Sunday May 30 2010
THE scene: Anglo Irish Bank HQ, St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2. Location: The Sean FitzPatrick Memorial Room for Humble Bankers.
Interviewers: Outgoing Anglo Irish Bank chairman Donal O'Connor and current director Maurice Keane (ex-Bank of Ireland)
Interviewee: Gary Kennedy (ex-finance director AIB)
Vacancy: A seat on the board of Anglo
Donal O'Connor (Anglo):
Great to see you Gary. We haven't met for days, not since the monthly directors' meeting at Elan. You played a blinder at the last audit committee. It will be wonderful to have you here as a director, too. Such an honour to welcome another banker with real form.
Gary Kennedy (ex-AIB):
I cannot wait. Good of you to interview me. It's great to be one of the insiders again. Did you read the latest TASC report about the 'golden circle'? I featured in the 11 best-connected individuals on the country's boards. When you give me this gig I shall be in the top five.
Maurice Keane (ex-BoI):
Congratulations Gary. You were a genius when you were number two at AIB. All of us at the Bank of Ireland really admired your flair. You were never frightened of expanding the balance sheet. Tell me, what other boards have you landed since leaving?
Elan - where I share some of the spoils with Donal -- is the plum job. Last year, they paid me $84,000. Wonderful for both of us to be rewarded in dollars now that the euro is sliding. How many does that mean you have totted up Donal? My second-best gig is Greencore. Not as good a number as Elan. Just 43 grand. And it's in lousy euros. But I have a few others, like Friends First and Travelport.
We are a bit worried you won't have time to squeeze in our board meetings with all your other directorships. We met over 50 times last year.
No problem. At AIB, I used to jet off to board meetings in Poland and then rush across the Atlantic to board meetings in Allfirst. (I was so busy I even used Concorde and a private jet.)
Allfirst? Isn't that the bank with the rogue trader Rusnak that lost $690m?
Yes, that's right. Seems like chickenfeed now. Even though I was on the board of Allfirst for years I just didn't see it coming. But it was great experience of handling a crisis.
What a well-rounded banker you are. You have met some rogues in your travels. Any notable fellow Greencore directors whose names you would like to drop?
Greencore has always been full of stars. Seanie Fitz was the best known. Yes, I sat on the Greencore board with Seanie when he was at the height of his powers.
Try and keep that under your hat. Seanie is not the flavour of the month around this building. Any other, er . . . high achievers on the Greencore board with you?
Sorry, I understood Seanie was an old friend of yours, Donal. Just between these four walls. You asked are there any other top calibre guys at Greencore? Yes. Chairman Ned Sullivan is a genius. Perhaps you should ask him to join us on the board of Anglo?
Ahem. . . actually, he was on the board here with Seanie and me. Ned is no longer popular around here either. He departed in the purge following the resignations of Seanie, David Drumm and Willie McAteer. No need to mention Ned's name.
Enough of that. It's wonderful that you are so well connected, Gary, a bit like myself as a one-time Bank of Ireland boss. I still sit on the board of DCC with your old AIB chief Michael Buckley. Come to think of it, we will be looking for a new chairman when Michael goes. You might bear it in mind?
Nothing surer. How much do they pay? Michael was my mentor at AIB. If he had been in charge when I left, the settlement might have been far more generous.
You got a settlement on your departure? Proper order. Was it generous?
Yes, it was probably a record for a guy of my age -- I was only 48 -- leaving a bank in his prime. They gave me €579,000 in compensation and topped up my pension with €2.1m. I have to admit that I was even staggered myself.
Quite a coup, even by banking standards. Why on earth did they let a man of your talents go? Anything else?
They agreed to pay my legal fees of €150,000. There was a bit of a rumpus when I departed. Oh yes, they also gave me a consultancy gig for three years. I was "special adviser on finance and risk".
Risk? You were the adviser on risk, you say? I'd mention that sotto voce. AIB has a dodgy record on risk. Hope that was not after 2005 when the property market went totally berserk?
Oh yes, the special adviser's job was agreed in 2005, but don't worry. I had plenty of experience of risk. I took plenty of risk. I was AIB finance director in the eight years before that, from 1997 to 2005. I presided over the balance sheet as it ballooned into the stratosphere. We were doing a bomb when I left in 2005. Nothing could stand in our way. I blame Lehmans for everything. Without Lehmans there would have been no need for all the panic measures taken by the government.
