Monday 16 September 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'Santa's got goodies for the bondholders'

So, it's €103.05 for the nice people, and €270m for the naughty ones. Well, that seems fair

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

It was easy to miss. In the days running up to Christmas, we've been distracted from the great issues of state.

Apart from the usual Christmas pressures, there's been a wave of startling news events.

A judge held at gunpoint on the bench.

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A Christmas eviction of elderly people in Roscommon, with the now-standard heavies brought in to handle the rough stuff.

And when the Minister for Finance totted up the bill for the children's hospital, he found it'll cost €400m more than it was supposed to cost when he totted up the figures a couple of months ago.

Even by the standards of Irish public life, all of this was verging on the extreme.

On top of that, whenever I put on the TV news, there's some British politician fretting about Brexit and pleading with the party leaders not to walk the UK off a cliff.

(Too late, mate. Already happened. Look around you. That's what a country looks like when it's plummeting.)

So, I switched off for a couple of days. I put the newspapers aside to read later. Maybe in the lazy days after Christmas. And yesterday, passing by the pile of newsprint, a headline caught my eye.

And, suddenly, there was a foul smell, as though from something rotten that's decomposing under the floorboards.

The stink of Anglo.

As in Anglo Irish Bank.

The bank that died of greed.

The bank that cost us about €30bn of public money.

And now, 10 whole years later, we're informed that we're going to shell out another €270m.

To the people for whom Anglo Irish Bank was a great success.

It was dead, we thought. We might be bitter and bloody, but we'd finally killed off the zombie bank. And now, like some Hollywood monster at the climax of a crappy horror movie, the dead thing gets up off the floor, and again clutches us by the throat.

By the time Anglo collapsed, billions of our money had been handed over to the idiot bankers. Bondholders, who had gambled on winning huge profits from Anglo, knew they had lost.

For them, that was part of the game. You win a lot, you lose some.

But the politicians - here and across Europe - decided it would enhance "confidence" in the European banks if they paid out winnings to the bondholders, as though gambling on Anglo had been a good bet.

Even the bank's cheerleaders agreed that one type of bondholder was entitled to nothing - the junior, unsecured bondholders. They were mostly hedge funds and vultures of various types, who came late to the game. They bought up bonds cheaply, as a high-risk gamble.

They weren't due a cent.

The bondholders fought back. The Government made a deal - here's 20pc, to go away. And most of them took it.

A small number held out. They had paid only a fraction of the face value of the "distressed" bonds, but they were demanding a hundred per cent of the value.

One of them went to a court in the UK and a judge ruled that offering the bondholders a 20pc deal was a "negative inducement".

The Attorney General's office here decided the Irish courts would rule that not paying the losing gamblers their full whack would be an unconstitutional "interference in private property rights".

And now, as part of the Anglo liquidation, we're to pay another €270m to give the junior unsecured bondholders that warm Christmas feeling.

And, here's the punchline.

A quote from Paschal Donohoe, our Minister for Finance. Paschal says that paying "all admitted unsecured creditors" - well, that just "highlights the success of the liquidation to date".

We've got so much money that in January, we can throw away €270m to people with no logical, moral or business entitlement to it.

In fact, throwing away that kind of serious money just demonstrates how big a success we are.

You have to wonder, though. How much more of this success can we handle?

Mind you, it's not all bad news. Journalist Philip Nolan tweeted that his mortgage lender had sent him a cheque for €103.05, just in time for Christmas.

Why?

Well, in 2008, someone in the bank decided that because it was a leap year, they could charge an extra day's interest. They were caught out, hence the refund to Philip.

Hip hip hooray, one for the good guys.

But, just think of the sheer greed.

Throughout this country, in large, ego-stroking offices, people spend all day thinking of ways to gouge another few euro out of us.

Nothing happens - no transaction, no calamity or triumph, no trivial or routine human affair - that doesn't have a clutch of sharp-eyed, dead-minded individuals hovering over it, avaricious eyes measuring the transaction from every angle, to spot a tiny opening through which they can siphon off an extra few cents.

At one level, it's companies cutting the number of sweets in a box of chocolates, while maintaining the same price. At other levels, it's complex legal strategies to fleece employees and/or customers.

Greed never sleeps.

There's an aspect to this that is seldom acknowledged. The notion of constant greed, the perpetual search for an angle that will reap big bucks, is the great motivator in Ireland Inc.

It's the semi-religious commitment to letting "free" markets decide everything, from housing to health, to the terms by which young people in precarious employment are viciously exploited.

This greed is what they're praising when they speak of the entrepreneurial spirit they want to implant in the young. There are some who oppose the greedy, others who protect them.

This is why the law is peppered with carefully fashioned loopholes. This is how proper, socially useful measures are rendered "unconstitutional".

We regulate the greed, of course. For instance, there is a voluntary Central Bank code that says a bank cannot sell-on a home loan to a third party without the permission of the person who took out the loan.

But banks often want to sell such loans to vultures, so they ignore the Central Bank code - because compliance is voluntary.

Last week, Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein proposed a Bill to make the code compulsory. It was in this context that Taoiseach Varadkar sought to smear Doherty last Tuesday.

In the Dail, both Doherty and Mattie McGrath mentioned the Roscommon eviction incidents. Varadkar immediately smeared Doherty - claiming he didn't "condemn" the violence. Doherty had twice stated he did "not condone" violence.

Doherty's failure to use the word "condemn" was Varadkar's basis for the smear - "it does not take very long for your balaclava to slip".

The carefully composed soundbite was ready to be used when the chance arose. And spread widely through the media to discredit Doherty.

Varadkar praised Mattie McGrath: "He has put on the record his condemnation of violence."

In fact, the Dail record shows that McGrath used precisely the same words as Doherty: "I do not condone violence."

The point is not that Doherty was personally attacked on a false basis. He can look after himself. But the contrived effort to cast Doherty as a man of violence, whose views are not to be supported, undermines the attempt to force the banks to observe the Central Bank rules on selling-on mortgages. And that hurts all of us.

The protectors of greed never sleep.

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