“In my opinion, it is quite wrong that a bank can pretend to have money and security which it doesn’t have, generate a false balance sheet and use its own customers to fund acquisition ambitions.” According to the Guardian, the fashion entrepreneur Karen Millen is pursuing a series of legal claims against the Kaupthing estate, together with her ex-husband Kevin Stanford (more on his Icelandic contacts). Millen is of the opinion that Kaupthing wasn’t entirely straight about its position. She might not be the only one to think so – but before it all went to painfully wrong, her ex-husband was indeed very close to the Kaupthing managers. It’s unclear how well informed Stanford kept his ex-wife on their business dealings. He was the financial motor in their cooperation, Millen the creative one.
Millen and Stanford built up a fashion label, the Karen Millen name is still prominent on UK high streets. But the name no longer belongs to her. Millen has lost her name to Kaupthing. She is understandably upset but she isn’t the first designer to lose her/his name to the bankers by being careless about the small print.
From the SIC report and other sources it’s clear that banking the Icelandic way implied bestowing huge favours on a group of chosen clients – in all three banks the banks’ major shareholders and an extended group around them. As so often pointed out on Icelog, these clients got convenant-light and/or collateral-light loans. In some cases the bankers promised their clients that the collateral wouldn’t be enforced – or the collateral were unenforceable for some reason. They were offered a “risk-free business” – ia risk-free for the customer whereas the bank shouldered all the risk and eventual losses. (This screams of breach of fiduciary duty, indeed part of charges brought in some cases by Office of the Special Prosecutor and not doubt more to come.)
After the collapse, some of Kaupthing’s favoured clients have claimed they were victims of Kaupthing’s managers who did not inform them of the bank’s real standing. Karen Millen is the latest to complain of Kaupthing misleading her. She is, understandably, outraged at not being able to use her name for her label. A clever lawyer would have made sure it couldn’t happen. Stanford was evidently very close to the Kaupthing managers, which might have lulled him into the false believe that he didn’t need to be too careful about the wording of the contracts.
How close was Stanford to Kaupthing? Just before the collapse he was the bank’s fourth biggest shareholder and among the largest borrowers – the familiar correlation between large shareholding and huge loans in the Icelandic banks.
Here is an overview of Stanford’s loans September 2008:
What was this enormous business that Stanford was running that merited loans of €519m?
Here is how Stanford was introduced on the loan overview of exposures exceeding €45m:
Pay attention here. Stanford introduced “family and related clients.” – Did he, as sometimes happens, get paid for the introduction? – And then this, that some of this was “silent participation” of his ex-wife and vice versa. Did she have a full insight into how her name was used by her husband? Noticeably, he was the second biggest private borrower in Kaupthing Luxembourg, where all the dodgiest loans were issued.
Stanford’s Icelandic connections are on the whole quite intriguing. He wasn’t only closely connected to Kaupthing but also to Glitnir, at least after Jon Asgeir Johannesson, with ia Hannes Smarason and Palmi Haraldsson, became the bank’s largest shareholder in summer 2007. When Glitnir financed a clever dividend scheme in Byr, the building society, Millen suddenly appeared as one of the stakeholders in Byr. Was that because she was so keen to invest in an Icelandic building society? Some of Stanford’s fashion businesses were joint ventures with Johannesson and his company, Baugur.
Stanford was also close enough to Kaupthing be part of a clever set-up to influence the bank’s scarily high CDS in the summer of 2008. Together with Olafur Olafsson, Kaupthing’s second largest shareholder, Tony Yerolemou and Skuli Thorvaldsson – all of them in the Kaupthing inner circle in terms of the business opportunities they got from the bank – Stanford and Millen owned one of three companies financed by Kaupthing to buy Kaupthing CDS. This was the set-up:
This scheme doesn’t seem to have hit Stanford and Millen with losses in spite of a loan of €41m to this entreprise.
Last year, Stanford wrote a letter to the Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander estate to substantiate his claim that he should not pay back KSF £130m he had borrowed to buy Kaupthing shares. According to his understanding, this lending was part of Kaupthing’s support scheme, in other words (which Stanford didn’t use) ‘market manipulation.’ – Stanford is and wants to be taken seriously as a business man. Didn’t he see anything strange in the fact that a bank was lending him money, with no risk for Stanford, to buy its own shares, with (if the scheme was the usual one) nothing but the shares as a collateral?
Stanford says that after talking to former Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander staff he now understands that the Kaupthing Edge deposits were used to buy ‘crap’ assets from Kaupthing Iceland, which lent the money on to Kaupthing Luxembourg that then had the money to lend to high net worth clients like Stanford. This scheme, according to Stanford, enabled senior Kaupthing managers to sell their Kaupthing shares.
This is an interesting description of the use of the Kaupthing Edge deposits, which (contrary to Landsbanki’s Icesave) were in a UK subsidiary and consequently guaranteed by the UK deposit guarantee scheme.* Stanford is right that the money was lent to high net worth clients – but not just to any clients: it was lent to the favoured clients who got the conventant-light loans. Kaupthing senior managers may have sold some of their shares but they did by far not sell out – it would have caused too much of attention and undermined trust in the bank.
Other big Kaupthing clients, like Vincent and Robert Tchenguiz, have also complained of being the victims of Kaupthing’s market manipulation. All these people are – or have been – locked in lawsuits with Kaupthing. The claims to the media is part of their PR strategy.
Being duped by Kaupthing means someone did the duping, allegedly the managers of the bank. Yet, none of these ‘ill-treated’ is suing any of the managers. They are suing the failed bank’s estate. That’s logical because the estate has assets. But it also raises the question if the strong bonds, which clearly connected the Kaupthing senior managers and their major clients, have survived the collapse and the consequent losses.
It’s also worth noticing that in spite of enormous loans that the favoured clients got, they have, like Stanford and the Tchenguiz brothers, proved remarkably resilient to losses. That may be due to luck, business acumen or both – but a part of it might also be the convenant- and collateral-light loans that Kaupthing did, after all, bestow on them. Which is part of the Kaupthing-related cases that both the Serious Fraud Office and the OSP are investigating. This way of banking runs against all business logic. The question is what sort of logic it followed.
