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OSP brings charges in the al-Thani case (updated)

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The Office of the Special Prosecutor in Iceland has now brought charges in the so-called al-Thani case. In September 2008 Kaupthing announced that a Qatar investor, Mohamed bin Khalifa al-Thani, had bought just over 5% of share in Kaupthing. It later turned out that al-Thani wasn’t risking his own money but Kaupthing’s fund: the bank lent him money to buy the shares. A familiar pattern but this was an important statement because it made the bank seem like a good investment. The interesting thing is that according to documents from Kaupthing Deutsche Bank was involved in the al-Thani investment scheme.

Those charged now are the bank’s CEO Hreidar Mar Sigurdsson, Chairman Sigurdur Einarsson, Kaupthing Luxembourg manager Magnus Gudmundsson and the second largest shareholder in Kaupthing Olafur Olafsson. They are all charged with market manipulation. Sigurdsson and Einarsson are seen as the organisers and are in addition charged with breach of fiduciary duty. Olafsson and Gudmundsson are charged for participation in this breach and Olafsson is in addition charged for money laundering.

The charges are not public yet. Those four now charged are all living abroad. Olafsson has sent out a statement denying the charges. Sigurdsson says he is disappointed and holds on to the official story from September 2008: the sale was genuine and the sheikh did indeed risk his money.

*A blog on the al-Thani case will be coming here soon. Here are earlier blogs referring to the al-Thani case. – The OSP writ can be read here, only in Icelandic.

 

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

February 22nd, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Posted in Iceland

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

Posted in Uncategorised

Will special counsel Mueller surprise with Icelandic Russia-related stories?

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The Russian Icelandic connections keep stimulating the fantasy. In a recent Bloomberg article Timothy L. O’Brien calls on special counsel Robert Mueller to “check out Iceland.” The facts are indeed elusive but Mueller and his team should be in an ace position to discover whatever there is to discover, via FL Group. If there is no story untold re Russia and Iceland, the unwillingness of the British government to challenge Russian interests is another intriguing Russia-related topic to explore.

“Iceland, Russia and Bayrock – some facts, less fiction” was my recent contribution to the fast growing compendium of articles on potential or alleged connections between nefarious Russian forces and Iceland. The recent Bloomberg article by Timothy L. O’Brien adds nothing new to the topic in terms of tangible facts.

The Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky was one of those who early on aired the potential connection. Already in 2009, in a Sky interview that O’Brien mentions, Berezovsky made sweeping comments but gave no concrete evidence, as can be heard here in the seven minutes long interview.

What however Berezovsky says regarding London, the dirty money pouring into London is correct. That flow has been going on for a long time and will no doubt continue: it doesn’t seem to matter who is in power in Britain, the door to Russian money and dirty inflow in general is always open, serviced by the big banks and the enablers, such as accountants and lawyers, operating in London.

What Berezovsky really said

Asked how Putin and the oligarchs operated, Berezovsky said they bought assets all over the world but also took on a lot of debt. “They took a lot of credit from the banks and so they were not able to pay that back. And the best example is definitely Iceland. And you remember when lets say three months ago Russian government declared that they would help Iceland. And Russia is so strong that they’re able to help even a member of Nato. And their trick is very simple because Russian let’s say top level bureaucrats like Putin, like others and oligarchs together they created system how to operate on the West. How to use this fantastic money to buy assets and so and so. They found this very clever solution. They took a country and bought the country, which is member of Nato, which is not a member of EU. It means that regulation is different. They put a lot of money, dirty money in general, yeah.

When asked further if Russians were buying high-end property in London with dirty money Berezovsky said this was indeed the case, all done to gain power: “The example which I gave you. As far as Iceland is concerned just confirmed realistically that Putin and his cronies made absolutely dirty money and tried to invest their money all over the world including Britain.”

This is very much Berezovsky but hardly a clear exposé. Exactly what the connection was, through the banks or the country as a whole isn’t clear. Sadly, Berezovsky died in 2013, under what some see as mysterious circumstances, others consider it a suicide. Incidentally, Berezovsky’s death is one of fourteen deaths in the UK involving Russians, enablers to Russian oligarchs or others with some Russian ties, recently investigated in four articles by Buzzfeed.

The funding of the Icelandic banks – yet again

In his Bloomberg article O’Brien visits the topic of the funding of the Icelandic banks. As I mentioned in my previous Russia blog, the rumours regarding the Russian Icelandic connections and the funding of the Icelandic banks were put to rest with the report of the Special Investigative Commission, SIC. The report analysed the funding the banks sought on international markets, from big banks that then turned into creditors when the banks failed.

O’Brien’s quotes Eva Joly the French investigative judge, now an MEP, who advised Icelandic authorities when they were taking the first steps towards investigating the operations of the then failed banks. Joly says that the Russian question should be asked. “There was a huge amount of money that came into these banks that wasn’t entirely explained by central bank lending,” Joly is quoted as saying, adding “Only Mafia-like groups fill a gap like that.”

I’m not sure where the misunderstanding crept in but of course the Icelandic central bank was not funding the Icelandic banks. As the SIC report clearly showed, the Icelandic banks, as most other banks, sought and found easy funding by issuing bonds abroad at the time when markets were flooded by cheap money. Prosecutor Ólafur Hauksson, who has been in charge of the nine-year banking investigations in Iceland, says to O’Brien that he and his team have not seen any evidence of money laundering but adds that the Icelandic investigations have not focused on international money flows via the banks.

As I pointed out in my earlier Russia blog, the Jody Kriss evidence, from court documents in his proceedings against Bayrock, the company connected to president Donald Trump, is again inconclusive. Something that Kriss himself points out; Kriss is quoting rumours and has nothing more to add to them.

Why and how would money have been laundered through Icelandic banks?

The main purpose of money laundering is to provide illicit money with licit origin. Money laundering in big banks like HSBC, Deutsche Bank and Wachovia is well documented and in general, patterns of money laundering are well established. The Russian Icelandic story will not be any better by repeating the scanty indications. We could turn the story around and ask: if the banks were really used by Russians or any other organized crime how would they have done it?

One pattern is so-called back-to-back loans, i.e. illicit money is deposited in a bank (which then ignores “know your customer” regulation) but taken out as a loan issued by that bank. That gives these funds a legitimate origin; they are now a loan. As far as I understand, there are no sign of this pattern in any of the Icelandic banks.

When Wachovia laundered money for Mexican drug lords cash was deposited with forex exchanges, doing business with Wachovia. The bank brought the funds to Wachovia branches in the US, either via wire transfers, travellers’ cheques or as part of the bank’s cash-moving operations. When the funds were then made available to the drug lords again in Mexico, it seemed as if the money was coming from the US, enough to give the illegitimate funds a legitimate sheen. Nothing like these operations was part of what the Icelandic banks were doing.

