but one of the world's greatest investors. But he said on CNBC that his two biggest mistakes in the past year were investing in ConocoPhillips and in two big Irish banks. So on top of the financial issues, there's a credibility problem. There is a lack of trust, in some ways, about how stable the markets are right now in Ireland. I mean, what words of reassurance do you have for a Warren Buffett or for another international investor that the crisis has passed enough to put money back into the marketplace?
Mr. COWEN: Well, I think, you know, like all banking shares worldwide, it's been a--it's been a downer for everyone. And Ireland hasn't been an exception. But I think what people have to look at is the underlying strength of the Irish economy. I mean, we will return to growth rates...(unintelligible). We're are committed to making the...(unintelligible)...better...(unintelligible)...the coming years. And we're not going to throw away all of what we've built up through our own hard work over the last 20 years by involving ourselves in fiscal relaxing of discipline. So we're going to work over the next few years to control the back half in our deficit. But people have to look at our low debt ratio, debt/GDP ratio. It's well below European averages. We have that room to maneuver over time. But we also recognize that on the short term we've got to make the corrections that are necessary. And I think what people can be assured of is, you know, we have given a therapy. There will be no bank with systemic importance allowed to fail anywhere in the EU. That's the commitment that all of the EU leaders have given.
Mr. COWEN: And obviously, the European Central Bank has been a very helpful instrument, the makers by which stability is being provided on mortgages, etc., that market prices were locked.
BRENNAN: You know, here in the US there is a lot of criticism of our current Treasury secretary of, you know, a lot of pressure to move more quickly to stabilize the banking system. That's a single, central, you know, policy-making instrument. When you look at Europe, there are so many different central bankers, as you mentioned, sort of conferring on how to solve this crisis. How much of the response of how to stabilize Ireland is going to come from within, and how much of it are you going to turn to the EU for?
Mr. COWEN: Well, the eurozone has been--it has been the zone of relative stability as a currency area compared to other major currencies of the world. It's made some serious exchange rate changes, many of them against the strength of the euro rather than the weakness of the euro. So I think it's important to point out that the European Central Bank, as far as the euro area countries--and there are large numbers of them in the European Union who aren't euro-ready, including ourselves--have provided a zone of stability for the currency of that area. And I think that, you know, what we're--what we're trying to achieve is a level of coordination not only within Europe, but the international banking law generally...
Mr. COWEN: ...in terms of regulatory arrangements, the ability to monitor and sort of properly have surveillance of what's been happening. The financial arrangements that were done in the past were simply, you know, major dislocation between risk and reward. And we ended up with a situation where clearly, as the light...(unintelligible)...touched, almost taken advantage of, frankly, by financial corporations.
Mr. COWEN: And so the G20 meeting that's coming up, I think, is an excellent opportunity to reinforce some confidence into the world markets that in fact the economies of the world, the leading economies of the world will be getting their act together in terms of providing that level of international coordination that's just as important in terms of stabilizing the banking system and bringing some trust back into the banks by improving transparency, improving regulation of the...(unintelligible)...of surveillance.
BRENNAN: Now, what does that mean? Because it's perceived in the press that there is somewhat of a split between what the US wants as a global coordinated response in terms of stimulus and what many in Europe would like, which is more of a focus on regulation. Or at least that's what--the message seems to be coming out of in terms of Germany's position, that not necessarily supportive of stimulus. Where do you stand?
Mr. COWEN: Well, I mean, the stimulus--the huge stimulus package that's been brought forth by the European Commission is something of the order of 1 1/2, 2 percent GDP in Europe...(unintelligible)...
Mr. COWEN: ...none of it significant...(unintelligible). And as for us, we're engaged in a capital investment program that's about 5, 5.2 percent of GDP, which itself is...(unintelligible)...of the EU average in terms of capital investment. And we see that at the public sector quite properly going into economic investments. For the future, now that the private sector and domestic construction sector has very much gone downhill as a result of correction in our housing market. So I think, you know, you can't have a uniform, one-size-fits-all for every economy.
Mr. COWEN: Some people have more fiscal room to maneuver than others. But in the overall, the European Union has provided a stimulus package which is of significance. In my opinion, quite apart from that, you know, you have national governments that are trying to accommodate whatever fiscal stimulus they can provide, you know, subject to--in--consistent with markets out there...(unintelligible). So you've got this--you know, there is a--there is no painless way through here.
Mr. COWEN: There's obviously a correction, an adjustment that has to be take--take place. For a small economy like us, we can be flexible and adapt just very quickly. And being so open in an economy when the upturn comes, we can make that upturn quicker than most. So you know, we will work with--as members of the euro area, within the..(unintelligible)...have set up. But specifically on our deficit situation, we don't have that much room to maneuver if we stop making the corrections ourselves.
