Saturday 24 February 2018

So, you want to burn all the bank bondholders? Read Albert the pensioner's story...

Ciaran Byrne

Meet Albert Kempster: he's 73, has a pension of just £56 a week and usually shops at night to buy the food supermarkets are about to throw out.

Financially, life isn't too easy. With the rising cost of food and utility bills, he enjoys no luxuries and rents a one-bed flat in the bleak high-rise suburb of Sighthill, Glasgow.

Albert is pretty much struggling to stay afloat. Now Bank of Ireland is about to sink him.

Thanks to an extraordinary move by the bank, adrift after years of disastrous lending and property speculation, Albert's lifetime savings of £24,000 (€27,294) invested in high- interest bonds are about to be snatched from him.

And in a cruel twist, unless an 11th-hour London High Court challenge fails, it will all be perfectly legal.

You see, Albert, discovered just recently that he is a Bank of Ireland bondholder. And just as the Irish public has been demanding for months now, he's about to get "burned".

But the pensioner is far from the heartless, fat-cat stereotype imagined by Irish taxpayers when the ubiquitous term bondholder first emerged.

His nest egg, and that of 2,000 other UK pensioners, had been invested in bonds owned since 1991 by the Bristol and West Building Society, bonds which the Bank of Ireland came to be liable for after buying the B&W in 1997.

For shrewd investors, they seemed like a good idea at the time, offering 13.375pc interest which meant every November, Albert received an annual cheque of about £1,800 from the bank, nicely boosting his income.

Like anyone, he used the money to pay bills such as electricity and heating, and kept the rest for a rainy day.

But now Bank of Ireland is to 'buy back' the Permanent Interest Bearing Shares (PIBs) -- by forcibly offering investors a fraction of the value. The move -- called a Liability Management Exercise or LME -- is part of a wider €2.6bn restructuring of BoI, as demanded by the Government.

Incredibly, the bank is intent on 'burning' people like Albert, even though it could afford to splurge €66m in state cash to pay bonuses to executives between 2008 and December last year. To rub even more salt into the wounds, the pensioners must vote for the scheme or end up with nothing.

Albert has two choices: he has been offered a chance to "vote" for an "early bird" offer of 20p per pound -- which means he will get about £4,800 of his £24,000 back.

But as he intends to vote 'No' on principle, Albert will most likely receive an outrageous 1p for every £1,000 he invested: that's a total of 24p. Not surprisingly, this softly spoken pensioner is frightened of what is being done to him in the name of the Irish taxpayer.

The bank has given until June 22 to vote on the deal. If the pensioners refuse to accept it, a law will be passed in Ireland which will allow BoI to take the savings, leaving them with nothing.

According to campaigners frantically trying to stop the action under English law, the real target of the BoI are higher-value bondholders who are being offered more than twice as much as the pensioners.

Those who have invested more than €50,000 are eligible for 40p per pound, leaving those with less than €50,000 out in the cold. Those with the more significant investments in the bonds are believed to be the Bank of Ireland's main target.

But sources believe the bank has decided it has no other option but to burn the little investors as well, otherwise it would have to start making exceptions everywhere.

Speaking this week, Albert told of how his "up and down career" had resulted in his modest savings. He works in a courier firm to supplement the monthly half-pension.

In a world where fat-cat bankers enjoy multi-million euro pension pots, the precious €24,000 is all he has.

Frugal at all times, Albert uses an hour of electricity a day and says he shops at Tesco after 9pm, when the fresh produce is discounted. "They mark things down by up to 80pc at night. Money is very tight," he adds. The pensioner stays fit too, popping to a local gym three times a week, a move which at least protects his health and eases somes of the stress.

With the June 22 deadline fast approaching, he has lent his name to a lawsuit being taken by the US law firm Brown Rudnick which believes the Bank of Ireland scheme is "draconian, oppressive, and even unlawful".

Weekend Review understands the firm has this week taken legal advice on the probability of success in any case and is actively canvassing for more pensioners to come forward.

"This is very distressing for those involved," said a person familiar with the case. "For people in their 70s or 80s, they rely on this cash and a lot of them will not know this is happening."

Albert agrees. "This move by the Bank of Ireland is scandalous. I'm backing the legal challenge but the first some of the little old ladies are going to know about this is in November when the cheque no longer arrives in the post. They will be distressed and terrified. How can the Irish just come and rewrite the laws and take all our money? They are trying to screw us from every angle and have been very vindictive with it too.

"It seems they did the maths, worked out how this is the best option for the bank and their people decided 'let's make this work so that they (the pensioners) have no time to do anything about it'."

In a statement, Bank of Ireland says: "The bond in question is a capital instrument and is not a retail savings product. The higher risk associated with such capital instruments was reflected in the high interest rate. In the context of the €2.6bn LME the treatment of the Bank of Ireland 13.375pc Perpetual Undated Bond is consistent with that of other subordinated debt instruments."

But Albert, instead of relaxing into a well-earned retirement, is preparing for battle. "This must be fought. I think decent Irish people would be horrified to see what is being done by the Bank of Ireland. I will fight -- I hope they will join me".

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