Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

The Icelandic al Thani case and the British al Thani / Barclays case

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Prosecuting big banks and senior bankers is hard for many reasons: they hire big name lawyers that fight tooth and nail, with delays, deviations and imaginable and unimaginable obstructions of all sorts. PR firms are hired to deviate and create smoke and mirrors. And some journalists seem easily to identify with the pillars of financial society, even talking about “victimless crime.” All of this springs to mind regarding the SFO charges against John Varley former CEO of Barclays and three senior managers – where an Icelandic parallel can possibly throw some light on the few facts in the case of Varley e.al.

In the summer of 2008, as liquidity was tight for many banks, two high-flying banks in the London business community, Barclays and Kaupthing, were struggling. Both sought salvation from Qatari investors. Not the same investors though the name al Thani, a ruling clan in the dessert state of Qatar, figures in both investment stories.

In 2012 as the Icelandic Office of the Special Prosecutor, OSP, brought charges against three Kaupthing managers and the bank’s second largest investor Ólafur Ólafsson, related to Qatari investment in Kaupthing in September 2008, the British Serious Fraud Office, SFO, was just about to start an investigation into the 2008 Qatari investment in Barclays.

In 2015 the four Icelanders were sentenced to 4 to 5 1/2 years in prison for fraudulent lending and market manipulation (see my overview here). SFO is now bringing ex CEO John Varley and three senior Barclays bankers to court on July 3 on the basis of similar charges. As the first UK bankers are charged for actions during the 2008 crisis such investigations are coming to a close in Iceland where almost 30 bankers and others have been sentenced since 2011 in crisis-related cases.

The Kaupthing charges in 2012 filled fourteen pages, explaining the alleged criminal deeds. That is sadly not the case with the SFO Barclays charges: only the alleged offences are made public. Given the similarities of the two cases it is however tempting to use the Icelandic case to throw some light on the British case.

SFO is scarred after earlier mishaps. But is the SFO investigation perhaps just a complete misunderstanding and a “victimless crime” as BBC business editor Simon Jack alleges? That is certainly what the charged bankers would like us to believe but in cases of financial assistance and market manipulation, everyone acting in the financial market is the victim.

These crimes wholly undermine the level playing field regulators strive to create. Do we want to live in a society where it is acceptable to commit a crime if it saves a certain amount of taxpayers’ money but ends up destroying the market supposedly a foundation of our economy?

The Barclays and Kaupthing charges – basically the same

When the Icelandic state prosecutor brings charges the underlying writ can be made public three days later. The writ carefully explains the alleged criminal deeds, quoting evidence that underpins the charges. Thus, Icelanders knew from 2012 the underlying deeds in the Icelandic case, called the al Thani case after the investor Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Thani who was not charged.

As to the SFO charges in the Barclays case we only know this:

Conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation in relation to the June 2008 capital raising, contrary to s1 and s2 of the Fraud Act 2006 and s1(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1977 – Barclays Plc, John Varley, Roger Jenkins, Thomas Kalaris and Richard Boath.

Conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation in relation to the October 2008 capital raising, contrary to s1 and s2 of the Fraud Act 2006 and s1(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1977 – Barclays Plc, John Varley and Roger Jenkins.

Unlawful financial assistance contrary to s151 of the Companies Act 1985 – Barclays Plc, John Varley and Roger Jenkins.

The Gulf investors named in 2008 were Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al Thani, Qatar’s prime minister at the time and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi. The side deals the bankers are charged for relate to the Qatari part of the investment, i.e. Barclays capital raising arrangements with Qatar Holding LLC, part of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund and al Thani’s investment vehicle Challenger Universal Ltd and $3bn loan issued by Barclays to the State of Qatar, acting through the Ministry of Economy and Finance in November 2008.

Viewing the Barclays side deals via the Kaupthing case

The Barclays saga is allegedly that apart from the Qatari investments in Barclays in June and October 2008, in total £6.1bn, there were two side deals, allegedly financial assistance: Barclays promised to pay £322m to Qatari investors, apparently fee for helping Barclays with business development in the Gulf; in November 2008, Barclays agreed to issue a loan of $3bn to the State of Qatar, allegedly fitting the funds prime minister Sheikh al Thani invested, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Thus it seems the Barclays bankers (all four following the June 2008 investment, two of them following the October investment) were allegedly misleading the markets, i.e. market manipulation, when they commented on the two Qatari investments.

