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Only Geir Haarde

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Althingi, the Icelandic parliament has just voted on whether four ministers should be brought before a special court ruling on ministerial responsibility and misdemeanour. The result is that only Geir Haarde, prime minister May 2007-Feb. 2009, will be charged. This means that the court will be convened.

The three other ex-ministers that a parliamentary commission has also pointed out as culprits – Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir minister of foreign affairs and leader of the social democrats, Bjorgvin Sigurdsson from the same party and minister of trade and Arni Matthiesen minister of finance, from the conservatives – will not be charged.

There will be many who find this awkward: if one leading minister failed in his job didn’t all the other ministers who were in charge of or responsible for the economy fail?

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

September 28th, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Posted in Iceland

Lessons from Iceland: the SIC report and its long lasting effect / 10 years after

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The Bill passed by the Icelandic parliament in December 2008 on setting up an independent investigative commission, the Special Investigative Commission did not catch much attention at the time. The goal was nothing less than finding out the truth in order to establish events leading up to the 2008 banking collapse, analyse causes and drawing some lessons. The SIC report was an exemplary work and immensely important at the time to establish a narrative of the crisis. But in hindsight, there is yet another lesson to be learnt: its importance does not diminish with time as it helps to counteract special interests seeking to rewrite history.

There were no big headlines when on 12 December 2008 Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament, passed a Bill to set up an investigative commission “to investigate and analyse the processes leading to the collapse of the three main banks in Iceland,”which had shaken the island two months earlier. The palpable lack of enthusiasm and attention was understandable: the nation was still stunned and there was no tradition in Iceland for such commissions. No one knew what to expect, the safest bet was to not expect very much.

That all changed when the Commission presented its results in April 2010. Not only was the report long – 2600 pages in print in addition to online-only material – but it did actually tell the real story behind the collapse: the immensely rapid growth of the banks, from one GDP in 2002 to ten times the GDP in 2008, the stronghold the largest shareholders, incidentally also the largest borrowers, had on the banks’ managements, the political apathy and lax regulation by weak regulators, stemming from awe of the financial sector.

Unfortunately, the SIC report was not translated in full into English; see executive summary and some excerpts here.

With time, the report’s importance has not diminished: at the time, it clarified what had happened thus preventing those involved or others with special interest, to reshape the past according to their own interests. With time, hindering the reshaping of the past has become of major importance, also in order to draw the right lessons from the calamitous events in October 2008.

What was the SIC?

According to the December 2008 SIC Act (in Icelandic), the goal was setting up an investigative commission, that would, at the behest of Alþingi, seek “the truth about the run-up to and the causes of the collapse of the Icelandic banks in 2008 and related events. [The SIC] is to evaluate if this was caused by mistake or neglect in carrying out law and regulation of the financial sector in Iceland and its supervision and who could be held responsible for it.” – In order to fulfil its goal the SIC was inter alia to collect information on the financial sector, assess regulation or lack thereof and come up with proposals to prevent the repetition of these events.

In some countries, most notably in South Africa after apartheid, “Truth Commissions,” have played a major part in reconciliation with the past. Although the remit of the Icelandic SIC was to establish the truth, the SIC was never referred to as a “truth commission” in Iceland though that concept has been used in foreign coverage of the SIC.

The SIC had the power to make use of a vast array of sources, both by calling in people to be questioned and documents, public or private such as bank data, including data on named individuals, data from public institutions, personal documents and memos. Data, normally confidential, had to be shared with the SIC, which was obliged to operate as any other public body handling sensitive or confidential information.

Although the SIC had to follow normal procedures of discretion on personal data the SIC could “publish information, normally subject to discretion, if the SIC deems this necessary to support its conclusions. The Commission can only publish information on personal matters of named individuals, including their financial affairs, if the public interest is greater than the interest of the individuals concerned.” – In effect, this clause lift banking secrecy.

One source close to the process of setting up the SIC surmised the political intentions behind the SIC Act did not include lifting banking secrecy, indicating that the extensive powers given to the SIC were accidental. Others have claimed the SIC’s extensive powers were always part of the plan. I am in two minds about this but my feeling is that the source close to the process was right – the powers to scrutinise the main shareholders were far greater than intended to begin with.

Naming the largest borrowers, incidentally also the largest shareholders

Intentional or not, the extensive powers enabled naming the individuals who received the largest loans from the banks, incidentally their largest shareholders and their closest business partners. This was absolutely essential in order to understand how the banks had operated: essentially, as private fiefdoms of the largest shareholders.

In order to encourage those called in for questioning to speak freely, the hearings were held behind closed doors; there were no public hearings. The SIC had extensive powers to call people in for questioning: it could ask for a court order if anyone declined its invitation, with the threat of taking that person to court on grounds of contempt in case the invitation was declined.

Criminal investigation was not part of the SIC remit but its power to call for material or call in people for questioning was parallel to that of a prosecutor. As stated in the report, the SIC was obliged to inform the State Prosecutor if there was suspicion of criminal conduct:

The SIC’s assessment, pursuant to Article 1(1) of Act no. 142/2008, was mainly aimed at the activities of public bodies and those who might be responsible for mistakes or negligence within the meaning of those terms, as defined in the Act. Although the SIC was entrusted with investigating whether weaknesses in the operations of the banks and their policies had played a part in their collapse, the Commission was not expected to address possible criminal conduct of the directors of the banks in their operations.

As to suspicion of civil servants having failed to fulfil their legal duties, the SIC was supposed to inform appropriate instances. The SIC was not obliged to inform the individuals in question. As to ministers, the SIC was to follow law on ministerial responsibility.

The three members

The SIC Act stipulated it should have three members: the Alþingi Ombudsman, then as now Tryggvi Gunnarsson, an economist and, as a chairman, a Supreme Court Justice. The nominated economist was Sigríður Benediktsdóttir, then lecturer at Yale University (director of Financial Stability at CBI 2012 to 2016 when she returned to Yale). The chairman was Páll Hreinsson (since 2011 judge at the EFTA Court).

In addition to the Commission there was a Working Group on Ethics: Vilhjálmur Árnason professor of philosophy, Salvör Nordal director of the Centre for Ethics, both at the University of Iceland and Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir director of the Equal Rights Council in Iceland. Their conclusions were published in Vol. 8 of the SIC report.

In total, the SIC had a staff of around 30 people. As with the Anton Valukas report, published in March 2010, on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, organising the material, especially the data from the banks, was a major task. The SIC had access to the databases of the three collapsed banks but had only limited data from the banks’ foreign operations.

There were absolutely no leaks from the SIC, which meant it was unclear what to expect. Given its untrodden path, the voices expressing little faith were the most frequently heard. I had however heard early on, that the SIC had a firm grip on turning material into searchable databases, which would mean a wealth of material. With qualified members and staff, I was from early on hopeful that given their expertise of extracting and processing data the SIC report would most likely prove to be illuminating – though I certainly did not imagine how extensive and insightful it turned out to be.

Greed, fraud and the collapse of common sense

After the October 2008 collapse, my attention had been on some questionable practices that I heard of from talking to sources close to the failed banks.

One thing I had quickly established was how the banks, through their foreign subsidiaries, had offshorised their Icelandic clients. This counted not only for the wealthy businessmen who obviously understood the ramifications of offshorising but also people with relatively small funds. These latters had in many cases scant understanding of these services.

In the last few years, as information on offshorisation has come to the light via Offshoreleaks etc., it has become clear that Iceland was – and still is – the most offshorised country in the world (here, 2016 Icelog on this topic). Once the “art” of offshorisation is established, with all the vested interests accompanying it, it does not die easily – this might be considered one of the failed banks’ more evil legacies.

Another point of interest was how the banks had systematically lent clients, small and large, funds to buy the banks’ own shares, i.e. Kaupthing lent funds to buy Kaupthing shares etc. Cross-lending was also a practice: Bank A would lend clients to buy Bank B shares and Bank B lent clients to buy Bank A shares. This was partly used to hinder that shares were sold when buyers were few and far behind, causing fall in market value. In other words, massive market manipulation had slowly been emerging. Indeed, the managers of all three failed banks have in recent years been sentenced for market manipulation.

It had also emerged, that the banks’ largest shareholders/clients and their business partners had indeed been what I have called “favoured clients,” i.e. enjoying services far beyond normal business practices. One side of this came to light in the banks’ covenants in lending agreements: in the case of the “favoured clients,” the lending agreements tended to guarantee clients’ profit, leaving the banks with the losses. In other words, the banks took on far greater portion of the risk than these clients.