Good fighting talk. So you must have an encyclopaedic knowledge of property bubbles? Exactly what we need. Your AIB chased Anglo into the property market. You could fill us in on all the thinking at AIB at the time. Obviously the rot set in after you left?
Er, not exactly. I was finance director at AIB during both the overcharging scandals. If there are any overcharging problems in Anglo, I have the experience to advise on the correct action. Virtually every disaster that AIB encountered happened on my watch. And despite all our antics we were never fined a penny by the watchdog. Not bad, eh?
But we have a new regulator now and Matthew Elderfield seems a little less flexible.
Ask him to lunch. Or a game of golf. At AIB they used to ask the regulators to a day's golf at Portmarnock. We always let them win, you know. We called it "customers' golf". We even gave them golf balls with the AIB logo on them.
This is wonderful. You are ideal. Old friends are best. You know all the insiders round town. You are in the Richie Boucher Bank of Ireland mould and you must know AIB's Colm Doherty like the back of your hand from your days there. You were at AIB when virtually everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong. And to think we nearly set about finding a fresh face!
One last point, Gary, did you bring your references along with you? Just a formality of course.
Gary (swallows hard):
Er. . . this one is from Seanie to say what a good colleague I was on the Greencore board. The second is from Ned to confirm it, saying I'd be ideal for Anglo, now he has left.
And the third?
The third is from you, Donal. It says how well we have been getting on down at the Elan audit committee.
Ahh. . . we will not be needing them.
- Shane Ross
Sunday March 07 2010
WELCOME to the third farce in banking. Yes, that appears to be one of the Government's glib solutions to the banking crisis.
The plan of action is to merge EBS, Irish Nationwide and Irish Life's banking arm into a third force. Anyone else who wants to join in is welcome.
Halifax Bank of Scotland took one look at the idea and promptly left the country. But the Government still loves the project: lump all the troubled minnows into one pot.
Unfortunately three troubled minnows cannibalising each other equals just one more drowning shark.
Wait for all that bogus old bull about competition. The mandarins will sell this project as a panacea for the consumer. Do not believe a word of it. Customers are about to be sold a pup, a third choice of predator. After last week's gruesome fodder -- figures served up by Irish Life and AIB -- we could be brainwashed into believing that the future rests with the third force.
If you are a masochist you can always stick with your old persecutors, AIB and Bank of Ireland. Otherwise you may opt for the fresh, sparkling third force.
Even now in its pre-conception state, the embryo is beginning to look uncomfortably like its first and second siblings. Last week Irish Life and Permanent, a company peddling the third force idea, announced its results. They were woeful. Losses of €200m were revealed.
IL&P likes to distance itself from the two senior predators. It is not in Nama because it was not exposed to such huge property losses. It likes to portray itself as a kind of goody-two-shoes of the banking sector. IL&P wants us to forget that it was the outfit that helped Anglo to doctor its year-end books. Heads rolled, including the chief executive's. A garda inquiry is now under way. Quite a humiliation.
Sadly they were never such brilliant bankers themselves. IL&P made boo-boos in Iceland to beat the band.
To be fair to the directors of Irish Life, they are not part of AIB or Bank of Ireland's golden circle. Instead, they run their own little cabal.
And when heads roll at Irish Life, they roll just like they do at any other bank. Then the fallen fat cats are replaced in the same way as they are in the two bigger joints.
Last year when Denis Casey was forced to resign after the doctoring of Anglo's books with the co-operation of Irish Life, the board sought a replacement.
No doubt the interview process for Casey's successor was painstaking. Perhaps, like Bank of Ireland and AIB, they searched the world before making a selection. Within weeks they had found the ideal candidate. Enter the boy next door, Irish Life board member and head of life and pensions, Kevin Murphy.
Murphy, like his predecessor Denis Casey, is an Irish Life 'lifer'. Just like the anointed successors Richie Boucher at Bank of Ireland and Colm Doherty at AIB, he was selected "from an exhaustive process of interviews of external and internal candidates" . Insiders win at AIB. Insiders win at Bank of Ireland. And insiders win at Irish Life. Insiders will win when the third force is up and running.
Murphy had been in Irish Life for 37 years. He was even there when the State owned it. So he must have picked up some bad habits along the way.
Good thinking by Irish Life to pick Kevin. Far less chance of the old guard cleaning out the Augean stables.