*The fact that Kaupthing Edge was guaranteed by the UK deposit guarantee seems to be one of the motives for the SFO investigation. I find it incomprehensible that SFO isn’t investigating Landsbanki’s Icesave, which the UK Government did bail out – hence the Icesave dispute.
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Yet another case from the Office of Special Prosecutor v Kaupthing’s three top managers is up in Reykjavík District Court these days. As in several other cases, the charges centre on breach of fiduciary duty, ultimately causing the bank a loss of €510m. The loans went to two companies owned by Kaupthing clients that used the funds to buy credit linked notes and enter into credit default swaps related to Kaupthing in order to lower the bank’s collateral debt swap spread. Does this sound like market manipulation? Deutsche Bank seems to think it might, strongly denying any involvement in the scheme except as the issuer of the notes though Icelandic sources tell a different story.* – But who made a killing on the other side of the CDS bet? Partly Deutsche Bank, according to the OSP but this part of the CLN saga is still not entirely clear, which is one of the reasons why the court hearings might be interesting.
Soon after the collapse of the three largest Icelandic banks in early October 2008 there were plenty of allegations, also in the Icelandic media, of possible wrongdoing in the banks. One of the stories told centred on Kaupthing funding transactions connected to the bank’s CDS.
At the end of January 2009 former chairman of the Kaupthing board Sigurður Einarsson wrote a letter to friends and relatives explaining his side of the media reports. The first matter he dealt with was the CDS story: it was true that Kaupthing had funded transactions by what he called “trusted clients” of the bank to influence the bank’s CDS spread, following a proposal from Deutsche Bank, DB.
This story was told in greater detail in the 2010 report by the Icelandic Special Investigations Committee, SIC: also here, the idea is said to have originated with DB.
Further information came up in a London Court in 2012: the two BVI companies set up for the transactions, Partridge and Chesterfield, went bankrupt soon after Kaupthing failed. Their administrators, Stephen Akers from Grant Thornton London and a colleague, quickly turned to DB to get answers to some impertinent questions regarding the two companies.
Now, the CDS saga is summed up in the OSP charges (in Icelandic) against Einarsson, Kaupthing’s CEO Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson and head of the bank’s Luxembourg operations Magnús Guðmundsson in a case of breach of fiduciary duty and causing a loss of €510m to Kaupthing, some of it paid out on Kaupthing’s last day of trading.
In orchestrating the loans the three managers took great care that DB would get paid, i.e. the deal would not fall through due to lack of funds at a time when Kaupthing had practically no foreign currency left and was running out of liquidity.
According to the charges DB not only organised the transactions but also took part of the opposite bet. What is still lacking in this saga is who, together with DB, was on the other side of the bet the two companies lost?
Einarsson’s letter 2009 and transactions with “trusted clients”
In his letter to friends and family 26 January 2009 Einarsson pointed out that although the UK Financial Services Authority, FSA, had in the third week of August 2008, ascertained that Kaupthing’s UK operation, Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander, KSF, was well funded the CDS spread on Kaupthing stayed high. Unreasonably so according to Einarsson who claimed having heard from foreign journalist that false rumours on Kaupthing were being spread, even by PR firms. There were also rumours, wrote Einarsson, that the CDS market was being manipulated, not only in relation to Iceland. (The letter was later leaked to the Icelandic media, see here, in Icelandic; excerpts below, my translation).
“Following a proposal from Deutsche Bank it was decided to test what would happen if the bank itself (i.e. Kaupthing) would buy such insurance. This was however not a trivial matter since the bank could not issue insurance on itself. The solution was to get our clients we trusted well and with whom we had had a long relationship, built on trust and loyalty, to make these transactions on behalf of the bank. Of course we would never have entered into these transactions except for the particular circumstances. These transactions were made with the interest of the bank at heart and in full accordance to law and regulations.”
Following Lehman’s collapse September 15 2008 the CDS spread on Kaupthing increased; not only Kaupthing but the international banking system felt under siege, wrote Einarsson.
“As the bonds (i.e. credit linked notes), that we at Kaupthing and our business partners had purchased, were leveraged and had now gone down in price there were only two options. To hand over further funds or give up, have the bonds sold and lose a part of or all the original investment. The latter option was to my mind simply preposterous. Kaupthing enjoyed good liquidity and nothing indicated the bank would not withstand the pressure, just as it had done in 2006 and in spring 2008. If on the other hand the bonds had been sold the bank would have suffered a loss and the risk was that the increased offer of bonds would have undermined the bank and diminished its access to credit lines.”
This had been the rational behind these transactions, wrote Einarsson, made to maintain Kaupthing as a going concern contrary to media reports that funds had been taken out of the bank before it collapsed.
The SIC report April 2010
One of the many interesting stories in the SIC report was the story of the Kaupthing transactions regarding the CLNs. Two BVI companies, Chesterfield and Partridge, were set up by Kaupthing. The former was owned by three companies under the ownership of Antonios Yerolemou, Skúli Þorvaldsson and Karen Millen and Kevin Stanford, respectively owning 32 %, 36% and 32%. Ólafur Ólafsson owned the latter, through another company.
All of the owners were, as Einarsson said in his letter, longstanding clients of Kaupthing. 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, in 2001 and stayed in touch, i.a. as a board member of Kaupthing in 2007. Stanford had a long-standing relationship with Kaupthing as with the other Icelandic banks and Ólafsson was the bank’s second largest shareholder.
The SIC report traced the origin of the transactions to DB but earlier in 2008 than Einarsson said in his letter. The SIC report states:
“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 report the CLN transactions “can be assumed to have actually made an impact on the CDS spreads on Kaupthing.”