Money laundering outside the banks?

There might of course have been other ways of laundering money but again the question is from where to where. As I mentioned in my Russia blog, FL Group, the company connected to the Bayrock story, was short-lived but attracted and lost a spectacular amount of money. As did other Icelandic companies, which have since failed: there could be potential patterns of money laundering there though again there are no Russians in sight (except for Bayrock) – or simply examples of disastrously bad management.

Russians, or anyone else, certainly would not need Icelandic banks to move funds for example into the UK – the big banks were willing to and able to do it, as can be seen from the oligarchs and others with shady funds buying property in London. It was eye-opening to join one of the London tours organised by Kleptocracy Tours and see the various spectacular properties owned by Russian oligarchs here in London.

The Magnitsky Act was introduced in the US in 2012 but is only finding its way into UK law this year in the Criminal Finances Bill, meant to enable asset freezing and denying visa to foreign officials known to be corrupt and having violated human rights.

The Icelandic banks – the most investigated banks

There were indeed real connections to Russians in the Icelandic banks as I listed in my previous Russia blog. In addition, Kaupthing financed the super yacht Serene for Yuri Shefler with a loan of €79.5m according to a leaked overview of Kauthing lending, from September 2008. These customers were among Kaupthing non-Russian high-flying London customers, mostly clients in Kaupthing Luxembourg, such as Alshair Fiyaz, Simon Halabi, Mike Ashley and Robert and Vincent Tchenguiz.

None of the tangible evidence corroborates the story of the Icelandic banks being some gigantic Russian money laundering machine. That said, I have heard from investigators who claim they are about to unearth more material.

In the meantime we should not forget that Iceland has diligently been prosecuting bankers for financial assistance, breach of fiduciary duty and market manipulation – almost thirty bankers and others close to the banks have been sentenced to prison. Now that 2008 investigations are drawing to a close in Iceland, four Barclays bankers are facing charges in London, the first SFO case related to events in 2008, in a case very similar to one of the Icelandic cases, as I have pointed out earlier.

Exactly because the Icelandic banks have been so thoroughly investigated and so much is known about them, their clients etc., it is difficult to imagine there are humongous stories there waiting to be told. But perhaps Robert Mueller and his team will surprise us.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

July 5th, 2017 at 10:49 am

Posted in Uncategorised

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Barclays and Kaupthing charges – basically the same

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Viewing the Barclays side deals via the Kaupthing case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we don’t know regarding the Barclays side deals

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

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

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

The whiff of Qatari investors and how it touches Deutsche Bank

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

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

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

Companies don’t commit crimes – people do

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

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

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

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

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

The BBC is not amused… at SFO charges

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

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

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

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

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

Is the alleged Barclays fraud a “victimless crime”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Barclays battles to come

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

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

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

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

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 26th, 2017 at 9:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

The ‘puffin plot’ – a saga of international bankers and Icelandic greed

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In a formal signing ceremony 16 January 2003 a group of Icelandic investors and the German bank Hauck & Aufhäuser purchased shares in a publicly-owned Icelandic bank. Paul Gatti represented the German bank, proudly airing the intension of being a long-term owner together with the Icelandic businessman Ólafur Ólafsson. What neither Gatti nor Ólafsson mentioned was that earlier that same day, at a meeting abroad, their representatives had signed a secret contract guaranteeing that the Icelandic bank Kaupthing, called ‘puffin’ in their emails, would finance the H&A purchase in Búnaðarbanki. A large share of the profit, 57,5 million USD, would accrue to Ólafsson via an offshore company, whereas 46,5 million USD was transferred to the offshore company Dekhill Advisors Limited, whose real owners remain unknown. Thus, Ólafsson and the H&A bankers fooled Icelandic authorities with the diligent help of advisors from Société General. – This 14 year old saga has surfaced now thanks to the Panama Papers. What emerges is a story of deception similar to the famous al Thani story, which incidentally sent Ólafsson and some of the Kaupthing managers involved in the ‘puffin plot’ to prison in 2015. Ólafsson is however still a wealthy businessman in Iceland.

The privatisation of the banking sector in Iceland started in 1998. By 2002 when the government announced it was ready to sell 45.8% in Búnaðarbanki, the agrarian bank, it announced that foreign investors would be a plus. When Ólafur Ólafsson, already a well-known businessman, had gathered a group of Icelandic investors, he informed the authorities that his group would include the a foreign investor.

At first, it seemed the French bank Société General would be a co-investor but that changed last minute. Instead of the large French bank came a small German bank no one had heard of, Hauck & Aufhäuser, represented by Peter Gatti, then a managing partner at H&A. But the ink of the purchase agreement had hardly dried when it was rumoured that H&A was only a front for Ólafsson.

Thirteen years later, a report by Reykjavík District judge Kjartan Björgvinsson, published in Iceland this week, confirms the rumours but the deception ran much deeper: through hidden agreements Ólafsson got his share in Búnaðarbanki more or less paid for by Kaupthing. Together with Kaupthing managers, two Société General advisers, an offshore expert in Luxembourg, Gatti and H&A legal adviser Martin Zeil, later a prominent FDP politician in Bayern, Ólafsson spun a web of lies and deceit. A few months after H&A pretended to buy into Búnaðarbanki the hidden agreements made an even greater sense when tiny Kaupthing bought the much larger Búnaðarbanki. Until Kaupthing collapsed in 2008 Ólafsson was Kaupthing’s second largest shareholder and, it can be argued, Kaupthing’s hidden mastermind.

The H&A deceit turned out to be only an exercise for a much more spectacular market manipulation. In the feverish atmosphere of September 2008, Ólafsson, following a similar pattern as in 2003, got a Qatari sheikh to borrow money from Kaupthing and pretend he bought 5.1% in Kaupthing as a proof of Kaupthing’s strength. Ólafsson was charged with market manipulation in 2015 and sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison, together with Kaupthing managers Sigurður Einarsson, Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson and Magnús Guðmundsson, all partners in Ólafsson’s H&A deceit.

Preparing the ‘puffin plot’

Two SocGen bankers, Michael Sautter and Ralf Darpe, worked closely with Ólafsson from autumn 2002 to prepare buying the 45.8% of Búnaðarbanki the Icelandic government intended to sell. Ólafsson gave the impression that SocGen would be the foreign co-investor with his holding company, Egla. Sautter, who had worked on bank privatisation in Israel and Greece, said in an interview with the Icelandic Morgunblaðið in September 2002 that strong core investors were better than a spread ownership, which was being discussed prior to the privatisation. In hindsight it’s easy to guess that the appearances of Ólafsson’s advisers were part of his orchestrated plot.

