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Capital controls abolished – offer to offshore króna holders

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As Már Guðmundsson governor of the Icelandic Central Bank, CBI underlined at a press conference today ordinary Icelanders have not felt the capital controls for a long time. Today, the controls are lifted for not only individuals but also for companies and the pension funds. Earlier limits have been lifted – de facto the capital controls are coming to an end in Iceland, more than eight years after they were put in place end of November 2008.

What remains in place is the following, according to the CBI press release:

i) derivatives trading for purposes other than hedging; ii) foreign exchange transactions carried out between residents and non-residents without the intermediation of a financial undertaking; and iii) in certain instances, foreign-denominated lending by residents to non-residents. It is necessary to continue to restrict such transactions in order to prevent carry trade on the basis of investments not subject to special reserve requirements pursuant to Temporary Provision III of the Foreign Exchange Act and the Rules on Special Reserve Requirements on New Foreign Currency Inflows, no. 490/2016. Guidelines explaining the above-mentioned restrictions will be issued to accompany the Rules.

The measures announced today were mostly as could be expected. However, the unknown variable was what offshore króna holders would be offered. Last summer they were offered a rate of ISK190 a euro; the onshore rate was ca. ISK140 at the time. The four large funds holding most of the remaining offshore króna – Loomis Sayles, Autonomy, Eaton Vance and Discovery Capital Management – refused that offer and have since been locked into low interest rates with an uncertain date of exit.

Now the offer is quite a bit more attractive: ISK137.50 a euro; the onshore rate is today ISK115.41. Last year, the offshore króna holders were offering ISK160 a euro, quite a bit better had the government been willing to accept it last year.

The CBI has lowered its bar, presumably because getting rid of the offshore króna holdings is seen as a bonus for Iceland. The sums captured inside the capital controls now amount to ISK195bn, less than 10% of GDP. Settling this last important part of trapped offshore króna means that Iceland can now take a step out of the shadow of the 2008 banking collapse – a chapter is coming to an end.

Former prime minister and former leader of the Progressive party Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, forced to resign because of his offshore holdings exposed in the Panama papers, wrote today on Facebook that now the vulture funds were being rewarded; the funds had known they could crush the Icelandic government and that’s what they have now done. Others will beg to differ.

According to governor Guðmundsson the amount of offshore króna exiting at the new offer is just under ISK90bn. As far as I’m aware three of the four large funds have agreed to the present offer, which remains in place for the coming two weeks. One fund is considering its options, which must include testing the legality of earlier measures, a route the funds had already embarked on.

In total the four funds hold ISK120bn, further ISK12bn are holdings in shares, which are not being sold (thus nothing volatile there) and ISK60bn are deposits owned by various investors (some of whom might well have forgotten about their holdings or who are for some reason unaware of being the lucky owners of some Icelandic króna).

This means that although ISK90bn is less than half of the remaining offshore króna it’s roughly 3/4 of the offshore króna that could potentially move (though the funds do indeed want to keep their Icelandic relatively high-interest króna assets but that’s another saga).

What now remains in place is hindrance on inflows – as I’ve said earlier some would call it another form of capital controls but I side with the CBI that already in 2012 announced the conditions after capital controls would not be like before November 2008. Iceland isn’t interested in being the destination of money flows looking for lucrative interest rates. Consequently, prudent measures are in place since last summer.

Benedikt Jóhannesson minister of finance called today “a day of gladness.” Given that the controls had already been eased it’s unlikely the Icelandic króna will move much tomorrow or the coming days. The pension funds have good reasons to be vary of moving abroad. Though foreign investments would be wise as means of hedging foreign markets of low interest rates and high asset prices are not inviting.

Iceland is booming – the economy grew by 7.2%(!) of GDP last year. No exaggeration that there are good times in Iceland but good times aren’t necessarily easy times in a small economy with its own currency. With capital controls out of the way Iceland there is one thing less to worry about, the rating agencies will see this as a favourable move that might soon be expressed in more favourable ratings, eventually meaning lower interest rates in Iceland – so as to end on an optimistic note.

PS Why was the government keen to act now re offshore króna holders? Well, first for the entirely obvious reasons that Iceland is doing very well with large foreign currency reserves (not entirely trivial to invest them sensibly) and consequently it’s difficult to claim that economic hardship bars solution. In addition, as the minister of finance mentioned today: the rating agencies have indicated that the rating might move up, with the benefits such as lower interest rates when the sovereign borrows, spilling over into lower interest rates in Iceland. Last, it seems that the International Monetary Fund, very patient so far, was starting to air its worries: Iceland couldn’t keep boxing in the offshore króna holders indefinitely.

Pix-BB

Pix-BJ

Pix-MarGudm.

From top prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson, minister of finance Benedikt Johannesson (the two ministers are closely related, both from one of the most prominent business families in Iceland) and Már Guðmundsson governor of the CBI. Screenshots from the press conference today – notice the painting behind the two ministers: by Jóhannes Kjarval (1882-1972) the most iconic Icelandic artist, whose favourite motive was Icelandic landscape, most notable the lava landscape like here.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

March 12th, 2017 at 4:34 pm

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Offshore króna owners allowed to seek independent estimates – inflows have stopped

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An application with the Reykjavík District Court for independent assessment of the Icelandic economy, launched by  two of the funds holding the majority of the Icelandic offshore króna, has been met by the Court. Originally, the funds had eleven requests; the Court granted three of them according the Icelandic daily DV.

The two funds claim the measures taken against the offshore króna holders this summer – effectively forcing them out at a great discount or freezing the funds at below-inflation interest rates – are harmful measures, utterly unnecessary in the booming Icelandic economy. They now want an independent assessment of the economy, in order to show that the Icelandic government could well afford more generous terms.

According to a recent decision by the EFTA Surveillance Authority the offhore króna measures were within the remit of the Icelandic government and did not break any EEA rules.

The measures no doubt had a sobering effect on foreign visitors but it the use of a new tool to temper inflows, announced in June this year that has had an effect: according to new figures released by the Central Bank, inflows into Icelandic sovereign bonds have completely stopped since June when the measures were put in place.

There had been some concern that the large inflows might jeopardise Icelandic financial stability as indeed it did in 2008 when capital controls were put in place exactly because of these inflows. Governor of Central Bank Már Guðmundsson said earlier this year that the renewed inflows, which the Bank would monitor, were a sign of trust in the Icelandic economy. Well, no worries – the measures in June stopped the inflows.

For earlier Icelog on the offshore króna issues please search the website.

Update: this piece has been updated as the earlier report re the effect on inflows was incorrect.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

December 7th, 2016 at 1:03 pm

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ESA finds Iceland in compliance re offshore króna measures

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The EFTA Surveillance Authority, ESA, has now closed two complaints re treatment of offshore króna assets by Icelandic authority: ESA finds the Icelandic laws in compliance with the EEA Agreement (see ESA press release here, the full decision here). The disputed laws were part of measures taken in order to remove capital controls in Iceland.

