Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

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Paradise Papers and the onshore heart of the offshore industry

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The Paradise Papers emphasises, yet again, that the damaging effect of offshore is much more pervasive that robbing countries of tax. Offshore creates a two-tier business environment, hiding ownership and in general throwing an opaque veil over the offshored part, thus undermining competition, regulation and ultimately the rule of law. The offshore alchemists also need the rule of law – the heart of the offshore industry is firmly onshore in countries with the stability provided by rule of law. As juicy as it is to read about famous individuals benefitting from insane offshore projects, the offshore enablers are onshore in fancy metropolitan offices, the heart of the offshore industry. Shaming, scrutinising and exposing the enablers needs to be part of anti-offshoring policies.

Yet again, a major leak is deepening our understanding of how wealthy individuals and companies make use of the offshore universe. The Panama Papers provided insight into wealth management of private individuals. Apart from further insight into the same, the Paradise Papers show how big companies like Apple and Nike use the power of wealth and offshore craft to negotiate tax reductions with governments and authorities.

In addition, the leaks underline that offshore isn’t just about tax. It’s about secrecy and opacity; the concept of secrecy jurisdiction as the Tax Justice Network defines it gives a much clearer understanding of the nature of offshore. And secrecy undermines markets, governments and the rule of law.

Intriguing as it is to think of warm and exotic places like the Bahamas or Seychelles, places lacking any infrastructure needed to oversee the oceans of money floating through them, at least on paper, the heart of the offshore industry is firmly onshore. It is in cities like London and countries like Switzerland and the US where the best paid offshore experts and enablers live and work.

Iceland – (possibly) the most offshorised country in the world

Through serendipity and coincidence, the first thing I started digging into after the collapse of the three main Icelandic banks in 2008 was their offshore operations, mostly in Luxembourg. A whole new dimension of the Icelandic banks and businesses opened up when I discovered how to search the Luxembourg Gazette for Icelandic links.

Apart from the well-known Icelandic tycoons operating abroad I found dozens of Luxembourg companies connected to people I had never heard of. When I contacted some of them it turned out they were mainly owners of small companies. One of them had sold a small fishing boat for around £15.000.

In all of the cases I looked into, the banks had suggested the client should offshorise, set up a company in Luxembourg and move their funds abroad – a good example of the role of the enablers. If the client both paid tax and the offshore fees offshoring didn’t make much financial sense; it was more lucrative to hide this from the tax and then for example have a foreign credit card to make use of the funds in Iceland, out of sight from the Icelandic Inland Revenue (which now keeps an eye on the use of foreign credit cards by Icelanders in Iceland).

What made the Icelandic offshoring so interesting was its pervasiveness: in no other country I know of did the banks set the asset bar so low, i.e. they advised offshoring as little as £10.000-15.000. After the collapse, some of these owners discovered how difficult and costly it was to revert the offshorisation and move their funds again to Iceland.

A 2016 report (in Icelandic) on Icelandic offshore assets, published in the aftermath of the Panama Papers, estimates that Icelandic assets in low-tax regimes 2015 amounted to ISK580bn, just over 25% of GDP that year. A staggering amount, four times the Danish figure; it explains to some degree why so many Icelandic names were found in the Panama Papers.

Offshore ultimately undermines the rule of law

In a small country like Iceland it is easy to see how offshore creates a two-tier business environment where only the onshore is in sight but the offshore part hidden from authorities and the public.

The operations of banks and businesses, the main players in the boom up to the collapse of the banks in October 2008, were thoroughly exposed in the 2010 report of the independent Special Investigation Commission, SIC. One of its findings was that fourteen foreign entities with unidentified owners owned more than 10% in 410 Icelandic companies (see Vol. 9 p. 79-83; in Icelandic).

Hidden ownership can be (ab)used in various ways. With ownership hidden abroad, large shareholders can control companies but avoid take-over regulations. Small investors who might steer clear of investing in companies of certain owners or under majority control, will be misled if some shareholders hide ownership offshore.

The latest example of intriguing interplay of offshore and ownership is the story of Alisher Usmanov in the Paradise Papers and his allegedly hidden ownership of Everton, in addition to his 30% of Arsenal; possibly a breach of Premier League rules.

The offshorised life: offshorised watch, offshorised children

Apart from the insight into the offshore craft, how offshore experts organise the offshore affairs of wealthy individuals and international companies, the story of the self-acclaimed “tax alchemist” James O’Toole is shows how offshore is now a life style.

O’Toole is a British lawyer, an offshore enabler. He runs a company called Ashton Court Chambers and has himself offshored his life down to assets such as his £25.000 Rolex. Not a major financial asset though slightly more expensive than an Icelandic fishing boat but valuable enough to be offshorised. To satisfy British tax authorities O’Toole surmised it would be enough to pay his own offshore watch-holding company £50 a month to make it look like a wholly legitimate set-up.

Another example of Ashton Court tax alchemy is the “Educational Purpose Trust,” set up in Mauritius in 2013. It’s not for the benefit of school children on the island but for children of some wealthy individuals, clients of Ashton Court attending British private schools. Once their application was accepted (no examples of the contrary) the applicants were asked to make a “charitable donation” to EPT, exactly equivalent to the school fees/grant, in addition to a donation of £1000 – not for administration but for an “orphan child.”

Legal or not? Not the most pertinent question

Much of offshore activities is entirely legal. But the distinction between legal and illegal is far from always visible to the naked eye.

Statements issued by lawyers working for those whose names have come up in the Panama Papers and now in the Paradise Papers, claiming there is nothing illegal in the exposed schemes are rarely worth the paper they are printed on. These statements almost never come with any tangible evidence. The statements mainly show that those offshorised are likely to be well lawyered.

Further, the question of legality isn’t even the most important question. The effect of offshore is to hide and that in itself is the damaging effect. The corroding influence is the two-tier business environment, the visible onshore, the invisible offshore.

The offshore effect on poor … and rich countries

In exposing hidden offshore wealth, the focus is often on how poor countries lose substantial amount of their wealth abroad, often due to the vicious combination of corruption and offshorisation.

Offshoring corrupt funds exacerbate the underlying corruption. In order to make full use of corrupt money at home it is crucial that it can’t be seen who really owns the funds. That is done by offshoring them: by sending the money out of the country and back ownership and origin of the funds become invisible. Creating this invisibility is largely the work of offshore alchemists – bankers, lawyers and accountants – in London and other Western countries.

However, I would argue that the corrosive effect of offshored wealth is no less damaging to the wealthy developed countries but measuring and demonstrating this effect is more difficult.

The two-tier business environment is one thing: it undermines competition and regulation by exempting part of the business community from rules and regulation. Further, offshore funds make it easier for big business and wealthy individuals to influence politics, again by creating loops to send money out and get them back, for example when paying lobbyists, funding think tanks and in other ways influencing the political debate and legislation.

Ultimately, if flow of funds from offshore into these activities is pervasive enough, it could be argued that the rule of law, the fundament and pride of Western democracies, is dangerously undermined. What the offshore enablers don’t seem to understand is that undermining the rule of law is also harmful to their business: after all, the reason why it’s better to run an offshore business from London rather than Kinshasa is exactly the rule of law. Rule of law provides stability in addition to respectability.

That is why the heart of the offshore is onshore. Without the onshore heart, where offshore experts at the Big Four – PwC, EY, Deloitte and KPMG – and others in similar position feel at ease, the offshore business and its enablers would be a lot less potent. Actions to throw open the offshore universe, the secrecy jurisdictions, need to be directed at the onshore heart of the offshore industry.

The onshore presence, found at fancy addresses in gleaming offices in London, New York and elsewhere gives the offshore business legitimacy and gravity. Gravity the offshore enablers use to influence the legislative process, politicians and regulators in Western democracies in order to nourish the socially harmful industry of offshoring.

Shared by Tax Justice Network blog.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

November 14th, 2017 at 11:12 am

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What is Deutsche Bank hiding in Iceland?

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Deutsche Bank has studiously tried to hide some transactions with Kaupthing in 2008 – and in December 2016 probably thought it had succeeded when it agreed to settle for €425m to Kaupthing and two now bankrupt BVI companies set up in 2008 by Kaupthing. The story behind these deals figured in two Icelandic court cases and one of them, the so-called CLN case, has now taken an unexpected turn: the Supreme Court has ordered the Reykjavík Country Court to scrutinise the transactions as it reopens the CLN case. But what is Deutsche Bank hiding? “It’s not unlikely that an international bank wants to avoid being accused of market manipulation,” said Prosecutor Björn Þorvaldsson in Reykjavík District Court on October 11.

In early 2008 Kaupthing managers were rightly worried about the sky-rocketing credit default swap, CDS, spreads on the bank; in spring of 2008 the spreads had crept up to 900 points, a wholly unsustainable rate for any bank. According to multiple sources over the years, Deutsche Bank came up with a simple plan: Kaupthing should buy CDS on itself linked to credit linked notes, CLNs, Deutsche Bank would issue. Except Kaupthing should not be seen doing it: finance it, yes – but through two BVI companies owned by trusted clients in deals set up by Deutsche Bank. Thus, the market manipulation was neatly out of sight.

Only later did it transpire that Deutsche Bank was not only the broker in deals it knew were set up to manipulate the market – hence the remark by Prosecutor Björn Þorvaldsson – but it was actually on the other side of the CDS bets, a player in that market. Consequently, the bank profited handsomely, both from fees and from the actual CDS deals.

In the Deutsche Bank universe this unglorious saga of transactions to manipulate the market etc is however not at all true. Yes, Deutsche Bank admits it was the broker but it knew nothing of the purpose of the transactions, had no idea Kaupthing did finance the two BVI companies and certainly was not on the other side of the bets. This is what Deutsche Bank has stated in a London court and in witness statements in criminal proceedings Iceland (where Deutsche Bank is not being charged).

However, outside of the Deutsche Bank universe (and well, probably in some hidden corners inside Deutsche given the email trail that has surfaced in Icelandic court) there is abundant evidence showing the Deutsche Bank involvement. Certainly, Icelandic prosecutors are in no doubt Deutsche Bank was involved in the planning, knew of the Kaupthing funding and made money from the funds.

Kaupthing had poured €510m into the CDS bets. Early on, the administrators of Kaupthing and the two BVI companies eyed an interesting opportunity to claw these funds back. Until December last year, the administrators, in separate actions, have been suing Deutsche Bank in various places over these transactions.

When the legal fights were about to come up in court Deutsche Bank relinquished: to avoid having the whole well-documented saga exposed in court, with evidence running counter to the Deutsche Bank version of the CDS saga, Deutsche Bank finally agreed to pay €425m, around 85% of the millions that went through Deutsche Bank into the CDS schemes.