Akers v Deutsche Bank
Stephen John Akers works at Grant Thornton in London and has a fearsome reputation as a diligent administrator. On being appointed a liquidator in 2010 of the two BVI companies, Chesterfield and Partridge, together with his colleague Mark McDonald, the two quickly set about to understand the nature of the transactions in the two companies.
They turned to DB with two impertinent key questions: 1) How did the transactions make commercial sense for the two companies? 2) How were the two companies expected to repay the loans from Kaupthing in case the markets moved against them, as indeed did happen?
When answers were not forthcoming from DB Akers sued the bank to get access to documents related to the transactions. In February 2012 a judge ruled DB should hand over the information asked for.
As to the purpose of the companies Akers states in his affidavit that “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” (Emphasis mine).
In court, DB strongly denied suggestions “it entered into the CLN transactions in order to manipulate the market” and took “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.”
Further, in a witness statement, Venkatesh (nick-named Venky) Vishwanathan, the DB employee who wrote the email the SIC report quotes, supported the DB position. His interpretation of the “bang for the buck” is: “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.”
Thus, Vishwanathan claims the email was not referring to Kaupthing getting the timing right for the most bang but the two companies investing in the CLN.
The OSP charges
According to the charges the first round of loans was made end of August 2008 to the three companies funding Chesterfield, in total €130m. However, these late August loans were issued so the companies could repay an earlier money market loan from Kaupthing Luxembourg, which already in early August had been used to instigate the transaction organised by DB in return for CLN as the company entered into a CDS with DB on Kaupthing; €125m were used on the CLN transaction but DB got €5m in fees. In September 2008 Kaupthing issued further loans of €125m to Chesterfield to meet margin calls from DB.
The Partride loans were issued in September, first €130m, of which €125m were used on the same kind of CLN transactions as Chesterfield though with the difference that DB only got a fee of €3.625.000 with apparently the rest, €1.375.000 left behind in Ólafsson’s company (the charges do not clarify why or for what purpose these funds were left in Ólafsson’s company or why DB settled for a lower fee than on the other transaction for the same amount). Also here there were margin calls from DB, for which Partridge got a further loan of €125m.
In total, Kaupthing lost €510m on these transactions. As Akers pointed out this loss was entirely predictable if the market turned and Kaupthing went out of business – after all, the two companies were unhedged. In other words, the two companies had little or no assets beyond the CLNs meaning that it was, according to the OSP, clear from the beginning that the companies should never have received the loans they got.
Urgency and faulty documentation
The charged Kaupthing managers steered the operations of the two companies and followed closely that the loans were paid to DB. According to emails between Sigurðsson and Einarsson as the scheme was being planned, quoted in the SIC report, the two seemed to have at first planned to ask some pension funds to participate but instead opted for the trusted clients.
The two were adamant that payments should go through to DB no matter what. In one instance, payment was due on 2 October 2008 but the managers made sure it was paid already on 22 September.
The most remarkable part of these loans is that they were being paid to DB literally up to the last hours of Kaupthing. Almost the only un-told saga (my account of this is here) from these last days relates to a rather incomprehensible loan of €500m given to Kaupthing by the CBI at noon on October 6 2008, hours before prime minister Haarde addressed the stunned nation to spell out the catastrophe in view: the banks could all fail, necessitating Emergency Law.
The CBI loan was given, as far as is known, to meet demands by the FSA for funds to strengthen KSF: the funds were ear-marked to prevent the failure of KSF in order to prevent cross-defaults, which would bring down the mother-bank in Iceland. However, nothing indicates the funds were used for that purpose and the CBI does not seem to have made any safeguards as to how the loan would be used.
Sigurðsson has later said that the Kaupthing management was unaware of the imminent Emergency Law as the loan was issued; as soon as he was aware of the Law, later in the afternoon, he knew the banks would not survive.
Yet, next day October 7, €50m were paid to DB in connection with the CLNs transactions, which were based on the premises that Kaupthing would be a going concern in five years time. The OSP charges state that the CBI loan enabled this last payment to DB. – On October 8 the Kaupthing board resigned; the day after Kaupthing in Iceland was taken over by administrators.
Further, the OSP charges show the loan documentation was lacking and the foreign owners were not entirely informed by Kaupthing of the transactions. Ólafsson says Sigurðsson asked him to participate; Sigurðsson claims Ólafsson or his representative asked for Ólafsson to be included.
According to the charges, documents related to these loans were changed twice after Kaupthing went into administration, first a few days after the collapse and again in December 2008.
Apart from this, the choice of clients to lend to was quite remarkably a direct challenge to complaints from the Luxembourg financial services authority, Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier, CSSF. In August 2008 the CSSF warned Kaupthing Luxembourg of the precarious position of some of its large debtors and shareholders. Choosing these clients for further loans was a direct challenge to the CSSF warnings, again a sign that the Kaupthing managers were willing to go to a great length to execute this plan.
The bang for the buck-writer – on leave since early 2015
The writer of the “bang for the buck” email, Venky Vishwanatha, later became DB’s head of corporate finance in Asia. Earlier this year he was put on leave, according to Bloomberg, as DB “faces civil court cases over alleged mis-selling of derivatives by a group he helped oversee, the people said, asking not to be named because the information is confidential. … The court cases relate to allegations that Deutsche Bank manipulated the market when it sold 450 million pounds ($700 million) of credit-linked notes in 2008 to two U.K. companies associated with the failed Icelandic lender Kaupthing Bank Hf, said the people. Vishwanathan was involved in the sale of the notes when he worked for Deutsche Bank in London and co-ran the bank’s western European financial institutions group at the time, one person said.”
Bloomberg quotes an e-mailed statement from DB saying the bank entered into credit linked transactions in 2008 with two counterparties, referencing Kaupthing. “Following Kaupthing’s bankruptcy, claims to recover funds have been brought against the bank. We will continue to defend ourselves vigorously against these claims.”
Did it make sense to try to influence the CDS via the CLN transactions?
The Kaupthing managers claim lending to influence the CDS spread was an understandable attempt, given the situation at the time. As mentioned above the BVI administrators could not quite see the sense.