But something did not work out with SocGen: by mid December 2002 the bank withdrew from the joint venture with Ólafsson who asked for an extended deadline from the authorities to come up with new foreign co-investors. The SocGen bankers now offered to assist in finding a foreign investor and that’s how Ólafsson got introduced to H&A, Peter Gatti and Martin Zeil.

The privately held H&A came into being in 1998 when two private Frankfurt banks merged: 70% was owned by wealthy individuals, the rest held by BayernLB and two insurance companies.

Until last moment Ólafsson withheld who the foreign investor would be but assuring the authorities there would be one. And lo and behold, Peter Gatti showed up at the signing ceremony 16 January 2003, held in the afternoon in an old and elegant building in Reykjavík, formerly a public library. H&A bought the shares in Búnaðarbanki through Egla, Ólafsson’s holding company, which also meant that Ólafsson was in full control of the Búnaðarbanki shares.

At the ceremony in Reykjavík Gatti played the part of an enthusiastic investor, promising to bring contacts and knowledge to the Icelandic banking sector. To the media Ólafsson in his calmly assuring way praised the German bank, which would be valuable to Búnaðarbanki and Icelandic banking. “We chose the German bank,” he stated, “because they were the best for Búnaðarbanki and for our endeavours.”

The particular benefit for Búnaðarbanki never materialised but the arrangement certainly turned out to be extremely lucrative for Ólafsson and others involved. However, it wasn’t the agreement signed in Reykjavík but another one signed some hours earlier, far from Reykjavík, that did the trick.

The hidden agreements at the heart of the ‘puffin plot’

The other agreement, in two parts, signed far away from Reykjavík told a very different story than the show put on at the old library in Reykjavík.

That agreement came into being following hectic preparation by Guðmundur Hjaltason, who worked for Ólafsson, Sautter and Darpe, Gatti and Zeil, an offshore expert in Luxembourg Karim van den Ende and a group of Kaupthing bankers. The Kaupthing bankers were Sigurður Einarsson, Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson, Steingrímur Kárason, Bjarki Diego and Magnús Guðmundsson who have all been convicted of various fraud and sentenced to prison, and two others, Kristín Pétursdóttir, now an investor in Reykjavík and Eggert Hilmarsson, Kaupthing’s trusted lawyer in Luxembourg. Karim Van den Ende is a well known name in Iceland from his part in various dubious Kaupthing deals through his Luxembourg firm, KV Associates.

The drafts had been flying back and forth by email between the members this group. Three days before the signing ceremony Zeil was rather worried, as can be seen from an email published in the new report. One of his questions was:

Will or can Hauck & Aufhäuser be forced by Icelandic law to declare if it acts on its own behalf or as trustee or agent of a third party?

Zeil’s email, where he also asked for an independent legal opinion, caused a flurry of emails between the Kaupthing staff. Bjarki Diego concluded it would on the whole be best that “as few as possible would know about this.”

But how was the H&A investment presented at the H&A? According to Helmut Landwehr, a managing partner and board member at H&A at the time of the scam, who gave a statement to the Icelandic investigators the bank was never an investor in Iceland; H&A only held the shares for a client. Had there been an investment it would have needed to be approved by the H&A board. – This raises the question if Gatti said one thing in Iceland and another to his H&A colleagues, except of course for Zeil who operated with Gatti.

The offshored profits

The hidden agreement rested on offshore companies provided by van den Ende. Kaupthing set up an offshore company, Welling & Partners, that placed $35.5m, H&A’s part in the Búnaðarbanki share purchase, on an account with H&A, which then paid this sum to Icelandic authorities as a payment for its Búnaðarbanki purchase. In other words, H&A didn’t actually itself finance its purchase in the Icelandic bank; it was a front for Ólafsson. H&A was paid €1m for the service.

Then comes the really clever bit: H&A promised it would not sell to anyone but Welling & Partners – and it would sell its share at an agreed time for the same amount it had paid for it, $35.5m. When that time came, in 2005, the H&A share in Búnaðarbanki was worth quite a bit more, $104m to be precise.

Kaupthing then quietly bought the shares so as to release the profit – and here comes another interesting twist: this profit of over $100m went to two offshore companies: $57.5m to Marine Choice, owned by Ólafsson and $46.5m to a company called Dekhill Partners. Kaupthing then invested Ólafsson’s profit in various international companies.

In the new report the investigator points out that the owners of Dekhill Partners are nowhere named but strong indications point to Lýður and Ágúst Guðmundsson, Kaupthing’s largest shareholders who still own businesses in the UK and Iceland.

At some point in the process, which took around two years, the loans to Welling & Partners were not paid directly into Welling but channelled via other offshore companies. This is a common feature in the questionable deals in Icelandic banks, most likely done to hide from auditors and regulators big loans to companies with little or no assets to pledge.

Who profited from the ‘puffin plot’?

Ólafsson is born in 1957, holds a business degree from the University of Iceland and started early in business, first related to state-owned companies, most likely through family relations: his father was close to the Progressive party, the traditional agrarian party, and the coop movement. Ólafsson is known to have close ties to the Progressives and thought to be the party’s major sponsor, though mostly a hidden one.

Ólafsson was also close to Kaupthing from early on and was soon the bank’s second largest shareholder. The largest was Exista, owned by the Guðmundsson brothers.

There are other deals where Ólafsson has operated with foreigners who appeared as independent investors but at a closer scrutiny were only a front for Ólafsson and Kaupthing’s interests. The case that felled Ólafsson was the al Thani case: Mohammed Bin Khalifa al Thani announced in September 2008 a purchase of 5.1% in Kaupthing. The 0.1% over the 5% was important because it meant the purchase had to be flagged, made visible. To the Icelandic media Ólafsson announced the al Thani investment showed the great position and strength of Kaupthing.

In 2012, when the Special Prosecutor charged Sigurður Einarsson, Magnús Guðmundsson, Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson and Ólafsson for their part in the al Thani case it turned out that al Thani’s purchase was financed by Kaupthing and the lending fraudulent. Ólafsson was charged with market manipulation and sentenced in 2015 to 4 ½ years in prison. He had only been in prison for a brief period when laws were miraculously changed, shortening the period white-collar criminals need to spend in prison. Since his movements are restricted it drew some media attention when he crashed his helicopter (he escaped unharmed) shortly after leaving prison but he is electronically tagged and can’t leave the country until the prison sentence has passed.

The Guðmundsson brothers became closely connected to Kaupthing already in the late 1990s while Kaupthing was only a small private bank. Lýður, the younger brother was in 2014 sentenced to eight month in prison, five of which were suspended, for withholding information on trades in Exista, where he and his brother were the largest shareholders.