I have earlier written extensively about the offshore króna issue, also the rather bizarre action taken by the so-called Iceland Watch against the Central Bank of Iceland, which rubbed Icelanders, even those sympathetic to the point of view taken by the offshore króna holders, completely the wrong way. The sound points, which can be made by the offshore króna holders, were missed or ignored and instead the Iceland Watch action was shrill and shallow, based on spurious facts.

In general EEA states are permitted, under the EEA Agreement, to take protective measures when a states is experiencing difficulties as regards its balance of payments. As spelled out in the press release the states, in such situations, “are allowed to implement a national economic and monetary policy aimed at overcoming economic difficulties, as long as the criteria for these protective measures are met.”

As Frank J. Büchel, the ESA College member responsible for financial markets sums it up: “Iceland’s treatment of offshore króna assets is a protective measure within the meaning of the EEA Agreement. The overall objective of the Icelandic law is to create a foundation for unrestricted cross-border trade with Icelandic krónur, which will eventually allow Iceland to again participate fully in the free movement of capital.”

The funds in question, Eaton Vance and Autonomy, are testing their case in an Icelandic court.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

November 23rd, 2016 at 11:47 am

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Iceland – lessons from an offshored country

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Iceland is, in my opinion, the most offshorised economy in the world, from the point of view of how pervasive it was. The banks diligently sold offshore solutions as an everyman product. I talked about this topic as a Tax Justice Network workshop in spring. This was also the topic of an interview Naomi Fowler from the TJN recently did with me.

After the collapse of the Icelandic banks in October 2008 my attention turned to the role of offshorisation in Iceland. The banks operated in London, the Channel Islands and most important of all, in Luxembourg.

The widespread offshorisation, its effect and general lessons of offshorisation in Iceland was the topic of the interview Naomi Fowler did with me for Tax Justice Network recently, see here.

After my talk at the TJN spring workshop I wrote an article on the TJN see here.

The general lesson is: offshore creates an onshore shelter from tax, rules and regulation and thus creates a two tier society where tax, rules and regulation becomes optional for those offshored while living onshore, wether it’s in Iceland, the UK, US or elsewhere…

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 21st, 2016 at 12:26 pm

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Offshore króna holders with interesting friends

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Holders of Icelandic offshore króna holders seem to have gained some intriguing friends. A so-called think tank, Institute for Liberty with the slogan “Defending America’s Right To Be Free” has suddenly found the urge to set up a project called “Iceland Watch” with its own website, specifically to follow, it seems, how Icelandic authorities deal with offshore króna holders (inter alia linking to some of my blogs).

The focus of interest, according to the Institute, is the following:

“The Institute for Liberty has followed Iceland’s path to recovery since the 2008 collapse and has developed an increased concern over recent protectionist economic policies like the discriminatory practices against offshore króna investors.

“In creating Iceland Watch, we aim to keep the public apprised of any anti-democratic and anti-free trade policies put into place by the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, which could threaten the property rights of offshore investors in Iceland’s króna.

“Holders of Iceland’s offshore krona include several American investors, which serve a variety of retail investors like retirees with 401k plans and institutional investors such as corporate and public retirement plans, foundations, and endowments.

“Despite investors’ willingness to support Iceland during its time of transition and several distinct offers to negotiate good faith solutions, the Icelandic government refuses to offer anything other than a clear take-it-or-leave-it scenario. The discrimination against foreign investors is disturbing and could affect millions of American holders of 401k and retirement accounts.

“When Iceland’s parliament, the Althingi, convenes its Summer Special Session on August 15, its actions will indicate whether the island nation will reintegrate itself into international free markets or further its isolation by instating new costly, misguided policies that chill investment and economic growth.”

The Institute’s website indicates it’s also interested in Puerto Rico’s debt, another place where American investment funds struggle to get repaid. More intriguingly, the Institute has also fought Obamacare and other typically far-right interests.

Indeed, the Institute is part of ad hoc networks of “think tanks,” non-profit organisations and ,,grassroots” organisations funded by far-right American billionaires such as David and Charles Koch and the hedge fund owner Paul Singer, who for years fought the Argentinian government, now a settled issue.

The Institute is mentioned in Jane Mayer’s insightful and well-documented analysis of the money powers on the right-wing of the Republican party, far more right-wing than the mainstream Grand Old Party is. Powers, that for a few decades have pumped money into setting up phoney “grassroots” organisations in support of the tobacco industry, against environmental issues and lately, Obamacare. Mayer’s book, Dark Money; The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, came out in spring, an essential read to understand the undercurrents in US politics the last decades and the issues behind political funding, now open to anonymous donations, and the Citizens United ruling in 2010.

According to Mayer, Institute for Liberty got lucky with funding, yet another node in the efforts to fight Obamacare; in 2009 it received $1.5m:

Four hundred thousand dollars of these funds were channeled back to DCI Group (Washington PR company, instrumental according to Mayer in fighting Obamacare) for “consulting.” The previous year, the Institute for Liberty’s entire budget had been $52,000. Suddenly it was so awash with cash that the group’s president, Andrew Langer, told the The Washington Post,‘ “This year has been really serendipitous for us.” He said a donor, whom he declined to name, had earmarked the funds for a five-state advertising blitz targeting Obama’s health-care plan. (Mayer, p.192).

As I’ve pointed out earlier, there have been some articles popping up here and there – op-ed in WSJ, guest blog on FT Alphaville and the most recent on The Street, “Iceland Should Learn From Argentina’s Bad Example” by Aldo Abraham, an Argentinian academic.

No need to point out that of course all of the media rumbling is orchestrated, driven as it is by non-journalistic input; as seen from Mayer’s book the DCI Group has links to the Institute. Everyone fights their turf as best they can, the links to the knights of dark money is rather unsettling but “à chacun son goût.” It is intriguing to see the cause of Icelandic offshore króna holders as part of this picture: not necessarily surprising but yes, intriguing.

The Princeton economist Angus Deaton,  summarises masterly in his powerfully argued “The Great Escape” that the worrying trend in US politics is the tendency of interest groups to buy influence in Washington.

As spelled out in earlier blogs Argentina is potentially a worrying example for Iceland: it fought creditors and then settled after a decade of costly legal wrangling, beneficial for the lawyers involved and corrupt powers but deeply deeply harmful for Argentina. In Iceland, voices similar to those Argentinian politicians who fought the Argentinian debtors can be heard. Elections are coming up in October, politicians will hardly strife to be on the side of foreign creditors although successful plan last year re the estates of the failed banks, based on agreement with creditors, is a positive argument for co-operation with creditors.