BRENNAN: Would you want another stimulus?
Mr. COWEN: Well, already, as I say, our expenditures are exceeding our taxes. So we've got to--we've got to raise some taxes or cut our expenditures. I mean, a prerequisite for recovery...
Mr. COWEN: ...economic recovery is pulling your public finances in order. And obviously, deficit budgeting--there is a, if you like, a cyclical deficit that one can look to as half of the economic cycle that one should invest in and one can justify.
Mr. COWEN: There's also a structured deficit issue which, you know, you've got to seek to eliminate if your taxation base starts to depend too much on transaction practices rather than getting more from income and other taxes. So you know, every country has to look to its own particular system to find what way you can make adjustments consistent with stability.
BRENNAN: Mm-hmm. Raising taxes in a recession makes many economists shudder. Why...
Mr. COWEN: We have--well, we have very low taxes on income and our labor, very low taxes.
Mr. COWEN: Eighty percent of our--of our workers have an effective tax rate of 20 percent or less and don't owe property tax. Now, we have low capital taxes, 22 percent capital tax. The corporation tax is at 12 1/2 percent. So we have--we don't intend to change our corporation tax rate. We want to continue to support enterprise.
Mr. COWEN: But there is room for us to maneuver in terms of some taxes on income. It's just an increased cost to employers. With, obviously, the employees and workers and everyone at work in Ireland, someone has to contribute more to help us bridge the gap that has arisen. And we do that over time.
BRENNAN: Now, last summer--we spoke last in July, and the downturn has been swift and much more dramatic than people around the world expected. I mean, I don't think there is a government prepared for the kind of downturn that we've seen. Where do you think Ireland is in terms of that cycle? Because I believe you're forecasting a contraction of about 6 percent in Ireland? That was a pretty fast contraction from just January, when you were projecting 4 percent.
Mr. COWEN: Yes. That's...
BRENNAN: How much farther to fall here?
Mr. COWEN: Well, we are in uncharted territory, basically, aren't we? I mean, everyone is trying to see where is the bottom of the cycle here, how prolonged this will be and how quickly can we come out of it?
Mr. COWEN: There have been some indications of recent weeks that perhaps the green shoots of recovery were...(unintelligible)...than the more pessimistic ideas, previous number we expected. Really, you know, what we've got to do here is show, over a sustained period of time, what the direction of government policy's going to be in terms of bringing stability to our public finances.
Mr. COWEN: And we intend doing that. We have already indicated our plans to the European Commission, how we will reduce our deficits to under the required 3 percent deficit by 2012. So we've got--we've got to make that stand now. And people will be...(unintelligible)...of what they do, and so therefore, we'll bring...(unintelligible)...to indicate...(unintelligible)...two months later for more disappointment than we expected. We will--we'll need to address that. And it's only by showing government reacting quickly and in a timely fashion to emerging problems that one can show to the international markets that the...(unintelligible)...of Ireland is focused not only on its midterm recovery, bot on short-term initiatives to bring stability to the...(unintelligible).
BRENNAN: Now, three big ratings agencies--and that's...(unintelligible)...Standard & Poor's among them--have cut their outlook in terms of the credit health of Ireland, losing that AAA rating. That's going to make it more expensive for you to borrow. I mean, what is your sense of how accurately the market is pricing risk when it comes to Ireland right now, and what the impact of it creating, credit rating...
Mr. COWEN: I think they're overpricing the risk, obviously, because as I said, our net debt position is 20 percent of GDP.
Mr. COWEN: You know, the average in the European Union in terms of total debt...(unintelligible)...is over 60 percent. If you--if you...(unintelligible).
BRENNAN: OK. Sure.
Mr. COWEN: But I think they're overpricing the risk. Because if you look a tour GDP--debt/GDP position, we have reduced now, as I said, net terms, 20 percent. If you don't take account of our--as well as the cash we have on hand in both our pension funds and our national treasury management agency, it's up 41 percent...(unintelligible). The average in the EU is 60 percent. So you know, we have some headroom. I'm not saying for a moment that I'm happy that our national debt is starting to increase again, but I am saying that in the good times we halved our national debt. So we make sure that in good times we reduced our debt position...
Mr. COWEN: ...from over 60 percent in '97, within 10 years to 27, 28 percent...(unintelligible). So you know, it's starting to move up again, but we have created that rule to meet such a requirement, even though this is...(unintelligible)...time, as you know. So we think, you know, people, in looking at the pricing of risk in Ireland, need to look at our demographics, need to look at our ability to adjust when the upturn comes. Look at what government is doing in the meantime on our public finance position. I think we should stay confident, you know, that the more entrepreneurial, enterprising economy in Europe that lost their illusion, we will come back from this.