Both Ólafsson and the Guðmundsson brothers profited handsomely from their Kaupthing connections. Given Ólafsson’s role in the H&A alleged investment and later in the al Thani case it is safe to conclude that Ólafsson was a driving force in Kaupthing and could perhaps be called the bank’s mastermind.

In spite of being hit by Kaupthing’s collapse Ólafsson and the brothers are still fabulously wealthy with trophy assets in various countries. This may come as a surprise but a characteristic of the Icelandic way of banking was that loans to favoured clients had very light covenants and often insufficient pledges meaning the loans couldn’t be recovered, the underlying assets were protected from administrators and the banks would carry the losses. How much this applied to Ólafsson and Guðmundsson is hard to tell but yes, this was how the Icelandic banks treated certain clients like the banks’ largest shareholders and their close collaborators.

When Ólafsson was called to answer questions in the recent H&A investigation he refused to appear. After a legal challenge from the investigators and a Supreme Court ruling Ólafsson was obliged to show up. It turned out he didn’t remember very much.

Ólafsson engages a pr firm to take of his image. After the publication of the new report on the H&A purchase Ólafsson issued a statement. Far from addressing the issues at stake he said neither the state nor Icelanders had lost money on the purchase. Over the last months Ólafsson has waged a campaign against individual judges who dealt with his case, an unpleasant novelty in Iceland.

The Panama Papers added the bits needed to understand the H&A scam

In spite of Gatti’s presence at the signing ceremony in January 2003 the rumours continued, even more so as H&A was never very visible and then sold its share in Búnaðarbanki/Kaupthing. One person, Vilhjálmur Bjarnason, now an Independence party MP, did more than anyone to investigate the H&A purchase and keep the questions alive. Some years later, having scrutinised the H&A annual accounts he pointed out that the bank simply couldn’t have been the owner.

Much due to Bjarnason’s diligence the sale was twice investigated before 2010 by the Icelandic National Audit Office, which didn’t find anything suspicious. The investigation now has thoroughly confirmed Bjarnason’s doubts.

Both in earlier investigations and the recent H&A investigation Icelandic authorities have asked the German supervisors, Bundesanstalt für Finanzdienstleistungsaufschicht, BaFin, for information, a request that has never been granted. During the present investigation the investigators requested information on the H&A ownership in 2003. The BaFin answer was that it could only give that information to its Icelandic opposite number, the Icelandic FME. When FME made the request BaFin refused just the same – a shocking lack of German willingness to assist and hugely upsetting.

The BaFin seems to see its role more as a defender of German banking reputation than facilitating scrutiny of German banks.

The Icelandic Special Investigative Commission, SIC, set up in December 2008 to investigate the banking collapse did investigate the H&A purchase, exposed the role played by the offshore companies but could not identify the owners of the offshore companies involved and thus could not see who really profited.

The Panama leak last year exposed the beneficial owners of the offshore companies. That leak didn’t just oust the then Icelandic prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, incidentally a leader of the Progressive party at the time but also threw up names familiar to those who had looked at the H&A purchase earlier.

Last summer, the Parliament Ombudsman, Tryggvi Gunnarsson who was one of the three members of the SIC made public he had new information regarding the H&A purchase, which should be investigated. The Alþingi then appointed District judge Kjartan Björgvinsson to investigate the matter.

By combining data the SIC had at its disposal and Panama documents the investigators were able to piece together the story above. However, Dekhill Partners was not connected to Mossack Fonseca where the Panama Papers originated, which means that the name of the owners isn’t found black on white. However, circumstantial evidence points at the Gudmundsson brothers.

How relevant is this old saga of privatisation fourteen years ago?

The ‘puffin plot’ saga is still relevant because some of the protagonists are still influential in Iceland and more importantly there is another wave of bank privatisation coming in Iceland. The Icelandic state owns Íslandsbanki, 98.2% in Landsbanki and 13% in Arion.

Four foreign funds and banks – Attestor Capital, Taconic Capital, Och-Ziff and Goldman Sachs – recently bought shares in Arion, in total 29.18% of Arion. Kaupskil, the holding company replacing Kaupthing (holding the rest of Kaupthing assets, owned by Kaupthing creditors) now owns 57.9% in Arion and then there is the 13% owned by the Icelandic state.

The new owners in Arion hold their shares via offshore vehicles and now Icelanders feel they are again being taken for a ride by opaque offshorised companies with unclear ownership. In its latest Statement on Iceland the IMF warned of a weak financial regulators, FME, open to political pressure, particularly worrying with the coming privatisation in mind. The Fund also warned that investors like the new investors in Arion were not the ideal long-term owners.

The palpable fear in Iceland is that these new owners are a new front for Icelandic businessmen like H&A. Although that is, to my mind, a fanciful idea, it shows the level of distrust. Icelanders have however learnt there is a good reason to fear offshorised owners.

The task ahead in re-privatising the Icelandic banks won’t be easy. The H&A saga shows that foreign banks can’t necessarily be trusted to give sound advice. The new owners in Arion are not ideal. The thought of again seeing Icelandic businessmen buying sizeable chunks of the Icelandic banks is unsettling, also with Ólafsson’s scam with H&A in mind.

It’s no less worrying seeing Icelandic pension funds, that traditionally refrain from exerting shareholder power, joining forces with Icelandic businessmen who then fill the void left by the funds to exert power well beyond their own shareholding. Or or… it’s easy to imagine various versions of horror scenarios.

In short, the nightmare scenario would be a new version of the old banking system where owners like Ólafsson and their closest collaborators rose to become not only the largest shareholders but the largest borrowers with access to covenant-light non-recoverable loans. Out of the relatively small ‘puffin plot’ Ólafsson pocketed $57.5m. The numbers rose in the coming years and so did the level of opacity. Ólafsson is still one of the wealthiest Icelanders, owning a shipping company, large property portfolio as well as some of Iceland’s finest horses.

In 2008, five years after the banks were fully privatised the game was up for the Icelandic banks. The country was in a state of turmoil and it ended in tears for so many, for example the thousands of small investors who had put their savings into the shares of the banks; Kaupthing had close to 40.000 shareholders. It all ended in tears… except for the small group of large shareholders and other favoured clients that enjoyed the light-covenant loans, which sustained them, even beyond the demise of the banks that enriched them.

Obs.: the text has been updated with some corrections, i.a. the state share sold in 2003 was 45.8% and not 48.8% as stated earlier. 

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

March 30th, 2017 at 10:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

Has Iceland learnt anything from the 2008 banking crash?

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With its 2600 pages report into the banking collapse no nation has better study material to learn from than Iceland. However, with some recent sales in Landsbankinn and uncertainties regarding the sales of the new banks, Icelanders have good reasons to wonder what lessons have indeed been learnt from the 2008 banking collapse. If little or nothing has been learnt it’s worrying that two or three banks will soon be for sale in Iceland.