Views vary: some claim Iceland’s cause is wholly different from Argentina. However, although Iceland has graduated from the earlier IMF program the Fund is still closely connected to Iceland; it’s difficult to imagine that the Fund’s views will be ignored. Happily, Iceland is blossoming and, according to the latest IMF report, has more than gained what it lost on the crisis, i.e. it’s difficult to argue for any emergency actions. In the end, Iceland will have to decide on the best course to follow so as to adhere to the rule of law and further prosperity.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

August 10th, 2016 at 1:12 pm

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Next step by offshore króna holders: call the IMF

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Congressman Dennis A Ross has written a letter, see below, to Sunil Sabharval, US Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund, IMF, inquiring as to what US officials knew about the offshore króna actions taken by the Icelandic government. The Congressman’s mission is clearly to safeguard US interests, i.e. the interest of US funds holding offshore króna, a problem I have dealt with extensively in earlier blogs, inter alia here. Although not stated explicitly, the most sensitive underlying assets are sovereign securities, payable in Icelandic króna.

In the letter the reasons for the Icelandic collapse are somewhat simplified to say the very least, apparently easier to blame the government than the banks; also rather funny to see the offshore króna holders treated as entirely blameless lured by good deals, another saga.

The thrust of the letter is that since Iceland has now recovered well from its 2008 crisis Iceland shouldn’t be discounting the offshore króna or offering the investors punitive terms. – Further to this: intriguingly, Iceland had not made a loss on the 2008 banking crisis but a gain of 9% of GDP(!), according to the latest IMF Article IV Consultation statement on Iceland, from June 22.

The Congressman points out that the offshore króna holders (i.e. the largest holders) have come up with various solution but Icelandic authorities have been unwilling to take any notice. He now wants to know if US officials are aware of what is going on – and he expects an answer, which as far as I know has not yet been given. IMF has preached a cooperative approach to lift capital controls, reiterated in its June statement on Iceland but seems to consent with the action taken by Icelandic authorities re the offshore króna.

Here is Congressman Ross’ letter:

Screenshot 2016-07-14 23.44.59

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Last time, this time – in general

As I recounted at length in the years, months and days up to the plan to lift capital controls on the estates of the banks, presented June 8 last year, Icelandic authorities dithered for long due to infighting until they took the plunge – to be fair, the authorities claimed it just took time to prepare the plan and refused all allegations of infighting. But the plunge wasn’t taken until it was clear the plan was supported by the largest creditors.

The same now with the offshore króna action, it all took longer than had been planned, my understanding is that it took long because of different views; however, those involved say it just took the time it took, complicated matters etc. Yet, this time the government acted unilaterally, no agreement with the largest offshore króna holders. Thus inter alia the above letter, I assume.

The government claims the offshore króna holders do not act as a group, contrary to the creditors to the old banks. That isn’t wholly correct – each estate had to be dealt with separately and support was sought for each estate. Thus, the creditors were not a unified group but three groups. So much for that  argument now re the offshore króna holders.

As a ground for pride Bjarni Benediktsson minister of finance has pointed out that there was no legal aftermath to the plan last year. Quite true but that’s because the plan wasn’t passed until creditors’ support was ensured. Which is exactly the opposite of now where the government has acted unilaterally re the offshore króna holders who consequently have taken the first steps towards legal action.

In addition, there is the concern Congressman Ross shows, as well as articles in the Wall Street Journal and FT Alphaville, as I have mentioned in earlier blogs – offshore króna holders are clearly trying to point out to the world that Iceland, by planning a haircut on the offshore króna assets (when they are converted into foreign currency) doesn’t intend to honour its international commitments.

Last time, this time – in particular

I have earlier pointed out that I was wondering if the Icelandic government was going to make use of some “tricky teleological interpretation” in its dealings with offshore króna holders.

I didn’t explain in any detail what I had in mind but here it is:

Long before the June 8 plan last year, the Icelandic government claimed it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the composition of three private banks. Right, except that composition was meaningless if it wasn’t clear beforehand how much of the Icelandic assets creditors (only 10% of the assets went to Icelandic creditors, mostly the CBI) could convert into foreign currency. Composition agreement couldn’t be reached until the government had found a solution i.e a haircut, which the creditors could agree to – that was what mostly took so long to solve.

This time, the core of the offshore króna problem is similar regarding sovereign securities. The government can claim that it’s honouring all its obligations as it will pay out any such securities in full and on time… in króna. The thing is that offshore króna holders can – or could, the auction is now over – either choose to convert at ISK190 a euro (the onshore rate is now ISK136, was ISK139 at the time of the auction) or have their króna kept on a special deposit account at 0.5% interest rates with no maturity in sight. The question is if this is seen as fair… or not.

Last year, the government came to the conclusion that it had to step in to facilitate a composition. Now, it’s just shrugging its shoulder and the message is, as I’ve stated earlier, “let them litigate” – alors, last year, the goal was to prevent legal action, this year it’s bring it on…

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

July 15th, 2016 at 3:35 pm

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Getting rid of the offshore ISK: plenty of sticks, carrots uncertain

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After markets closed May 20, minister of finance Bjarni Benediktsson introduced a new Bill (text in English) on offshore ISK, now amounting to ISK319bn, around 14% of Icelandic GDP.

As expected, offshore ISK owners are will be offered  to participate in an auction. Those who don’t accept the offer will see their funds put into so-called “Central Bank of Iceland certificates of deposit: Debt instruments issued by the Central Bank of Iceland to deposit money banks that hold offshore króna assets in accounts subject to special restrictions.”

The restrictions are special indeed: the debt instrument will only carry interest of 0.5%, to be reviewed every year. In addition, this debt instrument does not have a specified maturity. As interest rates in Iceland are well above 0.5% and not likely to be near this rate any time soon, the offer is to participate in an auction or have the funds locked in at negative interest rates forever and a day, i.e. well below market rates in Iceland.

If the word “expropriation” comes to mind the 4.1 Chapter is on “Provisions of the Constitution and the European Human Rights Convention”:

The recommendations in the bill of legislation have been drafted with the aim of maintaining compliance with the Constitution and the European Human Rights Convention, particularly as regards protection of ownership rights and prohibition of discrimination. Failure to adhere to these principles could create liability for compensatory damages on the basis of Article 72, Paragraph 1 of the Constitution, cf. also the protection of ownership rights according to the European Human Rights Convention, or could constitute illegal discrimination, which would be in violation of the non-discrimination rule contained in Article 65 of the Constitution, cf. also the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of subjective considerations, according to the European Human Rights Convention and the EEA Agreement.

It is clear that the beneficial owners of offshore króna assets are residents and non-residents and that disposal of offshore króna assets has been subject to restrictions ever since the capital controls were imposed. The extraordinary circumstances currently prevailing are considered to justify the transfer of offshore króna assets in the form of electronically registered securities to administrative accounts with the Central Bank of Iceland and the transfer of deposit balances to accounts that will be subject to the special restrictions provided for in the bill of legislation. The same principles lie behind the recommendation that payments due to other offshore króna assets be subjected to comparable restrictions.