Alongside their deplorable figures on Wednesday, Irish Life slipped through the appointment of a new director. No, not a government- appointed director, but one of their own strokes of genius.
What an opportunity to introduce a fresh face, not a member of the banking cabal.
Recent appointments at Irish Life have not covered the board with glory. Ireland's former financial regulator Liam O'Reilly was a bad choice in September 2008, but they chose Liam long before the world knew much about the antics of Ireland's financial regulators.
Late last year they opted for Pat Ryan, a former treasurer and risk officer at AIB. Here I must declare an interest. I have a soft spot for Pat. When he was a gilt dealer at Allied Irish Banksand I was an apprentice stockbroker, he gave me my first ever decent order. I cannot forget his kindness; but suffice it to say that objectively an AIB risk officer does not look like an ideal selection in the week when AIB admitted €2.65bn of losses due to excessive risk in property and elsewhere.
A new broom has landed on the board. Bully for Irish Life.
The press release mentions that Bernard has another gig.
Bernard is chairman of the troubled state-owned flop, the Voluntary Health Insurance.
Now why would the board of Irish Life want the chair of the bloated VHI to join them?
Obviously he has useful knowledge of the insurance market. That must be the reason. Besides, Irish Life may soon divest itself of its banking arm and concentrate on insurance. Bernard could be useful.
Did they advertise? How did they select him? Was there another "exhaustive process"?
Funnily enough, Bernard's VHI board has another familiar sounding director. A woman by the name of Gillian Bowler is a long-time board member of the State's health insurer. Gillian just happens to be chairman of Irish Life. So there we have it, a lovely cross- directorship coincidence. Bernard sits on Gillian's Irish Life while Gillian sits on Bernard's VHI.
Perhaps Gillian absented herself from the discussion when Bernard's name came up for this obviously fiercely contested bauble?
Unlikely, as she herself chairs the key nomination committee.
Gentle Gillian seems to develop attachments to fellow directors. Less than three years ago when Irish Life chief executive David Went left office, he rapidly found himself on the VHI board, sitting beside his old pal -- none other than Irish Life chairman Gillian. Now both of them sit happily at the Court of Bernard Collins at the VHI. Then last week, Bernard swans in to Irish Life . . .
His membership of the IDA board adds to his semi-state portfolio. He was re-appointed to the IDA by the same Micheal in 2007 after initially being appointed by Mary Harney in 2002.
So Bernard straddles the semi-state and banking board circuits. Just like Gillian and David.
While small business is screaming for banking facilities, while mortgages are about to soar, while small shareholders are suffering irreparable losses, Irish Life is playing board games. The appointment of regulator O'Reilly did little to prevent Irish Life from a regulatory rout when the transfer of funds to Anglo was rumbled.
When vacancies in the board were created as a result of the Anglo debacle, they filled them with more insiders. Just like the other two senior sharks. The third force should cement the third cabal.
- Shane Ross
Sunday October 12 2008
IPICKED up the message on the answering machine. The voice was Eamon Dunphy's.
There was a tremor in his voice. "You not there, senator?" he demanded. "I have just seen Paddy Neary, the Financial Regulator, on RTE's Prime Time."
The normally fearless Dunphy paused: "I am terrified. I am going to emigrate."
Dunphy was on the button. The poor Regulator had just been mangled by Mark Little. With a great deal of help from himself.
Public and political confidence in the €260,000-a-year man, who is meant to keep the bank chiefs in line, tanked that night.
Sean had bottle to burn in agreeing to go on the air. His bank is in the mother of all trouble. Marian proceeded to mangle him. With a great deal of help from himself.
The interviews with two of Ireland's banking insiders proved a point.
The two gents were in denial.
The two gents were singing in unison.
Sean FitzPatrick was adamant. This was a global problem. Poor Ireland was caught in the crossfire. Ditto, Regulator Patrick Neary. No one outside their tight circle any longer swallows that fairytale.
Sean had a rush of blood to the head that Saturday. The same evening, the man who has made tens of millions from Anglo share options stunned diners while making a speech in Greystones. The richest banker in Ireland took a swipe at the poor. He believed it was time to tackle the "sacred cow" of child benefit, state pensions, old people on medical cards etc. Developers Sean Mulryan and Sean Dunne were billed to address the same dinner but wisely bowed out. Sean Fitz stole the show with his breathtaking lack of sensitivity. Were we really witnessing this clanger in the same week when the poorest taxpayers had bailed out the richest bankers?
