Sunday 20 January 2019

Deposits deception might have stayed secret if Anglo had survived

Journalists follow former Anglo CEO David Drumm from court after his fraud conviction. Photo:
Journalists follow former Anglo CEO David Drumm from court after his fraud conviction. Photo:
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

David Drumm's conviction for false accounting and conspiracy to defraud was a very unusual, technical and prolonged criminal trial.

The former chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank never denied his participation in the transactions with Irish Life & Permanent. The trial was all about whether they had illegally created a deception.

Drumm's defence was that he had engaged in these transactions in the context of the stressful events of the time and had "put on the green jersey".

The Irish banking system was in trouble and he had answered Ireland's call, having had the Central Bank encourage Irish banks to support each other.

It was also argued that he didn't benefit from the transactions. But that isn't necessarily correct.

Firstly, Judge Karen O'Connor pointed out that irrespective of who in the Central Bank said what about Irish banks helping each other, these transactions were either against the law or they were not.

Looked at through this prism, setting up a series of circuitous multi-billion euro transfers had created a false impression of the financial position of the bank.

It was a most unusual fraud because Drumm was never going to pocket the proceeds of the fraud or the false accounting. This was a deception on the market aimed at saving the bank. And it failed.

In that sense, it was ultimately a waste of time.

Drumm might not have ever pocketed the benefits of the fraudulent transactions but he did stand to gain if the scheme had worked.

He would have kept his job if the bank did not go under. He was a highly-paid multi-millionaire who stood to suffer financial and reputational damage if the bank collapsed.

At the heart of the fraud on the market was a deception. Anybody who was interested in buying or selling Anglo Irish Bank shares, or anybody considering trading in its bonds, or considering withdrawing their deposits, was given a false account of the financial position of the bank. They suffered as a result.

Anybody who bought shares at this time was deceived. Once the government decided in September 2008 to guarantee all of the deposits in all of the Irish banks, the deception was essentially redundant anyway.

The government decision to guarantee all liabilities and the subsequent collapse of the bank resulted in a €30bn bill for taxpayers.

One could of course argue that he was acting to prevent the collapse of the bank, before the taxpayer was on the hook for the money. Nevertheless the transactions were reckless and illegal.

It is troubling to think that if Anglo Irish Bank had not collapsed, details of this fraud on the market might never have come to public attention. A massive deception would have taken place and we might never have known about it.

Questions were being asked about these deposits in some financial and regulatory circles quite early on, but would they have been fully pursued and referred to the necessary authorities if the bank had not collapsed under the weight of its excessive turbo-charged lending?

It is quite possible they would not. The audit committee of the bank missed them. The regulator missed them. Very few people knew the full details and the reputational damage to Irish banking that would have flowed from disclosure might have kept the transactions below the radar.

O'Rourke shows he is a real premier league entrepreneur

In the harsh commercial world of TV sports rights, Michael O'Rourke, of Premier Sports, has to be one of the shrewdest operators around. Between Britain and Ireland, those vying for TV rights for the Premier League include Rupert Murdoch's Sky, British telecommunications giant BT, Eir Sport owned by French billionaire Xavier Niel, and now online retail giant Amazon.

Yet, right there in the mix, after nearly going bust more than once, is Michael O'Rourke. Having started in the business showing GAA matches in pubs in London and New York, O'Rourke set up Setanta Sports.

He took on Sky in its own British back yard. O'Rourke has said that when Sky won back one of the two Premier League packages he had back in 2009, the game was up, because it triggered a liquidity gap in his Setanta operation.

After his UK operation collapsed, his Irish Setanta Sports business was days away from folding when concert promoter Denis Desmond stepped in and helped.

O'Rourke re-built the Setanta business after some tough days of letting people go and 30pc salary cuts. He then sold that company to Eir in December 2015 having given all of the staff a shareholding in the business. He remained with it on a two-year earn out. The price tag was north of €20m.

Once he left Eir, he concentrated on his Premier Sports business which is a subscription-channel operation. Then during the week it was announced that Sky had missed out on a package of live games for the UK and Irish markets.

Amazon Prime had swooped in and bought the UK rights, while Premier had bought the rights to 33 live Premier League games on Saturday afternoons and a further 20 matches from 2019 onwards.

It is an extraordinary achievement for the Newry-born businessman who has proven his guile and resilience through several incarnations in a sector dominated by giants.

The arrival of a new player in Amazon has broken the hold BT and Sky have had on Premier League coverage in the UK. Competition might be good, but it means anybody who wants to have all live matches available to them will end up making three different payments to three companies.

Premier Sports can tie up a deal with another provider in Ireland to enhance the offering and ensure it reaches a wider audience.

Premier Sports was founded by O'Rourke in 2011 and is owned through a Luxembourg-registered company called Premier Media.

If this works out well in the next three to five years, perhaps O'Rourke could end up selling this business on to someone else at some point. Now that is serial entrepreneurship.

Brexit fudge is now heading towards a very sticky end

The Brexit fudge continues. On Thursday, Theresa May published her proposals for how the backstop arrangement would work in order to prevent a hard border in Ireland. Central to her plan was that all of the UK would remain in some customs union or regulatory alignment until a permanent and viable trading relationship is worked out. The question was how long should it last.

David Davis, the Brexit secretary, wanted to put a time limit on it. Theresa May knew this simply would not fly with Dublin or Brussels. She may also be using the border issue to deliver a softer Brexit by the back door.

She granted Davis a concession (more like a figleaf), namely that a target date would apply.

In Ireland this received a guarded response from Government. Fianna Fail said that even mention of a time limit is not good enough. In Britain, it was seen that May's concession to Davis was paltry and meaningless. The target date of 2021 was just that - a target. And targets can easily be missed.

The Irish Government and the EU will take some time to study it. It is a negotiating position. However, Dublin would prefer no time limit while Brussels appears distrustful of what the British are up to.

Two years after the referendum result, the British government still can't find agreement on what it wants from the withdrawal from the EU. But perhaps the first sign of cracks between Dublin and Brussels are set to appear.

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