If we take cue from the Icelandic al Thani case it is most likely that the Barclays managers begged and pestered the Gulf investors, known for their deep pockets, to invest.

In the al Thani case, the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund had earlier considered buying Kaupthing shares but thought the price was too high. Kaupthing then wooed the Qatari investors with some good offers.

What Kaupthing promised was a “risk-free” loan, a classic Kaupthing special offer to special clients, to place as an investment in Kaupthing. In other words, there was never any money coming into Kaupthing as an investment. It was just money merry-go-round from one Kaupthing account to another: funds going out as a loan and coming back as an investment. In addition, the investors got a loan of $50m directly into their pockets, defined as pre-paid profit.

Barclays hardly made such a crude offer to the Qatari investors but the £322m fee leads the thought to the pre-paid profit in the Kaupthing saga; the Barclays fee could allegedly be defined as pre-payment for services-to-come.

The $3bn loan to the state of Qatar is intriguing, given that the state of Qatar is and the finances of its ruling family have allegedly often seemed closely connected.

What we don’t know regarding the Barclays side deals

The September 2008 Qatari investment in Kaupthing figured in the 2010 report of the Special Investigative Commission, SIC, a report that thoroughly explained and mapped the operations of the Icelandic banks up to the 2008 collapse. The criminal case added details to the SIC saga. It is for example clear that Kaupthing didn’t really expect the Gulf investors to pay back the investment but handed them $50m right away.

Little is yet known about the details of the alleged Barclays side deals. How were the covenants for the $3bn loan? Has this loan been repaid or is it still on Barclays books? And was the service for the £322m ever carried out? Was there any specification as to what Barclays was paying for? Why were these services apparently pre-paid instead of being paid against an invoice after the services had been carried out?

These are some of the things we would need to know in order to assess the side deals and their context and connections to the Qatari investment in Barclays. Clearly, the SFO knows and this will no doubt be part of the coming court case.

The whiff of Qatari investors and how it touches Deutsche Bank

The Kaupthing resolution committee went after the Qatari investors to recover the loans, threatening them with legal proceedings. Investigators from the Office of the Special Prosecutor did question the investors.

According to Icelog sources, the Qatari investors were adamant about clarifying the situation both with Kaupthing and the OSP. The understanding was that the investors were worried about their reputation. They did in the end reach a settlement with the Kaupthing resolution committee as Kaupthing announced in 2013.

These two investment sagas do however leave a certain whiff. In August last year, when it transpired that Qatari investors had invested in troubled Deutsche Bank I sent a query to Deutsche’s spokesman asking if the bank was possibly lending the investors money. I got a stern reply that I was hinting at Deutsche committing a legal offense (well, as if Deutsche had not been found to have rigged markets, assisted in money laundering etc) but was later assured that no, Deutsche had not given any financial assistance to its Qatari investors, no side deals related to their investment in the bank.

Companies don’t commit crimes – people do

Although certainly not the only one, Barclays is a bank with a long register of recent financial sins, inter alia: in 2012 it paid a fine of £290m for Libor manipulation; in 2015 it paid £2.3bn for rigging FX markets and £72m to settle money laundering offenses.

As to lessons learnt: this spring, it turned out that Barclays CEO Jes Staley, has broken whistleblower-rules by trying to unmask a Barclays whistleblower. CEOs have been remarkably short lived at Barclays since Varley left in 2010: his successor Bob Diamond was forced out in 2012, replaced by Antony Jenkins who had to leave in 2015, followed by Jes Staley.

In spite of Barclays being fined for matters, which are a criminal offence, the SFO has treated these crimes (and similar offences in many other banks) as crimes not committed by people but companies, i.e. no Barclays bankers have been charged… until now.

After all, continuously breaking the law in multiple offences over a decade, under various CEOs indicates that something is seriously wrong at Barclays (and in many other big banks). Normally, criminals are not allowed just to pay their way out of criminal deeds. In the case of banking fines banks have actually paid with funds accrued by criminal offences. Ironically, banks pay fines with shareholders’ money and most often, senior managers have not even taken a pay cut following costs arising from their deeds.

In all its unknown details the Barclays case is no doubt far from simple. But compared to FX or Libor rigging, it is manageable, its focus being the two investments, in June and October 2008, the £322m fee and the November 2008 loan of $3bn.