Icelog blogs I wrote in February 2010, before the publication of the SIC report, give some sense of what was known at the time. Already then, it seemed fair to conclude that greed, fraud and the collapse of common sense had been decisive factors in the event in Iceland in October 2008.

Monday morning 12 April 2010 – when time stood still in Iceland

The excitement in Iceland on Monday morning 12 April 2010 was palpable. The press conference was transmitted live. All around Iceland employers had arranged for staff to watch as the SIC presented its conclusions.

After Páll Hreinsson’s short introduction, Sigríður Benediktsdóttir gave an overview of the main findings regarding the banks, presenting “The main reasons for the collapse of the banks,” followed by Tryggvi Gunnarsson’s overview of the reactions within public institutions (here the presentations from the press conference, in Icelandic).

The main reason for the collapse of the three banks was their rapid growth and their size at the time they collapsed; the three big banks grew 20-fold in seven years, mainly 2004 and 2005; the rapid expansion into new/foreign markets was risky; administration and due diligence was not in tune with the banks’ growth; the quality of loans greatly deteriorated; the growth was not in tune with long-time interest of sound banking; there were strong incentives within the banks grow.

Easy access to short-term lending in international markets enabled the banks’ rapid growth, i.e. the banks’ main creditors were large international banks. With the rapid expansion, also abroad, the institutional framework in Iceland, inter alia the Central Bank and the FME, quickly became wholly inadequate. The under-funded FME, lacking political support, was no match for the banks, which systematically poached key staff from the FME. Given the size of the humungous size of the Icelandic financial system relative to GDP there was effectively no lender of last resort in Iceland; the Central Bank could in no way fulfil this role.

This had no doubt be clear to the banks’ management for some time. In his book, “Frozen Assets,” published in 2009, Ármann Þorvaldsson, manager of KSF, Kaupthing’s UK operation, writes that he “always believed that if Iceland ran into trouble it would be easy to get assistance from friendly nations… despite the relative size of the banking system in Iceland, the absolute size was of course very small.” (P. 194). – A breath-taking recklessness, naivety or both but might well have been the prevalent view at the highest echelons of the Icelandic financial sector at the time.

The banks’ largest shareholders and their “abnormally easy access to lending”

When it came to “Indebtedness of the banks’ largest owners” the conclusions were truly staggering: “The SIC concludes that the owners of the three largest banks and Straumur (investment bank where the main shareholders were the same as in Landsbanki, i.e. Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson and his fater) had abnormally easy access to lending in these banks, apparently only because their ownership of these banks.”

The largest exposures of the three large banks were to the banks’ largest shareholders. “This raises the question if the lending was solely decided on commercial terms. The banks’ operations were in many ways characterised by maximising the interest of the large shareholders who held the reins rather than running a solid bank with the interest of all shareholders in mind and showing reasonable responsibility towards shareholders.” – Creative accounting helped the banks to avoid breaking rules on large exposures.

Benediktsdóttir showed graphs to illustrate the lending to the largest shareholders in the various banks. It is worth keeping in mind that these large shareholders all had foreign assets and were all clients of foreign banks as well. In general, the Icelandic lending shot up in 2007 when international funding dried up. At this point, the Icelandic banks really showed how favoured the large shareholders were because these clients were, en masse, getting merciless margin calls from their foreign lenders.

In reality, the Icelandic banks were at the mercy of their shareholders. If the large shareholders and/or their holding companies would default, the banks themselves were clearly next in line. The banks could not make margin calls where their own shares were collateral as it would flood the markets with shares no one wanted to buy with the obvious consequence of crashing share prices.

Two of the graphs from the SIC report, shown at the press conference in April 2010, exposed the clear drift in lending at a decisive time: to Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson, still an active investor based in London and to Fons, a holding company owned by Pálmi Haraldsson, who for years was a close business partner of Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, once a king on the UK high street with shops like Iceland, Karen Millen, Debenhams and House of Fraser to his name.

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The lending related to Fons/Haraldsson is particularly striking since Haraldsson was part of the consortium Jóhannesson led in spring of 2007 to buy around 40% of Glitnir: after the consortium bought Glitnir, the lending to Haraldsson shot up like an unassailable rock.

Absolution of risk

The common thread in so many of the SIC stories was how favoured clients – and in some cases bank managers themselves – were time and again wholly exempt from risk. One striking example is an email (emphasis mine), sent by Ármann Þorvaldsson and Kaupthing Luxembourg manager Magnús Guðundsson, jokingly calling themselves “associations of loyal CEOs,” to Kaupthing’s chairman Sigurður Einarsson and CEO Hreiðar Sigurðsson.

Hi Siggi and Hreidar, Armann and I have discussed this (association of loyal CEOs) and have come to the following conclusion on our shares in the bank: 1. We set up a SPV (each of us) where we place all shares and loans. 2. We get additional loans amounting to 90% LTV or ISK90 to every 100 in the company which means that we can take out some money right away. 3. We get a permission to borrow more if the bank’s shares rise, up to 1000. It means that if the shares go over 1000 we can’t borrow more. 4. The bank wouldn’t make any margin calls on us and would shoulder any theoretical loss should it occur.We would be interested in using some of this money to put into Kaupthing Capital Partners [an investment fund owned by the bank and key managers] Regards Magnus and Armann

This set-up, where the borrower is risk-free and the bank shoulders all the risk, has lead to several cases where bankers being sentenced for breach of fiduciary duty, i.e. lending in such a way that it was from the beginning clear that losses would land with the bank. (Three of these Kaupthing bankers, Guðmundsson, Einarsson and Sigurðsson, not Þorvaldsson, have been charged and sentenced in more than one criminal case).

The “home-knitted” crisis

Due to measures taken in October 2008 in the UK against the Icelandic banks, there was a strong sense in Iceland that the Icelandic banks had collapsed because of British action. The use of anti-terrorism legislation by the British government against Landsbanki greatly contributed to these sentiments.

A small nation, far away from other countries, Icelanders have a strong sense of “us” and “the others.” This no doubt exacerbated the understanding in Iceland around the banking collapse that if it hadn’t been for evil-meaning foreigners, hell-bent on teaching Iceland a lesson, all would have been fine with the banks. Some leading bankers and large shareholders were of the opinion that Icelanders had been such brilliant bankers and businessmen that they had aroused envy abroad: British action was a punishment for being better than foreign competitors (yes, seriously; see for example Þorvaldsson’s book “Frozen Assets”).

The story told in the SIC report showed convincingly and in great detail how wrong all of this was: the banks had dug their own grave. Icelandic politicians and civil servants had tried their best to fool foreign countries and institutions how things stood in Iceland. Yes, the turmoil in international markets toppled the Icelandic banks but they were weak due to bad governance, great pressure by the largest shareholders and then weak infrastructure in Iceland, as I pointed out in a blog following the publication of the SIC report.

This understanding is at times heard in Iceland but the convincing and well-documented story told in the SIC report has slowly all but eradicated this view.

Court cases and political controversies

Some, but by far not all, of the dubious deals recounted in the SIC report have ended up in court. The SIC brought a substantial amount of cases deemed suspicious to the attention of the Office of Special Prosecutor, incidentally set up by law in December 2008. However, most if not all of these cases had also been spotted by the FME, which passed them on to the Special Prosecutors.

CEOs and managers in all three banks have been sentenced in extensive market manipulation cases – the bankers were shown to have directed staff to sell and buy shares in a pattern indicating planned market manipulation. In addition, there have been cases involving shareholders, most notably the so-called al Thani case (incidentally strikingly similar to the SFO case against four Barclays bankers) where Ólafur Ólafsson, Kaupthing’s second largest shareholder, was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison, together with the bank’s top management.

In total, close to thirty bankers and major shareholders have been sentenced in cases related to the old banks, the heaviest sentence being six years. The cases have in some instances thrown an interesting light on operations of international banks, such as the CLN case on Deutsche Bank.

The SIC’s remit was inter alia to point out negligence by civil servants and politicians. It concluded that the Director General of the FME Jónas Fr. Jónsson and the three Governors of the CBI, Davíð Oddsson, Eiríkur Guðnason and Ingimundur Friðriksson, had shown negligence as defined in the law “in the course of particular work during the administration of laws and rules on financial activities, and monitoring thereof.” – None of them was longer in office when the report was published in April 2010 and no action was taken against them.

The Commission was of the opinion that “Mr. Geir H. Haarde, then Prime Minister, Mr. Árni M. Mathiesen, then Minister of Finance, and Mr. Björgvin G. Sigurðsson, then Minister of Business Affairs, showed negligence… during the time leading up to the collapse of the Icelandic banks, by omitting to respond in an appropriate fashion to the impending danger for the Icelandic economy that was caused by the deteriorating situation of the banks.”

