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Sunday 19 November 2017

All quiet on the Goldman Sachs front for talkative Eugene Regan

The FG senator and stickler for ethics is also a non-executive director at the firm, writes Jody Corcoran

The financial regulatory authorities here continue their investigations with snail-pace diligence. It takes such a time. That is the system we have. Let us call it due process. In the US they seem to do things more quickly.

The odd garda raid on a corporate HQ may sate public anger for a while. But it would suit the Government better, I imagine, if a banker or two were to be led away in chains. Such a development would almost certainly help assuage the anger.

It took almost 10 years for less dramatic action to be taken against the main players at National Irish Bank. You may remember that series of little scandals: bogus non-resident accounts; investment policies promoted for funds undisclosed to the taxman; all mostly forgotten now.

In 10 years' time, then, will Seanie FitzPatrick, for example, be a mere curiosity of a new generation? Probably not. That generation will still be paying for his recklessness, even if recklessness is not a crime.

Last week British Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused Goldman Sachs of "moral bankruptcy". Neither is moral bankruptcy a crime. It is easy for a politician to throw such an accusation. Eugene Regan should know. He has thrown a few in his time.

Regan is a Fine Gael senator. He is also a non-executive director at Goldman Sachs. And he is a trained lawyer. Trained lawyers in full flow can be impressive.

We must await the outcome of a move last Friday week by the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) against Goldman Sachs.

The SEC is the financial regulatory authority in the US.

Goldman Sachs is "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money", to quote the rock 'n' roll bible, Rolling Stone.

The Financial Times, bible of the corporate world, has been quoting Rolling Stone all week, taking issue with the magazine's famous characterisation: Goldman Sachs, according to the FT, is "more like a financial amoeba".

When people here think of Goldman Sachs they think of Peter Sutherland. Sutherland is just about as impressive as a man can get. His list of achievement is as long as my leg. I do not intend to recite it here, but for one: he is chairman of Goldman Sachs International.

Regan's list of achievement is also impressive, such achievement as to fairly describe him as well connected.

When Regan contested the general election, for example, Garret FitzGerald -- as Regan said himself -- made the "rare gesture" of endorsing his candidacy: so did Alan Dukes, the chairman-designate of Anglo Irish Bank. That is two former Fine Gael leaders, then, to declare for a relatively unknown politician.

At the time Regan was a councillor in Dun Laoghaire. He was elected to that council in 2004. He personally spent €45,000 to help get himself elected to the council, four times the money that, on average, other candidates spent in his electoral area.

Perhaps it was that, as a barrister, Regan could personally afford to spend €45,000. In any event, three years later, neither his money nor his connections could help convince voters of Dun Laoghaire to elect him to the Dail in 2007.

His connections, however, helped get him elected to the Senate shortly thereafter. His connections are blue-blood Fine Gael and blue-blood law library. FitzGerald, Dukes and Sutherland.

Sutherland, in his day -- before he became a superstar -- was also a barrister by profession, a senior counsel at the Bar. He was then Attorney General in a Fine Gael-led Government, and subsequently a European Commissioner.

"Peter Sutherland personally canvassed for Eugene in the local elections of 2004," as Regan also says on his website. It goes without saying that it was decent of Sutherland to take time out from what must have been a hectic schedule to canvass for Regan in a local election. But friends do things like that for each other.

During his career, Regan served in the cabinet of Sutherland when Sutherland was EU Commissioner for Social Affairs and Competition, which was probably when they became good friends.

As I have said, when Irish people think of Goldman Sachs they think of Peter Sutherland. Following the publication of his interests recently, they might now also think of Eugene Regan.

Regan is non-executive director of Goldman Sachs (Dublin and Luxembourg). In fact, he is a non-executive director of 27 separate Goldman Sachs funds, as well as retaining interest in a number of asset management companies, one of which is based in the Cayman Islands.

A non-executive director, or outside director, is a member of the board of a company, but does not form part of the executive management team. He or she is not an employee of the company or affiliated with it in any other way. They are differentiated from inside directors, who are members of the board but also serve or have previously served as executive managers of the company, most often as corporate officers.

That said, non-executive directors have serious responsibilities to challenge, contribute and scrutinise management; they should satisfy themselves that financial information is accurate and that financial controls and systems of risk management are robust and defensible; they are responsible for determining appropriate levels of pay of executive directors and have a prime role in appointing, and where necessary removing, senior management; they should also provide independent views on resources, appointments, standards of conduct; they are the custodians of the governance process; they are not involved in the day-to-day running of business, but monitor the executive activity and contribute to the development of strategy.

Regan, I would say, performs all of these duties and functions to the highest standard. He is, after all, a stickler on such matters that might loosely be referred to as right and proper behaviour -- or ethical, for short.

Bertie Ahern would know this. Regan was, it is fair to say, one of the former Taoiseach's foremost adversaries in the Oireachtas when ethical issues, or what Brown might refer to as "moral" issues, were raised in relation to Ahern's finances.

Willie O'Dea, the former defence minister, would know this too. Regan also pursued O'Dea in the Oireachtas, accusing him of perjury at one stage, that is, of lying under oath.

As a standard bearer, then, of ethical behaviour in politics (and business), Regan will be missed. It seems he may be about to withdraw entirely from public life. He recently announced that he would not be offering himself as a candidate in the next general election.