Further, CDS spread is a measure of trust, the high spread indicated low trust. As it were, the transactions seemed to influence the spread for a few days. Considering the cost to Kaupthing and the risk, this was a high-wire act that resulted in losses and made absolutely no material difference to Kaupthing’s situation, except increasing the losses.
Also, these transactions were invisible to the market – of course Kaupthing did not advertise it was itself going into the market to finance the CDS linked transactions. If found out, this would definitely not have looked good, having a negative influence on the trust-factor the bank was trying to influence.
The large sums of money needed, the very little impact and the great risk might show the despair among the bank’s management. A sober scrutiny, also from the technical point of view, does not indicate this ever was a good idea. And then there is the market-manipulation angle DB contests.
The result was that the bank lost €510m by setting up a trade with remarkable little influence on the bank’s CDS spread, which at the same time created a hell of a good deal for those on the other side of the bet.
Who was on the other side of the bet?
As referenced above DB denies all involvement in the CLNs transactions apart from issuing the CLNs. Yet, according to the charges DB was much more heavily involved.
The Kaupthing managers assumed, according to the charges that DB would go into the market to find those willing to take the opposite position but, according to the charges, the managers did not do anything to inquire into the matter.
As it turns out, according to the OSP charges, DB did indeed take part of the position for itself. It is however unclear if DB was the end beneficiary here or if it was possibly acting on behalf of clients. In the end, DB turned out to be one of the largest creditors in all the failed Icelandic banks.
The interesting side saga looming in the coming court case is what role DB did play – and who made the handsome profit from the trades that caused Kaupthing such losses.
*Obs: neither Deutsche Bank itself nor any DB employees are charged in the Icelandic case but the outcome in Iceland might have ramification for civil cases related to the scheme.
The above is not based on accounts at the court case, but as stated above, mainly on Einarsson’s 2009 letter, the 2010 SIC report, the 2012 Aker ruling and lastly the OSP charges in the present case. I will be blogging in the coming days on what has transpired at the court case. – The CDS saga was one of the first cases related to the banking collapse that caught my attention so I’ve been following it for over six years.
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Last week, the Office of the Special Prosecutor initiated criminal proceedings against three Kaupthing managers for breach of fiduciary duty. The managers are Sigurður Einarsson formerly chairman of Kaupthing, its CEO Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson and Kaupthing Luxembourg managers Magnús Guðmundsson.
At stake are loans to four companies, in total €510m, owned by Ólafur Ólafsson, the bank’s largest shareholder, Conservative party donor and at one time a Kaupthing board member Tony Yerolemou and two big clients of the bank, Kevin Stanford and his ex-wife Karen Millen. The loans were used to fund two companies, which traded in Kaupthing’s CDS, in order to encourage a fall in the CDS and reduce the bank’s financing cost. These CDS deals were done in cooperation with Deutsche Bank. None of the clients nor Deutsche are under investigation at the OSP in relation to this scheme.
The loans were issued to BVI companies with little or no other assets than the financial assets, which were being funded. In some cases Kaupthing issued loans to these companies without the knowledge of their owners. According to the claims, the loans were not taken up in the bank’s credit committees nor were credit committees told of previous loans to these companies.
Although there are higher sums at stake in two large market manipulation cases against Kaupthing and Landsbanki managers – cases that consist of actions stretching over some time, this latest case is the largest single case so far and is likely to remain so. So far, all the OSP cases relating to the collapse of the banks are stories already known from the SIC report, published in April 2010 and this CDS case is no exception.
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Five European sovereign bailouts, five ways of doing it – but one thing is common to them all: reckless lenders are spared (except in the last Greek round) and hedge funds rewarded. This time, even the smallest deposit holders are hit. One clear consequence: the European Union is rapidly losing support in its member states.
Now, with the experience of five European bailouts it is safe to say they come in different sizes – from the Greek one now totalling €240 to the latest, €10bn for Cyprus. Apart from the Greek haircut (finally after two attempts to stabilise Greece) bondholders have not been touched. In Cyprus where 48% of public sector debt is held by domestic banks, a haircut à la grecque would have felled the banks and not been of much help.
One particularity of the Cypriot banks is that although their assets are roughly eight times the island’s GDP they are mostly funded by deposits, not by whole-sale loans like i.a. the Icelandic banks were. After being badly hit by the Greek haircut last year – more like the last drop rather than the real reason for their troubles – equity in Cypriot banks has evaporated.
Laiki Bank is a case in point: its assets and liabilities is €30.4bn, its equity paltry €1bn. By turning 10% of deposits into equity, as the stability (or more sweetly, solidarity) levy roughly does – bingo, the equity is miraculously a much more sustainable 8% and the troika doesn’t need to provide lending to save the banks. Assuming there will be any deposits left in the Cypriot banks when banking resumes after an, apparently, prolongued bank holiday later this coming week (the banks were due to open on Tuesday, after a long weekend, but there is now rumour they will not open until Wednesday or even later).
By looting bank accounts the total sum needed is brought down: instead of a bailout sum of one Cypriot GDP, ca €17bn, “only” €10bn will be needed.
This is a drastic measure. If this could solve the problem it might have some merit – it would be a quick stab instead of the lingering pain in Greece – but that is more than uncertain. I find it very difficult to stomach that there was not a minimum sum left untouched. Let us say a pensioner with €30.000 would have kept his savings unscathed. Or even holding a sum equivalent to the minimum deposit guarantee of €100.000 untouched but putting a levy of 15% on everything above that. Perhaps none of this would have sufficed to bring the total loan down but yes, I still find this measure extremely brutal and this measure needs to be strongly underpinned and justified. The FT (paywall) has an account on how the deal was reached – it will not make the Germans more popular and it is still incomprehensible how this part of the bailout packet could end where it did.
It follows from the way Cypriot banks were funded that they have been stuffed with money, not from Cypriot pensioners and small savers but with Russian money and other foreign money hiding from attention. It has been known for a long time and what did the European Union or the ECB do about it? Not very much or at least nothing that drove this money away. Now, both Russian oligarchs and a Cypriot olive farmer are hit by the same measure. How fair is that?