It is for Alþingi to decide on action regarding ministerial failings. After a long deliberation, Alþingi voted to bring only ex-PM Geir Haarde to court. According to Icelandic law a minister has to be tried by a specially convened court, which ruled in April 2012 that the minister was guilty of only one charge but no sentence was given (see here for some blogs on the Haarde case). Geir Haarde brought his case to the European Court of Human Rights but the judgment went against him. Haarde is now the Icelandic ambassador in Washington.

The SIC lacunae

In hindsight, the SIC was given too short a time. With some months more, the role of auditors in the collapse could for example have been covered in greater detail. It is quite clear that the auditing was far too creative and far too wishful, to say the very least. The relationship between the banks and the four large international auditors, who also operate in Iceland, was far too cosy bordering on the incestuous.

The largest gap in the SIC collapse story stems from the fact that the SIC had little access to the banks foreign operations. Greater access would not necessarily have altered the grand narrative. But court cases have shown that some of the banks’ criminal activities, were hidden abroad, notably in the case of Kaupthing Luxembourg. – As I have time and again pointed out, it is incomprehensible that authorities in Luxembourg have not done a better job of investigating the banking sector in Luxembourg. The Icelandic cases are a stern reminder of this utter failure.

As mentioned above, only excerpts of the report were translated into English. To my mind, this was a big error and extremely short-sighted. Many of the stories in the report involve foreign banks and foreign clients of the Icelandic banks. The detailed account of what happened in Iceland throws light on not only what was going on in Iceland but also in other countries where the banks operated. The excerpts are certainly better than nothing but by far not enough – publishing the whole report in English would have done this work greater justice and been extremely useful in a foreign context.

Why the SIC report’s importance has grown with time

It is now just over eight years since the publication of the SIC report. Whenever something related to the collapse is discussed the report is a constant source and the last verdict. The report established a narrative, based on extensive sources, both verbal and written.

Some of those mentioned in the report did not agree with everything in the report. When they sent in their own reports these have been published on-line. However, undocumented statements amount to little compared to the report’s findings. Its narrative and conclusions can’t be dismissed without solid and substantiated arguments to counter its well-documented conclusions.

This means the story of the 2008 banking collapse cannot easily be reshaped. This is important because changing the story would mean undermining its conclusions and lessons to be learnt. In a recent speech, Tory MP Tom Tugendhat mentioned the UK financial crisis as the “forces of globalisation.” These would be the same forces that caused the collapse of the Icelandic banks – but from the SIC report Icelanders know full well that this is far too imprecise a description: the banks, both in the UK and Iceland, collapsed due to lack of supervision and public and political scrutiny, following year of lax policies.

Lessons for other countries

In order to learn from the financial crisis, countries need to know why there was a crisis – with no thorough analysis no lessons can be learnt. Also, not only in Iceland was criminality part of the crisis. Though not a criminal investigation, many of these stories surfaced in the SIC report, another important aspect.

Greece, Cyprus, UK, Ireland, US – five countries shaken and upset by overstretched banks, which needed to be bailed out at great expense and pain to taxpayers. However, all of these countries have kept their citizens in the dark as to what happened apart from some tentative and wholly inadequate attempts. The effect of hiding how policies and actions of individuals, in politics, banking etc, caused the calamities has partly been the gnawing discontent and lack of trust, i.a. visible in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president.

Although Iceland enjoyed a speedy recovery (Icelog Sept. 2015), I’m not sure there are any particular economic lessons to be learned from Iceland. There were no magic solutions in Iceland. What contributed to a relatively speedy recovery was the sound state of the economy before the crisis, classic but unavoidably painful economic measures, some prescribed by the IMF, in 2008 and the following years – and some luck. If there is however one lesson to learn it is the importance of a thorough analysis of the causes of the crisis.

The SIC was, and still is, a shiny example of thorough investigative work following a major financial crisis, also for other countries. It did not alleviate anger; anger is still lingering in Iceland. An investigative report is not a panacea, nothing is, but it is essential to establish what happened and why, with names named.

There are never any mystical “forces” or laws of nature behind financial crisis and collapse. They are caused by a combination of human actions, which can all be analysed and understood. Without analysis and investigations it is easy to tell the wrong story, ignore the causes, ignore responsibility – and ultimately, ignore the lessons.

This is the second blog in “Ten years later” – series on Iceland ten years after the 2008 financial collapse, running until the end of this year.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 14th, 2018 at 2:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

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.

Updated 14.6.2018: a retrial has been ordered, the case will come up next winter. This time, there will also be some focus on DB’s role in order to understand the context better though neither DB nor any DB bankers are charged. 

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

November 3rd, 2017 at 9:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

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

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

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

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

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

Last minute transactions under dark clouds

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

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

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

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

Why was Fund 9 so toxic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benediktsson sold Glitnir shares in bleak February 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power and influence of a prominent family

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Teflon man of Icelandic politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 October 2008: the right and wrong decisions

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

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

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

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

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 9th, 2017 at 11:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

Iceland, Russia and Bayrock – some facts, less fiction

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

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

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

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

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

The Bayrock saga

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

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

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

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

Bayrock and FL Group

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

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

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

The short and intense FL saga and its record losses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FL Group and the Icelandic Bayrock

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

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

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

Bayrock and Novator

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

This, according to court documents (emphasis mine):

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

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

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

The origin of rumours of corrupt Russian connections to Iceland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real Russian connections in Iceland

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

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

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

An elusive Russian loan offer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia, Iceland and Cyprus

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

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

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

Kaupthing and Usmanov

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

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

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

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

Fridman, Exista and Baugur/Gaumur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP Galmond – the fixer who lost his firm

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

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

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

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

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

Galmond’s Icelandic ties

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

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

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

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

Alfa, Pamplona Capital Management and Straumur/Björgólfsson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

May 30th, 2017 at 8:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

When Kaupthing tried to move its CDS (in 2008) with a little help from a friend

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Yet another case from the Office of Special Prosecutor v Kaupthing’s three top managers is up in Reykjavík District Court these days. As in several other cases, the charges centre on breach of fiduciary duty, ultimately causing the bank a loss of €510m. The loans went to two companies owned by Kaupthing clients that used the funds to buy credit linked notes and enter into credit default swaps related to Kaupthing in order to lower the bank’s collateral debt swap spread. Does this sound like market manipulation? Deutsche Bank seems to think it might, strongly denying any involvement in the scheme except as the issuer of the notes though Icelandic sources tell a different story.* – But who made a killing on the other side of the CDS bet? Partly Deutsche Bank, according to the OSP but this part of the CLN saga is still not entirely clear, which is one of the reasons why the court hearings might be interesting.

Soon after the collapse of the three largest Icelandic banks in early October 2008 there were plenty of allegations, also in the Icelandic media, of possible wrongdoing in the banks. One of the stories told centred on Kaupthing funding transactions connected to the bank’s CDS.

At the end of January 2009 former chairman of the Kaupthing board Sigurður Einarsson wrote a letter to friends and relatives explaining his side of the media reports. The first matter he dealt with was the CDS story: it was true that Kaupthing had funded transactions by what he called “trusted clients” of the bank to influence the bank’s CDS spread, following a proposal from Deutsche Bank, DB.

This story was told in greater detail in the 2010 report by the Icelandic Special Investigations Committee, SIC: also here, the idea is said to have originated with DB.

Further information came up in a London Court in 2012: the two BVI companies set up for the transactions, Partridge and Chesterfield, went bankrupt soon after Kaupthing failed. Their administrators, Stephen Akers from Grant Thornton London and a colleague, quickly turned to DB to get answers to some impertinent questions regarding the two companies.

Now, the CDS saga is summed up in the OSP charges (in Icelandic) against Einarsson, Kaupthing’s CEO Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson and head of the bank’s Luxembourg operations Magnús Guðmundsson in a case of breach of fiduciary duty and causing a loss of €510m to Kaupthing, some of it paid out on Kaupthing’s last day of trading.

In orchestrating the loans the three managers took great care that DB would get paid, i.e. the deal would not fall through due to lack of funds at a time when Kaupthing had practically no foreign currency left and was running out of liquidity.

According to the charges DB not only organised the transactions but also took part of the opposite bet. What is still lacking in this saga is who, together with DB, was on the other side of the bet the two companies lost?