Of course, it may be that he will seek to retain his senate seat, from where he has wreaked such havoc on Fianna Fail. It may be that he will not have to contest that election either. Fine Gael in Government could just nominate Regan to the Senate.

If it really is, though, that Regan is withdrawing from public life he will, of course, still be a busy man, his non-executive directorship of Goldman Sachs (Dublin and Luxembourg) just one such activity to keep him so occupied.

A distinction should be drawn between the activities of Goldman Sachs in the US and Goldman Sachs in Europe, even if Goldman is like a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money".

Notwithstanding the distinction, last week Goldman took the unusual step of writing to the European government affairs department in rival banks to assure them that fraud charges filed against it by the SEC were "completely unfounded in both law and fact".

Just why it did this is unclear. But the letter was, according to the FT, an indication of how keen Goldman is to protect its government franchise across Europe.

Take Greece, for example. Goldman's role in arranging credit swaps for Greece following its entry to the eurozone in January 2001 have been raked over in recent months as Greece's debt crisis has deepened.

The swaps, which were legal but confidential, continued until 2007 as Greece tried to reduce its high debt-to-gross domestic product ratio by moving some borrowing off its balance sheet.

In the US, meanwhile, the regulators move more quickly than they seem to do here. That is not to say that they are always on top of things. The SEC can also be accused of missing red flags and ignoring tips. But when they act they act decisively.

On Friday of last week, the SEC fired the first shot in what looks likely to be the mother of all battles against Goldman.

In late 2006, the US subprime mortgage industry entered what turned out to be meltdown. A steep rise in the rate of sub-prime mortgage defaults and foreclosures caused more than 100 subprime mortgage lenders to fail or file for bankruptcy.

These failures caused prices in the $6.5 trillion (€4.9 trillion) mortgage-backed securities market to collapse, threatening broader impacts on the US housing market and economy as a whole.

The crisis has had far-reaching consequences. Tranches of sub-prime debts were repackaged by banks and trading houses into attractive-looking investment vehicles and securities that were snapped up by banks, traders and hedge funds on the US, European and Asian markets.

When the crisis hit the subprime mortgage industry, those who bought into the market suddenly found their investments near-valueless, or impossible to accurately value.

It can also be directly linked to the bursting of the property bubble here, an event which is still being felt, and will for decades to come.

The SEC investigation has to do with a complicated business; the creation, in 2007, by Goldman, of a complex financial product, known as a "collateralised debt obligation" that was, in effect, insurance against default for multiple tranches of highly dubious sub-prime mortgages.

Goldman omitted to tell purchasers that these had been put together largely at the direction of a hedge fund which was "shorting" it, or betting it would fail. When the mortgages eventually went belly up the hedge fund made $1bn (€751m) and investors lost the same.

Last week Goldman forcefully sought to contest the charges of fraud levelled against it by the SEC. It may well have a case, legally, if not ethically.

In the wake of the SEC announcement, the Financial Services Authority in the UK started its own investigation. While Brown, and Alistair Darling, the chancellor, have been quick to point out that Goldman is not currently advising the Treasury, the British prime minister has gone as far as accusing Goldman of "moral bankruptcy". His administration, however, has refused to blacklist the firm formally from government work.

The issue has not, as yet, become a live one here. The Government has little known involvement with Goldman, although it was quick to point out that Goldman had welcomed the establishment of Nama.

Regan, however, has lodged a formal objection to Nama with the EU Commission, stating that the "scale and scope" of the scheme was disproportionate to the size of the Irish economy, transferred too much risk from the banks on to the taxpayer and did not contain sufficient safeguards so that depositors and borrowers would not be forced to pay for the huge mistakes by the banks.

He was not in the Senate last week, however, to defend Goldman Sachs, of which he is a non-executive director.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Fine Gael senator Frances Fitzgerald proposed a motion that the Finance Minister come to the Upper House that very day to update the senators on Government banking policy.

Joe O'Toole, the independent senator, supported Fitzgerald, but added: "It is important to recognise that the Financial Services Authority in the UK has commenced an investigation into Goldman Sachs, a bank described by the British prime minister as being morally bankrupt.

"This is a bank which, for instance, has in recent times put together products for ordinary investors, products made up of investments, information on which was that they would fail.

"Having induced ordinary innocents to invest in those products, Goldman Sachs, as a bank, then took a futurist bet on that failure. In other words, it was winning both ways.

"The British government has decided it will have no more to do with that bank. I would like a guarantee from the Irish Government, which is the reason I support Senator Fitzgerald today, that we will not be tainted by any involvement or investment in any products, services or consultancies provided by Goldman Sachs.

"We need to consider this. The German government's financial regulation authority has also begun an investigation of the same issue. It appears to me that this is a classic example of the two-handed approach coming from some of the banks who simply played ordinary punters like violins and took money from them time and again.

"I would like if a member of government could come to the House and convince us we will not be involved in anything to do with Goldman Sachs and that Irish industry or development will not be in any way connected with it."

Last week I rang a public relations man for Sutherland to enquire if he might like to defend Goldman Sachs against such charges. The PR man did not return my call.

I also put a call through to the office of Senator Eugene Regan and explained that I would like to talk to him about Goldman Sachs. Neither did he return my call.

Perhaps it was that he was pre-occupied with another charge he has most recently made, that a former Fianna Fail minister had intimidated him in the House.

Sunday Independent

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