One frequently mentioned thing over the last months is if Cyprus should chose the Icelandic way in terms of deposit holders. This advice normally comes without any explanation as to what was done in Iceland and seems to imply that deposit holders should or could be treated differently according to nationality. However, what was done in Iceland can’t possibly apply to Cyprus.
The deposits the Icelandic Government refrained from saving were deposits in Icelandic branches abroad, in reality so-called Icesave internet accounts in Landsbanki branches in the UK and the Netherlands. When deposits were moved into the new banks, where deposit holders could then access the funds previously held with the old banks, only deposits in Iceland were moved. – The Cypriot Government could not, on the basis of the Icelandic way, differentiate between, let us say foreign and Cypriot depositors in Cyprus. For the Cypriot Government, the problems relate to deposits in Cyprus, not abroad. Suggesting that the Cypriots follow the Icelandic course of action seems based on some ignorance about or misunderstanding of what was done in Iceland as the three banks collapsed in October 2008.
Interestingly, I am told that Greek and the Cypriot officials did ask the European Commission informally if the Icesave judgement – where the Icelandic state was not deemed to be obliged to guarantee the Deposit Guarantee Fund nor was it seen to have discriminated against deposit holders abroad (because deposits in Iceland were moved to the new banks, without the use of the Icelandic DGF) – could be of any consequence, i.e. use for them. The answer was a succinct “no.” The EU and the ECB firmly believe that the sovereign is the last guarantor of the financial system in each country – and now, in one case, a state has been allowed to confiscate money from depositors, olive farmers and oligarchs alike.
Cypriots are understandably furious – but the Cypriots, just like Icelanders some years ago, should be furious with their own politicians. There is little point in talking about neo-colonial powers. The EU, the ECB and the IMF have a say over the Cypriot economy because the way things were run in Cyprus. Being mired in debt – no matter if it is a person or a sovereign – leads to a loss of independence. That is the harsh and painful reality.
That said, it is interesting to reflect on the role of the European Union in the five bailout countries. All these countries, as well as some other Eurozone countries, made a huge effort during the 1990s to meet the EMU criteria and join the euro. But once these countries had cut off a heel there and a toe here, to fit the euro shoe the EU stopped being strict. As late as 2011, Mario Monti wrote a brilliant article in the FT, blaming the euro troubles on the EU being too deferential and too polite to its member states. The powerful states, i.a. Germany, have time and again intervened to prevent monitoring etc. (Icelog on Monti’s article here.)
Five countries have suffered from this laxness in the EU, apart of course from mistaken domestic policies. As Mervyn King wrote to his Icelandic opposite number in April 2008, explaining that the Bank of England refused to do a swap: “among friends it is sometimes necessary to be clear about what we think.” – Brutal clarity is sometimes needed but the EU failed to behave like a true friend.
And yet, there was all the time abundant evidence of things heading in the wrong direction. Olivier Blanchard, the chief economist of the IMF, lately berated by EU commissioner Olli Rehn for unhelpful additions (read “clarity”) to the debate, ended an article on Portugal in 2007 thus:
I began by arguing that Portugal faced an unusually tough economic challenge: low growth, low productivity growth, high unemployment, large fiscal and current account deficits.
I then examined various policy choices, from reforms increasing productiv- ity growth, to coordinated decreases in nominal wages, and the use of fiscal policy in this context. I want to end on a more positive note. There is a large scope for productivity increases in Portugal, and a set of reforms which could achieve them. A decrease in nominal wages sounds exotic, but is the same in essence as a successful devaluation. If it can be achieved, it can substantially reduce the unemployment cost of the adjustment. Fiscal policy can also help. While deficits must be reduced, temporary fiscal expansion could be part of an overall package, facilitating the adjustment of wages. The challenge is there. But so are the tools needed to meet it.
The first decade of the new millennium – and incidentally the first decade of the euro – is turning into a lost decade for Europe. The European Union, with its new currency, allowed the periphery – earlier with understandably high interest rates – suddenly to bask in low euro rates with the unrestrained banking systems in i.a. Germany and France only too happy to lend. When worst came to the worst, the lenders have (mostly) been spared and the inhabitants punished. No wonder the European Union is losing popularity in all of Europe as fast as the money flows out of Cypriot banks. It is painful to see that in spite of its rich intellectual heritage, Europe is now governed by extremely by narrow-minded policies and no understanding for their social consequences.
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Now that the financial markets have moved out of Euro crisis mode, at least for the time being, calm reigns again – or as much calm as you are likely to find in that testosterone driven sector. So far, not even a muddled election outcome in Italy has caused much market flurry. However, the Euro debts have not evaporated but with the enchanting words of Governor of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi and a EU banking union in spe debt-ridden Eurozone countries gain time to put its economies in order.
This calm allows us to reflect on the wider aspects of the financial crisis on both sides of the Atlantic, such as the contributing role of interest rates in the crisis. Normally, interest rates shot up in good times and sank in bad times but during the last twenty years the rates have more or less been low all the time in the US, the major European economies and, with the birth of the Euro, also in the Eurozone. Things tend to turn into laws of nature when they have been around for a while. The danger is that “chronic” low interests has turned into a law of financial nature, creating quite devilish problems of its own.
Let us look at interest rates in the US and the Eurozone.
Table 1. US interest rates January 1971-December 1989.
Table 2. US interest rates January 1990-March 2013.
Table 3. ECB interest rates January 2000-March 2013.
In the US money has been cheap since 1990 and exceedingly cheap since 2000, compared to 1971-1990. The Euro, in existence from 2000, knows nothing but low interest rates. Consequently, funding cost in the developed world has been low. This has affected not only the behaviour in the financial sector but also sovereigns.
