Former NTMA chief executive John Corrigan dies

Former NTMA CEO John Corrigan

Jon Ihle

John Corrigan, former chief executive of the National Treasury Management Agency and one of the chief architects of Ireland’s recovery from the financial crisis, has died at age 76.

In a career spanning several decades of both boom and bust, Mr Corrigan was a central figure in the management of Ireland’s finances, both as a public servant and in the private sector.

While he spent most of his career at the NTMA, including five critical years as chief executive officer from 2009 to 2014, Mr Corrigan also had stints at AIB, Davy and the Irish Stock Exchange.

A graduate of University College Dublin, Mr Corrigan worked in the Department of Finance before moving to AIB Investment Managers, where he became chief investment officer.

He joined the NTMA in 1991 shortly after its establishment, working as director of domestic funding and debt management. He was instrumental in setting up the National Pensions Reserve Fund, which would prove a critical piece of financial infrastructure after the banking crash, and served as its investment director from 2001 until getting the top job in the NTMA.

Mr Corrigan was only the second chief executive at the powerful State agency, succeeding Michael Somers, a towering figure himself in Irish finance who helped conceive of the NTMA during an earlier debt crisis in the 1980s.

For much of Mr Corrigan’s career there, the NTMA had a limited public profile. But he was thrust into the spotlight almost immediately once the banking crisis began to unfold in earnest.

As the price tag of bailing out the failed financial system grew and grew, Ireland hurtled toward a sovereign default as the bank failures dragged the State itself towards bankruptcy and eventually an EU/IMF bailout.

The NTMA was at the centre of the drama as the agency tasked with borrowing on behalf of the government, which became increasingly difficult and then impossible as nervous investors dumped Irish securities and were reluctant to buy more except at prices the country simply couldn’t afford.

Mr Corrigan quickly got on the front foot, though, reaching out to a wide investment community in preparation for Ireland’s return to solvency and economic growth.

“We decided to mount a major marketing campaign based on our politicians’ commitment to deliver on the Troika programme, and since it was clear there was no point going to those who went with the rating agencies, we identified over 200 new investors to meet twice a year,” he told trade magazine Investment and Pensions Europe.

“This required a lot of change management within NTMA and it is testament to the sophistication of the team that we were able to provide our new investors with all the data they needed to keep up-to-date with our progress.”

By the time Mr Corrigan was ready to retire in late 2014, the NTMA had played a key role in restoring Ireland’s status as an investable country, setting up a golden period of steady growth and debt reduction, which was already evident at the time of his departure and has left the State today in its strongest fiscal position since the Celtic Tiger.

Not only did Mr Corrigan help shepherd the country through a period of profound existential crisis, but he also oversaw a major expansion of the NTMA’s remit, leaving the State much more involved in day-to-day commerce than it was before the crisis.

A whole alphabet soup of agencies emerged under his watch. He inherited Nama, which was set up under his predecessor, Mr Somers. But he was behind the reconstitution of the NPRF as the Irish Strategic Investment Fund after most of it was poured into saving the banks. ISIF has become a major co-investor in Irish businesses in the last decade, acting as a security blanket for private debt and equity capital looking for Irish exposure. He also oversaw the establishment of the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, which helps subsidise risk for bank lending to businesses.

On top of all that, the NTMA was given the responsibility on his watch of managing the State shareholdings in the domestic banks, which had effectively been nationalised in pieces between 2009 and 2011.

Following his retirement from the NTMA, Mr Corrigan went on immediately to serve as chair of Davy, the country’s largest stockbroker, where his crisis management skills were ultimately called upon once again as he was tasked with steering the firm through a period of extraordinary tumult over a bond dealing scandal.

Although he arrived at Davy the year after the cond transaction at the centre of the controversy, he was left to pick up the pieces as the Central Bank got stuck into an investigation that resulted in a record €4.1m fine and a clearout of the executives and staff involved.

Mr Corrigan successfully managed the purge of those responsible, revamped the senior ranks and handled a lucrative fire sale to Bank of Ireland that cauterised the damage to the firm.

While Davy lost its prestigious perch on the NTMA’s list of primary issuers, it nonetheless retained much of its pomp as a dealmaker, investment manager and corporate adviser, thanks in part to Mr Corrigan’s cool handling of the situation.

On learning of the sad news of Mr Corrigan’s death, Frank O’Connor, current chief executive of the NTMA, said: “I want to express our shock and sadness at the sudden and untimely death of John. Our thoughts are with his family and on the terrible loss they have suffered. John served the NTMA with great distinction from 1991 to 2015, including leading the Agency so effectively as chief executive from 2009.

“During that time, John played a critical role in managing the State’s response to the financial crisis and, particularly, navigating the successful post-crisis return of the State to the international bond markets.”

Brendan McDonagh, CEO of Nama, said he was “shocked and saddened” by the news.

“John made a massive contribution to this country... He was a man of exceptional ability and integrity, combined with a sense of humour.”

Businessman Willie Walsh praised Mr Corrigan on his NTMA retirement for his “trojan work”, commitment and “surefooted manner” in seeing the NTMA through a period of great uncertainty while significantly broadening its responsibilities.

Former finance minister Mr Noonan thanked Mr Corrigan in 2014 for "his counsel to me during an extremely challenging period in Ireland's recent history” and credited him for leading Ireland’s return to access of the sovereign bond markets.

Mr Noonan called him “one of the most dedicated public servants” in the State whose name will “be in the history books”.

Mr Corrigan is survived by his wife and children.