Intriguingly, in 2010 the Serious Fraud Office, SFO, had its eyes on Deutsche Bank’s CDS transactions with Kaupthing but this case seems to have evaporated as so many of the suspicious deeds in UK banks.

The story of these CDS transactions is a central part in the still on-going so-called CLN case. Kaupthing bankers have been charged for fraudulent lending and breach of fiduciary. Below, the focus is on the role of Deutsche Bank in the CDS transactions – what its real role was and why Deutsche Bank was in the end so keen to settle when nothing in the original 2008 agreements obliged it to pay anything back.

DB’s own version

In June 2012, Kaupthing hf, an Icelandic stock corporation, acting through its winding-up committee, issued Icelandic law claw back claims for approximately € 509 million (plus costs, as well as interest calculated on a damages rate basis and a late payment rate basis) against Deutsche Bank in both Iceland and England. The claims were in relation to leveraged credit linked notes (“CLNs”), referencing Kaupthing, issued by Deutsche Bank to two British Virgin Island special purpose vehicles (“SPVs”) in 2008. The SPVs were ultimately owned by high net worth individuals. Kaupthing claimed to have funded the SPVs and alleged that Deutsche Bank was or should have been aware that Kaupthing itself was economically exposed in the transactions. Kaupthing claimed that the transactions were voidable by Kaupthing on a number of alternative grounds, including the ground that the transactions were improper because one of the alleged purposes of the transactions was to allow Kaupthing to influence the market in its own CDS (credit default swap) spreads and thereby its listed bonds. Additionally, in November 2012, an English law claim (with allegations similar to those featured in the Icelandic law claims) was commenced by Kaupthing against Deutsche Bank in London (together with the Icelandic proceedings, the “Kaupthing Proceedings”). Deutsche Bank filed a defense in the Icelandic proceedings in late February 2013. In February 2014, proceedings in England were stayed pending final determination of the Icelandic proceedings. Additionally, in December 2014, the SPVs and their joint liquidators served Deutsche Bank with substantively similar claims arising out of the CLN transactions against Deutsche Bank and other defendants in England (the “SPV Proceedings”). The SPVs claimed approximately € 509 million (plus costs, as well as interest), although the amount of that interest claim was less than in Iceland. Deutsche Bank has now reached a settlement of the Kaupthing and SPV Proceedings which has been paid in the first quarter of 2017. The settlement amount is already fully reflected in existing litigation reserves and no additional provisions have been taken for this settlement. (Emphasis here and below is mine).

This is Deutsche Bank’s very brief story of the CNL saga and the settlement in the bank’s 2016 Annual Report. – Not admitting anything and yet, for no reason at all judging from the Annual Report, it paid Kaupthing an undisclosed sum, now known to be €425m.

Sigurður Einarsson’s letter to friends and family January 2009: the first tangible evidence of the CDS transactions

As recounted in an earlier Icelog there were rumours soon after the October 2008 banking collapse that Kaupthing had funded transactions connected to the bank’s CDS in order to manipulate the spread, thus lowering the bank’s ominously high financing cost.

At the end of January 2009 former chairman of the Kaupthing board Sigurður Einarsson told his side of the various stories swirling in the media. Yes, it was true that Kaupthing had funded transactions by what he called Kaupthing’s “trusted clients” to influence the bank’s CDS spread but it had done so on advice from Deutsche Bank.

The SIC report April 2010, the CDS story in some details

The story was told in greater detail in the 2010 report by the Icelandic Special Investigations Committee, SIC (p. 26-28, Vol. 2; in Icelandic). It was clearly stated and documented that Deutsche Bank came up with and concocted the plan. Summarised, the SIC recount of the CDS transactions is the following:

Kaupthing set up two BVI companies, Chesterfield and Partridge, for the sole purpose of carrying out the CDS transactions. Chesterfield was owned by three companies, in turn owned by four Kaupthing clients: Antonios Yerolemou, Skúli Þorvaldsson and the fashion entrepreneurs Karen Millen and Kevin Stanford, respectively owning 32 %, 36% and 32%. The Icelandic businessman Ólafur Ólafsson owned Partridge, also through another company.

Kaupthing lent funds to the four companies owning the two BVI companies that acted in the CDS transactions – all the companies were in-house with Kaupthing, which carried out all the transactions. The beneficial owners were only asked for consent to begin with but were not involved in the transactions themselves.

All of the owners were, as Einarsson said in his letter, longstanding and “trusted clients” of Kaupthing. In 2001, Yerolemou, a Cypriot businessman prominent in the UK Cypriot community and a Conservative donor, had sold his business, Katsouris, to Exista, Kaupthing’s largest shareholder and stayed close to Kaupthing, also briefly as its board member. Stanford had a long-standing relationship with Kaupthing as with the other Icelandic banks and Ólafsson was the bank’s second largest shareholder.

Like Einarsson, the SIC report traced the origin of the transactions to Deutsche Bank:

At the beginning of 2008, Kaupthing sought advice from Deutsche Bank as to how it could influence its CDS spreads. In a presentation in early February, Deutsche Bank advised Kaupthing, for instance, to spend all liquid funds it received to buy back its own short-term bonds in an attempt to normalise the CDS curve. In the summer the idea of a credit-linked note transaction appeared in an email communication from an employee of Deutsche Bank. It states that this would mean a direct impact on the CDS spreads rather than an indirect one, as in the case of buy backs of own notes. It also states that this transaction will be financed. The message concludes by stating that the issue has to be timed right to get the ‘most “bang” for the buck’. In e-mail messages exchanged by Sigurdur Einarsson and Hreidar Mar Sigurdsson following this, the two agree that they do not need to involve pension funds, but that there is ‘no question’ that they should do this. 


Sigurdur Einarsson said that the initiative for the transaction had come from Deutsche Bank. ‘It involved getting parties to write CDSs against those who wanted to buy them. This was to create a supply of CDSs, of which there were none. Because what we saw was happening on the market, or what we thought we saw, was that the screen price was always rising and there were certain parties, certain funds that put in a specific bid, no transaction, raised the bid, no transaction, raised it, raised it, raised it, raised and raised.‘” (As translated in Akers and Anor v Deutsche Bank AG 2012.)

According to the SIC the CLN transactions “can be assumed to have actually made an impact on the CDS spreads on Kaupthing.” The SIC report came up with the total amount lost by Kaupthing on these trades: €510m, all of which had been paid to Deutsche Bank as the broker of the underlying deals.

The administrator of Partridge and Chesterfield also wondered about Deutsche Bank’s role

Further information came up in a London Court in 2012: soon after Kaupthing failed, Partridge and Chesterfield unavoidably went bankrupt; after all, their only assets were the CLN linked to the failed CDS bet. Their administrators, Stephen Akers from Grant Thornton London and his colleague, quickly turned to Deutsche Bank to get answers to some impertinent questions regarding the two companies. When Deutsche Bank was not forthcoming Akers took a legal action demanding from Deutsche Bank documents related to the transactions. A decision was reached in February 2012.

In his affidavit in the 2012 Decision, Akers said: It is very difficult to see how the transactions made commercial sense for the Companies. This request for information is in part to explore how the Companies might have expected to benefit from the transactions, to identify what the Companies’ purposes and objectives in entering into the transactions were and how the Companies were expected to repay the loans from Kaupthing if there was movement in the market in the ‘wrong’ direction (as transpired). … The Joint Liquidators are keen to understand, through requests for information and documents from key parties, why these particular transactions were entered into by these particular companies. 

46. From the information that the Joint Liquidators have been able to gather about the transactions …, it seems possible that the Companies were involved in a wider package or scheme, although it is too early to comment definitively on the purpose of such scheme, contemporaneous reports and documents suggest that the purpose might have been to manipulate the credit market for Kaupthing.

In his Decision, Justice Newey holds up the “possibility of market manipulation” quoting the above statement from the SIC report, noting the report’s conclusion “that the CLN agreements “can be assumed to have actually made an impact on the CDS spreads on Kaupthing.””

In the 2012 Decision it’s pointed out that “Deutsche Bank strongly denies any suggestion that it entered into the CLN transactions in order to manipulate the market. In other respects, too, it takes issue with the picture painted in the Icelandic report. Among other things, it says that the CLNs were not in any way unusual or commercially unreasonable transactions; that it was not aware that Kaupthing was itself financing the purchase of the CLNs, if that is what happened; and that it did not act as adviser to Chesterfield, Partridge or Kaupthing.”

DB was right that the CLNs were not in any way unusual – but the CLNs per se were not the problem that drove Akers to collect information but the whole transactions. However, there is abundant documentation, inter alia emails to and from Deutsche Bank etc. to show that Deutsche Bank was indeed aware that Kaupthing was financing the two companies’ bet on the Kaupthing CDS. And Deutsche Bank definitely advised Kaupthing in this set up, again born out by emails.

The “bang for the buck” email, quoted in the SIC report was written by Venkatesh Vishwanathan, a senior Deutsche Bank banker who oversaw the CDS deal with Kaupthing. In his witness statement in the Akers 2012 case he gave his interpretation: “I say the way to proceed would involve ‘hitting the right moment in the market to get the most bang for the buck’ because an investor investing in a CLN product would want the best return and the coupon available over the term of the CLN, should it run to maturity, is set when the CLN is issued. That was why market timing was important. I was not suggesting, as Mr Akers says, that Kaupthing would get ‘bang for its buck’ by Deutsche selling CDS protection.”

Vishwanathan’s interpretation runs contrary to what Akers claimed and other sources support: that the transactions were set up for Kaupthing, via the two companies, in order to influence the market.

DB placed Wishwanatahn on leave in 2015, in autumn 2016 he had sued the bank for unfair dismissal. According to his LinkedIn profile, Wishwanathan now lives in Mumbai (he has not responded to my messages).

Additional evidence: the Icelandic CLN case

In 2014, Sigurður Einarsson, Kaupthing’s CEO Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson and head of Kaupthing Luxembourg Magnús Guðmundsson were charged of breach of fiduciary duty and fraudulent lending to the two BVI companies, Partridge and Chesterfield, causing a loss of €510m to Kaupthing.

The charges (in Icelandic) support and expand the earlier evidence of Deutsche Bank role in the CDS trades. Deutsche Bank made for example no attempt to be in contact with the Kaupthing clients who at least on paper were the owners of the two companies. Deutsche Bank was solely in touch with Kaupthing. When the two companies needed for example to meet margin calls its owners were not averted; Deutsche Bank sent all claims directly to Kaupthing, apparently knowing full where the funding was coming from and who needed to make the necessary decisions.