The 1990s and dotcom defying financial gravity
During the internet bubble of the late 1990s investment bankers, trying to be with it, took off their ties to bond with young dotcom visionaries brimming with bright but unproven ideas. When the tie-less bankers needed to calm their “tied” colleagues, who disbelieved that businesses with no profits in sight could be good investment, they explained that these new businesses were governed by new information age laws beyond the understanding of anyone except the dotcom-initiated.
Of course things proved to be less different than it had seemed. And so the new millennium started with the reaffirmation of the old rule that things are only worth as much as someone is willing to pay. Great losses ensued from the new age not being new and from other fallacies. In 1998, the demise of an obscure hedge fund called Long Term Capital Management – two of its board members, Myron S. Scholes and Robert C. Merton, won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1997 – threatened to bring down the US financial system. The New York Federal Reserve quietly organised a $ $3.625bn bailout by the fund’s largest creditors. Thus ended a decade with – in historical perspective – low interest rates. But yet lower rates were still to come – and even greater losses, this time not absorbed by creditors but tax-payers.
Cheap money, revolving doors, light/no-touch regulation
At the time it seemed like a good idea to start the new European currency with low interest rates; in making their decisions European central bankers looked to the US where interest rates had started to fall even before 9/11. The belief in light-touch, or almost no-touch, regulation inherited from the 1990s also took firm hold on both sides of the Atlantic.
The first decade of the new millennium was thus marked by historically low interest rates, pared down regulation and hands-off financial supervision. Another new feature was the revolving door between banks and their regulators. This back-and-forth enmeshed banks and their authorities in a spider web of cosy relations and friendships.
Money was so cheap that spending it poorly had little consequences. Banking was done like a Jackson Pollock painting: you took a really big canvas and splashed it with colours. It didn’t matter too much if it didn’t make sense – it looked fine in the annual reports written by auditors who knew how to make the balance sheets look good, with tools such as Lehman’s now so infamous Repo 105.
Cheap money, favours and the separation of debt and assets
When the appalling banking practises of the Icelandic banks were exposed in the Icelandic SIC report in April 2010, not only were widespread suspicions of shady dealing confirmed, but the report showed that what had gone on was much worse than anyone had imagined. Big international banks and auditors from the Big Four were also part of the new Icelandic saga of failed banks and extreme banking.
What the SIC report described, under the term “banking,” was in fact a double standard banking: while most clients were treated as any clients in an ordinary bank a small group of clients – the biggest shareholders and their satellites – were lent beyond legal limits, often against weak or no collateral. The financial rational was unclear but the bankers were certainly egged on by cheap money. Iceland has traditionally been a high-inflation high-interest country and when Icelandic bankers suddenly had access to almost unlimited low-interest loans abroad they behaved as if they were at an open bar for the first time in their lives: they binge-borrowed and binge-lent.
The last few years have shown that the favours during the boom years were greatly profitable to those who were allowed to binge-borrow. A mercenary army of specialised lawyers and accountants made sure that the cheap money turned into lasting favour. In galaxies of offshore companies debt was skilfully separated from assets. After 2008, one empty shell company after the other has collapsed, leaving behind astronomical debt and hardly any assets. The creditors, not only the failed banks but also pension funds, get next to nothing.
For every such bankruptcy it seems likely that previously underlying assets are tucked away offshore. Consequently, the Icelandic tycoons who profited from the binge-borrowing are, almost without exception, so far doing alright in spite of spectacular bankruptcies in companies previously owned by them.
Separating debt and assets was not unique to Icelandic tycoons. London remains one of the biggest offshore centres in the world with a large number of offshore specialists. The Irish media are following the gigantic asset struggle as Irish tycoons like Sean Quinn, Patrick McKillen and Derek Quinlan are fighting not to pay their debt to the public bodies that now hold debt from Irish banks, recapitalised by the state.
In all debt-ridden Euro-countries the crisis has exposed reckless – and often corrupt – lending that has enriched favoured clients who continue to profit. Lending fuelled by cheap money, made more reckless by securitisation as lenders did not need to fear the consequences of unsustainable lending.
The sovereign curse of the cheap
During the boom time of cheap money sovereigns like the UK were tempted to fiscal frivolity. Instead of cutting down borrowing, debts expanded. Even in frugal countries like Germany sovereign debt shot up. Cheap money meant there was little pressure on governments to think of necessary but difficult and complicated structural reform, such as labour market reform or competition.
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria sums up the effect of cheap credit in the US:
In poll after poll, Americans have voiced their preferences: they want low taxes and lots of government services. Magic is required to satisfy both demands simultaneously, and it turned out magic was available, in the form of cheap credit. The federal government borrowed heavily, and so did all other governments — state, local, and municipal — and the American people themselves. Household debt rose from $665 billion in 1974 to $13 trillion today. Over that period, consumption, fueled by cheap credit, went up and stayed up.
Pricing risk is now a much-discussed topic in finance. Under-priced risk in lending to countries like Greece is a case in point. Lending will always be seen as less risky in times of low interest rates – and with chronic low interest the risk assessment can be unhealthily affected.
The financial sector thrived and expanded with low interest rates and soft regulation. So much so that it became more powerful than the state bodies set to guard it. Certain financial institutions became too big to fail. Instead of punishing creditors it was mainly taxpayers in developed countries like the US and Europe who shouldered the losses of the financial sector. Debt from the private sector migrated effortlessly to the public sector. Now, the link between profit and risk was broken and those who pocketed profits no longer shouldered much risk.
There is no change in sight. In the present crisis-doomed atmosphere there are – for obvious reasons – few calls for higher interest rates. Yet, in Japan low interest rates have not solved the problem. All the money printed to sustain the low interest rates should have fuelled inflation but for some reason it has not happened. Maybe we are just postponing another even greater disaster with our low interest rates.
I am not arguing low interest rates is the only root to the troubles in the financial sector, that would be overly simplistic. But cheap money should be considered a contributing factor in the present financial misère and its curse takes on many forms.
