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One inconvenient truth won't halt this AIB travesty

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Finance Minister Michael Noonan

Finance Minister Michael Noonan

Finance Minister Michael Noonan

'Not me guv," said Pontius the Regulator.

"Not me guv," retorted Pontia the Central Banker.

Last week Michael Noonan caused ructions in the Irish stock market. The Finance Minister morphed into a financial adviser. He set himself up as a guardian of the small shareholder.

Michael is a super-cautious investor at the best of times. His declaration of interests in the Oireachtas Library shows that, during the worst days of the crisis, he had a personal penchant for super-safe German bonds. His portfolio shows that he has also preferred US Bank ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds that track US banks) and FTSE 100 ETFs (an index tracker of top UK stocks).

Michael's declarations reveal a man who is only a whisker away from hiding his money under the mattress. It also indicates that he prefers to hedge his bets by investing outside Ireland.

Luckily enough Michael declares no personal holdings of Irish bank shares. "Luckily" because he holds 99.8pc of AIB and 14pc of Bank of Ireland stock on behalf of the Irish taxpayer. And he intends dumping as much Irish banking stock as possible on overseas investors at an early date.

Sadly, someone is about to take a bath.

Last Monday, Michael was offering free advice about the value of AIB shares. He even shook the inflated price in the stock market after his warning to small shareholders about the danger of buying them. He did not mince his words.

"If you buy now," he warned, "you will lose money." Full stop.

Staggering words from a Finance Minister to small investors. He was telling the nation that the stock market had grossly overvalued one of Ireland's high-profile assets.

On the face of it his outburst was bizarre. Noonan is a seller, declaring that the market price is too high! Yet the minister was on the button. Holders of AIB shares - apart from himself - are standing in quicksand. They are about to lose 80pc of their investment.

Noonan should know. While AIB shares are trading at around 8c in the market, the minister values his own 99.8pc shareholding at a lowly 1.9c each. They are openly priced, for everyone to see, in the National Pension Reserve Fund's (NPRF) books at 1.9c.

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Of course, the mugs buying AIB shares do not spend their spare time browsing in the less than entertaining pages of the NPRF's annual report. They prefer the racing pages to the more turgid tales of the Financial Times. They have heard on the grapevine that the once mighty AIB shares are bombed out at below 10c. So they take a punt on the assumption that they cannot fall much further, that AIB is a one-way bet.

Sadly, it is. The shares are on the way down.

A restructuring plan for AIB shares will be implemented in the new year. Small shareholders will see their shares tank in value, probably to around the 2c mark. Noonan himself will impose the restructuring. He is warning the mug punter not to buy the stock. More ominously, by implication he is telling holders to exit immediately. Happily, he did not go so far as to advise punters to sell AIB short - but they should!

Shares in AIB fell sharply in response to the minister's torpedo. After opening on Monday at just below 10c they dived as low as 7.2c on Tuesday. Yet ,even at this level, they were still vastly overvalued.

Astonishingly, by Thursday evening the mugs were back. "Cheap" buyers had re-entered the market. The shares closed at 8.1c. Plenty of stock market patsies had ignored the minister's advice and taken a punt. They will be burned to cinders.

At current market levels AIB is one of the most valuable, thriving banks in Europe. Patent nonsense.

Noonan, flanked by AIB's smooth- talking boss David Duffy, took the opportunity of the opening of a new branch in Limerick to launch his exocet. He was, of course, covering his posterior for the moment when AIB shares fall out of bed.

The minister foresees a day in the near future when burnt investors start screaming that they were robbed, that no one told them that there was an utterly false market in the shares and that they were inevitably going to take a hiding.

Michael Noonan has rightly raised the red flag. Even AIB has given its naive followers a weasel warning. It responded - in typically incomprehensible language - to Noonan's statement on Monday by asserting that its shares were now trading on a multiple of six times NAV when "the median for comparable European banks is about one times NAV".

Welcome to "NAVs" for the masses! Only professional investors have a clue what AIB is talking about. Small punters, widows, orphans, savers and many prudent investors will not be familiar with the niceties of NAVs.

Small punters need protection. So where is their protector? Surely that is the role of the stock exchange or the Central Bank?

Noonan has been forced to break cover because the Central Bank and the stock exchange are doing a Pontius Pilate on the innocent AIB fans.

Last Thursday I made a telephone call to the Central Bank in search of an explanation. And maybe a bit of regulation. The reaction was comical.

Pontia Pilate, the spokeswoman with a straight face, told me that AIB "could be a suitable product for some investors". Masochists only need apply. She went on to execute a masterly hospital pass, insisting that there was an obligation on the stockbroker to explain the dangers in such cases; the Central Bank did not investigate dealings on a daily basis; the price of AIB was determined by the market, etc etc.

Asked if the Central Bank was policing stockbrokers on this issue Pontia replied that they probably were not. It was up to the broker to judge the suitability of the investor for the product. A bit like asking a publican not to sell alcohol to children .

Pontius - down at the nearby Stock Exchange - responded that AIB had already put out a warning announcement. He even insisted, with a face as straight as Pontia's, that brokers "make sure that investments are suitable for clients".

He claimed that the problem fell within the remit of the Central Bank. Pontius passed the parcel back to Pontia.

Both Pontius and Pontia admitted that the situation was unusual. Both proved their credentials as free marketeers, pleading that AIB's current level reflected the "market price". Both knew full well that the price of AIB is predestined for a big tumble. Neither is doing anything about it.

These two regulators are fond of pleading that the number of AIB shares in free float (not owned by the Government) is tiny. Correct, but there are 523 billion shares in issue. Last Tuesday it was reported that, small free float or not, a massive 13 million shares were traded, representing well over €1m in value.

There must be an uncomfortable suspicion,even in the minds of Pontius and Pontia the regulators, that professional investors are dumping stock on financially illiterate small savers. Such activity is not free market normality, it is naked exploitation.

The market in AIB shares is a travesty. It is inexcusably indulged by those who are meant to protect small investors. A few months ago we warned in this column that the market in AIB shares was not merely what its apologists like to brush off as "anomalous", it is perverse.

We are about to witness the slaughter of yet more victims of the banking crisis. Michael Noonan has belatedly seen the danger and acted honourably. Pontius and Pontia are long overdue to do the same. The shares should be suspended to prevent further bloodshed.


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