Mr. COWEN: We will make the adjustments in the short term. And as soon as the pick up comes, we intend forging ahead again. And as people look at the strategy that we're adopting in terms of our capital investment program, or investment in education and research, development, commercializing for the new products of the future, becoming an innovation hub for Europe generally, you know, the Irish economy is...(unintelligible)...itself strategically to compete in the new environment that's going to emerge.
BRENNAN: There's a bit of gallows humor, and I'm sure you hate this, but the joke being that there's a very small difference between Iceland and Ireland, the matter of a single letter and six months.
Mr. COWEN: Six months.
BRENNAN: You've got to hate that. But that's the perception.
Mr. COWEN: It's not...
BRENNAN: How inaccurate is it?
Mr. COWEN: (Unintelligible). There are many people competing for capital deposits who are above...(unintelligible)...perceptions, the misperceptions. You know, there's a lot of competition out there. And what people have to look at is the fundamentals of our economy. Have you looked at the fundamentals of economy and what is being produced and what's being provided in Ireland, that--our commitment to be more competitive in the future. You know, Ireland as a lot to offer. Ireland has strengths and it's been dubbed--Ireland is part of the eurozone, Ireland is part of a wider zone of ability. So talking about Ireland in the context of what unfortunately happened in Iceland, depending of its own national reserves to withstand that tsunami that came against them is frankly, you know, comparing apples to oranges, and I don't think it's very proper for them to do that.
BRENNAN: What's your response to that? Because the downturn been so sharp.
Mr. COWEN: Well, it's not...
BRENNAN: Is it first to go in and guarantee bank deposits? There's been an...
Mr. COWEN: Others have done it since.
BRENNAN: Others have done it since, but you're the first ones out there which, in many ways, you could say, well, quick on their feet. But other critics would say, well, maybe they just simply were reacting because they saw something in how badly it truly is, and we had no idea. I mean, how accurate is the market now in getting a sense of where we are?
Mr. COWEN: The markets--you know, the market...(unintelligible)...extremely negative in respect of all--the whole banking situation generally. I don't know if I can share any...(unintelligible)...works, but its holding its own.
Mr. COWEN: That's not--quite the contrary. So you know, the market has its own sense, but you've got to look at it before the...(unintelligible). If you want to make a strategic decision of where Ireland--you know, where Ireland's going to be, if you look at our fundamentals, we still don't--even though unemployment has risen very quickly, we still have 500,000 more people working in our economy now than 10 years ago. We've the youngest population in Europe in terms of our demographics, 40 percent of them under 25. We've got one of the most highly educated work force in the world. People come and invest in Ireland. Have--US corporations, for example, an annual rate of return of just under 20 percent. You know, we are in a position to produce goods and services that the world requires. In recession, our...(unintelligible)...sector has been cut considerably. We now employ as many in the...(unintelligible)...sector as we do with the foreign direct investment sector. The Irish economy has advanced, matured and is now out there competing in these difficult conditions. There has been a swift but severe change in terms of our immediate financial condition because of the downturn of tax revenues because we're such an open economy, one of the most open economies of the world. As I said, we don't have a big domestic market to cushion against some of this.
Mr COWEN: So what we want to do is, by being small, we'd be practical, we'd advance, we'd adjust, we'd do whatever is necessary, because Ireland is not going to throw away what it has worked so hard to achieve in the last couple years. And we continue to be out there aggressively in the market, working with customers and building up our customer base...(unintelligible)...businesses at home and just continuing, you know, like everyone else, to survive in this particular period; trying to react, trying to predict in an accurate way, as best we can based on the...(unintelligible)...of evidence before us of the impact this international recession is having on us, and coming up with strategies and policies that we assure international markets that Ireland remains open for business, we'll do whatever is necessary to maintain our position that we've worked so hard to achieve. And you know--and now, as you said, the...(unintelligible)...simply does not hold water when you look at the fact that we're in a winder euro currency area, they fact that we are--have had a lot of success in past and that we have a strategic view of how to go forward.
BRENNAN: Tomorrow you'll be meeting with President Obama at the White House. I believe you're only the second European head of state to come to the Obama White House since he's entered office. What's top of the agenda for you?
