Tuesday 6 December 2016

The Interview: Matthew Elderfield Financial Regulator

A year after Matthew Elderfield rode into town as saviour, the banks are in worse shape than ever. But the steely regulator is undaunted by the growing challenge. By Laura Noonan

Published 06/01/2011 | 05:00

MATTHEW Elderfield powered into 2010 a man on a mission. Newly arrived from Bermuda, the 44-year-old Briton was chomping at the bit to immerse himself in the "interesting" job of putting order on Ireland's chaotic banks and restoring our shambolic financial regulation regime.

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In his early days, he waxed lyrical about being so "attracted" to the challenges of the job he didn't mind taking an initial 50pc pay cut from his job in Bermuda and a further 15pc cut after he arrived.

A year on, his resolve remains as steely as ever, but the bravado that marked his early tenure has been indelibly tempered by the harsh realities of the last 12 months.

Having been cast as the saviour of Ireland's banks, Elderfield must now contend with the fact that they are heading into 2011 in worse shape than ever before.

They've all been virtually locked out of money markets since the autumn, when the government guarantee underpinning their debts was rendered worthless after Ireland's sovereign rating collapsed.

AIB has been all but nationalised at a cost of up to €13.5bn. Bank of Ireland could end up in majority State ownership by the end of February if it can't come up with €2.2bn.

The likely cost of bailing out Anglo Irish Bank has rocketed to €30bn, while tiny Irish Nationwide will gobble up another €5.4bn.

"It's a more difficult situation," Elderfield says simply. "I knew that the job was going to be difficult in terms of the banks but I didn't anticipate what was going to happen in the sovereign debt crisis."

As well as pushing Ireland's banks into even more dire straits, the sovereign debt crisis also forced the Government to accept an €85bn bailout largely funded by the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.

Having enjoyed a large degree of autonomy in his first year, Elderfield must now roll with the punches and follow an accelerated plan that meets the demands of Ireland's new international paymasters.

The most crucial element of this plan is the "right-sizing" of the Irish banking system, to bring the scale of the banks' asset pools down to a level that they can fund.

Elderfield sees two realistic options -- "force the pace on the sale of banks' non-core assets and crystallise losses" or create "another bad bank structure" that would take non-core assets off the banks' hands.

The decision on which approach to take will ultimately have to be agreed by Elderfield's Central Bank, the Department of Finance, the National Treasury Management Agency, the European Central Bank, the IMF and the EC.

Elderfield is adamant on one thing -- we're already more than two years into the banking crisis, so the decision on reshaping the sector will come "swiftly", most likely in the first quarter of this year.

"2010 was a key year for assessing the losses of the banks, 2011 is going to be a huge year for restructuring the banks," he says.

Review

Our international overlords have also been promised a fresh Prudential Capital Assessment Review, affectionately 'dubbed PCAR', which will set out the capital needs of Ireland's banks.

The prospect has raised a healthy amount of scepticism in banking sectors, since Ireland's banks got a clean bill of health from an Irish PCAR last March and from similar European stress tests over the summer.

Elderfield is quick to defend last year's PCARs, insisting that the issues which emerged later in the year could "absolutely" not have been predicted back in March when he set banks' capital targets.

"Looking back, the two big factors that drove changes to the capital position were the higher NAMA haircuts and the euro debt crisis," he says. "I don't think it would have been possible to foresee those."

Notwithstanding that staunch defence, Elderfield is introducing enhancements this time round. Chief among them is hiring international finance giant BlackRock to "double check" all the information submitted by the banks. As well as "making sure the data is right", Elderfield hopes that adding the imprint of a "reputable firm" like BlackRock will give the PCAR an added gravitas.

"We've already done stress tests, people are saying 'I'm not sure you've done a good enough job on them'," says Elderfield. "So now we're saying we'll do it again and we'll get BlackRock to do it too, and we'll publish a lot of the raw data."

While Elderfield takes the tepid response to the PCAR on the chin and pleads innocence on the evolving sovereign crisis, the thing that really seems to have gotten under his skin so far is the Quinn Insurance debacle.

Elderfield moved to have the insurance arm of Sean Quinn's empire put into administration late last March after the company failed to rectify a solvency shortfall.

"We published the first PCAR on the same day as we did Quinn," he says. "There was an estimate at that stage that it was going to cost about €35bn to the Irish banks.

"At the same time, there was such a lot of pressure from some quarters to stay our hand -- I found it quite remarkable that those comments could be made to me at the same time as Ireland was facing such massive costs for under-regulating its banks."

Elderfield held firm on Quinn and clearly regards it as one of his early successes. "It showed we were serious about supervision in Ireland," he says, smiling broadly.

Quinn certainly earned Elderfield a reputation as the "tough new sheriff", but comments like the one above make it sound as if the administration was more about bolstering Elderfield's reputation than sorting out an insurer. "Absolutely not," he says. "The individual case is what drove it. It did send a signal to the market, but if there wasn't a breach (of solvency) we wouldn't have moved."

Elderfield has yet to make that argument in Cavan, chiefly because he has not yet stepped foot in the border county where he would undoubtedly be accosted on the streets.

"I do get people coming up to me periodically saying 'are you the Financial Regulator?' and we have a discussion about the banking crisis," he says. "It's very odd."

Elderfield is unlikely to have much time for chatting on street corners next year, as he juggles the banking crisis with day-to-day demands like reviewing Ireland's 440 credit unions, enhancing regulatory practices and keeping Ireland up to speed with international regulatory developments.

Enforcement is a particular priority and that division will be a key recipient of the 200 extra staff Elderfield hopes to hire this year. The regulator is determined to get through a "pipeline" of big cases against companies this year, and then take on individuals later, in the interests of greater "accountability".

He is also pushing for greater enforcement powers, including a doubling of maximum fines from €5m to €10m, in the next instalment of the Central Bank Bill which will be published this year.

It's a daunting to-do list, particularly for a man who likes to get in a run and a cycle each morning (even in the snow), but he seems largely content with his lot.

"I'm well-paid, it's an interesting job, and I'm not complaining," he says. "I complain to my wife sometimes and she tells me, don't get ahead of yourself Elderfield, time to do the washing up."

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