But who was on the other side of the CDS bets, who gained in the end when the Kaupthing-funded companies lost so miserably?

According to the Icelandic Prosecutor, the three Kaupthing bankers “claim they took it for granted that the CDS would be sold in the CDS market to independent investors and this is what they thought Deutsche Bank employees had promised. They were however not given any such guarantee. Indeed, Deutsche Bank itself bough a considerable part of the CDS and thus hedged its Kaupthing-related risk. Those charged also emphasised that Deutsche Bank should go into the market when the CDS spread was at its widest. That meant more profit for the CLN buyer Chesterfield (and also Partridge) but those charged did not in any no way secure that this profit would benefit Kaupthing hf, which in the end financed the transactions in their entirety.”

DB fees amounted to €30m for the total CDS transactions of €510m.

The oral hearings in the CLN case were in Reykjavík in December last year. I attended the hearings, which further not only supported the story of Deutsche Bank’s involvement but provided ample tangible evidence as witnesses were questioned and emails and other documents projected on a screen.

The side story in the al Thani case

A short chapter in the CDS saga is the fact, already exposed in the SIC report, that Kaupthing had indeed planned with Deutsche Bank to set up yet another company to trade on Kaupthing’s CDS. Kaupthing issued a loan of $50m to Brooks Trading Ltd, via another company called Mink Trading, both owned by Sheikh Mohamed Khalifa al Thani. The purpose was to invest in CLN linked to Kaupthing’s CDS, via Deutsche Bank, identically structured as the CDS transactions through Chesterfield and Partridge. CDS transactions through Brooks were however never carried out.

Sheikh al Thani played a role in another Kaupthing case, the so-called al Thani case; the Sheikh was not charged but the three Kaupthing managers, charged in the CLN case, and Ólafur Ólafsson were sentenced to three to 5 ½ years in prison. The bankers for fraudulent lending, breach of fiduciary duty and market manipulation; Ólafsson was sentenced for market manipulation.

The 2008 last minute CBI loan to Kaupthing

The evidence brought out in the CLN case – the tracing of the transactions, emails, phone calls etc. – shows that the Kaupthing managers were extremely focused on exactly these transactions. Kaupthing was teetering and yet they never wavered from paying to Deutsche Bank, the agreed sums and the margin calls that followed. It almost seemed as if nothing else mattered in their world, a sense further strengthened by some back-dated documents related to the CDS transactions.

The last payments were made just as the bank was collapsing, 7 October 2008; the bank went into administration 8 October. During these last weeks, foreign currency was scarce at the bank in Iceland where the payments originated. On 6 October, prime minister Geir Haarde addressed the stunned nation on radio and television at 4pm, to announce the Emergency Act enabling Icelandic authorities to deal with collapsing banks in an orderly manner. – Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson, then CEO of Kaupthing but only for 48 more hours, has said in court that when he heard of the Emergency Act he knew it was over for the banks.

At noon of 6 October, Geir Haarde and the governor of the Central Bank, CBI, Davíð Oddsson, who both knew the Emergency Act was coming later that day, agreed the very last lending to the banks: Kaupthing would be given a loan of €500m. This, to permit Kaupthing to meet payments the Bank of England and the FSA were demanding as a guarantee for the bank’s UK subsidiary, Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander.

The reasons for this loan have never been completely clarified (see Icelog on this story): documents and an audio of the phone call between Oddson and Haarde remains classified in spite of valiant attempt by the Icelandic media to unearth this evidence. The CBI has promised a report on the Kaupthing loan “soon” but so far without a publication date.

Whatever the motivation, the CBI issued the loan directly to Kaupthing without securing it would be used as promised, i.e. to strengthen Kaupthing’s UK subsidiary. Instead, part of it was used 7 October when Kaupthing paid, via the two BVI companies, the last €50m CDS transactions to Deutsche Bank.

This is how much the CDS transactions mattered to the Kaupthing managers who never, not even in the mid of the cataclysmic events engulfing the bank these early days in October 2008, took their eyes off the CDS transactions with Deutsche Bank.

When the Deutsche Bank December 2016 agreement surfaced…

In January 2016, the Reykjavík District Court acquitted the three Kaupthing managers of the fraudulent lending and breach of fiduciary duty they had been charged with in the CLN case. In February this year, the Office of the Special Prosecutor (now Office of the District Prosecutor, encompassing the earlier OSP and other duties), appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

In March 2016, I reported on Rúv (in Icelandic) that Deutsche Bank had indeed come to an agreement with Kaupthing: on-going legal cases, mentioned in Deutsche Bank’s annual reports 2015 and 2016 (but not in earlier reports), had now been settled with Deutsche Bank agreeing to pay Kaupthing more than €400m.

The agreement had been sealed in December 2016. Kaupthing made no big deal of the millions accruing from Deutsche Bank – no press release, just silence.

I pointed out that what Deutsche Bank had stated in the 2012 court case in London was not in accordance with other sources. Also that the bank had mentioned the Kaupthing claims in its 2015 Annual Report but stated it had filed defence and continued to defend them.

I concluded that Deutsche Bank 1) refuted it knowingly participated in transactions knowing set up to mislead the market 2) refuted that Deutsche Bank planned the transactions 3) denied knowing Kaupthing was itself financing the transactions aimed at lowering its CDS spreads. Further, I pointed out that statements from the Prosecutor in the CLN case showed that Deutsche Bank was not only the broker in these transactions but was actually on the other side of the bet it set up for Kaupthing and gained handsomely when Kaupthing failed.

I did at the time send detailed questions to Deutsche Bank regarding the bank’s statements in the 2012 London court case and its version of the case in its annual reports. Deutsche Bank’s answer to my detailed questions was only that bank was not commenting “on specific aspects of this topic,” only that “Deutsche Bank has reached a settlement over all claims relating to credit-linked note transactions referencing the Icelandic bank Kaupthing. The settlement amount is already fully reflected in existing litigation reserves.”

In my email exchange with Deutsche Bank I mentioned that this matter had wider implications – Deutsche Bank has stated in court and in its annual reports that it had nothing to do with the CDS trades except selling the CLN related to it. Thus, it could be argued that the stance taken by Deutsche Bank, compared to abundant evidence, has been misleading and that has much wider implications than just being a matter between Deutsche Bank and Kaupthing. – The answer was, as before: settlement reached, no further comments.

It’s interesting to note that at the time Deutsche Bank reached an agreement of paying €425m to Kaupthing it was struggling to reached its required capital level, looking for €8bn. That did allegedly force the bank to finish several outstanding cases, the Kaupthing case being one of them.

Why did Deutsche Bank change its mind and meet 85% of the Kaupthing claims?

Following my March reporting on the agreement between Deutsche Bank and Kaupthing where Kaupthing did indeed recover around 85% of its CDS transactions with Deutsche Bank the three Kaupthing managers charged in the CLN case, now fighting an appeal by the Prosecutor, turned to the Supreme Court asking for the case to be dismissed: according to them, the basis of the claims had been the €510m loss to Kaupthing – and now that there was apparently hardly any loss the case should be dismissed.

Their demand for dismissal came up at the Supreme Court 11 October where the Court stipulated that in order to understand the demand for dismissal the Court needed to get a deeper understanding of the Deutsche Bank agreement with Kaupthing. The District Prosecutor had obtained a copy of the agreement handed to the Court but not made public in its entirety.

During the oral hearings that day Prosecutor Björn Þorvaldsson maintained that the agreement did not change the charges in the CLN case to any substantial degree: the loans had been illegal, no matter if the money was then much later clawed back. He said that according to the agreements in 2008, Deutsche Bank had been entitled to the funds and Kaupthing had no claim for clawing them back.

So what did then change, why did Deutsche Bank decide to meet the Kaupthing claims and pay back €425m of the original €510m it got from the CDS transactions?

The Prosecutor said one could only guess: 1) Perhaps Deutsche Bank wanted to hide that the Kaupthing loans to the two companies did indeed end up with Deutsche Bank 2) Did Deutsche Bank see it as harmful to the bank’s reputation that the details of the transactions would be exposed in a court case? 3) Was it accusation of being part of market manipulation that irked Deutsche Bank?

As Þorvaldsson said in court 11 October: “It’s not unlikely that an international bank wants to avoid being accused of market manipulation.”

The Supreme Court ruling on issues related to the Deutsche Bank Kaupthing agreement

The Supreme Court decided on the dismissal request 19 October. According to the Decision, Deutsche Bank signed two agreements in December 2016 regarding the 2008 CDS transactions. One was an agreement with the two companies involved, Chesterfield and Partridge. The other one is with Kaupthing.

The aim was to effectively end three court cases where Kaupthing was suing Deutsche Bank in addition to cases brought by the two companies against Deutsche Bank. According to the agreement the two companies and Kaupthing agreed to put an end to their legal proceedings against Deutsche Bank – and Deutsche Bank concurred to pay €212.500.000 to Kaupthing and the same amount to the two companies, in total €425m. Further, the agreement stipulated that Kaupthing (as the largest creditor of the two companies) would get 90% of the Deutsche Bank payment to the two companies. In total, Deutsche Bank paid €425m to end all dispute, whereof over €400m would go to Kaupthing.

The thrust of the arguments, on one side the Prosecutor, on the other side the three defending bankers was that the Prosecutor said that issuing the loans was the criminal deed, that’s what the three were being charged for – whereas the three defendants claimed that since Deutsche had now paid most of the transactions back it showed that the bank felt legally obliged to pay on the basis of the 2008 contracts.

In its Decision the Supreme Court scrutinised the final settlement of the CDS transactions concluded at end of October 2008, which indicated that Deutsche Bank did indeed not feel obliged to pay anything back to the owners of the CLNs. Same when Icelandic police interrogated two (unnamed) Deutsche employees: nothing that indicated Deutsche Bank thought it was obliged to pay anything back.

The Supreme Court concluded that based on the information at hand on the December 2016 settlement it was neither clear “why the bank (DB) agreed to issuing these payments, what the arguments were nor what material was the basis for the claims by Kaupthing and the two companies in their legal actions against Deutsche Bank. It is also not clear what was the nature of the (December 2016) payments, if they related to earlier contracts (i.e. the 2008 contracts) or if they were damages and if they were damages then what was their nature.

Based on this, the Supreme Court then decided against dismissal, as demanded by the three bankers, sending the case back to the Reykjavík District Court for a retrial where questions regarding the December 2016 settlement should be clarified in addition to the charges brought by the District Prosecutor.

This means that although Deutsche Bank settled with Kaupthing and the two companies the actions of Deutsche Bank will be scrutinised by Icelandic Court, probably already next year.