Yes, we need proper structures to rein in the financial sector – splitting apart retail banking and investment banking, firm regulation and supervision, the next set of Basel rules etc – but all these measures with fancy names must do one simple thing: to prevent bankers from administering money as if were worthless.
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Sounds like a crazy idea? Kaupthing, advised by Deutsche Bank, organised trades in 2008 to lower its own CDS. Deutsche co-invested in the scheme.
JP Morgan’s trader Bruno Iksil is the latest banker to gain unwanted fame for trading astronomical sums. He’s now even famous enough to have nicknames – the London Whale or Voldemort, after the Harry Potter villain. Iksil seems to have been betting investing in corporate CDS, ie Markit CDX IG (Investment Grade) 9 credit index, an index of investment grade corporate CDS, based on 121 (previously 125) big US corporations, financial and others.
Iksil works in the bank’s chief investment office, which manages and hedges “the firm’s foreign-exchange, interestrate and other structural risks,” according to the bank’s spokesman, focusing on long-term “structural assets and liabilities.” Iksil has placed such hefty bets, guessed to have reached $100bn, that he seems to be moving the index and that’s been irritating some hedge funds that are affected.
Trading in that index surged 61 percent the past three months, according to data from Depository Trust & Clearing Corp.
The net amount of wagers on the index, which is tied to the creditworthiness of companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and now-junk-rated bond insurer MBIA Insurance Corp., soared to almost $145 billion at the end of March from $90 billion three months earlier, according to DTCC, which runs a central registry for credit-default swaps and reports weekly aggregate volumes.
Perhaps the hedgies have been muttering to Bloomberg, first out with the story April 5, just because Iksil is affecting their positions. More pondering, info and graphs re Iksil’s trades on the wonderfully informative FT Alphaville. And there is speculation if this type of trades will become part of financial history when the Volcker rules come to rule, in July.
Iksil seems to be doing all of this not as a rogue trader but with the blessing from JP Morgan’s commanding heights. Maybe this is a clever long-time hedge. Perhaps perhaps… At least, the management doesn’t seem to mind Iksil risking/investing $100bn moving the market.
But what market are JP Morgan’s commanding heights glad he is moving? Just the index? Or might it be JP Morgan’s own CDS? Perhaps this is a completely freakish development but JP Morgan’s CDS was painfully high at the end of last year, almost as high as in autumn 2008, when all financial CDS shot up:
The most recent peaks, indicated by the arrows, are Oct. 4 and Nov. 25 2011.
From the beginning of this year the JP Morgan CDS has been steadily falling, as the graph shows. Interestingly, it has fallen in the last three months, when the trades in the CDS index has surged, apparently due to Iksil’s diligence. As pointed out earlier: possible just a freak development. Other forces than Voldemort’s might certainly be at large.
But can anyone be so hubristic/daring/foolhardy/foolish to manually influence its own CDS? Well, the know-how to influence one’s own CDS has been out there for a while. In the summer of 2008 Kaupthing was suffering from murderously high CDS – the management felt it was all horribly unjust since the bank was, according to the key figures, doing incredibly well.
Kaupthing seems to have aired their concerns with Deutsche Bank, which came up with a brilliant solution: companies should be created to buy CDS on Kaupthing. Deutshce seems to have thought it was a brilliantly viable plan – it even invested in it. Kaupthing implemented the idea – not via its prop trading, a la JP Morgan, but by getting favoured clients (some of whom the bank was lending heavily to invest in Kaupthing shares so as to keep the share price from crashing) to lend their names as owners of companies, which Kaupthing and Deutshce lent into – and then these companies did the trades. Did it help? Well, for whatever reason Kaupthing’s CDS did move… downwards.*
The interesting tail to both to the Kaupthing and Iksil trades would be to know who is on the other end. In Kaupthing’s case we don’t know but whoever it was did very very well.
Kaupthing did meet its end in October 2008 – bankrupt, as happens when the wrong decisions are taken over some time. JP Morgan can happily bet in whatever crazy way. Its management has tried and tested the ground – so far, a bank like JP Morgan won’t have to face the results of bad/insane decisions and hubris. Will banks be able to bank on that forever?
*Deutsche’s plan is outlined in the SIC report, chapter 18.104.22.168 (only in Icelandic).: Deutsche put up a loan of €125m and harvested handsomely: it got a fee of €5m for the package. In June 2010 Reuters reported that the Serious Fraud Office was investigating this scheme but nothing has been heard of it since. More here from Icelog on the scheme and those involved in it, ia Kevin Stanford and Karen Millen.
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Serious Fraud Office seems to have committed a major blunder in the handling of documents when Vincent Tchenguiz, together with his brother Robert, was arrested in March last year, together with Sigurdur Einarsson, ex-chairman of Kaupthing’s board and six others. The arrest was connected to an SFO investigation into the relationship between the Tchenguiz brothers and Kaupthing. According to the FT, a High Court judge has scolded the SFO for “sheer incompetence:” the SFO admits is has “no clear record” of the information it used to obtain search warrant. True, it seems pretty gross that the SFO can’t document the information used to obtain the search warrant – but this dispute doesn’t touch the substance of the charges, only the way SFO documented their case for making the arrests. And it seems only to relate to the warrant on Vincent Tchenguiz, not the others.
It is clear from the SIC report that Robert Tchenguiz was both Kaupthing’s largest borrower, with his loans of €2bn, and had stakes in the bank’s largest shareholder, Exista. He was on the board of Exista, whose founders and owners were Lydur and Agust Gudmundsson. This relationship – being a major shareholder and the largest borrower or among the largest borrowers – is the normal one in the most abnormal loans issued by the Icelandic banks: loans that ia broke the banks’ rules on legal limits exposure, had no or worthless collaterals, weren’t subjected to margin calls or paid by issuing new loans etc.
Vincent’s relationship to Kaupthing was far less extensive. He had a loan of €208m, which he seems to have taken/been offered as he put up an extra collateral for his brother. In court documents related to Vincent’s legal wrangle with Kaupthing over this collateral – a whole saga in itself, ended late last year with an agreement between Kaupthing and Tchenguiz’ entities – it’s clear that Vincent was of the understanding that Kaupthing wouldn’t claim the collateral.