It is appropriate to emphasise that the bill of legislation does not represent a transfer of ownership rights. Furthermore, changes in the custody of króna-denominated assets are not conducive to eroding their value, with reference to the fact that the authorisations for disposal will be either unchanged or more liberal. Nevertheless, it can be said that, by stipulating changes in administration of custody, owners’ right of disposal are being restricted as regards the selection of an administrator.

The Central Bank is authorised to charge administrative fees on offshore króna assets, but these fees shall not exceed the Bank’s actual incurred expense. The restrictions in the bill of legislation centre mainly on owners’ right to decide where their assets are held in custody.

The restrictions provided for in the bill are an element in the vital task of reducing the risk attached to the aforementioned offshore króna assets. The conditions prevailing at the time this bill of legislation is presented – i.e., the imposition of capital controls following the financial crisis in autumn 2008, the steps taken since then, and the damage that protracted capital controls do to the domestic economy – are discussed in detail in Section 2. Furthermore, reference is made to the discussion in that section concerning the necessary scope of the measures provided for in the bill of legislation.

The continued restrictions on the right to dispose of offshore króna assets are based on vital public interest considerations. These restrictions are a necessary element of measures to release the pressure that offshore króna assets could put on the exchange rate of the Icelandic króna, other things being equal, and they are also a way to give the owners of the assets the option of releasing them without jeopardising exchange rate stability. The objective of the bill is to enable the liberalisation of capital controls on households and businesses in Iceland, and also on owners of offshore króna assets. (Emphasis mine).

The situation of the Icelandic economy can be debated but it is, for the time being, fairly if not extraordinary good.

The above mentioned  “continued restrictions” indicate that as capital controls are lifted on others, those who hold offshore ISK but didn’t want to participate in the auction are effectively kept locked in.

As soon as plan to lift capital controls was announced in June last year, carry trades on the ISK rose. Intriguingly, part of the present locked-in offshore ISK stems from carry trades (actually often long-term investment rather than only hot inflows). This means, that even before the old overhang has been released, new inflows have started – either a sign of the market’s extremely short memory or faith in the Icelandic economy.

The government carefully avoided legal wrangling with creditors of the estates of the fallen banks. The question is if the new Bill does the same trick and leads to a satisfactory outcome for all. The above are points likely to cause consternation among the four largest holders of offshore ISK, all institutional investors. The question is if it’s more important for them to find a solution and finally clarify the situation or if they see the new measures as an infringement on their legal rights.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

May 20th, 2016 at 10:53 pm

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Lessons on offshore from the Icelandic collapse

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After my talk on “Iceland: the offshorisation of an economy” at the Tax Justice Network Workshop on “Corruption and the Role of Tax Havens” I was invited to blog on the Icelandic offshore lessons. Thanks a million to TJN for the invite, the blog is here.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

May 5th, 2016 at 12:06 pm

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Offshore onshore and Luxembourg, the black heart of Europe

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“Corruption and the role of tax havens” was the headline of the annual workshop of the Tax Justice Network – and the word Luxembourg was heard quite often there.

There were plenty of interesting talks, much to learn. Two things are still playing around in my head: an exchange on the offshore bubble inside, not outside, of our Western countries – and the destructive role of Luxembourg when it comes to both taxation and finance.

Offshore is actually onshore

I was on a panel today about “Stories of secrecy;” I gave a talk about “Iceland, the offshorisation of an economy” and Richard Smith from Naked Capitalism talked about the role of Scottish LPs in the Moldova bank robbery where $800 were syphoned off, into offshore companies. Nicholas Shaxson, author of “Treasure Islands,” was the moderator.

Shaxson mentioned the increasing focus on financial stability and the offshore universe, something that is very clear when it comes to Iceland and events in autumn 2008 – the offshorisation did not alone cause the banking collapse but it played its role in hiding money, connections, ownership, debt and everything else that can be hidden offshore.

One image I have been toying with lately, in order to explain the dangerous effect of offshorisation, is that each Western country is like a balloon where law and order, civil society seems to permeate the whole balloon. However, at a closer look, the offshore is like a bubble inside the balloon, where civil society is kept out, where bankers, accountants and other facilitators, together with companies and wealthy individuals act as if the rules of society, the social pact, didn’t exist; i.a. have created this safe haven from law and order.

What we should really be focusing on is that offshore isn’t outside of our countries, it is right within, creating a space immune to all the things the social pact otherwise touches, the social pact of taxation, rule of law etc. And it hugely undermines financial stability… as we saw in 2008, not only in Iceland.

Luxembourg: at the heart of dirty deals and tax destruction

Omri Marian is an assistant professor of law at the Irvine School of Law, University of California. He has studied 172 of the tax contracts the Lux Leaks brought into the open. His very illuminating point is that at first glance the Luxembourg tax laws looks just as sophisticated as tax laws normally do in Western countries. However, there is simply no execution of this convincingly looking legal tax code.

It sounds insane but one person, a certain Marius Kohl, was in charge of agreeing to all the privately negotiated “advance tax agreement,” effectively the tax for individual companies. The agreements, normally running to hundreds of pages, would often be signed off by the very hard-working Kohl on the day of application.

This reminded my of my experience with the Luxembourg financial regulator, Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier, CSSF. After the collapse of the Icelandic banks in October 2008 it slowly dawned on me that most of the banks’ dirty deals, especially in Kaupthing and Landsbanki, had been run through their Luxembourg operations.

Yet, when I asked lawyers and accountants I was told that all was in good order in Luxembourg, they had strict laws regarding the financial sector; the CSSF was there to keep an eye on things.

Listening to Marian it dawned on me that yes, this is how Luxembourg does it: it pays lip service to European rules and regulation and what you normally expect from a Western democracy by having a legal code on tax and the finance sector. But that’s all: the laws exist but only on paper – there is no execution to speak of.

Some years ago I visited the CSSF, got an audience with some six or seven people there. A very memorable meeting; we sat at the largest meeting table I have ever sat at; I on one side, the CSSF-ers on the other side. I told them what was slowly coming to light in Iceland: the alleged fraud and shenanigans, the loans with light covenants and little or no collaterals and guarantees, alleged market manipulations via the banks’ proprietary trading and share parking in companies the banks finances etc. – so, weren’t they going to look into the banks’ operations. There were darting eyes and down-cast faces: no, no need to do anything, all in good order in Luxembourg. D’accord…

I intend to write further on the thoughts above – but suffice it to say that if the European Union is at all serious about acting on the offshorisation of the European economies it has to make sure that Luxembourg not only adorns itself with all the correct-looking legal codes but actually enforces it, i.a. by having the staff needed to do so.