A short revision of dodgy Deutsche Bank transactions

As other international banks, Deutsche Bank has had a lot to answer for over the last few years and paid billions in fines for its rotten deeds. Contrary to Iceland, bankers in the UK and the US, have mostly been able to wipe the cost of their criminal deeds on shareholders (and why on earth have shareholders such as as pension funds and other public-interest organisations been so patient with banks’ criminal deeds?)

In April 2015 Deutsche Bank settled LIBOR manipulation cases with US authorities, paying $2.175bn and £226.8m to the UK Financial Conduct Authority, FCA as mentioned in the bank’s 2015 Annual Report.

In January this year it paid £163m to the FCA, the largest fine ever paid to the FCA, for “serious anti money-laundering controls falings” in the so-called mirror trades, where $10bn were sent out of Russia to offshore accounts “in a manner that is highly suggestive of financial crime.” At the same time, US authorities fined the bank $425m for the same offense, pointing out that “Deutsche Bank and several of its senior managers missed key opportunities to detect, intercept and investigate a long-running mirror-trading scheme facilitated by its Moscow branch and involving New York and London branches.” – Many years ago, a source said to me Deutsche Bank really should be called Russische Bank.

In May, the US Fed fined Deutsche Bank $41m “for failing to ensure its systems would detect money laundering regulations.”

In additions, there have been fines for violating US sanctions. Lastly, there is focus on Deutsche Bank and its tight connection to US president Donald Trump. And so on and so forth.

Summing it up – seen from Iceland: why Deutsche Bank would want to settle

In this context it is interesting that Deutsche Bank has decided to pay €425m to Kaupthing, a high sum in any context, even in the context of fines Deutsche Bank has had to pay over the years.

From all of these various sources it is easy to conclude as did the State Prosecutor in October that yes, one reason why Deutsche Bank would want to bury it involvement in Kaupthing’s CDS trades in the summer of 2008 is that this looks like a market manipulation by a major international bank. Further, Deutsche Bank has questions to answer regarding its own involvement in the market, i.e. it did not only broker the CDS deals, knowing full well who financed the two BVI companies, but it was actually a player in that market, making a lot more from the deal than only the fees.

 

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

November 3rd, 2017 at 9:38 pm

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That’s a bit late, Mr. Brown

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“If bankers who act fraudulently are not put in jail with their bonuses returned, assets confiscated and banned from future practice, we will only give a green light to similar risk-laden behaviour in new forms.”

According to The Guardian, Gordon Brown adds, in a convoluted way, that if the conduct of bankers was dishonest judging from what would be considered reasonable and honest, then there was a case for Britain following the example of Ireland, Iceland, Spain and Portugal and in launching prosecutions.

So, now we know: Gordon Brown former prime minister and leader of the Labour Party now thinks banks and bankers should have been investigated and prosecuted in connection to the financial crisis; the crisis that struck in August 2007, when Brown had been prime minister for only a few months. He had however been Chancellor of the Exchequer for a decade.

We know of his change of heart because this is what he writes in his coming memoir, My Life, Our Times.

He’s right that something has been in Ireland, Spain and Portugal but only in Iceland were the banks investigated in a fairly concise way. So far, over twenty bankers and others connected to financial wrongdoing in the months and years up to the 2008 banking collapse have been sentenced to imprisonment.

Better late than never – but this is a staggering admission from the man who more than anyone formed that atmosphere that allowed the banks to act with impunity. From his seat of great power he watched the crisis unfold and followed its aftermath until the Labour party lost the elections in the spring of 2010: Brown first had ten years as a Chancellor and then three years as prime minister to shape the banking environment.

Soon after the events in the UK in early October 2008, when the Icelandic banks, also operating in the UK, collapsed and British banks like RBS, HBOS and Lloyds TSB were bailed out, the Serious Fraud Office, SFO, started scrutinising the ongoings. It did look at the Icelandic banks but it had its eyes also on the interaction between the Icelandic banks and international banks operating in London. One case was mentioned in The Guardian in June 2010, focusing on an intriguing connection between Kaupthing and Deutsche Bank. Nothing has apparently come of that investigation.*

We know that the SFO was suffering at the time from lack of funds which in turn led to difficulties in attracting highly skilled people who would always be able to get better paid jobs elsewhere. Gordon Brown, as Chancellor and as prime minister, did little to nurture the SFO.

It’s good that Gordon Brown has seen the error of his earlier days, an error that profoundly shaped the atmosphere of impunity the banks operated in – but it’s very very sad that he totally wasted the opportunities he had to stimulate a healthy atmosphere where banks, like any other business and bankers, like any other persons, would be scrutinised, investigated and, if needed, prosecuted, without fear or favour.

*This case touched an Icelandic criminal case, the so-called CLN case. More evidence has come up on this lately, more coming soon on Icelog.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

November 1st, 2017 at 5:57 pm

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From the pots and pan revolution to the Panama Papers and other scandals

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The outcome of the election provides no clear option in forming a government but it is clear that Icelandic politics is changing: the Independence Party, earlier the backbone of Icelandic politics, has lost  its strong position which it partly held because the Left kept splitting but on the Right the Independence Party was the only option. That is no longer the case. The many small parties now seem a fixture on the political scene in Iceland. Contrary to many other countries, nationalism and xenophobia do not colour Icelandic politics though these leanings can be detected. The narrative is unclear: the country of the pot and pan revolution votes in offshore company owners.

The opposition – especially the Social Democratic Alliance – won the election with the government losing twelve seats but it’s not a victory that they can make much use of. The favour of Icelandic voters is now split between eight parties in Alþingi but the political interest is huge with voter participation at 81.2%, up by just over one percentage point from 2016.

There have not been fewer women in Alþingi for a decade, so much for the land of gender equality – two of the new parties, the People’s Party and the Centre Party as utterly male-dominated. The Left victory, indicated by polls, did not materialise. The liberal global current that brought the Pirates, Revival (Viðreisn) and Bright Future 21 seats in 2016 has evaporated; these parties now hold ten seats and Bright Future did not get a single MP.

Forming a government will be tricky, even more so if this government is to last for more than a year or two.

Independence Party: the centre of power that was

The GOP of Icelandic politics is still old but no longer the grand centre of power. Gone are the elections when the party could count on the support of 30 to 40% of voters. In the party’s 2009 wipe-out it lost nine MPs, fell from 36.6% of the votes to 23.70% and 16 seats. It rose to 29%, 21 seats, last year but is now back at 16 seats and 25.2%. If it continues to attract only older voters, as is now the case, the party has a lot to worry about: it will, literally, die out.

The party’s position over the decades was strong: the Left kept shifting like a kaleidoscope the Independence Party ruled undivided and alone, except for very brief interludes. With Bright Future and in particular Revival, the latter is now lead by an ex-Indpenedence Party minister, those on the Right had and have other options.

Bjarni Benediktsson, though young and energetic, has not been able to shift or strengthen the party. He is however an undisputed leader, there are no obvious candidates in sight. Panama Papers companies, his IceHot1 registration on an affair website and his family’s connection to dubious deals and a pedophile have not undermined him. Rumblings in the party are just that, rumblings; unity on the surface.

The politcal centre 

Bright Future did not particularly like to place itself on the Left Right axis but it was largely seen as a liberal party, palatable to those on the political Right. It was pro-EU, as is Revival. Bright Future instigated the fall of the government but did not reap any benefits from that. In government it did not manage to make its mark. Bright Future leader Óttarr Proppé did not have a strong enough message though his sartorial style of three piece corduroy and turtlenecks certainly stood out.

The Progressive Party did the remarkable feat of not losing ground, kept its 8 seats, though its former leader Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson left the party and raked in 10.8% of votes, probably a bit from everyone but most from the Independence Party. Progressive leader Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson is of the pure Progressive mold, level-headed and portly, ready to work with both the Left and the Right and now wooed from both sides.

The Pirates, the voters’ darling last year, did lose four MPs, now have six. In spite of measured policies and no reasoned promises they did not cut a striking figure on the political scene.

The new political forces: male-oriented populists with a touch of xenophobia

The most remarkable political entry is that of Inga Sæland who rose to fame on the Icelandic X Factor. Sæland is a divorced mother of four and has done this and that. Counting herself as one of them her motivation is to improve the life of poor people in Iceland. Her party, the People’s Party, running for the first seemed to be destined for not making it into Alþingi. At the leaders’ debate two days before the election Sæland, asked what she wanted to achieve in politics, burst into tears, she was so passionate for her causes.

Whether it was the tears or her politics, Sæland secured 6.8% of the votes and four seats. For a party lead by a single mother – many of them in Iceland – it’s rather remarkable that she is the only woman MP of her party’s four MP.

To begin with Sæland struck a tone of xenophobia but only at the very beginning. Later she emphasised the need to live with an influx of foreigners, utterly denied any racist leanings and made no such references. Instead, her message was populist promises of better life for the poorer part of society.

Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson showed that 10.8% of Icelandic voters do not care about his lying about his offshore company. His voters seem more taken up with his promises of giving Icelanders shares in Arion bank where the government only owns 13% but has options to buy more. Gunnlaugsson’s other policies were less striking but continued his earlier message of subsidised agriculture and anti-EU tones. He has earlier flirted with nationalism and xenophobia and the same could be heard this time.

Less liberal voices, fewer women

Compared to other European countries where nationalism and xenophobia have been on the rise, the same is not the case in Icelandic politics. These tendencies can be detected close-up but the parties that have flirted with them, the Centre Party and the People’s Party have not particularly gained from it.

This is all the more remarkable because the influx of foreigners in Iceland has been very large since 2000: foreign inhabitants have gone from 2.6% in 2000 to 8.9% now. The largest nationality is Polish who have integrated well. In general, foreigners come to Iceland to get work, more than plenty of work to be had.

However, given the leanings of the two new parties, it can be argued that outward looking liberalism and globalisation is now weaker in Iceland than earlier. Due to the electoral system, the densely populated area around Reykjavík has less weight than the countryside.

The People’s Party and the Centre Party have an aura of anachronism in the sense that women are largely absent, except for the People’s Party leader. Otherwise, the appearance is portly elderly males. In total, these two parties hold eleven seats with only two of them filled by women.

In its world view the Centre Party also has an aura of anachronism: its leader has been prone to look back in search for political references rather than the future when his old party was strong because agriculture was a strong sector. Gunnlaugsson is interested in city planning: during his time as PM he even gave the Reykjavík city council drawings – not much more advanced than a kid’s drawings – of houses he thought should be built in the city centre in stead of more modern buildings already planned. If the drawings hadn’t come from the PM Office most people would have considered this a rather embarrassing and amateurish attempt to have a say.

