Sunday 26 January 2020

Gene Kerrigan: Defrauding banks are enemy of people

List of crimes grows longer but Michael Noonan still talks of 'exceptional cases

Here's the story of how one of the biggest banks in the world allegedly stole money from you and me. This wasn't a misunderstanding. It wasn't that someone hit the wrong key on a calculator. It's not like some money accidentally fell off a desk and into someone's briefcase.

"We are dealing here with fraud," John Corrigan, head of the National Treasury Management Agency, told an Oireachtas committee last week. He added: "Fraud, for it to be successful, has to have internal collusion."

The story begins in 2010, when the NTMA, which on our behalf manages the accumulated savings of the State, needed to sell off a huge tranche of shares. Why? Well, they needed €10bn to give away. Why? Well, that's been government policy since 2008. Whatever the bankers need, the bankers get.

And fine, upstanding and exceedingly well-paid chaps at AIB and Bank of Ireland needed 10 billion, so the government said, "Are you sure that's enough?" or words to that effect.

The NTMA decided to raise the money by selling off €10bn worth of shares, held in the National Pension Reserve Fund. This is a fund that contained the fruits of years of hard work by you and me and everyone else. Money put aside for future use.

The NTMA hired outside experts to do the job. A team from the London offices of State Street were contracted to sell the shares. State Street is an American bank, founded in the 18th Century. It's one of the biggest in the world, employing about 30,000 people across the globe, including 2,000 in Ireland.

State Street charged €698,000 for selling the shares. A nice little earner. Quietly, someone at State Street siphoned off another €3.2m in unauthorised payments. In short, Mr Corrigan alleges, they took their payment and they stole four-and-a-half times that.

Now, it appears that when you're dealing in billions it's easy to fail to see the odd few million going astray. The NTMA didn't spot the missing millions. Of course, someone in State Street realised what happened and called the cops and reported a multi-million theft from Irish citizens. Right? Well, not exactly. Someone within State Street seems to have acted, but no one called the cops. Not a word was said. Not to the cops. Not to the UK regulators. Not to the NTMA. Not to the Irish Government.

Then, in September 2011, certain unrelated irregularities came to light and the British authorities said tut-tut and began poking around. At which point, State Street said, "Eh, there was also this Irish thing, I suppose we ought to mention that". Or words to that effect. No need to worry, mind you. The two or three senior chaps allegedly involved had already quietly left the bank.

That might have been the end of it. Then, someone in the financial media inquired why these State Street chaps had moved on – and a hint of the story came out. The NTMA saw the media report and asked State Street if everything was alright. At which point State Street let out a long sigh and reimbursed the NTMA for "overcharging".

They reportedly did the same for such companies as the Royal Mail and Sainsbury. It seems the NTMA wasn't the only outfit to whose money things have happened that were "not consistent with our contractual agreements", as State Street so carefully put it.

Mr Corrigan of the NTMA put it somewhat more bluntly, to an Oireachtas committee last week: "Let us be clear, what we are dealing with here is fraudulent in nature."

The Attorney General of Massachusetts is investigating suspicions that State Street did something similar there. As is the AG of Illinois. And California and Arkansas are already suing State Street. Last year, the bank paid $12m to Washington state, in an out-of-court settlement.

Now, I'm no banker. I couldn't tell a bond from a debenture. But I do know my James Bond. And, in the words of Mr Goldfinger, "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action."

It has been plain for a long time, long before the economic crisis, that the banks are stateless entities with greed their sole motivation. Repeatedly, sovereign states have come under attack by powerful banking interests, seeking to advance their own interests at the expense of citizens.

We see that in the tax frauds here, through the Eighties and Nineties, and in the recent Libor scandal in London, in which bankers dealing with hundreds of trillions of dollars manipulated interest rates to their own advantage. These greed machines enrich themselves from the public purse. This has been done legally, through transfers of private debt to the public books. And through the siphoning off of enormous salaries and pensions, completely out of proportion to the social value of the bankers' work.

It's sometimes done through "overcharging" and through tax fraud.

Unfortunately, the default reaction of our political leaders, here and across the EU, is one of deference to the point of collaboration. Knowing what the bankers had done to place the public welfare in hazard, the late Brian Lenihan said his priority was to "restore our banks to their former glory". The political classes and their cheerleaders supported that aim.

If I steal a loaf of bread or nick your wallet I'll face jail or a fine – certainly I'll be dragged into court. If I'm a banker and I "overcharge" you, not to worry – when caught, just pay back the money allegedly defrauded and all's forgiven.

Here's Michael Noonan, responding to the State Street scandal. "I understand that everything that was misappropriated has been repaid, so that there is no loss to the State, that's my priority".

Fair enough. But I can't hand back the loaf of bread or your wallet and walk away. And when – from the Eighties onward – the Irish State signalled to the bankers that there was no moral hazard to their actions, that no fraud or "misappropriation" would result in criminal charges, it told them there would be no comeback, whatever they did.

The NTMA have notified the Garda about this – good luck with that.

Our political leaders' duty doesn't stop at getting the money back. They have a duty to use any means, including the law, to fight back against any enemy within or without the State, when that enemy acts at the citizens' expense.

This is just the bones of the story, pieced together from Mr Corrigan's remarks, from a Comptroller and Auditor General's report and from media reports here and abroad. Too much remains hidden. For instance, whose account did the millions go into?

"The case is entirely exceptional and very surprising," said Mr Noonan. In truth, it's neither. There's a pattern, and it indicates consistent enemy action. It has what the police call "all the hallmarks". That's what they say when they're dealing with gang crime or terrorism – but gangs and terrorists aren't the only enemies of the State.

Moral hazard? Guess who's still looking after €900m of our hard-earned money? Yep, State Street.

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