Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Book review: Anglo Irish Bank as it was going down the tubes

The essential elements of the Anglo Irish Bank story and the rapid transformation of the man who personified it, Sean “Seanie” Fitzpatrick, from a perceived banking genius and darling of the business press to something of a pariah among his compatriots, are well known by all who have even a passing interest in matters financial in Ireland.

It is, however, as always, fascinating to be able to wallow in the gory details of such a tale. Simon Carswell is a Financial Correspondent with the Irish Times. He seems to enjoy access to the means of providing the kind of inside stories which, when linked together, provide a good account of what happened in Anglo, particularly towards the end.

“Anglo Republic” is reminiscent of the book produced some years ago by Carswell’s colleague at The Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole, on the Beef Tribunal and Larry Goodman called “Meanwhile Back at The Ranch”, although the new book somewhat lacks the literary poise and the finely turned phrase of O’Toole’s work.

The book is a page turner when we arrive at what might be described as the heart of the matter, the behind the scenes activities which became more and more fraught as FitzPatrick and his successor as CEO, David Drumm, found they had to deal with massive capital outflows, a rapidly sinking share price and, above all else, the severe problems caused by Sean Quinn’s ultimately disastrous decision to build up a very large secret holding of Anglo shares using Contracts For Difference (CFDs). Here Simon Carswell comes into his own and his confident knowledge of the details is impressive. Whatever faults David Drumm has, it comes across from Carswell’s material that he at least has a sense of humour.

Of course, in order to make a real contribution, a book such as this must offer some insight into the mechanisms that brought about the catastrophe that was the recent Irish economic collapse. There is a general acceptance that the culprit was reckless lending to property investors and developers, which was initiated by Anglo, who were then copied by other institutions when it became the perception that Sean Fitzpatrick’s operation was earning profits that "properly" belonged to the more established banks. This, however, does not deal with the detail, where the devil lies.

This writer saw a presentation by an Anglo Irish banker some years ago, back when they could do no wrong. The attitude of the presenter was that safe and profitable lending was really very straightforward – three things were required: security, the ability to repay and recourse. The irony is that the cocky presenter was probably correct. The real problems arose afterwards in the execution of the strategy when the principle was compromised, in particular by neglect of the third element, recourse, which means that loans should only have been given to those individuals who were prepared to give personal guarantees and who had a net worth sufficient to cover the repayment in the event that the asset which was the subject of the loan, and which normally provided the security, lost its value, and the ability to repay, for whatever reason, disappeared.

What happened in practice was that the usefulness of recourse was lost in two ways. Firstly, it was not insisted on at all in many cases in the later stages of the operation of Anglo and the other banks and secondly, it fell prey to an insidious development which came about because, over time, when it was in place, it depended more and more on a net worth statement that was itself totally made up of only one asset class, property. Then when all property values were destroyed, so were the means by which recourse could be exercised.

Like many publications of its kind, “Anglo republic” could have benefitted from a bit more editing. Certain parts are overlong, such as that dealing with the genesis of Anglo. And do we really need another meticulous, words-of-one-syllable explanation of how contracts for difference (CFDs) work? At the very least this part could have been confined to a notes section at the back of the book. When tables start appearing in the text it becomes reminiscent of a business report rather than a work of history. There is a charming editorial oversight in chapter 12 when the sentence “Horan also spoke to Morgan Stanley himself” appears, referring presumably to a representative of the financial services firm that was founded in the 1930s by two individuals, now long-dead, whose surnames were Morgan and Stanley.

The conclusion arrived at by Carswell is also probably the right one – that the Anglo lenders were lucky for so long that they began to believe that what was really a flawed business model was actually a gilt-edged strategy. And how many of us are guilty of eventually coming to believe our own propaganda? How many times is it necessary to characterise each lucky break, as Lucy Kellaway once wrote, as a strategic master stroke before the next one becomes for the person responsible something that, somehow, was not luck at all but the working of an inherent, subconscious, natural acumen?

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