The political narrative in Iceland: rambling and flip-flopping 

Iceland very much debuted on the international scene as the first crisis-hit country in October 2008. The pots and pan revolution, which drove out an Independence Party-led government with the Social Democrats and also drove out a former Independent leader then governor of the Central Bank Davíð Oddsson, gave Iceland the image of a feisty young nation. The Office of a Special Prosecutor, which investigated and prosecuted people related to the banks, further supported that image.

However, it’s difficult to square that image with the fact that the Independence Party is still the largest party and the ousted Panama Papers ex-PM Gunnlaugsson secured almost 11% of the votes on Saturday. Icelanders may have flared up in the winter of 2008 and 2009 but they have partly turned to the conservatives, although riddled with scandals. And to Gunnlaugsson’s party, centred not only the political centre like the Progressives, his old party, but around Gunnlaugsson himself – after all, the Independence Party and the Centre Party together hold 36.1% of the votes.

Yet, the pots and pan spirit hasn’t quite disappeared – the Pirates are still in Alþingi and the Left is emboldened – but there certainly is no clear narrative of a country that doesn’t tolerate financial scandals, old family dynasties and their special interests. Flip-flopping and looking at persons rather than principles and ideals is still the Icelandic way to political choices.

Options for forming a government

With the Left Green touching 30% in opinion polls up to the election the Left clearly felt its time had now come. That’s less clear now though the Social Democrats have made a spectacular comeback, doubled their last year outcome. Its leader Logi Einarsson did not seem to have much going for him but rose and shone in the campaign, proved to be relaxed and passionate. He himself claims he has not been media trained and so, has preserved spontaneity and the human touch.

Forming a government is about making a team working towards the same goals. Bjarni Benediktsson did not achieve that with his government. He might have another go, will try to woo the Left Green. However, the opinion forming is that the government has lost, the opposition won.

Jakobsdóttir is adamant that a Left government could and is in the making but more time is needed. For her, it’s crucial that she will succeed, will be able to harness the momentum though she has already lost some of it. Otherwise, she could be destined to become the leader of great promise but ultimately unable to deliver power to her party, unable to show in a tangible way that she can be more than just a popular person.

When pundits were musing on the outcome before the election no one seemed to give it a serious thought that Gunnlaugsson could return to government. His gain came as a surprise but although no one is saying it aloud, it is highly unlikely he will be invited to join any government. He has a reputation for being unreliable also in the literal sense: as a PM he was often away, no one knew where, he rarely showed up in Alþingi for debates and as an MP he has stayed away though without calling in his substitute; most likely that will continue.

Contrary to the anchor of stability as the Independence Party likes to portray itself the party has been in the last three governments that sat for less than a mandate term. The Left government in power from 2009 to 2013 is the only government after the 2008 collapse that sat a whole term, or rather stumbled through it, more dead than alive due to enormous infighting in the two coalition parties Left Green and the Social Democrats who led the government.

Iceland is booming as growth figures around 7% of GDP show. Certainly an enviable situation, seen from the perspective of 0 to max 2% GDP growth in so many other European countries. But doing the “right thing” hasn’t necessarily benefited those in government since 2008 (see my pre-election blog) – and navigating the good times has never been easy in tiny Iceland. As we say in Icelandic: það þarf sterk bein til að þola góða daga, it takes strong bones to stand the good days – and that counts for governing in times of surplus.

Final results:

Bright Future: 0 seats, -4 seats; 1.2%
Progressive Party: 8 seats, as in 2016; 10.7%
Revival: 4 seats, -3; 6.7%
Independence Party: 16 seats, -5; 25.2%
People’s Party: 4 seats, new; 6.9%
Centre Party: 7 seats, new; 10.9%
Pirate Party: 6 seats, -4; 9.2%
Social Democrats: 7 seats, +4; 12.1%
Left Greens: 11 seats, +1; 16.9%

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 30th, 2017 at 2:47 pm

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While waiting for the elections results

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Short and sharp election campaign has come to an end. Foreign media, especially in the other Nordic countries, finds it difficult to understand that a prime minister, Bjarni Benediktsson, who has been anything but forthright on his business affairs before and around the 2008 banking collapse might well yet again be the leader of the largest party.

In addition, there is suspicion that the minister of justice dealt differently with clemency case for a pedofile because the Benediktson’s father helped the pedofile seeking clemency. And the disgraced leader of the Progressive Party Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, forced to resign laster year as PM and party leader due to the Panama Papers is back in politics as a leader of his own party, the Centre Party.

Trust has been an issue in the election campaign but no matter these issues Benediktsson’s Independence Party is on a roll and Gunnlaugsson is doing remarkably well, might get around 10% of the votes. So do Icelanders not care about ethics in politics? Well, to a certain degree they do – after all, Gunnlaugsson couldn’t avoid resigning. But all in all, other matters seem to be more important to Icelandic voters. The Independence Party voters and party member have not demanded that their leader should resign.

Environmental issues have been more prominent than earlier, a reflection of the fact that tourism is now the most important sector, contributing more than the fishing industry, the country’s mainstay for decades. However, it was interesting to notice that in the main tv debate, Thursday evening, where leaders of the eight parties, likely to get an MP elected or who have an MP, debated, three leaders did not mention the environment as important: Bjarni Benediktsson, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and Inga Snæland, leader of the People’s Party, a new populist party that seems to be losing  ground.

Some stats at the end: Icelanders are 343.960, registered voters are 248.502. Up for elections are 63 seats in Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament. In total, 11 parties offer candidates but seven might get candidates elected: the Independence Party, Left Green, the Social Democratic Alliance, the Centre Party, the Pirates, the Progressive Party, Revival; Bright Future, the party that withdrew from the government, causing it to fall, seems not to have gained from its decision and might disappear from the Alþingi.

My earlier blogs on the elections, here, here and here.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 28th, 2017 at 11:09 pm

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Iceland: political instability in spite of “doing it right”

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To claim that Iceland has done all the right things since the financial crisis is hubristic. However, in the grand scheme of things it can be argued that the four governments, in power from 2008 until now, have broadly speaking done what needed to be done: the banks were dealt with without too great a public cost, an independent commission investigated the causes of the crash, matters related to the time up to the collapse have been investigated and individuals prosecuted; the economic policies have broadly stimulated growth, lately fuelled by boom in tourism. Yet, all of these sensible measures have not secured political stability as can be seen by elections held in 2016 and 2017.

Already by summer 2011 Iceland was back to economic growth in spite of the calamities of the banking collapse in October 2008. In spring the previous year, the Special Investigative Commission, SIC, had published its report. In the following years, the Office of the Special Prosecutor, now the District Prosecutor, was busy investigating and bringing bankers and their business partners to court. Well over twenty people have been imprisoned.

Iceland was not the only country hit by the financial catastrophe starting in 2007. In countries like the US and Britain, voters’ anger is often explained by the fact that in these countries little has been done to clarify what went on in the banks, the creators of the financial turmoil that hit various Western countries in 2007 and the following years.

In a long blog in September 2015 on the Icelandic recovery I pointed out that in spite of good recovery and growth the soul of the Icelanders was lagging behind: voters did not seem to embrace the parties bringing them a growing economy. That still seems to be the case judging from the political situation. Trust in political parties and party support is unstable and swinging.

This could very well be the future in Iceland as elsewhere: no matter the growing economy voters don’t put their trust in political parties as they once did, fewer belong to political parties or identify with a single party. It really isn’t about the economy any longer but a more elusive public mood.

Elections one year, minus a day, from the 2016 elections

Last year, the election was held on 29 October. This year it is on 28 October. Last year, the election was brought about by the then PM Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson leader of the Progressive Party having to step down due to the exposure in the Panama Papers of an offshore company held by him and his wife. The 2016 election ended the two-party coalition with the Independence Party (C) led by the Progressive Party.

In autumn this year, the coalition with two new centre liberal parties, Bright Future and Revival, led by the Independence Party fell when Bright Future lost the trust in PM Bjarni Benediktsson, a story recounted earlier on Icelog. When leaked document on Benediktsson’s business dealings in 2008, conflicting with his earlier explanations surfaced recently it seemed this would weaken the party’s standing (see Icelog).

A swing from left to right – but yet an Independence Party disappointment 

To begin with, opinion polls indicated that a left government, albeit a coalition of three to four parties, was looming on the horizon – the only Icelandic left government that ever sat a full parliamentary term was the left government in power 2009 to 2013. The Left Greens and Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the party’s very popular leader, seemed to be raking up a lot of votes, at one point giving the Left Green a clear lead as the largest party. The Social Democratic has been in a limbo since the 2013 elections; its new leader, Logi Einarsson, did not seem to appeal to the voters but might have been a necessary support for the left government

In the last few days, the political landscape has been changing dramatically with the Independence Party surging ahead of the Left Greens. In a historic context the Independence Party surge is no surprise and also last year the party surged ahead in the last few days up to the elections. In one sense this indicates support for Bjarni Benediktsson and his party but the numbers are less uplifting: the party stands to lose around 3 to 5% and possibly four MPs. In addition, the forecast now would be a historic low for Benediktsson’s party, far from its 20th century earlier glory of licking the 40%.

The most surprising swing is the Social Democrats great gain in the polls. They seem to be attracting votes from the Left Green and the Progressive Party. Revival is crawling above the 5% threshold, needed to get the first MP elected. Only some weeks ago the party hastily elected a new leader, Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, after party founder Benedikt Jóhannesson’s unfortunate remarks on sufferers of sexual violence. Gunnarsdóttir is an earlier Independence Party MP and minister who left politics for some years after 2008 due to her links to Kaupthing where her husband worked. In a Parliament of very inexperienced MPs Gunnarsdóttir has proved a skilled politician.

Another surprise: former Progressive leader, the disgraced Gunnlaugsson, who resigned in autumn from his old party to form a new one, the Centre Party, is making good progress, well ahead of his old party. This, although Gunnlaugsson has mostly been invisible in Parliament all through the year though not calling in a substitute and hardly seen at all around in Iceland. Gunnlaugsson seems to be pinching votes from his old party and the Independence Party.

Nine parties are or have been likely to get an MP but it now seems that in the last spurt only seven parties will be represented in Alþingi, the Icelandic Parliament.

The 2016 results

screenshot-2016-11-03-15-04-55

(Regeneration is the party I call Revival, a name the party itself uses, Viðreisn in Icelandic)

Screenshot 2017-10-26 15.58.46

A poll of polls 26 October 2017. From the left: Independence Party, Left Green, Social Democrats, Centre Party, Pirates, Progressive Party, Revival, People’s Party, other parties below the 5% threshold. From Kosningaspá.