Unlike Sean, the Regulator enjoys merely minor riches. He is only paid five grand a week! His problem is different. He is a muggins in a muddle.
Paddy Neary seems totally out of his depth. In the Prime Time interview, he insisted that Ireland simply had a liquidity problem. Decoded, the banks were solvent, but short- term funding was tough going. Of course, that little flight of fancy absolves him, Sean Fitz and all the other insiders.
Poor Paddy has earned no such absolution. His record is lamentable. Foreign investors believe that he has failed to foster a strong banking system. They freak every time they hear rumours of the fate of dodgy Irish property developers. They are scared stiff of our banks' commercial property exposure.
Ever since last March, when the Financial Regulator announced a silly inquiry into short-sellers' activities, he has made a monkey of himself.
Supposedly under severe pressure from the Irish banks, he had announced an investigation into market rumours and dealings. Seven months later the probe has reported nothing. Paddy has egg all over his moustache. First the theatricals, then the silence.
Meanwhile as the Regulator was busy chasing phantom rumours, the Irish banking system was sinking down the tubes.
Earlier, the Regulator had fined both Phoenix magazine and the Irish Times. In another blaze of publicity he took plaudits for tackling two journalists who had failed to put their names to articles recommending shares.
Meanwhile the entire banking system was sinking down the tubes.
Two weeks ago, Paddy -- alarmed by the plunge in Irish bank shares -- banned short sales. That would keep his friends in the banks happy, steady the markets and gain him more plaudits for "decisive" action.
The next day bank shares rallied. Bravo, Paddy was in the pink. Two days later, prices were in retreat.
Meanwhile, the entire banking system was going down the tubes.
Paddy had tackled market- dealers, rumour-mongers, journalists and short-sellers.
Guess who was untouched? Property developers and bankers -- the most lethal combination in the entire economy. Free as birds.
We all know what happened next: last Monday week Irish banks had a close shave with death. Bankers emerged with their hands up.
And last Tuesday, the unfazed Regulator reverted to type. He took another high profile swipe at a soft target. He fined Irish Nationwide €50,000.
The boss's son had told his clients to deposit money with him as the Nationwide was guaranteed by the Government. Paddy had found another scapegoat: the son of the boss had done something foolish. Clobber him.
Wrong again, Paddy. The entire world knew about Ireland's guarantee. It was on the front page of the Financial Times. Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown were incensed. But young Fingleton was carpeted for sending an email to clients using it as a marketing tool.
Meanwhile as Paddy busied himself fining the Nationwide, Ireland's banks were back on the rack.
The Financial Regulator is a cold fortress up in Dublin's Dame Street. Dealings with its personnel are a nightmare. Its contacts with the public (whom it is meant to protect) are Orwellian.
Last week an employee in its human resources department told me that staff do a 32.5 hour week. Perhaps that is why they do not do enough regulating at the Regulator.
Another mystery is how this underworked empire manages to spend €15,000 a week on business travel. They get pretty shirty when you query this.
If ever I telephone anyone in the fortress and the control freaks in the press office find out, they pounce like the thought police. They telephone or email to stop me making any contact outside controlled channels.
They are Kremlinesque, the most secretive communications operation I have ever encountered. They try to kill stories and suppress the flow of information to the public. They obfuscate.
Initially, when I challenged them about their less-than- transparent practices, they asked me to lunch. Alas, my boredom threshold barometer would explode. I would rather sup with Coco the clown. Or even AIB's Eugene Sheehy.
Their annual report fails to give any information about the directors -- all political appointees. Names only. They could all be escaped convicts, hermaphrodites or illiterates for all we are told. And these are the guys meant to judge the suitability of board members of the main banks!
Last year the Regulator defined its role as twofold:
One: "To encourage prudent behaviour on the part of lenders and so to protect depositors."
Zero out of ten. Ask Ireland's depositors, in peril under the tender care of the Regulator until Brian Lenihan and the taxpayer rode to the rescue.
Two: "To ensure borrowers take account of future risks."
One out of ten. Ask Ireland's happy-go-lucky, deeply grateful property developers.
The next time you hear a promotion for a new financial product blaring out on the airwaves reassuring prospective punters that a financial product is "regulated by the Financial Regulator", head for the hills. Or, as Eamon suggested, emigrate.
Tell the promoter that you will buy the product -- provided Paddy's fingerprints are nowhere near it.
- Shane Ross