The BBC is not amused… at SFO charges

Instead of seeing the merit in this heroic effort by the SFO BBC’s business editor Simon Jack is greatly worried, after talking to what only appear to be Barclays insiders. There is no voice in his comment expressing any sympathy with the rule of law rather than the culpable bankers.

Jack asks: Why, over the past decade, has the SFO been at its most dogged in the pursuit of a bank that DIDN’T require a taxpayer bailout? In fact, it was Barclays’ very efforts to SPARE the taxpayer that gave rise to this investigation.

This is of course exactly the question and answer one would hear from the charged bankers but it is unexpected to see this argument voiced by the BBC business editor on a BBC website as an argument against an investigation. In the Icelandic al Thani case, those charged and eventually sentenced also found it grossly unfair that they were charged for saving the bank… with criminal means.

Jack’s reasoning seems to justify a criminal act if the goal is deemed as positive and good for society. One thing for sure, such a society is not optimal for running a company – the healthiest and most competitive business environment surely is one where the rule of law can be taken for granted.

Another underlying assumption here is that the Barclays management sought to safe the bank by criminal means in order to spare the taxpayer the expense of a bailout. Perhaps a lovely thought but a highly unlikely one. There were plenty of commentaries in 2008 pointing out that what really drove Barclays’ John Varley and his trusted lieutenants hard to seek investors was their sincere wish to avoid any meddling into Barclays bonuses etc.

Is the alleged Barclays fraud a “victimless crime”?

It’s worth remembering that taxpayers didn’t bail out Barclays and small shareholders didn’t suffer the massive losses that those of RBS and Lloyds did. One former Barclays insider said that if there was a crime then it was “victimless” and you could argue that Barclays – and its executives – did taxpayers and its own shareholders a massive favour, writes Jack.

It comes as no surprise that “one former Barclays insider” would claim that saving a bank, even by breaking the law, is just fine and actually a good deed. For anyone who is not a Barclays insider it is a profound and shocking misunderstanding that a financial crime like the Barclays directors allegedly committed is victimless just because no one is walking out of Barclays with a tangible loss or the victims can’t be caught on a photo.

We don’t know in detail how Barclays was managed, there is no British SIC report. So we don’t know if the $3bn loan has been paid back. If it was not repaid or had abnormally weak covenants it makes all Barclays clients a victim because they will have had to pay, in one way or another, for that loan.

Even if the loan was normal and has been paid a bank that uses criminal deeds to survive turns the whole society into the victims of its criminal deeds: financial assistance and market manipulation skew the business environment, making the level playing field very uneven.

Pushing Jack’s argument further it could be conclude that the RBS and Lloyds managers at the time did evil by not using criminal deeds to save their banks, compared to the saintly Barclays managers who did – a truly absurd statement.

Charging those at the top compared to charging only the “arms” of the top managers, i.e. those who carry out the commands of senior managers, shows that the SFO understands how a company like Barclays functions; making side deals like these is not decided by low-level staff. Further, again with an Icelandic cue, it is highly likely that the SFO has tangible evidence like emails, recordings of phone calls etc. implicating the four charged managers.

The Barclays battles to come

Criminal investigations are partly to investigate what happened, partly a deterrent and partly to teach a lesson. If the buck stops at the top, charging those at the top is the right thing to do when these managers orchestrate potentially criminal actions.

But those at the top have ample means to defend themselves. Icelandic authorities now have a considerable experience in prosecuting alleged crimes committed by bankers and other wealthy individuals.

And Icelanders also have an experience in observing how wealthy defendants react: how they try to manipulate the media via their own websites and/or social media, by paying PR firms to orchestrate their narrative, how their lawyers or other pillars of society, strongly identifying with the defendants, continue to refute sentences outside of the court room etc. And how judges, prosecutors and other authorities come under ferocious attack from the charged or sentenced individuals and their errand boys.

All of this is nothing new; we have seen this pattern in other cases where wealth clashes with the law. And since this is nothing new, it is stunning to read such a blatant apology for the charged Barclays managers on the website of the British public broadcaster. Even if the SFO prosecution against the Barclays bankers were to fail apologising the bankers ignores the general interest of society in maintaining a rule of law for everyone without any grace and favour for wealth and social standing.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 26th, 2017 at 9:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

62 Responses to 'The Icelandic al Thani case and the British al Thani / Barclays case'

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