Einarsson’s letter 2009 and transactions with “trusted clients”

In his letter to friends and family 26 January 2009 Einarsson pointed out that although the UK Financial Services Authority, FSA, had in the third week of August 2008, ascertained that Kaupthing’s UK operation, Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander, KSF, was well funded the CDS spread on Kaupthing stayed high. Unreasonably so according to Einarsson who claimed having heard from foreign journalist that false rumours on Kaupthing were being spread, even by PR firms. There were also rumours, wrote Einarsson, that the CDS market was being manipulated, not only in relation to Iceland. (The letter was later leaked to the Icelandic media, see here, in Icelandic; excerpts below, my translation).

Following a proposal from Deutsche Bank it was decided to test what would happen if the bank itself (i.e. Kaupthing) would buy such insurance. This was however not a trivial matter since the bank could not issue insurance on itself. The solution was to get our clients we trusted well and with whom we had had a long relationship, built on trust and loyalty, to make these transactions on behalf of the bank. Of course we would never have entered into these transactions except for the particular circumstances. These transactions were made with the interest of the bank at heart and in full accordance to law and regulations.”

Following Lehman’s collapse September 15 2008 the CDS spread on Kaupthing increased; not only Kaupthing but the international banking system felt under siege, wrote Einarsson.

As the bonds (i.e. credit linked notes), that we at Kaupthing and our business partners had purchased, were leveraged and had now gone down in price there were only two options. To hand over further funds or give up, have the bonds sold and lose a part of or all the original investment. The latter option was to my mind simply preposterous. Kaupthing enjoyed good liquidity and nothing indicated the bank would not withstand the pressure, just as it had done in 2006 and in spring 2008. If on the other hand the bonds had been sold the bank would have suffered a loss and the risk was that the increased offer of bonds would have undermined the bank and diminished its access to credit lines.”

This had been the rational behind these transactions, wrote Einarsson, made to maintain Kaupthing as a going concern contrary to media reports that funds had been taken out of the bank before it collapsed.

The SIC report April 2010

One of the many interesting stories in the SIC report was the story of the Kaupthing transactions regarding the CLNs. Two BVI companies, Chesterfield and Partridge, were set up by Kaupthing. The former was owned by three companies under the ownership of Antonios Yerolemou, Skúli Þorvaldsson and Karen Millen and Kevin Stanford, respectively owning 32 %, 36% and 32%. Ólafur Ólafsson owned the latter, through another company.

All of the owners were, as Einarsson said in his letter, longstanding clients of Kaupthing. Yerolemou, a Cypriot businessman prominent in the UK Cypriot community and a Conservative donor, had sold his business, Katsouris, to Exista, Kaupthing’s largest shareholder, in 2001 and stayed in touch, i.a. as a board member of Kaupthing in 2007. Stanford had a long-standing relationship with Kaupthing as with the other Icelandic banks and Ólafsson was the bank’s second largest shareholder.

The SIC report traced the origin of the transactions to DB but earlier in 2008 than Einarsson said in his letter. The SIC report states:

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


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

According to the SIC report the CLN transactions “can be assumed to have actually made an impact on the CDS spreads on Kaupthing.”

Akers v Deutsche Bank

Stephen John Akers works at Grant Thornton in London and has a fearsome reputation as a diligent administrator. On being appointed a liquidator in 2010 of the two BVI companies, Chesterfield and Partridge, together with his colleague Mark McDonald, the two quickly set about to understand the nature of the transactions in the two companies.

They turned to DB with two impertinent key questions: 1) How did the transactions make commercial sense for the two companies? 2) How were the two companies expected to repay the loans from Kaupthing in case the markets moved against them, as indeed did happen?

When answers were not forthcoming from DB Akers sued the bank to get access to documents related to the transactions. In February 2012 a judge ruled DB should hand over the information asked for.

As to the purpose of the companies Akers states in his affidavit that “it seems possible that the Companies were involved in a wider package or scheme, although it is too early to comment definitively on the purpose of such scheme, contemporaneous reports and documents suggest that the purpose might have been to manipulate the credit market for Kaupthing (Emphasis mine).

In court, DB strongly denied suggestions “it entered into the CLN transactions in order to manipulate the market” and took “issue with the picture painted in the Icelandic report. Among other things, it says that the CLNs were not in any way unusual or commercially unreasonable transactions; that it was not aware that Kaupthing was itself financing the purchase of the CLNs, if that is what happened; and that it did not act as adviser to Chesterfield, Partridge or Kaupthing.”

Further, in a witness statement, Venkatesh (nick-named Venky) Vishwanathan, the DB employee who wrote the email the SIC report quotes, supported the DB position. His interpretation of the “bang for the buck” is: “I say the way to proceed would involve ‘hitting the right moment in the market to get the most bang for the buck’ because an investor investing in a CLN product would want the best return and the coupon available over the term of the CLN, should it run to maturity, is set when the CLN is issued. That was why market timing was important. I was not suggesting, as Mr Akers says, that Kaupthing would get ”bang for its buck” by Deutsche selling CDS protection.”

Thus, Vishwanathan claims the email was not referring to Kaupthing getting the timing right for the most bang but the two companies investing in the CLN.

The OSP charges

According to the charges the first round of loans was made end of August 2008 to the three companies funding Chesterfield, in total €130m. However, these late August loans were issued so the companies could repay an earlier money market loan from Kaupthing Luxembourg, which already in early August had been used to instigate the transaction organised by DB in return for CLN as the company entered into a CDS with DB on Kaupthing; €125m were used on the CLN transaction but DB got €5m in fees. In September 2008 Kaupthing issued further loans of €125m to Chesterfield to meet margin calls from DB.

The Partride loans were issued in September, first €130m, of which €125m were used on the same kind of CLN transactions as Chesterfield though with the difference that DB only got a fee of €3.625.000 with apparently the rest, €1.375.000 left behind in Ólafsson’s company (the charges do not clarify why or for what purpose these funds were left in Ólafsson’s company or why DB settled for a lower fee than on the other transaction for the same amount). Also here there were margin calls from DB, for which Partridge got a further loan of €125m.

In total, Kaupthing lost €510m on these transactions. As Akers pointed out this loss was entirely predictable if the market turned and Kaupthing went out of business – after all, the two companies were unhedged. In other words, the two companies had little or no assets beyond the CLNs meaning that it was, according to the OSP, clear from the beginning that the companies should never have received the loans they got.

Urgency and faulty documentation

The charged Kaupthing managers steered the operations of the two companies and followed closely that the loans were paid to DB. According to emails between Sigurðsson and Einarsson as the scheme was being planned, quoted in the SIC report, the two seemed to have at first planned to ask some pension funds to participate but instead opted for the trusted clients.

The two were adamant that payments should go through to DB no matter what. In one instance, payment was due on 2 October 2008 but the managers made sure it was paid already on 22 September.

The most remarkable part of these loans is that they were being paid to DB literally up to the last hours of Kaupthing. Almost the only un-told saga (my account of this is here) from these last days relates to a rather incomprehensible loan of €500m given to Kaupthing by the CBI at noon on October 6 2008, hours before prime minister Haarde addressed the stunned nation to spell out the catastrophe in view: the banks could all fail, necessitating Emergency Law.

The CBI loan was given, as far as is known, to meet demands by the FSA for funds to strengthen KSF: the funds were ear-marked to prevent the failure of KSF in order to prevent cross-defaults, which would bring down the mother-bank in Iceland. However, nothing indicates the funds were used for that purpose and the CBI does not seem to have made any safeguards as to how the loan would be used.

Sigurðsson has later said that the Kaupthing management was unaware of the imminent Emergency Law as the loan was issued; as soon as he was aware of the Law, later in the afternoon, he knew the banks would not survive.

Yet, next day October 7, €50m were paid to DB in connection with the CLNs transactions, which were based on the premises that Kaupthing would be a going concern in five years time. The OSP charges state that the CBI loan enabled this last payment to DB. – On October 8 the Kaupthing board resigned; the day after Kaupthing in Iceland was taken over by administrators.

Further, the OSP charges show the loan documentation was lacking and the foreign owners were not entirely informed by Kaupthing of the transactions. Ólafsson says Sigurðsson asked him to participate; Sigurðsson claims Ólafsson or his representative asked for Ólafsson to be included.

According to the charges, documents related to these loans were changed twice after Kaupthing went into administration, first a few days after the collapse and again in December 2008.

Apart from this, the choice of clients to lend to was quite remarkably a direct challenge to complaints from the Luxembourg financial services authority, Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier, CSSF. In August 2008 the CSSF warned Kaupthing Luxembourg of the precarious position of some of its large debtors and shareholders. Choosing these clients for further loans was a direct challenge to the CSSF warnings, again a sign that the Kaupthing managers were willing to go to a great length to execute this plan.