The attraction of the new – this time it’s the new-old Centre Party

The Pirates were the stars of 2016 election though they did not make it into government. This time they are doing less well, judging from the opinion polls.

A populist party, the People’s Party, had some chance of being the new stirring choice. The party has an unclear policy except promising a lot of money for every good cause. At the very beginning it seemed it would take up the topic of immigration only to drop it very quickly. The party is now losing ground and might not even make it into Parliament.

The new political kid on the block, Gunnlaugsson’s Centre Party is doing remarkably well, showing that Gunnlaugsson has a strong appeal in spite of his Panama Papers disgrace, a story he tries to manipulate in the face of facts when he gets the chance. Gunnlaugsson is the only leader heavily playing the immigration card. This comes as no surprise, he has been dallying with the topic before but so far, it has not proved to be a winning topic.

In this respect, Iceland has so far proven to be a real exception compared to the US and most European countries. Although immigration is rising rapidly in Iceland there is plenty of work to be had, more than can be filled by only Icelanders. For years and now decades, foreigners have been crucial for the fishing industry and now they keep the tourist industry and other services going.

Gunnlaugsson has always had a populist flare, promising handouts to voters. In the election 2013 he promised to take money from the failed banks’ creditors and give to voters. The plan, introduced with fanfare in November 2013 was nothing of the sort: it was part publicly funded part funded by those who were qualified to apply.

That hasn’t stopped Gunnlaugsson from claiming he kept his promise and again he waves a bundle of money in the face of voters: he promises to give Icelanders publicly held shares in Arion Bank, seemingly similar to the Russian handout of shares in the early 1990s. The idea is to secure a spread ownership and give Icelanders shares in coming profits – an idea that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Gunnlaugsson has mentioned the shares will amount to ISK150.000-200.000, €1200-1600.

Topics and European thoughts

A membership of the European Union has not been on the campaign agenda. The leader of the Social Democrats Logi Einarsson has mentioned Icelanders could vote on continued membership negotiations as early as next spring. Due to lack of interest in all things European such a vote is unlikely unless the Social Democrats are in government. This got Einarsson a headline the day he said it but it is not a reverberating topic.

Revival was very much founded in order to offer conservative voters with European leanings a new option instead of the anti-EU Independence Party. However, Revival has put little emphasis on the European ticket and has been more taken up with classic Social Democratic welfare issues.

The main election issues have been welfare, health care and to some degree education as well as classic Icelandic topics such as fishing quotas and power plants versus preserving untouched nature.

Possible outcomes – again, back to the old conservative roots

With a swing from the left to the right, the outcome might be similar to last year when I pointed out that Iceland was, yet again, returning to its old conservative roots. The Independence Party has been the back-bone of Icelandic politics after World War II, left governments have been the exception, contrary to the social democratic Nordic countries (though less so the last few years: only in Sweden the social democrats are now in power).

For the time being it is very unclear what sort of government might be in sight after the elections on Saturday. Last year, it took over two months to form what eventually was the three-party coalition. It might not be much easier this time but as things stand now it is almost certain that Bjarni Benediktsson will first be given the mandate to form a government. Last year, he only managed to do it after failing the first time around and after other leaders had tried.

What sort of coalition?

There are speculations of a coalition over the political spectre, with the Independence Party and the Left Green join forces. An unpopular choice for many Left Green voters but perhaps less so if it proves to the party’s only viable path to government.

A blue-red-green government would most likely be arch-conservative, not in the sense of the Independence Party but beholden to special interests in the fishing industry, unwilling to great changes. However, as things stand now the two parties alone will not have a majority.

Benediktsson has said that he would not be keen on leading a three-party coalition. His experience as a PM has clearly not been a happy one: unable to turn the government into a good team he failed the prime minister test. His government lacked the necessary team spirit.

Will Gunnlaugsson made a come-back in government? It is uncertain that an election victory will bring the Centre Party into government because Gunnlaugsson is highly unpopular among the politicians he was in government with. He proved highly unreliable, often incommunicado for days, not showing up at the Prime Minister office, not taking the phone from his fellow ministers. And no one knew where he was. Benediktsson, who was minister of finance in the Gunnlaugsson-lead government, is rumoured to be most unwilling to repeat the experience.

Minority governments have been a rare occurrence in Iceland, not seen for decades, contrary to the other Nordic countries. A minority government will hardly come into being until all option for a majority government have been exhausted. But then, knowing the voters would appreciate it the political party may also be preparing a real surprise: a speedily formed majority government. Given the various alphabetical options, the depressing outlook is another elections in a year’s time.

Here is my overview of the results of the October 2016 elections.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 26th, 2017 at 4:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

Why are Icelanders good at football… and music?

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Björk and Sigurrós may be the most famous Icelandic musicians but there are many others. Now, footballers are doing pretty well. Better tame the football hubris for the time being but there are good reasons for Icelanders to excel in these two fields: young Icelanders have very good opportunities in both.

Recently, I watched a program on Rúv, the Icelandic broadcaster, on kids at the age of 12 to 14 preparing for a national science contest. The program followed the kids, from all around Iceland, at home and in school. One question they all got was what their did in their spare time. The answer? Each and every of them either did sport or music, some did both.

This is nothing new. After the war, the Icelandic music life was revived, or rather to a great degree, created by some Icelanders who had studied abroad and by a few foreign musicians who chose to make Iceland their home. The music life, also the music education, is still to some degree nourished by foreigners. This, in addition to many Icelandic musicians.

Most kids, not only in Reykjavík but also outside of Reykjavík, have access to music education. Many schools have school orchestras where children are taught to play the various instruments that make up an orchestra.

The same with sports. All over the country there are good facilities for the various sports, most notably football, handball and swimming.

It is from a broad base of nurtured talent that Björk and Sigurrós grew – and in football, footballers like the captain of the Icelandic national team Aron Einar Gunnarsson and Björn Bergmann Sigurdsson. Globalisation has helped these talents, both in music and football, to grow far beyond the amateur level with the world as their stage or their field.

Most of the football players playing for Iceland either do play professionally abroad or have done so. In addition they have grown up in the under 21 national team. Then there was the good work of the Swedish trainer Lars Lagerbäck whose assistant trainer Heimir Hallgrímsson is now the trainer of the national team.

Most national teams can count on their countries to support them. In Iceland, the support is tremendous. Basically everyone who is old enough to be aware of the world and not too old to be completely out of it, has his or her whole heart behind the team. On days with important international matches the traffic all over Iceland stops. Completely.

Just to qualify for the World Cup was a fantastic achievement, on the Icelandic scale of achievements – the smallest nation ever to qualify. The joy was profound. Icelanders definitely did not take it for granted that their team would indeed qualify.

From now on, every victory will be a bonus, deeply felt all over the country. The small economy will be shaken by every victory: consumption – such as buying trips to Russia – will go through the roof, productivity will most likely fall if Iceland wins a few matches.

But as you wonder why Icelanders can be so good at music and football keep in mind that it has nothing to do with some sudden wonder: it’s based on good education and easily accessible opportunities and facilities for decades. Something that every nation could match, if it is willing to invest in its youth and equal opportunities in education.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 13th, 2017 at 1:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

Benediktsson’s saga, the 2008 crash and how some were luckier than others

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Nine years after the October 2008 financial crash Iceland is doing well, some justice was done as bankers and businessmen have been sentenced for criminal deeds up to the crash that has been better clarified than anywhere else. Yet, the collapse still looms large in Icelandic politics. Prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson leader of the Independence party is now being asked questions regarding certain transactions before the banking collapse 6 October 2008. An impertinent question is why the banks did indeed open on that day – it did allow some well-connected people to diminish the hit as the banks collapsed.

The family of PM Bjarni Benediktsson can lay claim to being the only political dynasty in Iceland. Often referred to as “Engeyingarnir” – the “Eng-islanders,” Engey being the island on the gulf by Reykjavík – the family has been wealthy and powerful for most part of the past century and still is. The family rose on the basis of fishing industry in the early 20th century but later extended into transport, insurance and banking. The minister of finance and leader of the coalition party Revival Benedikt Jóhannesson is closely related to the PM.

As some other big shareholders in the banks and other companies “Engeyingarnir” were heavily involved in conspicuous transactions in the months and hours up to 4pm 6 October 2008 when the Emergency Act was passed. That Act and that day mark the realisation of the collapse (the three banks had all failed by 9 October). One chapter relating to Benediktsson has now been added to that saga, as told in the Guardian and the Icelandic newspaper Stundin – it was known earlier that Benediktsson sold a position in Glitnir investment funds but the latest reports provide the figures: in total, ISK80m or c €643.000.

Most aspects of the collapse were painstakingly recounted in the 2010 report of the Special Investigation Commission, SIC, the most thorough report any nation has written on the 2007 and 2008 financial crisis. But Benediktsson’s story is a reminder of one catastrophic mistake of the government at the time: to open the banks on Monday 6 October 2008, thus giving privileged clients like Benediktsson the opportunity to make transactions, which minimised their losses following the collapse that no one except a small group around the prime minister knew of.

Last minute transactions under dark clouds

The core of the Guardian story is that up to the October 2008 crash Benediktsson sold assets in two investment funds, managed by Glitnir, the smallest of the three large Icelandic banks.

Late September 2008 it was clear that Glitnir could not meet its obligations in the following October. At the time, Glitnir was controlled by its largest shareholder Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson and his partners. Jóhannesson is a famous name in the British business community as he owned at the time large retail companies on the UK high street.

The bank’s leadership had no option but to agree to a government takeover of 75% of the bank, thus saving the bank but almost wiping out the shareholders. Only days later it was clear that the bank was in such a state that the 75% takeover was not viable.

Just before midnight of 29 September Bjarni Benediktsson attended an emergency meeting with MP Illugi Gunnarsson, a friend of Benediktsson and also on the board of Fund 9, one of the two investment funds of this story. Together with chairman of Glitnir Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson they met with Glitnir’s CEO Lárus Welding and Glitnir’s legal council. Why exactly the two MPs were at this meeting is not clear: their connections to Glitnir seems a better explanation rather than the fact they were both MPs.

Why was Fund 9 so toxic?

During these tumultuous days Benediktsson set in motion some private transactions. On 24 September he sold off ISK30m, €241.000 in a Glitnir fund called Fund 1, and bought Norwegian krone, which turned out to be a wise transaction given how much the ISK fell in the coming days and weeks. Incidentally, this happened on the same day that the chairman of Glitnir, Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson met with governor of the Central Bank Davíð Oddsson to inform him that the bank could not meet its obligations in October.

