After a French investigation, Landsbanki Luxembourg managers and Björgólfur Guðmundsson, who together with his son Thor Björgólfsson was the bank’s largest shareholder, are being charged in relation to the bank’s equity release loans. These charges would never have been made except for the diligence of a group of borrowers. Intriguingly, authorities in Luxembourg have never acknowledged there was anything wrong with the bank’s Luxembourg operations, have actively supported the bank’s side and its administrator and shunned borrowers. The question is if the French case will have any impact on the Luxembourg authorities.
In the years up to the Icelandic banking collapse in October 2008, all the Icelandic banks had operations in Luxembourg. Via its Luxembourg subsidiary, Landsbanki entered a lucrative market, selling equity release loans to mostly elderly and retired clients, not in Luxembourg but in France and Spain (I have covered this case for a long time, see links to earlier posts here). Many other banks were doing the same, also out of Luxembourg. The same type of financial products had been offered in i.a. Britain in the 1980s but it all ended in tears and these loans have largely disappeared from the British market after UK rules were tightened.
In a nutshell, this double product, i.e. part loan part investment, was offered to people who were asset rich but cash poor as elderly people and pensioners can be. A loan was offered against a property; typically, 1/4 paid out in cash and the remainder invested with the promise that it would pay for the loan. As so often when a loan is sold with some sort of insurance it does not necessarily work out as promised (see my blog post on Austrian FX loans).
The question is if Landsbanki promised too much, promised a risk-free investment. Also, if it breached the outline of what sort of products it invested in when it invested in Landsbanki and Kaupthing bonds. This relates to what managers at Landsbanki did. In addition, the borrowers allege that the Landsbanki Luxembourg administrator ignored complaints made, mismanaged the investments made on behalf of the borrowers. Consequently, the complaints made by the borrowers refer both to events at Landsbanki, before the bank collapsed and to events after the collapse, i.e. the activities of the administrator.
The authorities in Luxembourg have shown a remarkable lack of interest in this case and certainly the borrowers have been utterly and completely shunned there. The most remarkable and incomprehensible move was when the Luxembourg state prosecutor, no less, Robert Biever Procureur Général d’Etat sided with the administrator as outlined here on Icelog. The prosecutor, without any investigation, doubted the motives of the borrowers, saying outright that they were simply trying to avoid to pay back their debt.
However, a French judge, Renaud van Ruymbeke, took on the case. Earlier, he had passed his findings on to a French prosecutor. He has now formally charged Landsbanki managers, i.a. Gunnar Thoroddsen and Björgólfur Guðmundsson. Guðmundsson is charged as he sat on the bank’s board. He was the bank’s largest shareholder, together with his son Thor Björgólfsson. The son, who runs his investments fund Novator from London, is no part in the Landsbanki Luxembourg case. In total, nine men are charged, in addition to Landsbanki Luxembourg.
According to the French charges, that I have seen, Thoroddsen and Guðmundsson are charged for having promised risk-free business and for being in breach of the following para of the French penal code:
(Ordinance no. 2000-916 of 19 September 2000 Article 3 Official Journal of 22 September 2000 in force 1 January 2002)
Fraudulent obtaining is the act of deceiving a natural or legal person by the use of a false name or a fictitious capacity, by the abuse of a genuine capacity, or by means of unlawful manoeuvres, thereby to lead such a person, to his prejudice or to the prejudice of a third party, to transfer funds, valuables or any property, to provide a service or to consent to an act incurring or discharging an obligation.
Fraudulent obtaining is punished by five years’ imprisonment and a fine of €375,000.
Attempt to commit the offences set out under this section of the present code is subject to the same penalties.
The provisions of article 311-12 are applicable to the misdemeanour of fraudulent obtaining.
(Act no. 2001-504 of 12 June 2001 Article 21 Official Journal of 13 June 2001)
(Act no. 2003-239 of 18 March 2003 Art. 57 2° Official Journal of 19 March 2003)
Natural persons convicted of any of the offences provided for under articles 313-1, 313-2, 313-6 and 313-6-1 also incur the following additional penalties:
1° forfeiture of civic, civil and family rights, pursuant to the conditions set out under article 131-26;
2° prohibition, pursuant to the conditions set out under article 131-27, to hold public office or to undertake the social or professional activity in the course of which or on the occasion of the performance of which the offence was committed, for a maximum period of five years;
3° closure, for a maximum period of five years, of the business premises or of one or more of the premises of the enterprise used to carry out the criminal behaviour;
4° confiscation of the thing which was used or was intended for use in the commission of the offence or of the thing which is the product of it, with the exception of articles subject to restitution;
5° area banishment pursuant to the conditions set out under article 131-31;
6° prohibition to draw cheques, except those allowing the withdrawal of funds by the drawer from the drawee or certified cheques, for a maximum period of five years;
7° public display or dissemination of the decision in accordance with the conditions set out under article 131-35.
(Act no. 2003-239 of 18 March 2003 Art. 57 3° Official Journal of 19 March 2003)
Natural persons convicted of any of the misdemeanours referred to under articles 313-1, 313-2, 313-6 and 313-6-1 also incur disqualification from public tenders for a maximum period of five years.”
As far as I know the scale of this case makes it one of the largest fraud cases in France. As with the FX lending the fact that the alleged fraud was carried out in more than one country by non-domestic banks helps shelter the severity and the large amounts at stake.
Again, I can not stress strongly enough that I find it difficult to understand the stance taken by the Luxembourg authorities. After all, Landsbanki has been under investigation in Iceland, where managers have been charged i.a. for market manipulation. – Without the diligent attention by a group of Landsbanki Luxembourg borrowers this case would never have been brought to court. Sadly, it also shows that consumer protection does not work well at the European level.
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