Friday 17 November 2017

As the hedge funds circle, bank wonders how it can hold them off

THE latest Anglo Tapes record a conversation that took place inside the bank in early November 2007.

It's almost a year before the full fury of the banking crisis engulfed Ireland, but fast-moving hedge fund managers – the so-called "hedgies" – had already rumbled the fact that Anglo's numbers just didn't stack up.

The latest call records a conversation between the bank's acting director of treasury, John Bowe, and the then chief executive, David Drumm, reacting to the souring sentiment in the markets towards their bank.

As the call makes clear, one big issue on the minds of those hedgies is Sean Quinn's control of almost a quarter of shares in Anglo at the time.

Rumours, later proved correct, that Sean Quinn had borrowed huge sums to build up his stake using so-called "contracts for difference" were doing the rounds.

Today he's bankrupt, but in 2007, Sean Quinn was a billionaire and probably the country's richest man; he looked vulnerable, however, because of the way those contracts work.

Usually when you buy a share in a bank, you pay the price on the day of the purchase. With contracts for difference, the purchaser commits today to buy shares at some point in the future for a pre-agreed price. If shares are trading higher by then, you're already a winner. If the share price has dropped, as Anglo's was in late 2007, you are sitting on a loss before you've even got your hands on the shares.

In the case of Anglo and Sean Quinn, the numbers were so big that the hedgies reckoned Mr Quinn would be forced to scale down his exposure. That would mean trying to off-load shares in a falling market, which would only raise the downward pressure on the bank.

The Anglo executives were desperate to prevent that, but couldn't come out and say so directly without confirming their weakness.

In the meantime, the mainly London-based hedgies were "aggressively shorting" Anglo in the markets – which simply means they were placing bigger and bigger bets that Anglo's shares and bonds would drop in value.

As the hedge funds circle, Mr Drumm and Mr Bowe discuss possible strategies that could help "spin" their way out of trouble – schemes to convince the market that things were not as bad as they seemed.

It includes pressurising Mr Quinn to put it about that he's not under pressure to dump shares.

As usual, what is not discussed is any action to actually make the bank less risky, such as selling off some of the wildly over-rated property loans the executives had been making, or seeking a buyer with the financial muscle to take on the bank's balance sheet.

Irish Independent

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