Thursday 21 September 2017

Anglo in mood to party during Ireland's Black September

David Drumm hosted an €80,000 party as public worried if ATMs would have any cash, says Kim Bielenberg

Then Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan in 2008
Then Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan in 2008

The stock markets were tumbling, the banks were crashing and the country was rapidly going down the tubes.

But, with spectacular bravado, Anglo Irish Bank's chief executive David Drumm was in the mood to party.

He hosted a lavish bash in the Mansion House on September 5, 2008. The drinks bill came to €24,000.

September 2008 was the black month when the first of the Anglo Tapes, uncovered this week by the Irish Independent, was recorded.

On September 18, two executives, John Bowe and Peter Fitzgerald, laughed and joked as the floundering Anglo tried to raise billions from the Central Bank.

Mr Bowe told how he hit on a €7bn figure – "Just, as Drummer would say, picked it out of my arse". It is a phrase that will go down in folklore.

On the very same day of this laddish exchange, panicking callers to 'Liveline' talked of taking thousands out of the banks, and putting it in the post office, where there was a higher deposit guarantee.

At one point, Joe Duffy asked a woman what it felt like to carry €70,000 down the street.

There were reports of ordinary punters stuffing their cash savings into mattresses, or burying the money in the garden.

In this feverish atmosphere, there was genuine concern about whether ATMs would work, and jokes that the "Insufficient Funds" message might refer to the bank itself.

The everyday jokes and the 'Liveline' callers, stories swapped by taxi drivers and hairdressers, were shown to be more on the money than politicians and bankers.

Just a few weeks earlier, David Drumm emailed an invitation to staff inviting them to his 'Back To School Doombuster Party' in the Mansion House on September 5.

The message, which conjured up the spirit of the musicians who played on the sinking Titanic, read: "Dear colleague, The stock markets are down. They say the economy is in recession.

"The holidays are over. This is Anglo so there is only one thing to do – party!"

And party they did. The mega-bash cost the bank, and ultimately the taxpayer, €80,000, according to Simon Carswell's book, 'Anglo Republic'. The quaffing bankers knocked back bottles of Prosecco, Pinot Grigio and Merlot – all costing between €24 and €31 each.

Perhaps that was modest by the normal standards of bankers, but the party showed the cavalier attitude of Mr Drumm and his colleagues as Finance Minister Brian Lenihan wrestled unsuccessfully with the banking crisis.

Over at AIB in that same month, there was similar largesse, as the bank flew a group of clients on a "seven-star" all-expenses-paid junket to the Ryder Cup. It was described at the time as "the corporate jolly of a lifetime".

Recalling the super-junket, one property executive said: "Some of the developers didn't like taking the bus from Cincinnati so they had hired helicopters ready and waiting to fly them ahead to Kentucky. To be honest, no one understood why AIB was doing it – given that we all knew the crash was already on."

The macho "two-fingers" attitude of Mr Drumm and some of his associates comes across in the second tranche of recordings played this week, when Mr Drumm urges his colleague to "get the f**kin' money in".

In September 2008, there was an awareness that we were living in momentous times. The clouds were darkening as the month wore on, but there was still an air of unreality.

As late as September 17, a Department of Finance briefing note to Mr Lenihan said Irish banks were "well-capitalised, highly liquid, and have built up good financial buffers".

Mr Lenihan himself appeared to be more troubled on that evening, knocking on the door of economist David McWilliams at 10.30pm looking for advice.

The minister, who had only been appointed the previous May, didn't inspire confidence in McWilliams when he told him he was "breaking himself into the job and economics by reading Alan Greenspan's biography" (Greenspan had been the chairman of the US Federal Reserve and apostle of light-touch regulation, who was blamed for America's subprime housing crash).

Meanwhile, the ineffectual Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, referred to the calamitous economic situation as a "temporary adjustment".

As the bankers plotted to go in with "arms swinging" to get in the "moolah", not everybody was as credulous as Fianna Fail ministers seemed to be.

On his then notorious programme of September 18, Joe Duffy said of the bankers who were busy ruining the country: "If they come out with their hands on the Bible and say 'We're not in trouble', why should we believe them?"

At the very same time, as we now know, an Anglo executive was privately conceding in a phone conversation that the game was almost over for Anglo, and that it would have to be nationalised.

PRESSURE

The public was not supposed to know that the banks were under pressure.

After his broadcast, Joe Duffy was castigated – with Mr Lenihan contacting the head of RTE, Cathal Goan, to complain.

Duffy felt vindicated this week. He said: "A government minister, Dick Roche, called on me publicly to apologise. I wouldn't do it at the time, and I am glad that I didn't."

All around, during that month, there were still signs that we had not entirely come to terms with the fact that the Celtic Tiger was dead and buried. There were still zombie-like twitches of life.

On the day of the first taped exchange between Mr Bowe and Mr Fitzgerald, there were reports about Sean Dunne's gargantuan proposal for a 37-storey tower in Ballsbridge.

A planning hearing was told that Dunner's futuristic, vainglorious metropolis in the sky would create 5,000 jobs and give a €400m boost to the economy. Elsewhere on the same day, Ireland's tallest building, the Elysian in Cork, was proudly launched by Fianna Fail minister Micheal Martin. The building quickly turned into a white elephant.

There was talk of budget cuts, but we were still in the era of the lingering profligacy that helped to crash the economy.

The Irish Independent reported on the cost of a new glass-framed kiosk at Leinster House, where TDs could buy their sweeties. Costing €1.3m and designed by architects Buchoz-McEvoy, the elegant structure was described as "the most expensive tuck shop ever built in Ireland".

The Anglo Tapes uncovered this week showed that as the regulator of the banks struggled in 2008, out of his depth, the bankers were merely laughing at him.

As September and early October wore on, questions began to be asked about what Financial Regulator Patrick Neary had been doing.

Observing the cataclysmic events of that month, economist Colm McCarthy later spoke of how he had encountered Mr Neary in the 'Prime Time' studio in RTE on October 2. Mr Neary went on air to explain himself.

Mr McCarthy recalled: "What happened was that everyone in Ireland had the idea that somewhere there was a little wise old man who was in charge of the money, and this was the first time they'd ever seen this little man.

"And then they saw him and said, 'Who the f*** was that? Is that the f***ing guy who is in charge of the money?' That's when everyone panicked."

In the 1970s, the Chinese leader Zhou En Lai was asked to assess the impact of the French revolution 180 years previously. He reportedly replied: "It's too early to say."

The same answer applies when we ponder the final effects of the collapse of the banks in the days of Black September, 2008.

Irish Independent

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