Further, Vincent Tchenguiz also claims that Kaupthing knew the collateral couldn’t be claimed because of cross-default triggered if the assets changed hands. The value of an unenforceable collateral raises some intriguing questions, ia for the bank’s auditors since such a loan seems to be worth not much. Now, this is only Vincent’s side of the story. The Kaupthing managers haven’t told their story of this loan – nor of any of the loans, so abnormally favourable to the clients and abnormally unfavourable for the bank.
It seems pretty clear that the Kaupthing loans – as is true for the loans of Landsbanki and Glitnir to favoured clients – are far from normal. The question is why the banks decided these loans were a good idea for the bank. The Tchenguiz brothers have claimed that Kaupthing duped them into investing in the bank, that they didn’t know the bank was running a scheme, which could be seen as a market manipulation.
All these favoured clients, including the Tchenguiz brothers, are experienced businessmen. Same with Kevin Stanford, mentioned on an earlier Icelog: experienced business men must have known that the loans they were offered weren’t quite the run-of-the-mill loans any bank would offer. They would also know that borrowing from a bank doesn’t necessarily mean that the bank, as a side offer, peddles a loan to buy some of the bank’s shares. It’s normally not necessary to be a shareholder in order to borrow from a bank. Claiming to be a victim of Kaupthing managers’ duplicity makes these victims seem more than ordinarily naive.
Some of the favoured clients of the Icelandic banks have claimed that the offers were too good to refuse. The SFO seems to be investigating what the real relationship was between Kaupthing and the Tchenguiz brothers. If the SFO suspicions are valid it is unfortunate that they could possibly hinge on technical issues. Remains to be seen.
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Today, the Office of the Special Prosecutor conducted house searches at several premises in Iceland, related to an investigation into Landsbanki. Seven people, among them the bank’s ex-CEO Sigurjon Arnason, are being questioned but it’s unclear if anyone will be held in custody.
According to Icelandic media today, the searches are related to four topics:
1. Alleged market manipulation related to shares in Landsbanki.
2. Loans to four companies Hunslow S.A., Bruce Assets Limited, Pro-Invest Partners Corp and Sigurdur Bollason ehf. to buy shares in Landsbanki.
3. Landsbanki Luxembourg’s sale of loans to Landsbanki only a few days before the bank collapsed in Oct. 2008.
4. The buying of shares by eight offshore companies that supposedly were set up to hold shares related to employees’ options.
Sigurdur Bollason is an Icelandic businessman, often connected to Baugur companies and a friend and associate of Magnus Armann, another Baugur associate. According to my sources Bollason, who imported UK high street fashion to Iceland over a decade ago, met Kevin Stanford, through business with Karen Millen, then Stanford’s wife. That’s how Stanford became connected to Icelandic banks and businesses, first with Baugur, where he was often a co-investor, and later with Kaupthing where he was involved in the financial high-wire acts that Kaupthing engaged in.
Hunslow S.A. was registered in Panama in Feb. 2008. In November 2009 two Novator companies (Novator is the investment fund of Bjorgolfur Thor Bjorgolfsson who was a major shareholder in Landsbanki and Straumur investment bank together with his father) were registered in Panama with the same law firm as Hunslow. The same five directors are on the board of the two Novator companies and Hunslow but there are probably hundreds of companies registered at this one law firm. I have no information on Bruce and Pro-Invest.
The loans moved from Landsbanki Luxembourg to Landsbanki Iceland on Oct. 3 2008 amounted to €784m. By far the largest loan had been assigned to Bjorgolfsson, €225m. (The complete list of the loans is here, from the SIC report, ‘Tafla 20’) but the four companies mentioned above are also on the list.
I find it interesting that the OSP is investigating the offshore companies that Landsbanki set up to own shares in itself. The first of these companies was set up in Guernsey in 2000, before the privatisation of Landsbanki in 2002 but later seven more were set up in the BVI and in Panama. To begin with, the bank financed these companies but later one was financed by Kaupthing and six by Straumur, from 2006 when Bjorgolfsson and his father were major owners in Straumur. Bjorgolfsson was Straumur’s chairman.
In total, these companies owned 13,2% of the shares in Landsbanki. Normally, similar structures holding shares for staff option usually don’t own more than 1-2%. The SIC report maps these companies but the weird thing is that although they were apparently set up to hold shares for options they don’t seem to have been used for that purpose. The ownership in each company was held below 5%.
With the bank owning 13,2% via these companies (above the 10% legal limit of own shares) and father and son owning around 45,8% of the bank the majority was assured. Another interesting aspect of these companies is that Straumur lent them against no collaterals. This isn’t the only example of the very close relationship between the two banks where father and son were the major shareholders. Neither of the two are being questioned today.
*Last October I reported on these offshore companies for Ruv. Bjorgolfsson was very upset, according to his spokeswoman, about my reporting and did eventually file a complaint to the Icelandic Press Complaints Commission. The PCC has dismissed the complaint. Here is a story about his spokeswoman when she wasn’t happy about Iceland Weather Report reporting on Bjorgolfsson.
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The Glitnir winding-up committee has obtained an international freezing order of Jon Asgeir Johannesson through a court in London. It means that Johannesson doesn’t have any access to any of his assets. Among them is the flat in New York, bought with a loan from Landsbanki. The rumour goes that Landsbanki didn’t ask for any collaterals against that loan. The price was $25m at the time. It seems that the flat, at 50 Gramercy Park, has been put twice on the market but hasn’t sold so far. Icelog has earlier mentioned the flat and Johannesson’s ownership.
Johannesson rose to fame in the UK business community through drastic buying into high street retailers such as House of Fraser and a long line of famous fashion shops such as Karen Millen, bundled together in his Mosaic Fashion, all under the ownership of his private equity company Baugur. There is a growing sense that at the core Johannesson’s operations there was extensive fraud.
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