*Nicholas Shaxson blogged today on the Tax Justice Network on these aspects of Luxembourg and quoted some of my earlier blogs on Luxembourg, i.a. my observations that Luxembourg attract financial companies because they know full well that Luxembourg is a safe haven… from regulatory scrutiny.

 

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

April 29th, 2016 at 11:41 pm

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Iceland, Russia and Bayrock – some facts, less fiction

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Contacts between Iceland and Russia have for almost two decades been a source of speculations, some more fancifully than others. The speculations have now again surfaced in the international media following the focus on US president Donald Trump and his Russian ties: part of that story involves his connections with Bayrock where two Icelandic companies, FL Group and Novator, are mentioned. Contrary to the rumours at the time, Icelandic expansion abroad up to the banking collapse in 2008 can be explained by less sensational sources than Russian money – but there are some Russian ties to Iceland.

“We have never seen businessmen who operate like the Icelandic ones, throwing money around as if funding was never a problem,” an experienced Danish business journalist said to me in 2004. From around 2002 to the Icelandic banking collapse in October 2008, the Icelandic banks and their largest shareholders attracted attention abroad for audacious deals.

The rumours of Russian links to the Icelandic boom quickly surfaced as journalists and others sought to explain how a tiny country of around 320.000 people could finance large business deals by Icelandic businesses abroad. The owners of one of Iceland’s largest banks, Landsbanki, father and son Björgólfur Guðmundsson and Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson, had indeed become rich in Saint Petersburg in the 1990s.

The unequivocal answer on how the foreign expansion of Icelandic banks and businesses was funded came in the Special Investigative Commission Report, SICR, in 2010: the funding came from Icelandic and international banks; the Icelandic banks found easy funding on international markets, the protagonist were at the same time the banks’ largest shareholders and their largest borrowers.

The rumours of Russian connections have surfaced again due to the Bayrock saga involving US president Donald Trump and his relations to Russia and Russian mobsters. Time to look at the Icelandic chapter in the Bayrock saga and Russian Icelandic links.

The Bayrock saga

By now, there is hardly a media company in the world that has not paid some attention to Donald Trump and Bayrock, with a mention of the Icelandic FL Group and the Russian money in Icelandic banks and businesses. The short version of that saga is the following:

Tevfik Arif, born in Kazakhstan during the Soviet era, was a state-employed economist who turned to hotel development in Turkey in the 1990s before moving into New York property development where he founded Bayrock in 2001. As with many real estate companies Bayrock’s structure was highly complex with myriad companies and shell companies, on- and offshore.

Arif hired a Russian to run Bayrock. Felix Sater or Satter was born in Russia in but moved to New York as youngster with his family. In 1991 Sater was sentenced to prison for a bar brawl cutting up the face of his adversary with a broken glass. Having admitted to security fraud in cohort with some New York Mafia families in 1998 he was eventually found guilty but apparently got a lenient sentence in return for becoming an informant for the law enforcement.

In 2003, Arif and Sater were introduced to a flamboyant property developer by the name of Donald Trump, already a hot name in New York. One of their joint projects was the Trump Soho. The Trump connection did attract media attention. Apparently following a New York Times profile of Sater in December 2007, unearthing his criminal records, Arif dismissed Sater in 2008.

Bayrock and FL Group

By then, another scheme was brewing and that is where the Icelandic FL Group enters the Bayrock and Trump story. This part of the story has surfaced in court cases, still ongoing, where two ex-Bayrock employees, Jody Kriss and Michael Ejekam, are suing Bayrock for cheating them of profit inter alia from the Trump SoHo deal.

Their story details complicated hidden agreements whereby Arif and Sater, according to Kriss and Ejekam, essentially conspired to skim off profit from Bayrock, cheating everyone who entered an agreement with them. According to the story told in the court documents (see inter alia here) Bayrock entered an agreement with FL Group in May 2007: for providing a loan of $50m FL Group would get 62% of the total profits from four Bayrock entities, expected to generate a profit of around $227.5m.

The loan arrangement with FL Group did not make a great financial sense for Bayrock, again according to Kriss and Ejekam, but it was part of Arif and Sater’s scheme to cheat investors as well the US tax authorities. When Kriss complained to Sater that the $50m loan from FL Group was not distributed as agreed, Sater “made him (Kriss) an offer he couldn’t refuse: either take $500,000, keep quiet and leave all the rest of his money behind, or make trouble and be killed.” – Given Sater’s criminal record and threats he had made to another Bayrock partner Kriss left Bayrock.

The short and intense FL saga and its record losses

FL Group was one of the companies that formed the Icelandic boom. Out of many financial follies in pre-crash Iceland the FL Group saga was one of the most headline-creating. In 2002 Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, of Baugur fame, bought 20% in the listed air carrier Flugleiðir. In 2004 he teamed up with Hannes Smárason who with a degree from the MIT and four years at McKinsey in Boston had a stellar CV.

Smárason was first on the board until he became a CEO in October 2005. The duo oversaw the take-over of Flugleiðir, sold off assets and turned the company into an investment company, FL Group; inter alia FL Group was for a short while the largest shareholder in EasyJet.

In spring 2007, a group of investors led by Jóhannesson became the largest shareholder in Iceland’s third largest bank, Glitnir. Their Glitnir holding was through FL Group, consequently the bank’s largest shareholder.

At the beginning of 2007, the FL Group debt with the Icelandic banks amounted to almost €600m but had risen to €1.1bn in October 2008. Interestingly, its debt to Glitnir rose by almost 800%. As mentioned above, Jóhannesson and his business partners, among them FL Group, became Glitnir’s largest shareholder in spring 2007, following the pattern that the banks’ largest shareholders were also their largest borrowers.

FL Group – folly or a classic “pump and dump”?

By the end of 2007, 26 months after Hannes Smárason became CEO, FL Group had set an Icelandic record in losses: ISK63bn, now €660m, ten times the previous record, from 2006, incidentally set by a media company controlled by Jóhannesson.

Facing these stunning losses Smárason left FL Group in December 2007. The story goes that at the shareholders’ meeting where his departure was announced he left the room waving, saying “See you in the next war, guys” (In Icelandic: “Sjáumst í næsta stríði, strákar).

There are endless stories of staggering cost and insane spending related to the FL Group boom and bust. Interestingly, a large part of the losses stemmed from consultancy cost for projects that never materialised. Smaller investors lost heavily and in hindsight the question arises if the FL saga was a folly or some version of a “pump and dump.” Smárason was charged with embezzlement in 2013, acquitted in Reykjavík District Court but the State Prosecutor’s appeal was thrown out of the Supreme Court due to the Prosecutor’s mistakes.