The bang for the buck-writer – on leave since early 2015

The writer of the “bang for the buck” email, Venky Vishwanatha, later became DB’s head of corporate finance in Asia. Earlier this year he was put on leave, according to Bloomberg, as DB “faces civil court cases over alleged mis-selling of derivatives by a group he helped oversee, the people said, asking not to be named because the information is confidential. … The court cases relate to allegations that Deutsche Bank manipulated the market when it sold 450 million pounds ($700 million) of credit-linked notes in 2008 to two U.K. companies associated with the failed Icelandic lender Kaupthing Bank Hf, said the people. Vishwanathan was involved in the sale of the notes when he worked for Deutsche Bank in London and co-ran the bank’s western European financial institutions group at the time, one person said.”

Bloomberg quotes an e-mailed statement from DB saying the bank entered into credit linked transactions in 2008 with two counterparties, referencing Kaupthing. “Following Kaupthing’s bankruptcy, claims to recover funds have been brought against the bank. We will continue to defend ourselves vigorously against these claims.”

Did it make sense to try to influence the CDS via the CLN transactions?

The Kaupthing managers claim lending to influence the CDS spread was an understandable attempt, given the situation at the time. As mentioned above the BVI administrators could not quite see the sense.

Further, CDS spread is a measure of trust, the high spread indicated low trust. As it were, the transactions seemed to influence the spread for a few days. Considering the cost to Kaupthing and the risk, this was a high-wire act that resulted in losses and made absolutely no material difference to Kaupthing’s situation, except increasing the losses.

Also, these transactions were invisible to the market – of course Kaupthing did not advertise it was itself going into the market to finance the CDS linked transactions. If found out, this would definitely not have looked good, having a negative influence on the trust-factor the bank was trying to influence.

The large sums of money needed, the very little impact and the great risk might show the despair among the bank’s management. A sober scrutiny, also from the technical point of view, does not indicate this ever was a good idea. And then there is the market-manipulation angle DB contests.

The result was that the bank lost €510m by setting up a trade with remarkable little influence on the bank’s CDS spread, which at the same time created a hell of a good deal for those on the other side of the bet.

Who was on the other side of the bet?

As referenced above DB denies all involvement in the CLNs transactions apart from issuing the CLNs. Yet, according to the charges DB was much more heavily involved.

The Kaupthing managers assumed, according to the charges that DB would go into the market to find those willing to take the opposite position but, according to the charges, the managers did not do anything to inquire into the matter.

As it turns out, according to the OSP charges, DB did indeed take part of the position for itself. It is however unclear if DB was the end beneficiary here or if it was possibly acting on behalf of clients. In the end, DB turned out to be one of the largest creditors in all the failed Icelandic banks.

The interesting side saga looming in the coming court case is what role DB did play – and who made the handsome profit from the trades that caused Kaupthing such losses.

*Obs: neither Deutsche Bank itself nor any DB employees are charged in the Icelandic case but the outcome in Iceland might have ramification for civil cases related to the scheme.

The above is not based on accounts at the court case, but as stated above, mainly on Einarsson’s 2009 letter, the 2010 SIC report, the 2012 Aker ruling and lastly the OSP charges in the present case. I will be blogging in the coming days on what has transpired at the court case. – The CDS saga was one of the first cases related to the banking collapse that caught my attention so I’ve been following it for over six years.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

December 8th, 2015 at 11:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

Six years after the collapse: the government is starving the Special Prosecutor of funds

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After the banking collapse in October 2008, three things were set in motion by the government at the time (Independence Party, together with the Social Democrats): an investigation into the causes of the collapse, rewriting the constitution and an Office of a Special Prosecutor. The investigation was concluded with a report of 2400 pages published April 10 2010; so far, no country has done a comparable report on the financial crisis in 2008. Rewriting the constitution was not finished in the way intended due to a political backlash. The government now plans to review OSP’s role although the OSP was made a permanent serious fraud office in 2011 – and starve it of funds while the review is ongoing.

It did not start too well: after Althing passed an Act in December 2008 to set up an office of a special prosecutor to investigate possible fraud related to the banking collapse no one applied. Finally, Ólafur Þór Hauksson stepped forward, a sheriff (called “sýslumaður” in Icelandic) from Akranes, the village on the other side of the gulf from Reykjavík.

Though having no previous expertise in Iceland to build on, the OSP has built up the expertise and know-how in investigating fraud such as market manipulation, insider trading, embezzlement and breach of fiduciary duty. So far, six OSP cases have found their way all the way to the Icelandic Supreme Court: five ended with sentencing, one with acquittal.

The Icelandic decision to investigate possible fraud within the banks has been much noticed around the world where financial institutions often seem like holy cows, too powerful to investigate and bankers too important to jail. Examiner Anton Valukas who led the investigation into Lehman Brothers’ demise pointed out certain accounting practice, so called Repo 105, which according to the report seemed to have the sole purpose of balance sheet manipulation (see here on Valukas and the SIC report). Valukas has later clearly expressed bafflement that no charges have been filed regarding Lehman. – In Iceland, irregularities regarding the operations of the banks are being investigated and bankers prosecuted as well as other high-flying businessmen.

With the present coalition government of the Progressive Party and the Independence Party (which led the government that set up the OSP; ex-PM Geir Haarde said on Rúv tonight it had been a good step), the tone is now changed: the OSP is being starved of funds in the 2015 budget.

The government claims it is going to review the OSP operation. Interestingly, it is going to starve it first and then review it. The government seems to ignore that fact that since the law on the OSP was changed in 2011 so as to turn it into a permanent serious fraud office, there is no burning need to come up with changes of purpose and mission.

In numbers (from a recent Rúv interview with Hauksson): the OSP budget for this year is ISK900m, €5,9m; for next year its share in the budget is ISK295m, or a cut of 67%. Sixteen employees were recently fired because of the envisaged funding cuts. With the present prospect for 2015 staff will go from seventy to twenty. The number of cases now under investigation is 96; 39 of them are related to the collapse. The planned cuts also mean that opening investigations into new cases will be problematic; the outlook for seeing charges through court is uncertain.

Just to give an idea on the OSP present activity: these days, the OSP’s most extensive case so far is in the Reykjavík District where Landsbanki’s CEO Sigurjón Árnason and three Landsbanki employees are charged with market manipulation. This weekend, Rúv brought news of charges against four Spron board members and Spron CEO Guðmundur Hauksson (not related to Special Prosecutor Hauksson) relating to an ISK2bn, now €10m, loan to Exista; Guðmundur Hauksson had shares in Exista and long-time relationship with that company, the largest shareholder of Kaupthing. In January, the so-called al Thani case is coming up in the Supreme Court; appeal of the Reykjavík District Court where Kaupthing CEO Hreiðar Sigurðsson was sentenced to 5 1/2 years, executive chairman Sigurður Einarsson 5 years, Kaupthing’s second largest shareholder Ólafur Ólafsson 3 1/2 years and Magnús Guðmundsson manager of Kaupthing Lúxemborg 3 years.

On October 6 2008 Icelanders sat stunned as prime minister Haarde addressed the nation at 4pm to tell them the government was doing what was needed to prevent the collapsing banks from causing a national catastrophe. The OSP has been diligent in bringing banking high-flyers and their helpers to court. Although the task is not finished it seems the government is no longer adamant about investigating collapse-related fraud cases, let alone keeping an eye on potentially new financial fraud cases. – It is now oh so 2008…

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 6th, 2014 at 10:39 pm

Posted in Iceland

Two schools of thought: to bankrupt… or not – and the next governor of the CBI

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The furious battle of interest in Iceland regarding the estates of Glitnir and Kaupthing ultimately centres on the ownership of the new banks, respectively Íslandsbanki and Arion owned by the two estates. There is the IMF – some “foreign abbreviation” as prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson once said – together with some civil servants and politicians who want to find a common ground with the creditors and settle on a composition agreement. Then there are those who argue for a tough treatment of the creditors, bankrupting the estates and turning all their króna holding into fx. Choosing the next governor of the Central Bank of Iceland, CBI, will indicate who is in charge and which steps will be chosen regarding the estates and ultimately in lifting the capital controls.

Control-watchers and others who follow things in Iceland are eagerly waiting to see who will be appointed the new governor of the Central Bank of Iceland. The governor will be a key player in lifting the controls and deciding on the fate of the new banks and how the estates will be dealt with. The decision is also a test for minister of finance Bjarni Benediktsson – does the independence of the CBI matter to him or is he at ease with political meddling in the bank, contrary to the advice of the International Monetary Fund, IMF, which in its last report stressed the importance of an independent central bank.