On 2 October Benediktsson again sold ISK30m, this time in Fund 9 and then again ISK21m on 6 October. In an email the week before Benediktsson had specifically instructed for this latter transaction to be carried out on 6 October.

Late on 5 October PM Geir Haarde said to the Icelandic media that no further actions were needed regarding the Icelandic banks. At 11.29am 6 October the Icelandic financial surveillance authority, FME, effectively closed the Icelandic financial institutions. Benediktsson was one of several well-positioned people who made transactions on that morning.

Fund 9 was a particularly toxic fund because it was full of bonds connected to Jóhannesson’s companies and Glitnir, which, given that these companies relied so heavily on Glitnir funding, would clearly be heavily hit if Glitnir failed. That was indeed the case: these companies suffered heavy losses.

When Fund 9 opened again at the end of October 2008 its assets had been written down: the fund was now only 85.12% of what it had been on 6 October. However, if PM Haarde and the minister of finance had not bolstered Fund 9 with ISK11bn, now €88.5m, of public funds after the fund was closed the situation of the Fund 9 investors had been much worse. It has never been clarified why public funds were used to help Fund 9 investors and not investors in many other funds.

As Benediktsson had sold his Fund 9 assets worth ISK51m he was unaffected by the Fund 9 losses. In addition, there were the Icelandic króna Benediktsson converted into Norwegian krone. – In a media interview last year Benediktsson said he had owned “something” in Fund 9, nothing substantial and could not really remember the figures.

Benediktsson sold Glitnir shares in bleak February 2008

These were however not the only transactions Benediktsson made in 2008. In early February 2008 the future of the banks looked worryingly bleak though publicly bankers and politicians denied it. In addition to evaporating funding on international markets foreign banks were making margin calls on all the major Icelandic businessmen who also happened to own large parts of the banks.

The banks were now in a turbo-drive to help this selected group of businessmen to pay off their foreign loans, thus increasing lending to the selected few when lending was generally withdrawn. One of these businessmen was Karl Wernersson who in 2006 had bought large part of the Engeyingar’s shareholding in Glitnir.

The foreign margin calls led to some financial acrobatics for Wernersson, which also involved the Engeyingar because of the 2006 sale. This case, called the Vafningur (Bundle) case centres on loans from Glitnir and Sjóvá, an insurance company controlled by the Engeyingar.

Benediktsson signed some of the documents on behalf of Vafningur. The Sjóvá lending involved alleged fraudulent use of Sjóvá’s insurance funds. In the end, the case was not prosecuted and Benediktsson has always claimed that in spite of his signature he really did not know what the whole case was about.

One key event in February 2008 was a meeting of the three governors of the Central Bank with PM Geir Haarde, Árni Matthiesen minister of finance and leader of the social democrats Sólrún Gísladóttir minister of foreign affairs. The governors were profoundly pessimistic and news of this meeting flew around among politicians and others though it did not reach the media.

It’s not known if Benediktsson knew of the meeting and the unhappy tidings there. However, on 19 February Benediktsson and his friend Illugi Gunnarsson met with Lárus Welding CEO of Glitnir and the bank’s legal council, a meeting Benediktsson did ask for. Two days later Benediktsson set in motion to sell ISK119m, now €960.000, of his Glitnir shares, keeping only ISK3m. The transaction was carried out between 21 to 23 February 2008. On the 26 February Benediktsson and Gunnarsson wrote a much noted article in Iceland, outlining the dire straits of the Icelandic banks with no mention that Benediktsson had already sold the lion share of his shares in Glitnir.

Of the ISK119m worth of shares he sold he placed ISK90m in Fund 9. In March his assets in Fund 9 amounted to ISK165m, €1.3m. – In 2011, the daily DV told the story of the share sale, incidentally written by Ingi Freyr Vilhjálmsson who is also behind the latest and revealing reports in Stundin. At the time, Benediktsson refused to comment.

The power and influence of a prominent family

What was Bjarni Benediktsson doing in 2008? He was an MP, investor, close friend with some of the Glitnir staff, a member of a family who had been one of Glitnir’s largest shareholder and wielded considerable power in Icelandic politics and businesses. And Benediktsson had been a guest on some of Glitnir’s more ostentatious trips in the years before, such as football in London and salmon fishing in Siberia.

Benediktsson, born in 1970, became a member of Alþingi in 2003 but held at the same time positions in family companies. Not until after the 2008 collapse did he leave the family businesses where he had been on the boards of several companies.

Stundin has now exposed a far more detailed account of Benediktsson’s business dealings than was previously known, such as a failed property adventure in Dubai, related to his offshore company found in the Panama Papes and a much more successful venture in Miami, where Benediktsson was in charge of payments to constructors, literally all through the October 2008 collapse.

Due to the family assets and connections he had a far deeper relationship with Glitnir than just being an MP who happened to bank with Glitnir. His father Benedikt Sveinsson and his uncle Einar Sveinsson had been one of the largest shareholders of Glitnir 2003 to 2006. His uncle Einar was indeed the bank’s chairman at the time. Both his father and uncle sold both shares in Glitnir in 2008 and their positions in Fund 9 just before the banking collapse.

During these fateful autumn days Benedikt sold for ISK500m in Fund 9 and had the proceeds wired to Florida where the family has property. Einar sold for over ISK1bn. If the two brothers had waited Benedikt would have lost ISK24m due to falling value of Fund 9, his brother ISK183m.

An email from uncle Einar to a Glitnir employee on 1 October 2008 throws light on the kind of relationship the family had with Glitnir. The bank had made a margin call. “I don’t need to waste words,” wrote Einar, “that I don’t like this kind of message from the bank” expecting the employee to follow earlier decisions made.

The Teflon man of Icelandic politics

Benediktsson has been leader of the Independence party since 2009 but the rumours related to his family businesses have never left him. Apart from his sales of Glitnir shares and assets in Glitnir and the highly contentious Vafningur transactions, Benediktsson and his family have been associated to more recent cases.

In 2014 Benediktsson was minister of finance when Landsbanki, a state-owned bank, sold off a credit card company, Borgun. Borgun was sold without any bidding process, in fact it was sold without anyone knowing anything about the sale. Until it transpired Borgun had been sold to a consortium led by Benediktsson’s uncle Einar Sveinsson. This, in spite of the public policy of selling state assets in a transparent process to a highest bidder.

It later turned out that Borgun had been heavily undervalued. Less than a year after the sale, Borgun’s equity amounted to almost twice the sale’s price. Eventually, the Landsbanki CEO and board were forced to resign due to the Borgun sale. Benediktsson has always claimed he had been wholly oblivious of the whole thing, both that Borgun would be sold in a closed sale to a company of his uncle and the undervaluation.

Last year, the Panama Papers exposed that Benediktsson had owned part in a Seychelles company, set up by Mossack Fonseca. Only a year earlier, Benediktsson had staunchly denied he had owned a company in a tax haven. Asked about the Seychelles company he said he had not known it was offshore since it was set up through Luxembourg. Again, Benediktsson was blissfully ignorant and his party supported him.

The latest case, that also landed Benediktsson in international headlines, related to a bizarre relationship between his father and a sentenced paedophile. Iceland does not have a sex-offenders registry and people who have abused children can, as others who have been sentenced, recover their civil rights via a clemency process.

Called “honour revival” it requires a statement to confirm the soundness of character of the person in question. Benediktsson’s octogenarian father had given a statement to the sentenced paedophile who the father knew through old friends. What gave rise to questions was not that Benediktsson should be held responsible for his father’s action but that the minister of justice might have dealt with the case differently because of the family connections.

6 October 2008: the right and wrong decisions

As to the latest story of his Glitnir dealings Bjarni Benediktsson staunchly refuses he had any inside information. He just acted on what everyone could see: the banks were in serious trouble. His party still supports him.

It is worth keeping in mind that a large part of the Icelandic population owned shares in the banks. Many people saving up for their pension had, apart from obligatory savings via pension funds, privately saved by buying shares in the banks. Grandparents and parents had given children shares to save for their adult years. There were almost 40.000 shareholders in Kaupthing, the largest bank.

Benediktsson now says everyone knew the situation was precarious and he had only been trying to protect his assets. It is however not correct that everyone knew. The small shareholders quietly hoped the bankers were in control and that both bankers and politicians were right when they said publicly that everything would be fine.

The fact that the banks were kept open on the morning of 6 October 2008 was the wrong decision. It allowed the well-connected to take precautions but was of no help for the small shareholders who had no idea what was going on.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 9th, 2017 at 11:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

A fallen government and breach of trust

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The Icelandic government has fallen due to lack of trust – Bright Future has decided to leave the government. That is the simple fact. The story behind this is a tad more complicated, based on a horrid story of sexual abuse, a strange system of “reviving honour” after an ended prison sentence and connections to the father of prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson leader of the Independence party. Benediktsson, the Teflon man of Icelandic politics, again has a case that raises questions but so far, he has not lost the trust of his party. He now wants to call elections in November. – This is not a case of pedophilia but of politics and trust.

The shortest lived government in the history of Iceland and the third government led by the Independence party to fall has now come to an end, greatly challenging the party’s claim to be the great stabiliser in Icelandic politics. The only government after the 2008 banking collapse that so far has lasted its full parliamentary term is the left government, which did manage to sit the full 4 years though struggling at times.

In spring last year, Bjarni Benediktsson pulled his party out of government led by the Progressives’ leader Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson; the reason was lack of trust. Gunnlaugsson, named in the Panama papers, had for weeks known of the infamous interview where confronted with evidence he walked out. When Benediktsson saw the interview he walked out of government.

This time, the story could not be more different but at the bottom is, again, lack of trust. Benediktsson did not inform his fellow ministers that his father had signed a statement of character for a sentenced pedofile seeking to rehabilitate his honour and thereby seeking to reclaim civil rights lost due to his long prison sentence.

The sordid origin of a political story

Róbert Árni Hreiðarsson is a lawyer, earlier convicted for grooming under-aged girls in a particularly vicious case. After ending his sentence he changed to name to Robert Downey (apparently taking up the name of his American father). A convicted lawyer can’t enter the legal profession again unless he goes through the process of rehabilitating, “reviving his honour” as it is called in Icelandic.

The process can be initiated five years after ending a prison sentence and implies inter alia getting someone to sign a statement confirming that this person is indeed a sound and good person. Though not without exceptions, this has mostly been a rather mechanical process where the rehabilitation is rarely denied.