FL Group never recovered from the losses and was delisted in the spring of 2008 and its name changed to Stoðir. FL Group never went into bankruptcy but its debt was written off. A group of earlier FL Group managers (Smárason is not one of them) now owns over 50% of Stoðir.

FL Group and the Icelandic Bayrock

Part of FL Group’s eye-watering losses was the Bayrock adventure. FL Group set up a company in Iceland, FL Bayrock Holdco, financed by the Icelandic mother company. Already in 2008 the FL Group Bayrock was a loss-making enterprise, its three FL Bayrock US companies were written off with losses amounting to ISK17.6bn, now €157m. When the Icelandic FL Bayrock finally failed in January 2014 Stoðir (earlier FL Group) was more or less the only creditor, its claims amounting to ISK13bn; no assets were found.

According to the Kriss-Ejekam story, FL Group willingly and knowingly took part in a scam. When I approached a person close to FL Group, he maintained the investment had not been a scam but just one of many loss-making investments, not even a major investment, compared to what FL Group was doing at the time.

An FL Group investor told me that he had never even heard of the Bayrock investment until the Trump-related Bayrock stories surfaced. He expressed surprise that such a large investment could have been made without the knowledge of anyone except the CEO and managers. He added however that this was perhaps indicative of the problems in FL Group: managers making utterly insane and ill-informed decisions leading to the record losses.

Bayrock and Novator

Another Icelandic company, mentioned in the Kriss-Ejekam case is Novator, which was offered to participate in Bayrock. There is a whole galaxy of Novator companies, inter alia 19 in Luxembourg, encompassing assets and businesses of Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson.

This, according to court documents (emphasis mine):

During the early FL negotiations, Bayrock was approached by Novator, an Icelandic competitor of FL’s, which promised to go into the same partnership with Bayrock as FL was contemplating, and at better terms. Arif and Satter told Kriss that this would not be possible, because the money behind these companies was mostly Russian and the Russians behind FL were in favor with Putin, but the Russians behind Novator were not, and so they had to deal with FL. Whether or not this was true and what further Russian involvement existed must await disclosure.

This is the clause that has yet again fuelled speculations of Russian dirty money in the Icelandic banks and Icelandic companies. As stated in the last sentence this is however all pure speculation.

The story from the Novator side is a different one. In an email answer to my query, the spokeswoman for Björgólfsson wrote that Bayrock approached Novator Properties, which considered the project far from attractive. Following some due diligence Novator concluded that the people involved were not appealing partners, which led Novator to decline the invitation to participate.

The origin of rumours of corrupt Russian connections to Iceland

Towards the end of 2002 the largest Icelandic banks and their main shareholders were already attracting foreign media attention. Euromoney (paywall) raised “Questions over Landsbanki’s new shareholder” in November 2002 focusing on the story of the father and son Björgólfur Guðmundsson and Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson, who with their business partner Magnús Þorsteinsson struck gold in Saint Petersburg in the 1990s and were now set to buy over 40% of privatised Landsbanki.

The two businessmen, the Brit Bernard Lardner and his Icelandic partner Ingimar Ingimarsson, who in the mid 1990s had hired the three Icelanders to run their joint Saint Petersburg venture, were less lucky. In 2011 Ingimarsson published a book in Iceland, The Story that Had to be Told, (Sagan sem varð að segja), where he tells his side of the story: how father and son through tricks and bullying took over the Lardner and Ingimarsson venture, essentially the story told in Euromoney in 2002 (see earlier Icelog).

In June 2005, Guardian’s Ian Griffith wrote an article on the Icelandic businessmen Björgólfsson and Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, ever more visible in the London business community, asking where the Icelandic “Viking raiders” as they were commonly called got their money from, hinting at Russian mafia money. The quick rise to riches, wrote Griffith, exposed the Icelanders to “the persistent but unsubstantiated whispering that the country’s economic miracle has been funded by Russian mafia money rather than growth and liberalisation.

As Griffith points out, Björgólfsson and his partners were operating in Saint Petersburg, “the city regarded as the Russian mafia capital. That investment was being made in the drinks sector, seen by the mafia as the industry of choice. 

Yet against all the odds, Bravo went from strength to strength. 

Other St Petersburg brewing executives were not so fortunate. One was shot dead in his kitchen from the ledge of a fifth-floor window. Another perished in a hail of bullets as he stepped from his Mercedes. And one St Petersburg brewery burned to the ground after a mishap with a welding torch. 

But the Bravo business, run by three self-confessed naives, suddenly found itself to be one of Russia’s leading brewers. In under three years it became the fastest-growing brewer in the country. It secured a 17% market share in the St Petersburg region and 7% in the Moscow area. It was selling 2.5m hectolitres of beer a year in 2001 and heading for 4m when Heineken of the Netherlands stepped in to buy it for $400m in 2002. Heineken said one of the reasons for the Bravo purchase was the absence of any corruption.”

Björgólfsson has always vehemently denied stories of his alleged links to the Russian dark forces and Ingimarsson’s story. Billions to Bust and Back, published in 2014, is Björgólfsson’s own story of his life. The book has not been published in Iceland.

The Icelandic miracle exposed: international banks and “favoured clients”

During the Icelandic boom years Griffith was not the only one to question how the tiny economy of tiny Iceland could fund the enormous expansion of Icelandic banks and businesses abroad. The Russian rumours were persistent, some of them originating in the murky London underworld, all to explain this apparently miraculous growth. Most of this coverage was however more fiction than facts (the echo of this is found in my financial thriller, Samhengi hlutanna, which takes place in London and Iceland after the collapse, published in Iceland in 2011; English synopsis.)

The Icelandic Special Investigative Commission Report, SICR, published in April 2010, convincingly answered the question where the money came from: “Access to international financial markets was, for the banks, the principal premise for their big growth,” facilitated by their high credit ratings and Iceland’s membership of the European Economic Area, EEA. As to the largest shareholders the SICR concluded: “The largest owners of all the big banks had abnormally easy access to credit at the banks they owned, apparently in their capacity as owners… in all of the banks, their principal owners were among the largest borrowers.”

The story told in the SICR is how the Icelandic banks essentially ran a double banking system: one for normal bank clients who got loans against sound collaterals and loan contracts with normal covenants – and then another system for what I have called the “favoured clients,” i.e. the largest shareholders and their business partners.

The loans to the “favoured clients” were on very favourable terms, mostly bullet loans extended as needed, often with little or no collateral and light covenants. The consequence was that systematically, these clients profitted but if things went wrong the banks shouldered the losses. – In recent years, some of these abnormally favourable loans have sent around twenty bankers to prison.

The real Russian connections in Iceland

Although the Icelandic expansion abroad can be explained with less exciting facts than Russian Mafia and money laundering, there are a few tangible Russian contacts to Iceland: Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin did show an interest in Iceland at a crucial time, just as in Cyprus in 2013; Alisher Usmanov had ties to Kaupthing; the Danish lawyer Jens Peter Galmond, famous for his Leonid Reiman connections, and his partner Claus Abildstrøm did have Icelandic clients and Mikhail Fridman gets a mention.