The whole affair of appointing – or not appointing – a new CBI governor has been a bit of a drama. During winter there were continuous speculations regarding possible changes at the CBI. A few times in the course of the winter prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson criticised the bank and its staff severely, i.e. for not being in awe of his great project, the “Correction” or the writing-down of mortgages for those who are able to pay and had therefore not benefitted from earlier write-downs.

Until the 11th hour, literally, it seemed that in spite of it all, present governor Már Guðmundsson would stay in place. After all, it seemed unlikely that the government would act only at the latest moment. But that is what it did – hours before the time lapsed: if nothing had been done, Guðmundsson would automatically have been reappointed for another five years.

Then came the next step: appointing a selection committee to evaluate the applicants. Now imagine if the head of Scotland Yard would have been the head of a committee selecting a new governor of the Bank of England – does it sound far-fetched and utterly ridiculous? None the less this is what happened in Iceland: head of the Icelandic police was chosen to head the selection committee with a lawyer who is the Independence party representative on the board of the CBI and earlier an MP for the party together with – finally – a well-merited professor emeritus of economics. Out of three members only one was an economist and the other two had no special insight into central banking, apart from one being on the CBI board.

The curious outcome seems to stem for a general reluctance among some suitable candidates for the selection committee to be on it. The committee’s written decision has not been published but apparently they placed three applicants equal: Guðmundsson and then two professors: professor of the University of Iceland Ragnar Árnason whose speciality is fishing and Friðrik Már Baldursson professor at Reykjavík University who is a well-merited academic who fell out of favour in Iceland after the collapse because a much disputed report on the Icelandic economy he wrote together with professor Richard Portes.

However, to place these three as equal is rather distorting the merits of the three applicants: in terms of experience and career there is no way of placing these three as equal.

The rumour mill milling

Guðmundsson is by far the best candidate but in a country where political and personal interests matter, often obliterating professional merits, strong and clear merits are not always enough. There are now wild speculations in Iceland as to what Benediktsson will do and what the appointment will indicate in terms of domestic politics.

Árnason has been seen as the most likely candidate to be appointed because of his strong ties to the Independence party. He has i.a. been the party’s representative in various ways over the last decades, written reports etc. Also, he is thought to be favoured by the invisible power centre around Morgunblaðið’s editor ex-prime minister Davíð Oddsson. What many worry is that Árnason, having been involved in various disputes at the University, is seen as a difficult person to work with.

One speculation is that because of this Baldursson might be a compromise candidate. If it is true that Oddsson has any say in this he might not be too thrilled at the thought of Baldursson at the CBI. Baldursson was instrumental in bringing the IMF to Iceland during the days of crisis, at which time Oddsson was himself the governor of the CBI, staunchly opposing an IMF involvement. Oddsson lost that battle.

Now, does that leave Guðmundsson as the best candidate from the point of view of not only merits but also interests? Remains to be seen and it would surely be ironic since it is thought that this whole saga of appointing a new governor did indeed start because the prime minister (and probably Oddsson) wanted to get rid of Guðmundsson.

Wheels within wheels

Another twist in the CBI saga is that home office minister Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir is fighting for her political life due to a leak from her ministry regarding the case of an asylum seeker. A case that has been brewing for ca. a year and gets ever more convoluted and difficult for the minister. There are voices that she should simply resign, at least not be in office while there is an ongoing investigation, now involving the state prosecutor and the Alþingi Ombudsman.

While Stefán Eiríksson the head of the Iceland police, was the chairman of the CBI selection committee and working on the selection process, he was also applying for a lower-level job with the Reykjavík council as head of its welfare department, which he got just some days ago. According to Icelandic media it now seems he wanted to leave his job because of alleged pressure the minister.

Some weeks ago Morgunblaðið suddenly and apparently out of the blue attacked the Alþingi Ombudsman Tryggvi Gunnarsson for views held in an email. It then turned out this infamous email was by the Ombudsman’s namesake. This was rather incomprehensible at the time but now that the Ombudsman is on Kristjánsdóttir’s case the paper’s attempt to discredit Gunnarsson can be seen to acquire another meaning.

Benediktsson has been unwilling to criticise Kristjánsdóttir but has now given her a half-hearted support in the media. She has been his most dangerous opponent in the party and widely seen as someone who is waiting to challenge him in a leadership contest. With her gone from the political scene there would be no one he needed to fear. And those who want to keep a tight rein on him or oppose him would have no leverage against him.

Side-shows and other shows

The leak saga is very much in the Icelandic media. Another news was thrown out just before the last weekend when travels of Icelanders in Iceland traditionally peak: the minister of foreign affairs Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson (Progressive) has appointed two new ambassadors – ex-prime minister Geir Haarde of the Independence party and Árni Þór Sigurðsson MP for the Left Green (here is Rúvs report on this new appointment with a photo of Haarde, as PM, giving his “god bless Iceland” speech at 4pm on October 6 2008 where he told Icelanders that the banking system was collapsing). Haarde was found guilty by a special court regarding his part in the collapse in 2008 but not sentenced (see here some Icelogs on the Haarde trial and its aftermath).

A clever move because the left/opposition now stays silent and not a word of criticism is heard. A politician has not been appointed an ambassador since 2008 and many had probably thought that this kind of political meddling might be a history of the past. Not quite.

In order to understand the coming appointment of the CBI governor it is necessary to keep all of this in mind because these are political side-shows. Many see the CBI appointment as a test for Benediktsson: whose interests is he serving, does he really decide or does Gunnlaugsson decide on everything he deems of interest to him and his party? The fact that it is taking so long to decide – a decision was expected end of last week – indicates that the appointment is a bone of contention.

This is an important test for Benediktsson. Also because the IMF has strongly warned the government not to the diminish the independence of the CBI, most recently in its last report: “Maintaining a financially sound, independent, and accountable central bank is important for policy credibility and anchoring inflation expectations, which in turn supports stability and growth.” (See my take on the IMF report here).

Why the fuss about the governor? Because he will not only be important in fighting inflation, supporting stability and growth. The governor will be instrumental in deciding on the fate of Glitnir and Kaupthing and now the new banks, Íslandsbanki and Arion will be sold. Will there be a political horse trading in distributing the goods, i.e. the two banks, involving a fight with foreign creditors and disorderly routes – or will there be an orderly lifting of the capital controls, as the IMF is in favour of? The new governor will very much set the tone in all these issues.

*Earlier today, August 6, the Ombudsman sent a letter to Kristjánsdóttir  to enquire further re the leak, i.e. what and how often she talked about the leak to Eiríksson, the police chief. In addition, the Ombudsman sent a letter to the prime minister inquiring if ethical rules for ministers, set by the last government and expiring as it left office, have been replaced by another set of ethical rules. (A link to the two letters, in Icelandic, is here). – Further, to the Morgunblaðið’s failed attack on the Ombudsman see the end of my earlier blog, here.

Update Aug. 7: the minister of finance was expected to announce today or tomorrow who would be appointed as the next governor of the CBI. It now seems likely that no decision is forthcoming until next week. The rumour is that different factions within the government can’t agree. There clearly are strong tensions, indicating that there is much at stake.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

August 6th, 2014 at 10:25 am

Posted in Iceland

A week is a long time in (Icelandic) politics

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Last week started with a TV interview where prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson spent the best of half an hour arguing with the journalist, much to the dismay of many TV watchers. Then there was a report on Iceland and the EU, which led to the government deciding to break off EU membership negotiations, in spite of earlier promises to vote on continued negotiations; a decision ex prime minister Þorsteinn Pálsson called the greatest political betrayal in Icelandic history. And lastly, it was also last week that the government, at the 12th hour, announced it was going to take time to set up a committee to ponder on changes, or not, at the Central Bank. This which means that the CBI will clearly not be taking any major decisions until new governor(s) are in place, which again must set some creditors thinking – and perhaps also some Icelanders.

For two days protesters have gathered outside the Icelandic Alþingi, parliament. It is not an angry mob, more like a crowd during an interval at a theatre waiting patiently for the second half. What started out as an awkward election promise is now a millstone around the neck of prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson but more seriously minister of finance and leader of Independence Bjarni Benediktsson. At the time, Benediktsson himself now against Icelandic membership of the European Union (but pro EU some years ago) but trying to avoid alienating pro-EU voters, eased out of anything final on the matter by promising a referendum on continuing the negotiations or not.

A history of broken promises

Both parties promised in no uncertain terms that they would not break off negotiations without a referendum but instead hold a referendum on whether to continue the membership negotiations. What the two parties had not foreseen was that there would be a clear majority for continuing.