“During the election campaign I would have liked to hear the candidates form a clear and concise lessons from the 2008 banking collapse,” said one Icelandic voter to me recently. He’s right – there was little or no reference to the banking collapse during the election campaign in October.

The unwillingness to formulate lessons is worrying. So many who needed to learn lessons: bankers, lawyers, accountants, politicians and the media, in addition to every single Icelander.

Also, some recent events would not have happened had any lessons been learnt from this remarkable short time of fully privatised banking, from the beginning of 2003 to October 6 2008. There is a boom in Iceland, reminding many of the heady year 2007 but this time based inter alia tourism and not on casino banking. However, old lessons need to be remembered in order to navigate the good times.

Landsbankinn: six loss-making sales 2010-2016

Landsbankinn was taken over by the Icelandic state in 2011. The largest creditors, the deposit guarantee schemes in Britain and the Netherlands, were unwilling to be associated with the Landsbankinn estate, contrary to creditors in Kaupthing and Glitnir. Consequently, the Icelandic state came to own the new bank, Landsbankinn.

Over the years certain asset sales by Landsbankinn have attracted some attention but each and every time the bank has defended its action. In certain cases it has admitted mistakes but always with the refrain that now lessons have been learnt, time to move on.

Earlier this year, the Icelandic State Financial Investments (Bankasýsla), ISFI, published a report on one of these sales, the one causing the greatest concern – of Landsbanki’s share in a credit card issuer, Borgun. Landsbankinn had undervalued its Borgun share by billions of króna, creating a huge gain for the buyers.

Landsbankinn chose the buyers, nor bidding process etc., this was not a transparent sale. It so happens that some of the buyers happen to be closely related to Bjarni Benediktsson leader of the Independence party and minister of finance. No one is publicly accusing Benediktsson for having influenced the sale.

ISFI concluded that Landsbankinn should have known about the real value of the company and should only have sold via a transparent process, not by handpicking the buyers, some of whom are managers in Borgun. Part of the hidden value was Borgun’s share in Visa Europe, sold in November 2015 after the bank sold its Borgun share. Landsbankinn managers claim they were unaware of the potential windfall that could arise from such a sale.

Following the ISFI report the majority of the Landsbankinn board resigned but not the bank’s CEO, Steinþór Pálsson.

Landsbankinn’s close connections with the Icelandic Enterprise Investment Fund

Now in November the Icelandic National Audit Office, at the behest of the Parliament, investigated six sales by Landsbankinn, conducted in the years 2010 to 2016. It identified six sales, one of them being the Borgun sale, where it concluded that the state’s rules of ownership and asset sale had been broken as well as the bank’s own rules.

The report also points out that some of Landsbankinn’s own staff would have been aware of the potential windfall in Borgun. In a similar sale in another card issuer, Valitor, the sales agreement included a clause giving the bank share in similar gains after the sale.

Landsbankinn CEO Pálsson said he saw no reason to resign since lessons from these sales had already been learnt. However, nine days after the publication of this report Landsbankinn announced that Pálsson would step down with immediate effect.

Interestingly, four of the less-than-rigorous sales involved the Iceland Enterprise Investment Fund (Framtakssjóður), IEIF, set up in 2010 by several Icelandic pension funds. In the first questionable Landsbankinn sale, in 2011, the bank sold a portfolio of assets directly to the IEIF without seeking other buyers. The portfolio was later shown to have been sold at an unreasonably low price.

In relation to the sale Landsbankinn became the IEIF’s biggest owner. The Financial Surveillance Authority, FME, later stipulated that the bank could not hold a IEIF stake above 20%. In 2014 the bank then sold part of its share in the IEIF to the Fund itself, again at an unreasonably low price. In two sales, 2011 and 2014, Landsbankinn sold shares in Promens, producer of plastic containers for the fishing industry, again to the Fund.

As the Audit Office points out all the questionable sales have had two characteristics: a remarkably low price and Landsbankinn has not searched for the highest bidder but conducted a closed sale to a buyer chosen by the bank.

No one is accused of wrongdoing but it smacks of closed circuits of cosy relationships, a chronic disease in the Icelandic business community.

Landsbankinn and the blemished reputation

Landsbankinn claims it has in total sold around 6.000 assets via a transparent process. That may be true but the Audit Office report indicates that the bank chooses at times to be less than transparent, especially when it’s been dealing with the IEIF.

The bank’s management has time and again stated the importance of improving the bank’s reputation – after all, the 2008 collapse utterly bereft Icelandic banking of its reputation. This strife is the topic of statements and stipulations but so far, deeds have not followed words. The Audit Office concludes that inspite of its attempts the bank’s reputation has been blemished by the questionable sales.

How the banks were owned before the collapse

During the years of privatisation of the Icelandic banks, from 1998 to end of 2002, it quickly became clear that wealthy individuals were vying to be large shareholders in the banks. There was some talk of a spread ownership but in the end the thrust was towards having few individuals as main shareholders in the three banks.

Landsbankinn was bought by father and son, Björgólfur Guðmundsson and Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson who during the 1990s got wealthy in the Soviet Union. A fact that gave rise to articles in the magazine Euromoney in 2002, before the Landsbankinn deal was concluded.

Kaupthing’s largest owners were, intriguingly, businessmen who got wealthy through deals largely funded by Kaupthing. The largest shareholder, Exista, was owned by two brothers, Ágúst og Lýður Guðmundsson and the second largest was Ólafur Ólafsson. The brothers own one of Britain’s largest producers of chilled ready-made food, Bakkavör. Ágúst got a suspended sentence in a collapsed-related criminal case. Ólafsson, together with Kaupthing managers, was sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison in the so-called al Thani case.

Glitnir had a less clear-cut owner profile to begin with. The family of Bjarni Benediktsson were large shareholders in the bank (then called Íslandsbanki, as the new bank is now called) but as the SIC report recounts the Landsbankinn father and son had built up a large stake in the bank. The FME kept pestering the father and son about these shares, the authority claimed the two were not authorised to own, later sold to the Benediktsson’s family and others.

In spring of 2007 Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, who had insistently but unsuccessfully tried to buy a bank in 1998, gathered a group to buy around 40% in Glitnir. Involved were Baugur and FL Group, both owned or largely owned by Jóhannesson. One of his partners was Pálmi Haraldsson, a long-time co-investor with Jóhannesson. This graph (from the SIC report) shows Glitnir’s lending to Fons and other Haraldsson’s related companies: the cliff of debt rises after these businessmen bought Glitnir. It could also be called Icelandic banking in a nutshell:

screenshot-2016-12-09-16-17-37

Biggest shareholders = biggest borrowers

The graph above is Icelandic banking a nutshell. It characterises what the word “ownership” meant for the largest shareholders: they were also the banks’ largest borrowers, as well as borrowing in the other two banks. The shareholding of the largest groups in each of the banks was around and above 40% during most of the short run – the six years – of privatised banks.