Mr. COWEN: Well, we want to listen very much, tap into what he sees as how this economic crisis can be managed and overcome. As I said, the quicker the US economy picks up, the better for us, the better for everyone. And--but also, I mean, the area he's talking about, the strategic investments that he wants to make in green...(unintelligible)...and energy efficiency and renewables, these are the very areas that are central to our strategy for economic sustainable renewal at home. So we want to see in what way we can find synergies as we're doing here in the...(unintelligible)...sectors, or in the contrasting one, and to talk to him about how he sees the world economy picking up; how he sees, you know, the wider G20 approach working and hopefully implementing the strategies that would work and that would get us out of recession more quickly than other ways. And the bottom line for him is that the status quo doesn't work. So we wanted to work--listen very closely and...(unintelligible)...what he has to say. That's what we concentrate on the economic front. But there are the other issues on bilateral--of bilateral interests...(unintelligible).
BRENNAN: Now, Irish-America, I know, is personally a topic, an agenda important to you. You've made some changes now when it comes to views of policy, in particular. What's the thought behind that, in reaching out to the 36 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry?
Mr. COWEN: Well, the thought behind it is that every relationship, if it's to prosper, indeed, it has to be nurtured and worked. It's the human interactions between people coming to Ireland and the Irish people who go to America that is at the heart, the life of any relationship. And while the historic ties and kinship are very strong, the...(unintelligible)...relationships have been increased. But we're all just this global village now and, you know, personal travel and personal technology, personal talent interactive between us through the economic things that we now have. You know, we have to look beyond that as well, and recognize that we're left with a human interaction between us. And that's coming and, you know, experiencing life in America, and particularly in Ireland for Americans. Then that relationship could, you know, ebb away under the...(unintelligible). So we can't be complacent about this.
Mr. COWEN: It's not based on, you know, historic sentiment, it's based on strong and genuine close ties, sharing of values. And I believe, you know, America's the type of...(unintelligible)...you know...(unintelligible)...is now who can help America in terms of insuring that there's an accurate understanding of what American stands for and what its role in the world is going to be under this new administration. And we want to work with President Obama and his administration in that--to that effort. And I'm a very strong advocate and friend of the United States. I believe it's a force for good for the world. And I believe that Ireland, in the unique position that we have established in terms of our foreign policy position--has not been members of major military alliances, but having strong presences in Africa and other deprived parts of the world through our development assistance, our human rights programs; indeed, our, you know, strong association with Irish missionaries and other NGOs of modern times working in their areas, we can help to ensure that people understand all America's position on these issues...(unintelligible). And--but apart from that, strong involvement in the United States administration, successively in the peace process...
Mr. COWEN: ...has emphasized the economic dividend that peace can bring to Ireland. And those who have sought to undermine that in recent weeks--and these are minorities who will not succeed, who seek to deprive the world of peace--and the continuing support of visible, sustained effort by United States allies, get that political process, is of mighty importance in ensuring that the people of Ireland understand that America is still our friend, still working with us, still partnering to assist. And we've got to reciprocate in a whole range of ways ourselves. I want to increase our presence--our diplomatic presence here. I want us to be visible in other economic hubs throughout the States, in Atlanta and Houston, and increase our...(unintelligible)...our honorary....(unintelligible)...around the States as well. There's so many things we can do to...(unintelligible)...a footprint Ireland, trying to raise strong awareness in the United States. And that contemporary modern Ireland of today is far better understood in Ireland, because I think one of the great benefits of the peace process in Ireland has been that there is now far more...(unintelligible)...and accurate understanding by Americans of where Ireland is at.
Mr. COWEN: And I think that Irish-Americans, which is the lifeblood of the relationship, the people of Irish-America extraction will have a strong affinity and sense of Irishness, who are also strongly American; can give us--can provide a gateway for us into the wider American public to market our--to bring more people to come and see Ireland and experience Ireland. So you know, there's a huge potential and relationship that I think can be explored for our mutual benefit, and I want to...(unintelligible)...in broad terms...(unintelligible).
BRENNAN: OK. Lastly, one quick question, because you did mention Northern Ireland there. We have seen violence in recent weeks again, three deaths. Is there any connection there to some of that economic discord and dislocation? What do you attribute that to?
Mr. COWEN: No. It's just a factional criminal element.
Mr. COWEN: Psychopathic, obviously, who think that they can go around killing people. It's not going to happen, it's not going to work. People on all sides have come out strongly against it. And what was very, you know, reassuring and heartening for everyone in Ireland--and indeed, I'm sure, for the international community--was how united everyone was to their condemnation of this, of these foreigners, and the level of cooperation between our respective police forces of north and south. We've got the highest caliber, full cooperation that's guaranteed, and these people will be brought to justice. And they do not have any support whatever from any side, and therefore must be rooted out.
BRENNAN: Thank you so much. Happy St. Patrick's Day.
Mr. COWEN: Same to you.
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