Many voters now seem to feel that this promise has been broken in spite of the coalition parties offering various different version of actually-not-broken-promise. The government had said it would make up its mind on EU after a report it had promised already last autumn. Now that the report is out, a balanced overview of the negotiations and options, the government intends to skip earlier promise and instead break off the negotiations without any further ado. It even seemed to want to rush the matter through parliament last week, holding a parliamentary debate only a day after the 1000 pages report had been published thus giving MPs no time to study the report but it was forced to change its tempo and give more time.

This awkward promise of a referendum on continued negotiations now haunts the government. Benediktsson tries to spin it as being impossible to continue though he struggles to explain what should have changed since the promise was given. He did however say in a TV debate last night that he could “not completely” keep his promise.

This issue is particularly difficult for Benediktsson, less for Gunnlaugsson whose party is firmly against EU membership. Although opinion polls indicate that majority of Independence party voters are against EU membership the business elite, except for those with interests in the fishing industry, is for membership. This is turning into a major problem for the government. One Independence party member, Vilhjálmur Bjarnason, has said he will reflect the opinion of many party members and vote against breaking off the negotiation. The government’s majority is however still secure.

One who voices dismay in no uncertain terms is Benediktsson’s fellow party member ex prime minister Þorsteinn Pálsson who calls the change of course “the greatest political betrayal ever” in Icelandic politics. Pálsson is a respected commentator and many well-known Independence party members from the business community who side with him.

In addition, Iceland also now has its very own version of Sarah Palin. Last week, Progressive MP and chairman of the budgetary committee Vigdís Hauksdóttir stated during a radio debate: “There is famine in Europe now” and later said that Malta is “a self-governing zone within a larger country. It is not a country.” Before these remarkable statements her most memorable statement had been (during a TV interview on earlier promised action on the health service “at once” her party were in power) that the phrase “at once” was an “elastic concept” – a novel and highly creative interpretation that has now turned into a saying in Iceland.

CBI in limbo

By stepping in to make changes at the CBI the government has effectively kicked the CBI off the field of any major decisions regarding the estates of the collapsed banks and ultimately of the capital controls for some time, probably most of this year. This is seen a cause for worry in the business community tired of non-action on the capital controls. The bigger companies, often with foreign operations that ease the pain of the controls, find their way within the controls but smaller and medium sized companies are complaining loudly.

The first step towards changes is to set up a working group (no names yet) apparently to come up with suggestions as to what the changes should be. As pointed out earlier, it seems that the government was going to set all of this in motion at a later date but then realised, at the last moment, that by waiting it might have to pay the present governor Már Guðmundsson salary of the rest of his 5 year term, which would have been renewed automatically February 20 unless he had been notified. Which he then duly was, on that day. *

The situation now is of completely opacity as to the procedure. Also there is a complete lack of policy as to where the government is heading with the CBI. It is unclear who will come up with proposals, unclear what the government policy is (some indication that the FME, financial supervisory authority, might be put under the CBI as it was until 1998) and it is also unclear as to what the criteria will be for hiring a new governor and if there will be more than one governor. And obviously it is completely unclear as to how long all this will take and when new governor(s) might be in place.

Will the past replace the future?

Generally, countries where the government meddles in matters of the central bank do not fare well. Right now, it is not only the Icelandic government that is creating such headlines but also the governments in Hungary and Nigeria. Not exactly countries that Iceland has been comparing itself to over the years.

One of the more interesting remarks made by the prime minister in the TV interview a week ago was when he stated on CBI independence that “it would be good to have an independent central bank if we had a different government.”

The fact that the CBI had criticised the “correction” – debt write-down for borrowers who could afford their loans and consequently had not profited from earlier write-downs by the previous government – was obviously a matter of great irritation to the prime minister.

This ill-prepared intervention against the CBI has instigated a feeling in Iceland that the country is about to be steered back to the past where all public institutions and state-owned companies were carved up between the political powers. People were chosen to leading offices of power not according to merits but according to party affiliation. It came as a great surprise when Benediktsson recently appointed a young ex banker, Halla Sigrún Hjartardóttir. She has no previous experience of bank supervision but is an investor with rumoured connections to wheeling and dealing connected to the oil company Skeljungur. Not exactly a career similar to her opposite numbers in the neighbouring countries. The question is if this was only the first of similar nominations.

The question is if old politicians will now be put into power as once was the rule rather than the exception. Might ex prime minister Davíð Oddsson become the chairman of the board of Landsvirkjun? And will his successor as party leader and later prime minister Geir Haarde. So far, the rumours are utter speculations but they indicate a state of mind prepared to see the past turn into the future.

The past practices of the old banks live on (in hidden assets)

It remains to be seen if the strong feeling of the political past being projected into the future materialises. What clearly lives on from pre-collapse Iceland is the effect of the old banks’ operations, both its earlier practices and that most of the big borrowers still have access to considerable assets.

Post-crisis bankrupt companies with humongous debt and hardly any assets (left) shows how assets did migrate out of these companies to somewhere mostly out of sight and reach of administrators. Most of the well-known holding companies, supporting the ownership of the major shareholders of the banks have followed this pattern, i.a. Novator, Baugur, Exista, Fons etc. This alleged migration of wealth out of sight was facilitated by the banks’ lenient lending practices: the banks took all the risk, the favoured borrowers got covenant-light loans.

The clearest shift of risk took place during the winter of 2007 and 2008 when foreign banks, reacting to falling share price in the Icelandic banks, initiated margin calls affecting almost all of the big Icelandic bank shareholders who had placed their Icelandic bank shares as collaterals with foreign banks. The Icelandic banks, rather than seeing their shares flood the market evidently precipitating further falls in share price if not a total meltdown, stepped in and increased their lending to these shareholders. By Easter 2008, this shifting of risk and rapidly increased exposures was over and done with.

In only a few months these moves, well documented in the SIC report, hugely increased the Icelandic banks’ already considerable exposures to their largest shareholders and their business partners, in some cases going over legal limits (though in some cases the banks’ lending hovered under the legal limits by abstruse definition of “related parties”: i.a. Glitnir did not consider Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson and his wife as related parties nor did Landsbanki classify Björgólfur Guðmundsson and his son Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson as related parties).

Coming soon: transfer of wealth of historic magnitude

What is at stake in the coming months and years? The banks have amassed a great amount of assets that will be sold. Already, there is anecdotal evidence that the practice from the old banks, of issuing loans to favoured clients against shares with non-too punishing haircut, is abounding. After all, the banks do want to lend money and inside capital controls bad practices can fester.

The most prized assets, already for sale, are the two new banks, Íslandsbanki and Arion, owned by foreign creditors. Most likely these assets are highly coveted by certain forces in Iceland where banks have always bastions of political power and centres of handing out assets to favoured clients.

How the foreign-owned ISK assets of the estates – not only if Glitnir and Kaupthing but also of Straumur and Icebank – will be dealt with decides to a certain degree the price tag on Íslandsbanki and Arion. Any government action, affecting the price, such as converting all foreign assets into ISK/paying foreign cash out in ISK will be of huge interest to Icelanders with money and ambition to buy into Íslandsbanki and Arion.

It is no understatement that the sale of Arion and Íslandsbanki will greatly affect the business climate in Iceland in the coming years and possibly decades. If these assets could be sold on the cheap, aided by pension funds willing to act as silent owners by the side of active investors, the past might indeed be the future, not only in politics but also in the business community.

And now, over to creditors and mobile and educated Icelanders

By the end of 2012 both Glitnir and Kaupthing had presented the CBI with drafts of composition. The matter is still unsolved. Most of last year was lost to election and then a run-in time for the new government. That year went by without any bringing any clarity as to the abolition of the capital controls and the steps needed to solve the problem of the foreign-owned ISK assets.

Now the CBI is in limbo. What will creditors do when faced with an uncertain future of the CBI and an uncertain effect on how to resolve the problem of the ISK assets in Iceland? The creditors have various possibilities. Do they deem the government to be hindering access to the estates’ fx assets? If so, they could try to sue the Icelandic state abroad, i.a. in London. Argentina is the scare example of a country that for years has been kept under pressure from creditors. Not necessarily the Icelandic saga any time soon.

Some drama might come later. Then, on the other hand there will not necessarily be any big drama: some of the creditors might just silently choose to sell their claims. In troubled times the buyers are investors looking to recover their claims by litigating every penny, or in this case, every króna.

Ireland is now back in the market though the country is by no means on a safe ground yet. When will Iceland be in the market to refinance its debt? Judging from the government’s tendency to prolong problems instead of solving them it might take a while. Even a long while.