At 4pm Monday 6 October 2008 prime minister and leader of the Independence party (conservative) Geir Haarde addressed Icelanders via the media: the government was introducing emergency measures to deal with the banks in an orderly manner. Icelanders sat glued to their tv sets struggling to understand the meaning of it all.

Haarde’s last words, “God bless Iceland,” brought home the severity of the situation. Icelanders had never heard head of government bless the country and never heard of measures like the ones introduced. The speech and the emergency Act it introduced came to be seen as the collapse moment – the three banks were expected to fail and by Wednesday 8 October they had all failed indeed.

An elusive Russian loan offer

The next morning, 7 October 2008 as Icelanders woke up to a failing financial system, the then governor of the Icelandic Central Bank, CBI, Davíð Oddsson, an earlier leader of the Independence Party and prime minister, told the still shocked Icelanders that all would be well: around 7am Victor I. Tatarintsev the Russian ambassador in Iceland had called Oddsson to inform him that the Russian government was willing to lend €4bn to Iceland, bolstering the Icelandic foreign reserves.

According to the CBI press release the loan would be at 30-50bp above Libor and have a maturity of three to four years. Later that day another press release just stated that representatives of the two countries would meet in the coming days to negotiate on “financial issues” – no mention of a loan.

According to Icelog sources, the morning news was hardly out when the CBI heard from news agencies that Russian minister of finance Alexei Kudrin had denied the story of a Russian loan to Iceland; indeed the loan never materialised though some CBI officials did fly out to Moscow a week later.

There have of course been wild speculations as to if the offer was real, why Kremlin was ready to offer the loan and then why Kremlin did, in the end, not stand by that offer.

Judging from Icelog sources it seems no misunderstanding that Tatarintsev mentioned a loan to Oddsson. As to why Kremlin – because that is where the offer did come from – wanted to lend or at least to tease with the offer is less clear though there is no lack of undocumented stories.

One story is that some Russian oligarchs did have money invested in Iceland. Fearing their funds would be inaccessible they pulled some strings but when they realised their funds were not in danger they lost interest in helping Iceland and so did Kremlin. Another explanation is that Kremlin just wanted to tease the West a bit, make as if it was stretching its sphere of interest further west. Yet another story is that a European minister of finance called his Russian counterpart telling him to stay away from Iceland; the European Union, EU would take care of the country.

Iceland found in the end a more conventional source of emergency funding: by 19 November 2008 it had secured $2.1bn loan from the International Monetary Fund, IMF.

Russia, Iceland and Cyprus

In 2013, Russia played the same game with Cyprus: it teased Cyprus with a loan. The difference was however that the Russian offer to Cyprus did not come as a surprise: Russia had long-standing and close political ties to the island. Russian oligarchs and smaller fries had for years made use of Cyprus as a first stop for Russian money out of Russia. At the end of 2011, Russia had lent €2.5bn to Cyprus. However, the crisis lending did not materialise, any more than it had in Iceland (see my Cyprus story).

The international media reported frequently that the EU and the IMF were reluctant to assist Cyprus because these organisations were irritated by the easy access of Russian funds to and through the island’s banks. A classified German report was said to show how Cyprus had been a haven for money laundering (if that report did indeed exist Germans could and should have used the same diligence to check their own Deutsche Bank!)

After the 2008 collapse in Iceland a credible source told me he had seen a US Department of Justice classified report on money laundering stating that Icelandic banks were mentioned as open to such flows. Given the credibility of the source I have no doubt that the report exists (though all my efforts to trace it have failed). I have however no idea if that report was thoroughly researched or not nor in what context the Icelandic banks were mentioned.

Kaupthing and Usmanov

Some Icelandic banks did have clients from Russia and the former Soviet Union. The only one mentioned in the SICR, is the Uzbek Alisher Usmanov. He turned to Kaupthing in summer of 2008 when he was seeking to buy shares in Mmc Norilsk Adr. According to the SICR the bank also sold Usmanov shares in Kaupthing – by the end of September 2008 he owned 1.48% in the bank.

I am told that Usmanov was not Kaupthing client until in the summer of 2008 (earlier Icelog). Funding was generally drying up but Kaupthing was keen on the connection as it was planning to branch out to Russia and consequently looking for Russian connections.

If Usmanov’s shareholding in Kaupthing comes as surprise it is important to keep in mind that part of Kaupthing’s business model was to lend money to clients to buy Kaupthing shares. This was no last minute panic plan but something Kaupthing had been doing for years.

This model, which looks like a share-parking scheme, is a likelier explanation for Usmanov’s stake in Kaupthing rather than a sign of Usmanov’s interest in Kaupthing. A Kauphting credit committee minute from late September 2008, leaked after the collapse, shows that Kaupthing had agreed to lend Usmanov respectively €1,1bn and $1.2bn. According to Icelog sources the bank failed before the loans were issued.

Fridman, Exista and Baugur/Gaumur

There are two Icelandic links to Mikhail Fridman, through Kaupthing and the investment bank Straumur. Its chairman, largest investor and eventually largest borrower was Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson.

By 1998, Kaupthing was operating in Luxembourg. In June that year, a Luxembourg lawyer, Francis Kass, appeared twice on the same day as a representative of two BVI companies, Quenon Investments Ltd and Shapburg Ltd, both registered at the same post box address in Tortola. His mission was to set up two companies, both with names linked to the North: Compagnie Financiere Scandinave Holding S.A. and Compagnie Financiere Pour L’Atlantique du Nord Holding S.A. The directors were offshore service companies, owned by Kaupthing or used in other Kaupthing offshore schemes.

These two French-named companies, founded on the same day by the same lawyer, came to play major roles in the Icelandic boom until the bust in October 2008. The former was for some years controlled by Kaupthing top managers until it changed name in 2004 to Meiður and to Exista the following year. By then it was the holding company for Lýður and Ágúst Guðmundsson who became Kaupthing’s largest shareholders, owning 25%. In 2000, the latter company’s name changed to Gaumur. Gaumur was part of the Baugur sphere, controlled by Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson.

The owners of Exista and Baugur were dominating forces in the years when Icelandic banks and businesses were on their Ikarus flight.

Apart from the UK, the Icelandic business expansion abroad was most noticeable in Denmark. Danish journalists watched with perplexed scepticism as swaggering Icelanders bought some of their largest and most eye-catching businesses. In Iceland, politicians and business leaders talked of Danish envy and hostility, claiming the old overlords of Iceland were unable to tolerate the Icelandic success. They were much happier with the UK press that followed the Icelandic rise rather breathlessly.