The fact that Downey seemed so easily to get his place in society again caused a widespread disgust in Iceland. The father of one of his victims aired the distress of the family, shared by many Icelanders. Rúv, the Icelandic state broadcaster, tried for months to get minister of justice Sigríður Andersen, also an Independence party MP, to inform who had supported Downey in “reviving his honour.”

The very Icelandic story of a pedofile connected to the PM’s father

As a side story, the attention was also on others sentenced for sexual abuse and who had helped them to rehabilitate. One of them is a Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson, sentenced for years of abusing his under-aged stepdaughter. It now turns out that one of those who assisted Hauksson was a well known businessman Benedikt Sveinsson, father of PM Bjarni Benediktsson.

Mostly, those who assist ex-prisoners to regain their full civil rights are people who have some standing in society and who known the convicted people for a long time. So what are the connections between Sveinsson, firmly in the centre of power and money in Iceland, and a sentenced pedofile?

In a press release, Sveinsson says that Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson was for a while related to acquaintances of him and his wife from their school years and that Hauksson had over the years sometimes sought his help, mostly related to financial matters or work. Last year, Hauksson had brought him a letter for Sveinsson to sign, in order to use for his process of regaining his honour. Sveinsson signed the letter as it was, thereby signing off that Sveinsson now merited to be rehabilitated.

Hauksson has worked as a bus driver, also working for a bus company owned by Sveinsson and his family. This bus company has the license to operate on the very lucrative route Reykjavík – Keflavik airport.

Nagging suspicion and belated acknowledgment 

With the focus on Downey there had been some political manoeuvre, which caused suspicion and the media kept asking for more information. In hindsight, some media probably hard heard of a connection to the PM’s family that kept the Downey case alive in the media.

Following a Rúv Freedom of Information request, which ordered the ministry of justice to release information, Sigríður Andersen was just about to release information not only on Downey but all similar cases since 1995. On Monday, PM Benediktsson informed the two other coalition leaders that his father was implicated in one of these cases.

According to Óttarr Proppé leader of Bright Future he was then of the understanding that this information was about to be released. But when he then understood yesterday that Andersen had informed Benediktsson in July about his father’s involvement with the known pedofile, Proppé and his party concluded that this was such a breach of trust that leaving government was the only option.

Benediktsson adds to his list of political mishaps

There is no allegation of any connection between Benediktsson and a sentenced pedofile and this case has nothing to do with pedophilia, contrary to headlines in foreign media. The government did not fall due to a case of pedophilia but due to breach of trust, how Benediktsson had handled the case and if the minister of justice had acted properly by informing the PM of his family connections to this specific case.

But this case adds to Benediktsson’s list of mishaps that have so far not tainted his standing as a political leader. His father was connected to a banking collapse case, called the Vafningur case, related to illegal use of funds of Sjóvá, an insurance company where the family has for decades been a major shareholder. The case was not prosecuted. Benediktsson gave a witness statement where he claimed he had not known the details.

In 2014 Benediktsson was the minister of finance when the state-owned Landsbanki sold a credit card company to a consortium of businessmen. It later turned out the bank had grossly undervalued the company leaving a huge windfall to the consortium. Again, Benediktsson had been wholly aware of the whole thing.

Last, but not least, Benediktsson figured in the Panama Papers. He had owned an offshore company, holding failed investments in Macao. By saying this had all been only losses and was long gone, Benediktsson was able to move on and keeping his position as an undisputed leader of his party.

The political aftermath

So, what now? The first reaction was that the government had now fallen and there would be a quick election though there have also been rumours of other options. There are theoretical options for the government to continue operating for a limited time – for two months or so, long enough for the government to pass the budget, or if its live could be stretched until spring. Benediktsson has said he would prefer to call elections in November.

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson leader of the Progressive party, an old coalition partner of the Independence party, denied quite harshly today that he was interested in filling Bright Future’s seats in government. At the same time, the rumour mill claimed the party was indeed interested in this option. Less easy now after Jóhannsson’s firm denial.

One mealy-mouthed politician today is Benedikt Jóhannesson minister of finance and leader of “Revival,” partly a splinter party out of the Independence party touting itself as a liberal euro-phile party contrary to the old party of anti-European sentiments and special interests. Contrary to other Revival MPs, Jóhannesson was remarkably unwilling to criticise Benediktsson and unwilling to mention breach of trust. In a country where blood is thicker than water, all Icelanders know full well that Jóhannesson is closely related to Benediktsson.

Quite remarkably, Iceland has in many ways done all the right things following the banking collapse in 2008 – it investigated the collapse, prosecuted bankers and shareholders and its economy turned to growth already in summer of 2011. Yet, it has not yet found political stability or political strength. That however has perhaps more to do with the times we live in: in Iceland, the widespread demand for transparency keeps running against political love of opacity.

The Independence party and its loss of claim to stability

Given that the world has lately seen Brexit and Trump victory, I’ve been saying tongue in cheek that if there will be elections soon Iceland might wake up to a government of Independence party, the Progressives and a new anti-immigration populist party called Party of the People. So far, it is a joke (albeit not funny).

The new party has caught the favour of voters always looking for a new solution to the world’s ill. The Pirate party has held much of these votes but seems to be losing them to this new party. Compared to other European countries, anti-immigration sentiments have not surfaced as a political force in Iceland. Not for lack of trying: the Progressives have flirted with these sentiments but so far, no success. However, as we have seen, such a party can pull other parties in its direction. Remains to be seen.

In terms of political reputation, the greatest loser from this debacle is so far the Independence party: it has for decades laid claim to its central part in Icelandic politics as the great stabiliser. Now, the party has set a new record: the three last government is has sat in – after elections in 2007, 2013 and 2016 (with government formed in January 2017) – have fallen.

But as the Independence party knows better than any other party it can normally rely on its voters, no matter what. It has been hovering around 25% of votes in opinion polls lately, record low compared to its earlier glory of close to 40%. Our times of flimsy voters might test this but other parties have a lot harder battle, especially the two other coalition parties who are in danger of not getting any MP though Bright Future might have created some political sparks by walking out of government. All to be tested in November…

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

September 15th, 2017 at 6:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

Landsbanki equity release borrowers lose at first instance court in Paris

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After investigations by judge Renaud van Ruymbeke on Landsbanki Luxembourg equity release loans the case against its main shareholder and chairman of the board Björgólfur Guðmundsson and eight ex Landsbanki employees was concluded in a Paris court yesterday 28 August: the judge acquitted all of them. The group of borrowers who have been seeking answers and clarification to their situation is hoping the prosecutor will appeal.

The main issue addressed by Justice Olivier Geron in the magnificent Saint-Chapelle yesterday was alleged fraud by the nine accused bankers. After clarifying some procedural issues, the judge read for an hour his verdict with gusto, making only a short break when he realised that one page was missing from his exposé.

The Justice established that the financial collapse in Iceland had not affected the bank in Luxembourg and there had been no connection between events in Iceland and Luxembourg. – That is one view but we should of course keep in mind that the Landsbanki Luxembourg operations were closely connected to the financial health and safety of the mother bank in Iceland as funds flowed between these banks and the Landsbanki Luxembourg did indeed fail when the mother bank failed.

The Justice also considered if the behaviour of the individuals involved could be characterised as fraudulent behaviour and concluded that no, it could not. Thirdly, he considered the quality of the lending, if the clients had been promised or guaranteed the loans could not go wrong. He concluded there had been no guarantees and consequently, no fraud had been committed.

Things to consider

I have dealt with the Landsbanki Luxembourg at length on Icelog (see here) and would argue that the reasoning of the French Justice did not address the grounds on which suspicions were raised that then led to the French investigation.

France is not exactly under-banked: it raises questions why the loans against property in France (and Spain, another case) were all issued from a foreign bank in Luxembourg. Keep in mind that equity release loans, very common for example in the UK some twenty years ago, were all but outlawed there (can’t be issued against a home, i.e. a primary dwelling). This is not to say these loans should be banned but, like FX loans (another frequent topic on Icelog) they are no an everyman product but only of use under very special circumstances.

It is also interesting to keep in mind that other Nordic banks were selling equity release loans out of Luxembourg. Also there, problems arose and in many cases the banks have indeed settled with the clients, thus acknowledging that the loans were not appropriate. Consequently, the cost should be shared by the bank and its clients, not only shouldered by the clients.

The judge seemed taken up with the distinction between promises and guarantees, that the clients had perhaps been promised but not guaranteed that they could not lose, not lose their houses set as collaterals. – The witnesses were however very clear as to what exactly had been spelled out to them. Yes, borrowers bear responsibility to what they sign but banks also bear responsibility for what is offered.

One thing that came up during the hearing in May was the intriguing fact that English-speaking Landsbanki borrowers got loan documentation in English whereas a French borrower like the singer Enrico Macias got documents in English to sign. One English borrower told me he had asked for an English version, was told he would get one but it never arrived. So at least in this respect there was a concerted action on behalf of the bank to, let’s say, diminished clarity.

Landsbanki managers have been sentenced in Iceland for market manipulation. This is interesting since many of the borrowers realised later that contrary to their wish for low-risk investments their funds had been used to buy Landsbanki bonds, without their knowledge and consent.

And now to Luxembourg

As I have repeatedly pointed out, Luxembourg has done nothing so far to investigate banks operating in the Duchy. The concerted actions by the prosecutors in Iceland show that in spite of the complexity of modern banking banks can be investigated and prosecuted. All the dirty and dirtiest dealings of the Icelandic banks went through Luxembourg, also one of the key organising centres of offshorisation in the world.

In spite of the investigations and sentencing in Iceland, nothing has surfaced in Luxembourg in terms of investigating and prosecuting. One case regarding Kaupthing Luxembourg is under investigation there but so far, no charges have been brought.

A tale of two judges and their conflicting views

Judge Renaud van Ruymbeke is famous in France for taking on tough cases of white-collar and financial crimes. Justice Olivier Geron is equally famous for acquitting the accused in such cases. One of Geron’s latest is the Wildenstein case last January where a large tax scandal ended in acquittal, thanks to Geron.

After the Enron trial and the US there has been a diminished appetite there for bringing bankers and others from the top level of the business community to court, a story brilliantly told by Jess Eisinger in The Chickenshit Club – and nothing good coming since the Trump administration clearly is not interested in investigating and prosecuting this type of crimes.

In so many European countries it is clear that prosecuting banks is a no-go or no-success zone. As shown by Ruymbeke’s investigations there is the French will there but with a judge like Geron these investigations tend to fail in court.

Update: the Public Prosecutor in charge of the Landsbanki case has decided to appeal the 28 August decision, meaning the case will come up again in a Paris court.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

August 29th, 2017 at 10:49 am

Posted in Uncategorised