Sunday 21 January 2018

Shane Ross:NTMA spoofer caught out

Shane Ross

MANY years ago I was a bond dealer. I never earned easier money for doing less. I used to traipse around London, Frankfurt, Paris and Zurich, persuading investors that Irish bonds were the business. I learned the language of short-dates, long-dates, redemption yields, price anomalies and gilt switches in record time.

After just a month of training in London, I became a gilt dealer. I was let loose on innocent investors. I knew little about bonds, but I knew something else: I knew just a little bit more than virtually anyone else.

Back in the Seventies and Eighties, I was a member of a mystery trade flooded with gallons of money. I could spoof for Ireland. I was not rumbled for years. Sadly, Dermot Desmond took over the firm, quickly found me out and we parted company.

Bond insiders would have spotted me as a spoofer a mile away, because they were spoofers, too. But they would have said nothing. The outside world believed that we were super-clever, specialists in a complicated trade that few understood. In reality, we spoofed for Ireland. And were vastly overpaid for it.

Bond dealers still spoof for Ireland. Last week, Ireland's super-spoofers strutted into the Dail's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to parade their virtues.

The National Treasury Management Agency's (NTMA) elite turned up for their annual lap of honour. Ordinary citizens are supposed to bow and scrape as the guys who have been selling Irish bonds abroad give us a glimpse of their inner secrets.

John Corrigan, chief executive of the NTMA, led his 10 -strong team of spoofers into the chamber. He opened up with a statement of success. He almost instantly took the committee into the world of "amortising bonds, treasury bills and sovereign annuities".

Apart from accountant Kieran O'Donnell TD, did any member of the PAC have a clue what in God's name he was talking about?

He congratulated his team. They had reduced the "funding cliff" to just €2.4bn. Their achievement, said Corrigan, had been "viewed very positively . . . and has given investors greater confidence to lend money to us".

The NTMA's well-rewarded spinners in the gallery nodded happily. Ireland's best-paid public servant was justifying his enormous pay. Corrigan was coasting.

The NTMA chief even dealt credibly with questions from members about the embarrassing €3.2m fraud that had been perpetuated on the NTMA. The spoofer's spinners had briefed him brilliantly on this. He escaped from that little encounter without wounds.

It looked as though Corrigan and his fellow plutocrats were about to escape unchallenged. Happily, chairman John McGuinness, at long last, started to ask questions about Corrigan's pay.

Suddenly, Corrigan was out of his comfort zone. The spinners had not done enough work on spinning the salaries. His confidence began to crumble when he was asked to justify them. Under pressure from McGuinness, he listed NTMA salaries that would make Bank of Ireland's Richie Boucher blush.

Some 47 staff received more than €150,000. He himself earns €8,000 a week (reduced to €416,000 a year). Four senior staff are paid over €300,000.

In justification, Corrigan twice – pathetically – pleaded that the "salaries are what they are" (whatever that means). More revealingly, he protested that "we have to recruit in the market" – the same excuse given by bankers for similar levels of pay.

I was snoozing through the session, but when I heard this little insight I woke up with a thud. God help the NTMA human-resources guys, they have to scour the financial-services jungle to fill these top posts. The same nonsense that the banks offer as an excuse for similar pay levels.

It was time to ask the question. Corrigan's "recruitment in the market" presumably starts at the top. So where was John's €416,000-a-year job advertised? Who were the competitors for the post? Which "market" did they search?

I asked him. He surprised me, insisting that he was indeed recruited from the market place. Unfortunately, that happened 21 years ago in 1991, when he was recruited from AIB for a less elevated post. After nearly 20 years in the NTMA he was, er, appointed to the top job without competition or interview. The NTMA looked down the corridor and chose him, an insider, for the post. Exactly how the banks like to do it.

Lucky John. The best-paid job in the Irish public service was filled without open competition or recruitment in the market. Exactly how the banks like to do it.

Perhaps John was an exception. Unfortunately, sitting alongside him was another and more recent appointment. Eileen Fitzpatrick, the chief executive of NewERA, an NTMA subsidiary, was chosen last year. It was a new job in a new quango. I asked if Eileen's job was one where they recruited in the market?

Was she a new face?

Er, no. John protested that Eileen had moved "sideways" and that the NTMA was lucky to have someone of Eileen's talents on the staff.

He then refused to tell the PAC how much Eileen earned because he was "not required to do so" under the Act. He had given "huge granularity" (sic) in response to McGuinness's questions about pay scales. The spinners must have searched the dictionary for the "granularity" word.

Corrigan's pension was next to come under the microscope. He was happy to tell us that his predecessor, Michael Somers, is today enjoying a pension from the NTMA of no less than €265,000 – but insisted he did not know how much he himself will receive when he retires in two years.

Somers slipped off the NTMA gravy train straight into the Allied Irish Banks loop. He now not only receives €265,000 from the NTMA but also picks up €150,000 as deputy chairman of AIB. He was even lucky enough to receive a cool million euro from the NTMA in one year at the pinnacle of his powers.

The chairman of the little- known 'Advisory Board' to the NTMA is a political nominee who receives a reduced fee of €45,000 a year. According to Corrigan, there were five "corporeal" meetings last year and other "incorporeal" ones! The lucky lotto winner is none other than former attorney-general David Byrne.

So is all this largesse to Ireland's bond salesmen worth it? As a former bond market spoofer, I am a sceptic. But I am not alone. NTMA's idle boast that it has brought down bond yields is a hostage to fortune. Last week, it emerged that one of the world's leading investors thinks he is taking Ireland for a ride.

Franklin Templeton Fund manager Michael Hasenstab has bought nearly one-10th of the entire Irish bond market. His flagship fund is showing a profit of 12.6 per cent this year – mostly due to a paper profit on his Irish bonds. What Hasenstab has gained, Ireland has lost.

More ominously, if Hasenstab decides to take his profit, Irish bonds will tumble and yields will rocket. The NTMA has allowed the Irish bond market to become vulnerable to the gambling instincts of a single fund manager.

They should have diversified their sales more widely. Their failure to do so begs questions about the fragility of the market if he decides to dump his holding. He must be tempted.

I hope that the NTMA's boasts of skills in the bond market will be rumbled by the Irish people.

Just like mine were by Dermot Desmond.

Sunday Indo Business

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