Sean Quinn, who four years ago was Ireland’s richest man, has been forced into bankruptcy by his largest creditor, Anglo Irish. The man who over the years amassed a debt of €2bn with Anglo Irish now declares that his assets are worth only £50,000.
Similar losses have happened to the Icelandic billionaires. In the summer of 2010 the Glitnir Winding-Up Board sought a freezing order on the assets of Jon Asgeir Johannesson, the bank’s largest debtor. At the trial, Justice Steel was intrigued by the fact that a man who once was said to be worth £600m, who had in the years 2001-2008 a monthly expenditure £280,000-350,000 (!) and also had £11m flowing through his Glitnir account in autumn 2008, as the banks were collapsing, only had a paltry £1,1m worth of asset to show for it. The judge felt that such a substantial expenditure couldn’t but leave behind more substantial assets and confirmed the freezing order.
In the case of Quinn, Anglo is pursuing a case against him in Cyprus, thinking that Quinn and members of his family have conspired to move assets beyond the bank’s reach. Quinn speaks of a “vendetta” against him. Similar complaints have also been heard in Iceland from those pursued by WUBs.
It’s interesting to compare Quinn and other who go bankrupt leaving behind mountains of debt with stories from earlier decades and centuries about people doing everything to pay off their debt because their honour depended on it. Towards the end of the 19th Century, Mark Twain lost money on attempts to develop a new type of a printing machine and the company went bankrupt. Although the debt wasn’t in his name Twain toured Europe for some years, giving lectures to a paying audience and publishing as he could, until he had paid off his debt.
Now a days some of those who got astronomically rich quickly and equally lost their fortune in a short time, are unperturbed to use their meagre assets to hire lawyers to defend themselves from the creditors. It’s as if using all means to avoid paying one’s debt has become the natural thing to do – instead of using all one’s possible means to pay it back.
But before it comes to bankruptcy, there are ways to siphon assets off. This was done in the Iceland – not only in the banks but also in the smaller financial institutions such as the building societies. The basic way is to use a cluster of companies as a centrifuge where, in the course of a few years, debt and asset is split apart: the debt stays in certain companies, the assets migrate elsewhere. When things go badly, the debt-ridden companies go bankrupt, little or nothing is left for the creditors whereas assets, bought with the help of loans, have been spirited away.
There are three basic ways to split apart debt and assets. One is to pay out dividends. Secondly, to buy assets from related parties – at whatever price that suits you – and thirdly, to lend money to related parties, not bothering about collaterals or security of any sort. In all three cases the debt doesn’t disappear but the assets bought are beyond the reach of creditors.
In addition, the Icelandic lenders lent exorbitant amount of money into holding companies such as FL Group, Exista, Samson, Baugur and Milestone, which in turn lent the money on to related parties, paid out dividends or did in other ways split apart debt and assets. By lending money into these holding companies, the companies turned into banks with no risk management.
The three main banks in Iceland all lent to big borrowers who used these methods. But not only the big lenders lent in this way. The building societies lent much smaller amounts to a number of people, often related to the managers or to the board members in such a way that the borrowers could split apart assets and debt.
One example that I have looked as it a cluster of six related companies. Debt was split from assets and debt by paying dividends and by buying assets of doubtful value. After a few years, the debt was in one company that went bankrupt after 2008. No assets were there to speak of. What however troubled the borrowers in this case was that at some point they were obliged to take on a personal guarantee of ISK50m (€310,000) though not much for a debt of more than ISK200m.
During 2007 and 2008, some of the big Icelandic borrowers were forced to accept a personal guarantee since the banks found it increasingly difficult to justify little or no collateral in their accounts. Magnus Thorsteinsson, who together with Bjorgolfur Thor Bjorgolfsson and his father got rich in Russia during the 1990s and bought the newly privatised Landsbanki in 2002, was sued by the Landsbanki WUB in 2010 to enforce a personal guarantee.
During the trial, Thorsteinsson claimed that yes, he had accepted a personal guarantee but only because the Landsbanki managers had promised it would never been enforced. The WUB begged to differ, Thorsteinsson couldn’t pay and went bankrupt in Iceland. He has now returned to St Petersburg where he got rich in the 1990s.
In trials related to his Oscatello pledge, Vincent Tchenguiz – a major client of Kaupthing though dwarfed by his brother Robert – has claimed that Kaupthing never intended to liquidate this collateral. Quinn has spoken of a similar treatment by Anglo: he put up collaterals that the bank had given him verbal assurance would never be liquidated.
A source familiar with large bankruptcy cases says it is quite common that people in these large cases make claim of this type. From a source familiar with Kaupthing it seems though to be the case that, as is so often seen in the Icelandic bank deals, Kaupthing had given its favoured clients reasons to believe that collaterals would not be liquidated.
A prerequisite of splitting apart assets and debt is a willingness on part of the lender to accept weak or no collaterals, to lend into a cluster of companies and to turn a blind eye as to how the loans are used.
Ordinary mortals can’t get loans like these. By these lending practices, the Icelandic financial institutions (and Anglo Irish?) created a two-tier system: on one hand the normal loans with careful scrutiny of lenders; on the other, the abnormal loans for the chosen few who could split apart debt and assets. In the case of the really big lenders, with a vast system of off shore companies, it’s a kid’s play to get the assets well beyond the reach of any WUB – just as Anglo is experiencing in Cyprus, which interestingly has traditional ties to wealthy Russians.
There are many examples of companies amassing enormous debt, then going bankrupt with return to creditors is 1-5%. This is happening with many Icelandic companies. Where did the assets go? It takes a lot of work to trawl through transactions to find the invoices to companies, which have been paid high sums of money for consultancy though there is no employee to carry out the consultancy. Or to find sales contract for worthless assets.
And it doesn’t only take a lot of work: it also takes expertise to recognise the signs. An accidental hiker who sees a trail in the snow, can’t necessarily distinguish between the trail of a rabbit and a hare. The experienced hunter can.
Once money has been channelled out of sight and reach of WUBs and authorities such as tax authorities it isn’t trivial to get the money back into the country of origin, let’s say Ireland or Iceland. One way is through back-to-back loans. A man called Midas has borrowed – or rather been lent money – beyond all rhyme and reason. He has used a part of these loans to buy assets, pay dividend and with time these assets ended up in Panama.
In the end, Midas has to declare himself bankrupt but luckily for Midas his creditors don’t know about the assets in Panama. Midas doesn’t want to pay more of his debt than strictly necessary and he has lawyers working for him to keep the creditors away. How can Midas pay his lawyers when he has no money?
Midas is lucky. His friend Croesus has a company in Cyprus. Midas sends £1m to Croesus’ company. In London, Croesus “lends” £1m to Midas who can then pay his legal team there. To his creditors Midas points at how lucky he is to have such a good friend as Croesus, willing to lend him money. There isn’t much the creditors can do against this sign of pure friendship.
Midas is of the new breed of rich men. Unlike Mark Twain, Midas doesn’t see it as a matter of honour to repay his debt. On the contrary, he sees it as a matter of pride that he was clever enough to channel money off shore before things turned nasty. And clever enough to have such understanding lenders. The question is if the creditors to the financial institutions run by these understanding lenders are equally understanding of the fact that managers have not only lent beyond rhyme and reason but also lent in such a way that the creditors get much less than if the managers had been really tough on collaterals. Isn’t that called a breach of fiduciary duty?
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