Business Irish

Saturday 23 August 2014

How Irish Nationwide took on Abramovich – and won

Published 24/02/2013 | 04:00

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Irish bankers were not the only ones enjoying anonymity and unaccountability for their actions. The really big winners were the hedge funds. They too not only enjoyed being nameless and unanswerable to anyone in Ireland, they enjoyed mega-profits as the Irish taxpayer poured the country's wealth into Irish Nationwide's black hole.

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It did not have to be this way. In March 2011, for example, Irish Nationwide announced that it planned to buy back two outstanding lower-tier bonds at 20 per cent of par or face value. The offer was voluntary, but almost unanimously all the holders of the bonds, which had a face value of €250m, signed up.

At a stroke, Irish Nationwide had saved the taxpayer €200m by doing what the public were told was impossible: it burned some bondholders.

It was the very thing Europe was preventing the society doing with its other big bondholders, who remained protected by the government guarantee.

The hedge funds included Millhouse, the investment vehicle owned by Roman Abramovich. Millhouse had clubbed together with other funds to try to sue the society in London and force it to pay out in full.

They argued in court that Irish Nationwide was not a special case, like Anglo Irish Bank, but should be considered more like AIB, where even lowly bondholders were being covered in full.

Even lowly Irish Nationwide bondholders, they argued, should not have to take a hit for Ireland's handling of the society, which "ultimately had fallen victim to the Government's policies that allowed for the creation of a real estate bubble and its simultaneous failure to properly supervise the bank's management".

They lost their case, however, when the courts decided that Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide should be treated in the same way. This left them no real choice but to sell out. Even at 20 cents in the euro, some of the bondholders still made money as they had bought them in some cases for even less than that. The new management of Irish Nationwide had taken on a Russian oligarch and won.

BNP Paribas, the French investment bank, advised Irish Nationwide's new management team on how to burn its bondholders, for a hefty fee.

The same bank had accompanied Michael Fingleton and Stan Purcell down the years when they raised the money in the first place from German and French bondholders who threw billions at the two men with little regard for how badly they would lend it.

In 2010 Irish Nationwide's new management had done an extensive investor road-show in order to get to know their bondholders. It was in part intended to let them know that the society intended to burn a relatively tiny number of subordinated bondholders. BNP Paribas had organised the tour to Paris and Frankfurt, Europe's financial powerhouses, without whose money Irish Nationwide would never have been able to do what it did to Ireland.

"A lot of German banks attended these meetings, but they weren't that worried," said a well-placed source. "They had already greatly reduced their exposure to the society, or even entirely sold out at that stage by selling on their bonds at a discount to various hedge funds."

As the Government cut back on spending on health and other services, billions were transferred from the Irish citizen to these hedge funds which were often domiciled for tax purposes in the Caribbean or Switzerland. It was possibly the greatest transfer of wealth from the many to the few in recent history.

Last December, Debt Justice Action, a lobbying group, applied to the Guinness Book of Records to have Ireland's banking bailout recognised as the world's most expensive. It was the decision to take the hit for Europe by paying off the bondholders in full that ensured we were a shoo-in for the prize.

Irish Independent

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