For Icelanders locked inside capital controls there is yet another “if”: if Iceland will be further isolated from other countries the effect of the growing income difference of the mobile and well educated classes compared to the neighbouring countries might take its toll. As counts for much in Iceland the changes are very gradual. Lost opportunities or loss of work force who does not return to Iceland after studies abroad is difficult to calculate.

* In his letter to CBI employees, Guðmundsson noted that he should have been alerted before midnight February 19. However, he was apparently not notified until evening of February 20. It remains to be seen if this will pose a problem for the government: if Guðmundsson will/cannot reapply, i.e. he could possibly claim that he should be paid for the rest of his term. Judging from his previous dealings regarding his salary, where Guðmundsson maintained earlier promises had been broken – he lost a court case on this issue – Guðmundsson will no doubt explore his position were he to lose his job.

See below for recent three blogs on power and politics in Iceland. The latest blog on capital controls is here

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

February 26th, 2014 at 6:19 am

Posted in Iceland

The high cost of being an Icelander

with 4 comments

This week, an Althing investigative commission delivered long awaited – or long dreaded – report on the Housing Finance Fund. It was even worse than expected, outlining greater than expected losses. It outlines how political connections – mainly the Progressive Party, now leading the government – systematically put the party’s interest before the HFF’s. The losses 1999-2012 could amount to ISK270bn, 16% of Icelandic GDP, possibly more. Add this to another blunder – the losses of the Central Bank of Iceland from repo deals with the Icelandic banks prior to the collapse – also causing a sovereign loss of 16% of GDP and it seems that Icelanders pay a lot for the political parties putting their own interests before the country’s.

,,… unfortunately, one can’t but sincerely admit that one had lots of doubt but this is what was agreed as the government was formed in 2003. If it hadn’t been done, that government would not have come into being.” This is how Geir Haarde minister of finance 2003-2007 (leader of the Independence Party 2005-2009, prime minister 2006-2009) described to the Special Investigative Commission on the financial collapse in Iceland how the 2003 coalition of the Independence Party and the Progressive Party came into being. In the elections that year, the Progressive Party campaigned on raising the mortgage level to 90% of the purchase price. In order to save the coalition of the two parties, led by the Independence Party, that party agreed to turn the Progressive campaign promise into policy. The vehicle was the Housing Finance Fund, HFF.

This policy turned out to fuel a boom that was already building up. Haarde was aware of the danger but, concludes the SIC report, his estimate was “that the expected loss for society (from this policy) was an acceptable cost to society for keeping the two ruling parties in power.”

We now know that the cost of this policy might be the somewhat unacceptable loss of ISK270bn, €1.68bn, 16% of GDP. Ironically, it now falls on the present coalition of these two parties, this time under Progressive leadership, to take a decisive step to end the Fund’s misery.

A new report (unfortunately only in Icelandic; not even an English summary), published earlier this week by an Althing investigative commission, tells the story of these huge losses and how the fund was used for political purposes. The report lays political networks bare, showing how political connections were favoured over merit and experience and how the fund continuously added to the coffers of companies connected to the Progressive Party. Regulators failed and foreign criticism, i.a. coverage in 21 reports by the OECD and the IMF, was systematically ignored. – The Fund itself disputes the numbers in the report, saying the losses are at most ISK64bn. However, the fund only put forth this number without any documentation in a press release and has not answered other matters raised in the report.

HFF, the Progressive power sphere and regulators who failed

The core of the problems was changes to the financing of the HFF and changed lending rules in 2004. The Independence Party had for some time worked on changing the issuing of HFF bonds so they would appeal to foreign investors. In 2003 the Progressive Party had campaigned on raising the mortgage level to 90% of purchase price. The changed issuance caused an immediate loss in 2004 of ISK21bn. A simple error in calculation added another ISK3.5bn, to the loss, bringing it to almost ISK25bn. Higher lending levels increased the risk and did over time cause higher levels of non-performing loans. The Fund started lending to property developers and companies, both increasing risk and losses.

The immediate loss of ISK25bn was just the beginning. Over the years, the faulty decisions taken in 2004 have caused snowballing losses, which now stand at ISK103bn of loss already on the books with the addition of foreseeable loss of 167bn, in total ISK270bn. The Fund claims the losses mainly stem from the collapse of the banks but according to the report the main losses stem from changes to the Fund in 2004. In a nutshell, it is a saga of the intertwining of political power and a public institution, the HFF.

The political connection surface in various ways. Fjárvaki, a subsidiary of Kaupfélag Skagfirðinga (once part of the Icelandic co-op movement, strongly connected to the Progressive Party and still part of the “Progressive sphere”), signed a deal to sell software to HFF. In the end the deal was terminated without Fjárvaki fulfilling it. Yet, HFF paid Fjárvaki an amount equal to the sales price. This is only one part of the HFF’s many highly questionable connections to Progressive-connected entities. And only one of innumerable similar stories in the report.

Then there is the glaring incompetence. With the 2004 changes in laws the Fund was obliged to have a proper risk management system. A Swedish consultancy, Capto, delivered the system and ran it to begin with. When the HFF staff took over it seems they neither understood it nor were able to run it, rendering the risk management useless. To make things worse, the Financial Services Authorities, FME, did not react to the Fund’s flawed risk assessment.

On the whole, all regulators and institutions, which were supposed to supervise and regulate the HFF failed. Part of the problem was that the fund was drowning in money as banks were venturing into mortgage lending, wooing clients with lower interest rates than the HFF. With changed rules, borrowers could pay up their HFF without penalties, meaning the HFF was drowning in money it could not invest at rates high enough to meet its own financing costs.

Through 2005, HFF lent ISK95bn to banks and other financial institutions, thereby financing the banks’ own mortgage lending, which was crowding out the Fund’s own mortgages – and in addition fuelling a boom. The report criticises the Central Bank of Iceland for not taking any action, thereby failing its role as a guardian of price stability.

The fervent denial of criticism

Although the extent of corrupt procurement and lack of expertise were first laid bare in the new report, the flawed public housing policy and the risk to the sovereign through the HFF’s state guarantee have been clear from the beginning and indeed heavily criticised by international organisations such as the IMF and the OECD.

The new report trawls through 21 reports from these two organisations from 1999-2012. The Fund’s clear problems and its compromising position has been a permanent fixture in reports from both organisations and still are. Yet, the various governments during all these years have ignored the warnings. And there is still no plan in place to end the Fund’s loss-making misery. The new report concludes that by not heeding the relentless warnings, Icelandic authorities have undermined their trust abroad.

In general and over all these years the intertia to solve the HFF’s problems has always been stronger than all reasoning and advice given by international experts. The question is why this inertia was so strong. The answer is twofold – there was the profound ignorance within the fund and lack of expertise. Secondly, political interests – mostly, though not solely, the interests of the Progressive Party – have been stronger than the general interest of the country. This is what invariably happens when political interest overrides merit and expertise. To the Irish and the Italians these will be familiar stories.

The present echo of ignored warnings

When Icelanders disapprove of foreign criticism of Icelandic issues, their standard answer is that foreigners do not understand the special circumstances in Iceland. The truth is of course that general rules of economics apply in Iceland as elsehwere. But it is difficult to follow any enlightened advise when political interests and connections subsitute normal reasoning.

There are now some disturbing similarities to events in 2003 and what later ensued. As then, the Progressive Party wooed voters in the spring elections with promises of debt relief almost every expert not connected to the Progressive Party warns against. The party’s promise of wide-spread debt-relief to those who are too well-off to have been eligible to earlier debt-relief offers draws criticism from the CBI as well as from the OECD and the IMF. The warning choir is loud and clear and singing from the same hymn sheet: these plans threaten financial stability and could cause inflation, all too familiar to Icelanders.

In a recent interview (in Icelandic) prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson said it did not worry him what the different “acronyms” (meaning international organisations such as the IMF and the OECD) thought of the planned debt relief. These organisations rarely welcomed radical actions such as those planned by the government, Gunnlaugsson said. In his speech on the Icelandic national day, June 17, the prime minister said that Icelanders would not let international organisations dictate what can be done for Icelandic households.

It is expensive to live in a country that is badly goverened or where corruption – difficult to avoid that word in relation to the HFF – is allowed to add its poisonous cost to every transaction. The corrupt practices, disregard for competence and expertise and political favours in HFF have so far cost Iceland 16% of its GDP and yes, more might be to come. Losses stemming from the CBI’s repo transactions with the banks before the collapse amount to another 16% of GDP. Consequently, these two mistakes have caused losses equivalent to about a third of Iceland’s GDP, the cost shared by Icelanders for bad political calculations.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

July 6th, 2013 at 10:41 am

Posted in Iceland