Here some excerpts from the SIC report about the borrowing of the largest shareholders:

The largest owners of all the big banks had abnormally easy access to credit at the banks they owned, apparently in their capacity as owners. The examination conducted by the SIC of the largest exposures at Glitnir, Kaupthing Bank, Landsbankinn and Straumur-Burðarás revealed that in all of the banks, their principal owners were among the largest borrowers.

At Glitnir Bank hf. the largest borrowers were Baugur Group hf. and companies affiliated to Baugur. The accelerated pace of Glitnir’s growth in lending to this group just after mid-year 2007 is of particular interest. At that time, a new Board of Directors had been elected for Glitnir since parties affiliated with Baugur and FL Group had significantly increased their stake in the bank. When the bank collapsed, its outstanding loans to Baugur and affiliated companies amounted to over ISK 250 billion (a little less than EUR 2 billion). This amount was equal to 70% of the bank’s equity base.

The largest shareholder of Kaupthing Bank, Exista hf., was also the bank’s second largest debtor. The largest debtor was Robert Tchenguiz, a shareholder and board member of Exista. When the bank collapsed, Exista’s outstanding debt to Kaupthing Bank amounted to well over ISK 200 billion.

When Landsbankinn collapsed, Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson and companies affiliated to him were the bank’s largest debtors. Björgólfur Guðmundsson was the bank’s third largest debtor. In total, their obligations to the bank amounted to well over ISK 200 billion. This amount was higher than Landsbankinn Group’s equity.

Mr. Thor Björgólfsson was also the largest shareholder of Straumur-Burðarás and chairman of the Board of Directors of that bank. Mr. Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson and Mr. Björgólfur Guðmundsson were both, along with affiliated parties, among the largest debtors of the bank and together they constituted the bank’s largest group of borrowers.

The owners of the banks received substantial facilities through the banks’ subsidiaries that operated money market funds. An investigation into the investments of money market funds under the aegis of the management companies of the big banks revealed that the funds invested a great deal in securities connected to the owners of the banks. It is difficult to see how chance alone could have been the reason behind those investment decisions.

During a hearing, an owner of one of the banks (Björgólfur Guðmundsson), who also had been a board member of the bank, said he believed that the bank “had been very happy to have [him] as a borrower”. Generally speaking, bank employees are not in a good position to assess objectively whether the bank’s owner is a good borrower or not.

De facto, the Icelandic banks were “lenders of last resort” for their largest shareholders: when foreign banks called in their loans in 2007 and 2008 the Icelandic banks to a large extent bailed their largest shareholders out with massive loans.

Needless to say, systemically important banks in most European countries are owned by funds and investors, not few large shareholders who are also the banks’ most ardent borrowers. Icelandic banks will hopefully never return to this kind of lending again.

Separating investment banking and retail banking

As very clearly laid out in the SIC report the banks did not only turn their largest shareholders into their largest debtors but the banks’ own investments were usually heavily tied to the interests of their largest shareholders. Therefor, it’s staggering that now eight years after the collapse and three governments later a Bill separating investment banking and retail banking has not yet been passed in the Icelandic Parliament.

This means that most likely the new banks – Landsbankinn, Arion and Íslandsbanki – will be sold without any such limitation on their banking operations.

It is indeed difficult to see that there could be a market in Iceland for three banks. There is speculation that there will be foreign buyers but sadly, the history of foreign investment in Iceland is not a glorious one. Iceland is not an easy country to operate in as heavily biased as it is towards cosy relationships so as not to say cronyism.

Another way to attract foreign buyers is to offer shares for sale at foreign stock exchanges; Norway has been mentioned. Clearly a good option but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Judging from the short span of privatised banks in Iceland it’s also a worrying thought that the banks will again be owned by large shareholders, holding 30-50%.

The fact that state-owned Landsbankinn could over six years conduct six questionable sales with no consequence until much later, raises questions about lessons learnt. And the fact that this potentially simple risk-limiting exercise of splitting up investment and retail banking hasn’t yet been carried out by the Icelandic Parliament makes one again wonder about the lessons learnt. And yet, Iceland has the most thorough report in recent times in the world to learn from.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

December 9th, 2016 at 4:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

Kaupthing – prison sentences for market manipulation reach Greece

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On October 6 the Supreme Court in Iceland ruled in one of the largest collapse cases so car where nine Kaupthing managers were charged for market manipulation (see an earlier Icelog). As in a similar case against Landsbanki managers the Kaupthing bankers were found guilty. The Reykjavík District Court had already ruled in the Kaupthing market manipulation case in June 2015.

screenshot-2016-11-07-18-06-15

This is how Rúv presented the Supreme Court judgement in October. Kaupthing’s CEO Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson was sentenced to six months in prison, in addition to the 5 1/5 years in the so-called al Thani case where the bank’s executive chairman had received a four year sentence. The market manipulation case added a year to that case. Magnús Guðmundsson managing director of Kaupthing Luxembourg was found guilty but did not receive a further sentence, having been sentenced to 4 1/2 years in the al Thani case.

Other sentenced in October were Ingólfur Helgason managing director of Kaupthing Iceland, 4 1/2 years and Bjarki Diego head of lending 2 1/2 years. Four employees were found guilty: three of them got suspended sentences. The fourth, Björk Þórarinsdóttir was found guilty but not sentenced.

The investigations by the Office of the Special Prosecutor, now the District Prosecutor, have so far resulted in finding guilty around thirty bankers and others related to the banks. As I have often pointed out: the penal code in Iceland is mostly similar to the code in other neighbouring European countries but the difference was the will of the Prosecutor to investigate very complex cases, taking on a huge task undaunted. That’s the difference – no case was seen as being too complicated to investigate.

Last week, the following article was in one of the Greek papers. From the photos I can see that this article is about the above case. Something for the Greeks to ponder on: what’s done in Iceland, less in Greece.

14970995_10211151670176023_1946412493_o

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

November 7th, 2016 at 6:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

Where but in Iceland…

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Last year, Kaupthing’s second largest shareholder Ólafur Ólafsson was sentenced in February 2015 to 4 1/2 years in prison in the so-called al Thani case. After a change in the law on imprisonment shortened the time prisoners have to spend in prison under certain circumstances, Ólafsson was recently released to a half-way house in Reykjavík. He is now electronically tagged but can go to work – he is still one of the wealthiest men in Iceland and owns inter alia a large shipping company, Samskip.

Yesterday, a helicopter accident drew some attention to Ólafsson: it turned out he was on a sightseeing flight together with three foreign business partners and a pilot when the helicopter came down. All on board were injured but none of them suffered life-threatening injuries.

