“No” is the short answer. The Icelandic penal code on i.a. breach of fiduciary duty and market manipulation is similar to law in Western countries. The difference in Iceland was the swift awareness in autumn 2008 that there might be something worth investigating, later supported by setting up an Office of a Special Prosecutor, Special Investigating Commission and strengthening the financial supervision. Also, the Special Prosecutor quickly realised that behind the invariably complicated web of shell companies and transactions stories of fraud are in reality quite simple and follow the same patterns over and over again. This is why bankers and shareholders have been successfully prosecuted in Iceland – not because Iceland has better penal code.
“How come that Iceland is successfully prosecuting bankers, getting them sentenced to lengthy prison terms when no one else is doing it?” This is a question I keep being asked. The short answer is the one above but there is also a longer one.
Soon after Icelanders got used to the fact that the three large Icelandic banks had collapsed, in early October 2008, the country and the media was rife with rumours that something not entirely normal, not entirely legal, had been going on in the banks. Some tried to explain alleged irregularities by the unavoidable panic; that well, perhaps the bankers had in some cases overstepped the legal borderline, strayed into grey territories, as they fought to keep the banks as going concerns.
The Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, took two measures in December 2008 to clarify the collapse: it set up an investigative commission, The Special Investigative Commission, SIC, into the banking collapse – and it set up an Office of a Special Prosecutor, OSP.
The SIC already came across a number of cases it could not quite align with normal banking practices. These cases were outlined in its thorough report in April 2012 and it also presented its findings to the OSP. At the same time the financial supervisor, FME, was diligently reviewing the operations of the banks prior to the collapse. This meant that the OSP i.a. got input from these two institutions.
The Icelandic lesson from dealing with fraud related to the banks’ operations up to the banking collapse just proved the old saying: where there is a will there is a way.
A meagre and humble start
The beginnings of the OSP were not promising. First, no one applied for the job. Then a small-town sheriff was asked to apply and that is how Ólafur Hauksson, from Akranes across the bay from Reykjavík, got the job. This is a story often told before: Hauksson had never seen anything more serious than speed-driving, drunk driving, moonlighting, domestic violence, break-ins and drunken brawl, the average criminality in an Icelandic small town.
But Hauksson proved that give a person the occasion to shine and he/she very well might. He got funds to hire staff, three prosecutors were hired. Slowly slowly, the charges emerged. Slowly slowly, bankers started to pack to go on an unexpected trip, sent by the Supreme Court, to Snæfellsnes, the beautiful peninsula visible from Reykjavík, to an old farm, Kvíabryggja, a prison for non-violent prisoners.
Last year, following a system change, the OSP was moved into a bigger structure, the Office of County Prosecutor. This time, several people applied to lead the new institution. Hauksson was among the applicants and landed the job.
Digging out the simple truth from entangled webs of emails, shell companies and transactions
The main stories emerging from the collapse cases so far have revolved around market manipulation and breach of fiduciary duty. The real lesson here is the same as everywhere else: these cases look complicated, there are mountains of documents to read, often complicated web of shell companies and offshore companies, money floating around. Interestingly, phone tapping has been used successfully and there are also recordings from the old banks.
However, as in all such cases the underlying stories tend to be simple: the ways to commit a crime are not myriad. Think Enron: looks complicated, with all of the above – at the bottom, a simple story how losses were hidden from shareholders. Another entangled web is the Savings & Loan scandals in the US in the 1980s, nota bene where cases were really investigated and people sentenced to prison.
And these things do not happen by themselves. In every case it takes more than one to do all the necessary things. A prosecutor then decides whose deeds are grave enough to prosecute, who bears the responsibility etc.
Considering how little has been done i.a. in the UK to investigate the banks’ operations leading to the autumn 2008 banking collapse there and considering the screamingly obvious inactions by authorities in Luxembourg regarding banks – all the worst cases in Iceland have ties to the banks’ operations in Luxembourg – it is ironic that the OSP would have been a lot less successful were it not for a fruitful cooperation with these two countries. Authorities in both countries have carried out house searches and assisted in finding and identifying documents relevant for the OSP’s work. Yes, that is hugely ironic…
Market manipulation: burying shares like drug dealers with too much cash
Icelandic cases of market manipulation where bankers have been sentenced have mainly been carried out in two ways: through the banks’ own trading and by parking the banks’ shares into shell companies, invariably owned by clients with some particularly cosy ties to the banks and/or the banks’ shareholders.
Although Landsbanki and Kaupthing, Glitnir to a much lesser extent, were successfully running high interest rates internet accounts, to fund their operations (Landsbanki and the ill-fated Icesave), all three banks relied on selling bonds on international markets. This funding kept the banks going like mills with water. When funding dried up in summer 2007 it was clear that the banks would come to a grinding halt.
That is also what foreign banks sensed, quickly starting to call in loans and, with sinking asset prices, making margin calls on the big Icelandic businesses, i.e. the banks’ main shareholders and their closest partners. Since Icelandic bank shares were the collaterals in most of these loans (after all, the banks had lent the large shareholders money to buy their shares, another aspect that made Icelandic banks weak), it was clear that the markets would be flooded with Icelandic bank shares if the margin calls went through.
Faced with this the Icelandic banks decided to increase the lending to their largest clients – yes, all of them large and the largest shareholders in the banks – in order to prevent this flooding. The feeling when reading the court rulings in these cases is that the banks were like drug dealers with more cash than they can stash, needing to bury it etc.; i.e. the shares were buried in various companies and these transactions were funded by the banks.
Lending on contracts with no provisions to hinder possible losses
Breach of fiduciary duty has figured prominently in banking collapse cases leading to imprisonment. These cases all revolve in some way around lending where the bank carries all the risk, where eventual losses, were they to arise, would always fall on the bank, i.e. losses were foreseeable.
It seems to me that there are some Irish cases very similar to the Icelandic ones of foreseeable losses, i.e. the management didn’t seem to have the interest of the banks and their shareholders at heart but assisting individual clients beyond rhyme and reason.
These Icelandic loan agreements were often only agreed on by the banks’ managers, i.e. outside of regular processes, without the knowledge of credit committees etc. There would then be lower-placed trusted lieutenants who organised the lending. In some cases they have also been charged and sentenced, in some cases not.
Thus, the banks lend in such a way, apparently knowingly, that would the borrower not be able to pay, it would lead to the bank losing money. Here it is important to keep in mind that these banks were public companies with thousands of shareholders – Kaupthing had well over thirty thousand shareholders – losing money on bad lending.
“No society can tolerate that certain parts of it are beyond law and justice” – well, some can…
From reading the SIC report it is clear that some cases have been prosecuted, others not. There was too much of this going on but yes, the managers and the top tier, in some cases also shareholders, have been targeted by the OSP.
It is important to keep in mind that bankers in Iceland have not been sentenced for stupid or unwise decisions but for actions which the Supreme Court has then ruled were criminal actions.
When I talked to Hauksson following the conviction in the so-called al Thani case, in February 2015, he pointed out that the Supreme Court’s decisions showed “that it is possible to bring complicated financial cases to court and get conviction. Building up the expertise has been a long process but the ruling today demonstrates that setting up an office, which didn’t exist earlier, was fully justified. No society can tolerate that certain parts of it are beyond law and justice.”
For some reason, countries like the US and the UK, with old and esteemed legal traditions have in many cases decided to fine rather than prosecute for financial crimes, thereby showing the opposite of the Icelandic examples show – the US and the UK have indeed at times shown that yes, certain parts of society are indeed beyond law and justice. That has sadly been the UK and the US lessons of the financial calamities of 2008.
Follow me on Twitter for running updates.