Phone recordings spark pledge to probe bank disaster

Ireland's Parliament will open an investigation into the disastrous bailout of Anglo Irish Bank following newly disclosed recordings of telephone calls that show former directors conspiring to conceal the true scale of the bank's losses, Prime Minister Enda Kenny announced yesterday.

Kenny told lawmakers the public must learn why Anglo was permitted to bring Ireland to the brink of bankruptcy, following this week's revelation that the bank's top management discussed among themselves how to dupe the Central Bank of Ireland into saving their recklessly overleveraged business.

The Prime Minister said it remained an open question as to whether Anglo chiefs lied to Ireland's former leaders or actively colluded with them to keep the country's property market booming.

Previous Governments enjoyed record budget surpluses on the back of strong revenues from property sales, with Anglo the most aggressive lender in the market, until the property market collapsed amid the global credit crunch of 2008.

Kenny said former Government leaders from the opposition Fianna Fail party including his predecessor as Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, would be expected to testify.

"We need to get at the truth here," he said.

Kenny accused Cowen and other Fianna Fail politicians of forming "an axis of collusion" that spurred hundreds of thousands of Irish households over the previous decade to borrow heavily to buy properties that have lost half their value today.

He said a key point of investigation would be Cowen's mysteriously undocumented all-night negotiations in September 2008 with top Irish bankers that produced a surprise Government decision to insure all depositors and creditors against any potential losses at Irish banks.

Cowen's blanket bank guarantee, much criticised by other European Union Governments as foolish, was designed to prevent Anglo's immediate collapse but instead put Ireland on a slippery slope to bailing out all six Irish-owned retail banks.

The effort ultimately cost €64 billion, nearly half of that to pay Anglo's creditors alone, and forced Ireland to negotiate its own humiliating international bailout in 2010.

Kenny's Government dissolved Anglo's remains and transferred responsibility for managing its debt repayments and property portfolio to Ireland's state-run "bad bank", the National Asset Management Agency. It hopes gradually to sell the assets including half-built housing estates and derelict shopping malls and recoup some losses for taxpayers.

Three of Anglo's top directors already face criminal charges related to alleged accounting fraud designed to hide the scale of 2008 losses of deposits from shareholders.

The senior official involved in this week's phone-call stories, former chief executive David Drumm, fled to the United States to declare bankruptcy there in 2010 and has refused to repay his personal debts to Anglo exceeding €8.5 million.

The internally recorded calls, obtained by the Irish Independent newspaper and published this week, document how Anglo officials misled the Central Bank of Ireland that Anglo required only €7 billion that would be repaid. Anglo ultimately required about €30 billion, none repaid.

In one call typically laden with expletives and jokes, Anglo's director of capital markets and acting head of treasury, John Bowe, is asked by a colleague why Anglo had asked for just €7 billion. Using his chief executive's nickname, Bowe replied: "Just as Drummer would say, I picked it out of my arse."

After the laughter died, Bowe told colleagues Anglo knew its bailout risk was greater but needed to get the Central Bank, and ultimately the Irish taxpayer, to commit to a palatable lower amount and then be trapped into paying out more.

"The reality is that, actually, we need more than that. But you know the strategy here is you pull them in. You get them to write a big cheque and ... they have to support their money," Bowe explained in the call, which occurred two weeks before the Government bank-insurance scheme was launched.

"If they [Central Bank financial regulators] saw the enormity of it up front, they might decide they have a choice. ... They might say the cost to the taxpayer is too high."

In another call two days after the bank guarantee, Drumm is recorded telling Bowe and others to exploit it to attract depositors from other European countries, particularly Germany but not to go public with the strategy.

"Just be smart, don't be stupid, get it [foreign deposits] in. Don't be overly pumping it so that somebody can quote you," Drumm said, and Bowe jokingly sang a line of the German national anthem in reply.

- AP

- NZ Herald

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