The helicopter, owned by Ólafsson and registered in Switzerland, according the Stundin, though a Danish and a Swiss company. Allegedly, the helicopter has been used a lot lately, allegedly twice turning off the device that allows the helicopter to be tracked.

According to Stundin a group of hikers saw a helicopter eight hours before the crash, flying in a dangerously daring way, close to the scene of the accident. It’s not been confirmed if the helicopter observed was the one owned by Ólafsson.

The accident has also drawn the attention of authorities to the fact that tagged prisoners can in theory travel abroad – it’s not banned – as long as they are back at 9pm. The reason foreign travel isn’t forbidden is only because it’s not until now that there have been prisoners wealthy enough to own their own planes. This will now be taken up.

The Icelandic magasine Séð og heart has now pointed at a weird coincidence. Ólafsson has a very close business partner, Hjörleifur Jakobsson, who like Ólafsson moved to Switzerland, has in general been closely involved in Ólafsson’s business ventures for decades and has often been called Ólafsson’s right hand in Icelandic media.

It turns out that as the Icelandic Prison Service is starved for funds it has outsourced the electronic tagging and the surveillance involved to a company called “Öryggismiðstöðin,” which is owned by no  other than Ólafsson’s right hand man, Jakobsson. The magasine is not alleging that Jakobson’s company is granting Ólafsson any favours, merely pointing out that such coincidences can happen in little Iceland.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

May 23rd, 2016 at 9:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

Does Iceland have a better legal code to deal with dodgy banking?

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“No” is the short answer. The Icelandic penal code on i.a. breach of fiduciary duty and market manipulation is similar to law in Western countries. The difference in Iceland was the swift awareness in autumn 2008 that there might be something worth investigating, later supported by setting up an Office of a Special Prosecutor, Special Investigating Commission and strengthening the financial supervision. Also, the Special Prosecutor quickly realised that behind the invariably complicated web of shell companies and transactions stories of fraud are in reality quite simple and follow the same patterns over and over again. This is why bankers and shareholders have been successfully prosecuted in Iceland – not because Iceland has better penal code.

“How come that Iceland is successfully prosecuting bankers, getting them sentenced to lengthy prison terms when no one else is doing it?” This is a question I keep being asked. The short answer is the one above but there is also a longer one.

Soon after Icelanders got used to the fact that the three large Icelandic banks had collapsed, in early October 2008, the country and the media was rife with rumours that something not entirely normal, not entirely legal, had been going on in the banks. Some tried to explain alleged irregularities by the unavoidable panic; that well, perhaps the bankers had in some cases overstepped the legal borderline, strayed into grey territories, as they fought to keep the banks as going concerns.

The Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, took two measures in December 2008 to clarify the collapse: it set up an investigative commission, The Special Investigative Commission, SIC, into the banking collapse – and it set up an Office of a Special Prosecutor, OSP.

The SIC already came across a number of cases it could not quite align with normal banking practices. These cases were outlined in its thorough report in April 2012 and it also presented its findings to the OSP. At the same time the financial supervisor, FME, was diligently reviewing the operations of the banks prior to the collapse. This meant that the OSP i.a. got input from these two institutions.

The Icelandic lesson from dealing with fraud related to the banks’ operations up to the banking collapse just proved the old saying: where there is a will there is a way.

A meagre and humble start

The beginnings of the OSP were not promising. First, no one applied for the job. Then a small-town sheriff was asked to apply and that is how Ólafur Hauksson, from Akranes across the bay from Reykjavík, got the job. This is a story often told before: Hauksson had never seen anything more serious than speed-driving, drunk driving, moonlighting, domestic violence, break-ins and drunken brawl, the average criminality in an Icelandic small town.

But Hauksson proved that give a person the occasion to shine and he/she very well might. He got funds to hire staff, three prosecutors were hired. Slowly slowly, the charges emerged. Slowly slowly, bankers started to pack to go on an unexpected trip, sent by the Supreme Court, to Snæfellsnes, the beautiful peninsula visible from Reykjavík, to an old farm, Kvíabryggja, a prison for non-violent prisoners.

Last year, following a system change, the OSP was moved into a bigger structure, the Office of County Prosecutor. This time, several people applied to lead the new institution. Hauksson was among the applicants and landed the job.

Digging out the simple truth from entangled webs of emails, shell companies and transactions

The main stories emerging from the collapse cases so far have revolved around market manipulation and breach of fiduciary duty. The real lesson here is the same as everywhere else: these cases look complicated, there are mountains of documents to read, often complicated web of shell companies and offshore companies, money floating around. Interestingly, phone tapping has been used successfully and there are also recordings from the old banks.

However, as in all such cases the underlying stories tend to be simple: the ways to commit a crime are not myriad. Think Enron: looks complicated, with all of the above – at the bottom, a simple story how losses were hidden from shareholders. Another entangled web is the Savings & Loan scandals in the US in the 1980s, nota bene where cases were really investigated and people sentenced to prison.

And these things do not happen by themselves. In every case it takes more than one to do all the necessary things. A prosecutor then decides whose deeds are grave enough to prosecute, who bears the responsibility etc.

Considering how little has been done i.a. in the UK to investigate the banks’ operations leading to the autumn 2008 banking collapse there and considering the screamingly obvious inactions by authorities in Luxembourg regarding banks – all the worst cases in Iceland have ties to the banks’ operations in Luxembourg – it is ironic that the OSP would have been a lot less successful were it not for a fruitful cooperation with these two countries. Authorities in both countries have carried out house searches and assisted in finding and identifying documents relevant for the OSP’s work. Yes, that is hugely ironic…

Market manipulation: burying shares like drug dealers with too much cash

Icelandic cases of market manipulation where bankers have been sentenced have mainly been carried out in two ways: through the banks’ own trading and by parking the banks’ shares into shell companies, invariably owned by clients with some particularly cosy ties to the banks and/or the banks’ shareholders.

Although Landsbanki and Kaupthing, Glitnir to a much lesser extent, were successfully running high interest rates internet accounts, to fund their operations (Landsbanki and the ill-fated Icesave), all three banks relied on selling bonds on international markets. This funding kept the banks going like mills with water. When funding dried up in summer 2007 it was clear that the banks would come to a grinding halt.

That is also what foreign banks sensed, quickly starting to call in loans and, with sinking asset prices, making margin calls on the big Icelandic businesses, i.e. the banks’ main shareholders and their closest partners. Since Icelandic bank shares were the collaterals in most of these loans (after all, the banks had lent the large shareholders money to buy their shares, another aspect that made Icelandic banks weak), it was clear that the markets would be flooded with Icelandic bank shares if the margin calls went through.