In 2006 the Danish tabloid Ekstra bladet wrote a series of articles again bringing up Russian ties. Part of the coverage related to the two Krass companies: Quenon and Shapburg have also set up Alfa companies, part of Mikhail Fridman’s galaxy of on- and offshore companies.

The Danish articles were translated into English and posted on the internet. Kaupthing sued the Danish tabloid, which was forced to retract the articles in order to avoid the crippling costs of a libel case in an English court.

JP Galmond – the fixer who lost his firm

An adversary of Fridman, with Icelandic ties, figures in a long saga where also Usmanov plays a role: the Danish lawyer, Jeffrey Peter Galmond. – Some of the foreign fixers who have worked for ex-Soviet oligarchs have in some cases lost their lives under mysterious circumstance. JP Galmond lost his law firm. His story has been told in the international media over many years (my short overview of the Galmond saga).

Galmond was one of the foreign pioneers in St Petersburg in the early 1990s where he soon met Leonid Reiman, manager at the city’s telephone company. By the end of 1990s many foreign businessmen had learnt there was not a problem Galmond could not fix. Reiman went on to become a state secretary in 1999 when Boris Jeltsin made his Saint Petersburg friend Vladimir Putin prime minister.

By 2000 the Danish lawyer had turned to investment via IPOC, his Bermuda-registered investment fund. The following year he bought a stake in the Russian mobile company Megafon. Soon after the purchase Mikhail Fridman claimed the shares were his. This turned into a titanic legal battle fought for years in courts in the Netherlands, Sweden, Britain, Switzerland, the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda.

In 2004 Galmond’s IPOC had to issue a guarantee of $40m to a Swiss court in one of the innumerable Megafon court cases. The court could not accept the money without checking its origin. An independent accountant working for the court concluded that the intricate web of IPOC companies sheltered a money-laundering scheme. In spring of 2008 IPOC was part of a criminal case in the BVI. That same spring, the Megafon battle ended when Alisher Usmanov bought IPOC’s Megafon shares.

The Megafon battle exposed Galmond as a straw-man for Leonid Reiman who was forced to resign as a minister in 2009 due to the IPOC cases. In 2007, Galmond was forced to leave his law firm due to the Megafon battle; his younger partner Claus Abildstrøm took over and set up his own firm, Danders & More, in 2008.

Galmond’s Icelandic ties

In spite of the international media focus on Galmond, he and his partner Claus Abildstrøm enjoyed popularity among Icelandic businessmen setting up business in Copenhagen. An Icelandic businessman operating in Denmark told me he did not care about Galmond’s reputation; what mattered was that both Galmond and Abildstrøm understood the Icelandic mentality and the need to move quickly.

Already in 2002, Abildstrøm had an Icelandic client, Birgir Bieltvedt, a friend and business partner of both Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson and Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson. In 2004 Abildstrøm assisted Bieltvedt, Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson and Straumur investment bank, where Björgólfsson was the largest shareholder, to buy the department store Magasin du Nord, where Abildstrøm then became a board member.

In 2007, when the IPOC court cases were driving Galmond to withdraw from his legal firm, the Danish newspaper Børsen reported that among Galmond’s clients were some of the wealthiest Icelanders operating in Denmark, such as Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson and Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson.

In his book, Ingimar Ingimarsson claimed that Galmond acted as an advisor to Björgólfsson. According to an Icelog source Galmond represented a consortium led by Björgólfsson’s father Björgólfur Guðmundsson when they bought a printing press in Saint Petersburg in 2004. Björgólfsson has denied any ties to Galmond and to Reiman but has confirmed that Abildstrøm has earlier worked for him.

Alfa, Pamplona Capital Management and Straumur/Björgólfsson

Pamplona Capital Management is a London-based investment fund, which in late 2007 entered a joint venture, according to the SICR, with Straumur, an investment bank where Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson was the largest shareholder, chairman of the board and Björgólfsson-related companies were eventually the largest borrower (SICR).

In 2005 Pamplona had bought a logistics company, ADR-HAANPAA, operating in the Nordic countries, the Baltics, Poland and Russia. In 2007 Straumur provided a loan of €100m to refinance ADR in a structure where Pamplona owned 80.8%, Straumur 7.7% and ADR managers the rest.

Pamplona was set up in 2004 by the Russian Alexander Knaster, who as a teenager had immigrated to the US with his parents. Knaster was the CEO of Fridman’s Alfa Bank from 1998 until 2004 when he founded Pamplona, partly with capital from Fridman. Knaster has been a British citizen since 2009 and has, as several other Russian billionaires living in the UK, donated money, £400.000, to the Conservatives.

Incidentally, Pamplona shares the same London address as Novator, Björgólfsson’s investment fund, according to Companies House data: 25 Park Lane is one of London’s most attractive business addresses.

The Icelandic business model: corrupt patterns v “time is money”

Big banks such as Wachovia and Citigroup have been fined for facilitating money laundering for Mexican gangs. Deutsche Bank as been fined recently for doing the same for Russians with ties to president Trump. All of this involves violating anti-money laundering rules and regulations and this criminal activity has almost invariably only been discovered through whistle-blowers. Since large international banks could get away with laundering money, could something similar have been going on in the Icelandic banks?

The Icelandic Financial Supervisor, FME, was famously lax during the years of the banks’ stratospheric growth and expansion abroad. One anecdotal evidence does not inspire confidence: during the boom years an Icelandic accountant drew the attention of the police to what he thought might be a case of money laundering in a small company operating in Iceland and offshore. The police seemed to have a very limited understanding of money laundering other than crumpled notes literally laundered.

However, the banking collapse set many things in motion. The failed banks’ administrators, foreign consultants and later experts at the Office of the Special Prosecutor have scrutinised the accounts of the failed banks landing some bankers and large shareholders in prison. I have never heard anyone with plausible insight and authority mention money laundering and/or hidden Russian connections.

I do not know if it was systematically investigated but some of those familiar with the failed banks would know that money laundering, though of course hidden, leaves a certain patterns of transactions etc. But most importantly, the banks’ operation in Luxembourg, where in the Kaupthing criminal cases the dirty deals were done, have not been scrutinised at all by Luxembourg authorities.

The Icelandic businessmen most active in Iceland and abroad were famous for two things: complex structures, not an Icelandic invention – and buying assets at 10-20% higher prices than others were willing to offer.

As one Danish journalist asked me in 2004: “Why are Icelanders always willing to pay more than the asking price?” The Icelandic businessmen explained this by “time is money” – instead of wasting time to negotiate pennies or cents it paid off to close the deals quickly, they claimed.

Paying more than the asking price, exorbitant consultancy fees, sales at inexplicable prices to related parties and complicated on- and offshore structures are all known characteristics of systematic looting, control fraud and money laundering – and there are many examples of all of this from the Icelandic boom years. But these features can also be the sign of abysmally bad management.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

May 30th, 2017 at 8:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorised