Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Archive for October, 2012

Ireland – the mortgage debt and insolvency framework

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Today, the troika – EC, ECB and the IMF – released the latest memo on the state of the Irish economy. Recovery continues, albeit slowly and the scary part is the unemployment:

Ireland’s gradual economic recovery has continued, but largely due to weaker net exports, real GDP growth has slowed to a projected rate of ½ percent in 2012. Domestic demand and employment continue to decline owing to on-going household balance sheet repair, the weak labour market, and low lending to households and SMEs. Prospects for growth in 2013 are for modest pickup to just over 1 percent as domestic demand declines moderately, although weak trading partner growth may continue to dampen net exports despite Irish competitiveness gains.

However, unemployment remains unacceptably high, especially among the youth, making job creation and growth a key priority. Accordingly, plans are progressing to utilise resources from the European Investment Bank, the National Pension Reserve Fund, and private investors to finance job-rich projects in several sectors. The Action Plan for Jobs will contribute to employment generation through a wide range of measures. It is also important to ensure that job seekers are well prepared to fill positions when they become available by strengthening employment and training services through vigorous implementation of the Pathways to Work initiative. Engagement with the long-term unemployed should be a priority, including through timely and well-designed involvement of the private sector in providing employment services.

But there are still significant issues, which need to be addressed:

The authorities are ramping up reforms to restore the health of the Irish financial sector so that it can help support economic recovery. Intensified efforts are required to deal decisively with mortgage arrears and further reduce bank operating costs. Parliament is currently considering an ambitious reform of the personal insolvency framework.

In other words, the banks aren’t lending enough to support businesses (although a return to earlier insane lending isn’t to be wished for) – and then two crucial things: mortgages arrears haven’t been dealt with nor is there an appropriate personal insolvency framework in place.

As I’ve pointed out earlier, debt relief is at the heart of the good Icelandic recovery. In addition, the insolvency framework was changed in Iceland following the collapse of the banks. The insolvency period is now only two years in Iceland and although creditors can in theory prolongue it, in practice it’s very difficult to do. Those who face insolvency can now choose to go down that path, knowing there is an end to it – it’s not an insolvency for life.

In terms of mortgages, the measures chosen were the so-called “110% way,” explained in this article, where the Icelandic situation is compared with the situation in Greece and Iceland. In November 2008 Iceland had to turn to the IMF for an emergency loan and consequently, the Fund was involved in forming policies to tackle the situation. I very much hope that the Icelandic lessons and experience of debt relief and changes in insolvency framework is now part of the IMF tool kit on other debt-ridden countries. These two actions can’t happen too quickly. They are an important factor in making the future a tiny wee brighter for those who, unaware, are struck by economical catastrophes they had very little part in creating.

Update: There are two Irish organisations working on debt relief: the Phoenix Project and Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 25th, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Posted in Iceland

Where is the EU consumer protection when it comes to banking, especially in Luxembourg?

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Icelog has earlier told stories of Landsbanki Luxembourg and equity release loans sold by the bank in France and Spain.

The remarkable thing is that although those who bought the product have good reasons to feel that that Landsbanki Luxembourg missold the loans, mismanaged the accompanying investments and miscalculated the loan cover ratio (in early Sept. 2008, a month before the bank collapse), the administrator has not been willing to discuss these matters with the clients. Since no reports regarding the administrator’s work can be found on-line (contrary to ia the operations of winding-up boards of the collapsed banks in Iceland), it’s not clear how and in what way the administrator has fulfilled normal duties to investigate if the bank took any actions before the collapse that might be either illegal or should be repealed.

In addition, the equity release clients have been frustrated by the wholly opaque and, what has at time, seemed arbitrary operations of the administrator. The clients have ia had varying and inconsistent information as to the status of their loans. Yet, no authority in Luxembourg – such as the Luxembourg financial services, CSSF or the Luxembourg Central Bank – seems to have paid any attention of a) what went on in Landsbanki Luxembourg before its demise b) the operations of the administrator. In this tiny country that lives of banking, the authorities don’t show any interest in knowing what really is going on in Luxembourg banks.

As to the assets, the Landsbanki Winding-up Board has now taken them over. The WuB has not been willing to answer questions regarding what they know about the Landsbanki Luxembourg operations before or after the collapse. The unusual position of the Landsbanki Luxembourg estate is that there are essentially only two creditors: the Landsbanki Iceland estate, now run by the Winding-up board and the Luxembourg Central Bank.

As mentioned earlier on Icelog there are two important events concerning Landsbanki Luxembourg: a court case in Spain and actions taken in France by a French judge.

A court in Spain has ruled in one case that the Landsbanki Luxembourg was illegal, awarded the borrow compensation – but because the case is being appealed these borrowers are still kept in agony.

In France, Judge Van Ruymbeke* is investigating the Landsbanki Luxembourg operations and has seized some properties belonging to Landsbanki Luxembourg clients – in order to prevent the Landsbanki Luxembourg administrator from confiscating the properties against loans she claims are in default.

In spring, the Luxembourg State prosecutor took the extraordinary step to issue a press release in support of the said administrator – although a) the prosecutor had not, judging from the press release, investigated the matter b) had not been asked to investigate it and c) had, as far as could be judged from the press release, nothing to rely on but information from the said administrator. Quite extraordinarily, the prosecutor makes the claim that a small number clients, complaining about the operations of the administrator, are only people who are trying to evade repaying their loans.

The fact that a State prosecutor steps forward to defend in this way an administrator of a private company, is I believe unheard of in any country claiming to be run by the rule of law.

What makes this case particularly poignant is that many of these clients, who now have lived with the threats of being evicted from their homes, are elderly people who thought they were securing their later years in a sensible way by taking out these loans. There are many and various European and domestic schemes to protect consumers and bank clients. So far, none of these seem to have worked for the clients of Landsbanki Luxembourg in Spain and France.

*Judge Renaud van Ruymbeke has a formidable track record in investigating huge and high-profile corruption cases. He worked with Eva Joly – who advised the Icelandic Special Prosecutor when the office was set up – on the Elf case where ministers and politicians were convicted to prison sentences and has run big investigations such as the Clearstream 2 case and French investigations into the Madoff fraud. 

Update to clarify the legal standing of an administrator in Luxembourg: a judge appoints an administrator and all actions have to be accepted by this judge. In the case of the Landsbanki Luxembourg administration the presiding judge is Karin GuillaumeAs far as I understand, the judge is therefor also responsible for the actions taken by an administrator appointed by the judge.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 18th, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Posted in Iceland

Comments system – up and running again

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My apologies to Icelog readers. The comments system has been out of order. All comments posted lately have just disappeared into a black void due to a system failure – but now the system should be functioning again. If anyone has posted a comment and it has not appeared on the blog that’s the reason (and not that the unpublished comment has been vetoed by me).

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 16th, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Posted in Iceland

SFO drops its investigation of Kaupthing – the OSP Kaupthing case in Iceland

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The final nail in the Kaupthing coffin at the SFO: the investigation has been closed, due to “lack of evidence.” However, the SFO states in its press release today that the cooperation with the Icelandic Special Prosecutor will continue.

This has been a long and sorry saga after the fateful SFO house searches in March last year. Although several ex-managers of Kaupthing were investigated the main media focus here in the UK was on the Tchenguiz brothers, Vincent and Robert. The investigation into Vincent’s case was dropped this summer, with a full apology from the SFO.

Now, the whole investigation is dropped but no apology. This means that, amongst others, Robert Tchenguiz and ex-chairman of the Kaupthing board are no longer being investigated.

In Iceland, things are going better for the investigators. The Office of the Special Prosecutor has, ia, charged Kaupthing’s second largest shareholder Olafur Olafsson and the Kaupthing managers Sigurdur Einarsson, Hreidar Mar Sigurdsson and Magnus Gudmundsson in connection to loans to Sheikh Mohammad al Thani – loans that were used to buy a 5.1% share in Kaupthing in September 2001. It’s alleged that since Kaupthing financed the deal but let it be known that the Sheikh had much faith in the bank, it was an alleged case of market manipulation and also alleged breach of fiduciary duty as, according to the charges, the managers did not secure a repayment of the loan. The Sheikh has not repaid the loan and is being sued by the Kaupthing Winding-up board for non-repayment.

The interesting difference between the Icelandic OSP charges and the SFO approach is that the OSP charges relate to alleged misconduct of those in charge of the bank, aided by the shareholder. The failed SFO investigation was aimed at alleged suspect customer relationship. It’s much harder to prove that a client who got a good deal was breaking the law than to prove misconduct in issuing loans.

The al Thani case is now starting its journey through the Icelandic court system. In a report (in Icelandic) that Sigurdsson has lodged with the court he refutes all wrong-doing. He states that yes, there might potentially have been a criminal action relating to the al Thani loan – but the possible criminal action related to deeds done by two other employees – Eggert Hilmarsson and Halldor Bjarkar Ludviksson – whereas everything he himself did was complete in accordance with rules and regulation. – The interesting angle here is that Sigurdsson is pointing finger at two colleagues who have cooperated with the Icelandic investigation.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 15th, 2012 at 6:34 pm

Posted in Iceland

Nobel’s peace prize to the EU – but when will it get the Nobel prize in economics?

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The world seems to divide in two as to whether it was a good idea to give the Nobel peace prize to the European Union. With the continent experiencing some hefty dispute right now when some countries are more indebted than others it could be said that now is not a good time. On the other hand, countries in Africa and South America are trying to create something like the European cooperation – and apart from political differences nothing binds countries as well together as trade and common interest.

An organisation that promotes these two issues on a continent where the countries, until 60 years ago, had always been at war has done something right. In the grande scheme of things. Yes, it’s quite right that Nato may have played a part in a peaceful Europe but in terms of binding the countries together in a web of common interests, the EU has definitely been instrumental.

Which doesn’t mean the EU deserves prizes in every matter. At a EU press conference in Brussels after the prize was announced a shrewd journalist posed this question: “When will the EU qualify for the Nobel prize for Economics?” – You can just imagine the laughter that ensued.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 13th, 2012 at 11:04 am

Posted in Iceland

All things European

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During the 90s I lived in Copenhagen, followed the European debate there, the birth of the Maastricht treaty and the debate in Sweden, Finland and Norway before these countries joined the European Union – or in the Norwegian case didn’t join. Now Iceland is negotiating its membership – and will in the course of time have a referendum, possibly in two years time or so.

In addition to the topics I’m already covering, I’ll be blogging on European matters as well since it’s of great interest and because I’ve been following the European development for over two decades now.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 13th, 2012 at 11:00 am

Posted in Iceland

More on Adoboli – my half day in court

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I had a free morning on Friday and went to Southwark Crown Court, Court 3, to listen to the Adoboli case. Not many people there – a handful of journalists, roughly as many from UBS, two men I reckon were Adoboli’s father and brother, lawyers from both sides and Kweko Adoboli, the UBS trader who lost $2.3bn by trading out of sight of his superiors.

What Adoboli’s defenders have been very good at is to show that far from the UBS version of the story, the trader being racking up losses out of sight from everyone, there were at least – according to the defence version – several people who knew. The evening before Adoboli sent the email to his UBS superiors, resigning and telling them what he had done three collegues met with Adoboli and told him they would burden him with the losses. One of those he allegedly met with, John Hughes, said in court he did not remember that meeting nor does he remember visiting Adoboli’s girlfriend later. A visit the defence team think Hughes made to find out if she knew of his connection to Adoboli.

So good has the defence team been at drawing out this story from the witnesses that witnessed have been reduced to tears when questioned.

The defence team – from Furnival Chambers Barristers – is clearly trying to make it clear to the jury that the story is far more complicated than the charges indicate. Adoboli wasn’t a rogue trader in the sense that he was doing something unhinged and out of bound. His line manager and others around him knew he traded far beyond the bank’s agreed limit but because he was making profit he wasn’t disciplined. The Crown Prosecution is picturing Adoboli as a “master fraudster” who was good enough at fraud to hide it from his superiors.

I watched Paul Garlick questioning John Ossel who said he had not known about the hidden fund, called the “umbrella,” that Adoboli seemed to have used to cover his losses. Ossel was the trader who executed most of Adoboli’s trades.

Today, Garlick has been questioning Darren Bailey, another UBS trader, still working for the bank. In an online chat in March last year Bailey asked Adoboli if he had used the “slush account.” When asked about this comment Bailey said he was shocked to see a transcript of the chat but couldn’t remember what it referred to. – Bailey has been working for UBS for thirteen years. Last week he told the court that he has once been banned for three months from trading futures after he asked Adoboli to book a trade for Bailey and keep it on his book overnight, instead of having the trade on Bailey’s book.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of this case. So far, the defence team has done a good job of painting a picture of a banking culture where things are not what they seem to be. The witness statements indicate that some of Adoboli’s colleagues knew of a hidden fund used to cover losses. As long as Adoboli was making money for the bank it seems his superiors weren’t too worried or upset about his way of trading. The Prosecution argues that Adoboli was a rogue trader – but others at UBS seem to have known of the off-book funds he used to hide losses he didn’t want to appear on the books.

The case offers an interesting insight into banking, such as common spread betting among traders, as practiced in the years following the crunch time in October 2008 – when bankers were expected to have learnt from what happened. That, in addition to Libor fiddling and HSBC cavalier attitude to US anti money-laundering regulation. When will banking again be in the hands of unadventurous clerks who work on behalf of shareholders and clients and not against the interests of these two groups?

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 8th, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Posted in Iceland