Faced with this the Icelandic banks decided to increase the lending to their largest clients – yes, all of them large and the largest shareholders in the banks – in order to prevent this flooding. The feeling when reading the court rulings in these cases is that the banks were like drug dealers with more cash than they can stash, needing to bury it etc.; i.e. the shares were buried in various companies and these transactions were funded by the banks.

Lending on contracts with no provisions to hinder possible losses

Breach of fiduciary duty has figured prominently in banking collapse cases leading to imprisonment. These cases all revolve in some way around lending where the bank carries all the risk, where eventual losses, were they to arise, would always fall on the bank, i.e. losses were foreseeable.

It seems to me that there are some Irish cases very similar to the Icelandic ones of foreseeable losses, i.e. the management didn’t seem to have the interest of the banks and their shareholders at heart but assisting individual clients beyond rhyme and reason.

These Icelandic loan agreements were often only agreed on by the banks’ managers, i.e. outside of regular processes, without the knowledge of credit committees etc. There would then be lower-placed trusted lieutenants who organised the lending. In some cases they have also been charged and sentenced, in some cases not.

Thus, the banks lend in such a way, apparently knowingly, that would the borrower not be able to pay, it would lead to the bank losing money. Here it is important to keep in mind that these banks were public companies with thousands of shareholders – Kaupthing had well over thirty thousand shareholders – losing money on bad lending.

“No society can tolerate that certain parts of it are beyond law and justice” – well, some can…

From reading the SIC report it is clear that some cases have been prosecuted, others not. There was too much of this going on but yes, the managers and the top tier, in some cases also shareholders, have been targeted by the OSP.

It is important to keep in mind that bankers in Iceland have not been sentenced for stupid or unwise decisions but for actions which the Supreme Court has then ruled were criminal actions.

When I talked to Hauksson following the conviction in the so-called al Thani case, in February 2015, he pointed out that the Supreme Court’s decisions showed “that it is possible to bring complicated financial cases to court and get conviction. Building up the expertise has been a long process but the ruling today demonstrates that setting up an office, which didn’t exist earlier, was fully justified. No society can tolerate that certain parts of it are beyond law and justice.”

For some reason, countries like the US and the UK, with old and esteemed legal traditions have in many cases decided to fine rather than prosecute for financial crimes, thereby showing the opposite of the Icelandic examples show – the US and the UK have indeed at times shown that yes, certain parts of society are indeed beyond law and justice. That has sadly been the UK and the US lessons of the financial calamities of 2008.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

February 17th, 2016 at 8:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

What money can’t buy: extra services in an Icelandic prison

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Thirteen people, mostly ex-bankers, have now been sent to prison in cases connected to the banking collapse brought by the Office of Special Prosecutor. Four of these prisoners keep giving rise to media coverage in Iceland: earlier in November it turned out that they had applied for a riding course, organised by the Agricultural University of Iceland. In the end, the director of the Prison Service refused to accept that this expensive course fulfilled the set criteria for prisoners’ rehabilitation. It also ensued that these prisoners have allegedly made use of PR firms.

For the time being, three former top managers of Kaupthing – Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson, Magnús Guðmundsson and Sigurður Einarsson – and the bank’s second largest shareholder Ólafur Ólafsson are in prison, serving sentences from four to six years. The prison that houses them, Kvíabryggja, is on the Northern side of Snæfellsnes, close to the tip of the peninsula that can be seen from Reykjavík on a clear day.

These four prisoners, sentenced in the so-called al Thani case, are not the first sentenced in relation to the banking collapse but they are the first to continuously making media headlines. In 2003 a member of Alþingi was sentenced to prison for embezzlement from public funds. Also staying at Kvíabryggja he procured new mattresses for the prison.

Shortly after the four were imprisoned there were news that also they wanted to pay for some improvements at Kvíabryggja but this is no longer legal: prisoners can’t use their funds things at Kvíabryggja at their own will.

An exclusive course for wealthy prisoners

In early November the Icelandic media covered a story regarding a riding course these four prisoners allegedly wanted to take part in. The Agricultural University offers riding courses, intended for A level students and was willing to offer it to the four prisoners at Kvíabryggja. The course was to run on weekends this winter, starting early November, in a riding hall at a farm next to but not belonging to the prison.

The cost was €3.800 per participant. The course only included the teaching, which meant the prisoners had to provide a horse, saddle and other things needed, apparently not a problem. Ólafsson who for years has owned a grand summerhouse close by the prison is known in Icelandic equestrian circles as the owner of some of the most expensive and outstanding horses in Iceland.

It seems that when the director of the Prison Service Páll Winkler heard about this he inquired if the course was offered to all prisoners. Apparently that was not the case. Though being part of the curriculum offered by the Agricultural University in this case it was allegedly tailor-made for these four prisoners, at a price only very few prisoners will be able to afford. Consequently, Winkler interfered and the course was called off.

Prisoners, a riding course and human rights

Following Winkler’s comments to the media that the riding course did not fit rules on courses acceptable for prisoners the wife of Ólafsson, Ingibjörg Kristjánsdóttir, wrote an article in one of the Icelandic papers, Fréttablaðið, accusing Winkler of inappropriate comments and breaching the prisoners’ human rights. Interestingly, the paper is owned by Ingibjörg Pálmadóttir, the wife of Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson; Jóhannesson is charged by the OSP in a pending case.

Kristjánsdóttir claims that Winkler’s comment breached the prisoners’ human rights, made at the cost of people he should be protecting, “prisoners who have few to speak for them in a society of hate and revengefulness, prisoners that Páll knows are not allowed to speak to the media. Thus the prisoners are defenceless against the attack by the director of the Prison Service.”

Winkler answered, claiming that talking about “breach of human rights” showed Kristjánsdóttir’s “lack of understanding and utter lack of respect for people who have really suffered breach of human rights from public institutions, either in this country or abroad.” Rules had been followed and he had no further comments to this case.

Prisoners with PR people

In relation to the riding course Winkler said to Rúv that a very small group of prisoners has access to millions of króna and even makes use of public relation firms to contact him and the prison service. “PR firms have contacted me, asking me to say a, b or c or not to say a, b or c. I found this utterly preposterous and was left speechless.”

Winkler also says that wealthy prisoners have tried to buy services that are not offered to prisoners in general. “This is a delicate balance because if this is something offered to all prisoners I am of course only glad when the situation can be improved.” However, services for only a select group of prisoners is unacceptable.

As an example Winkler mentions a new association, “Friends of Kvíabryggja” set up to improve life at Kvíabryggja, offering funds for improvements but this is, according to Winkler, unacceptable. He has i.a. refused requests for a yoga course and more tv channels. “If you are powerful and want to improve the situation for prisoners you turn to Alþingi and do it through the Budget.”

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

November 27th, 2015 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorised