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Friday 13 December 2019

Dan White: Life is good for the disgraced (and still wealthy) bankers while we are left to pick up the mess

They were Ireland's masters of the universe. The greedy, arrogant and reckless bankers, whose incompetence brought Ireland to its knees.

Between them they have managed to cost the taxpayer at least €50bn, and probably much more.

Easily worst of the lot was former Anglo Irish chief executive and chairman Sean FitzPatrick. In his 23 years in charge, Seanie, as he was universally known to friend and foe, transformed a tiny lender into the third-largest bank in Ireland. Unfortunately, in doing so he threw caution to the wind, forcing the other banks to follow suit.

FitzPatrick's apparent success inevitably encouraged me-toos, with Michael Fingleton turning a previously sleepy building society, the Irish Nationwide, into a bank for builders and property developers.

With at least 70pc of the Nationwide's loan book after going bad, it turns out that Fingers should have stuck to mortgages.

While FitzPatrick and Fingleton may have been the terrible twins of Irish banking, they were not alone.

Far from it. As the torrents of cheap credit from Europe inflated an insane property bubble, the established banks struggled to get in on the act.

By doing so they have wiped out their shareholders and ruined generations of Irish taxpayers.

There was Bank of Ireland's ultra-smooth Brian Goggin, who ironically, when he took over from Michael Soden in June 2004, was seen as a "safe pair of hands". Butterfingers would be more like it.

And there was AIB's Eugene Sheehy, who was widely revered by AIB staff as the humble retail branch manager who made it all the way to the top. Unfortunately, when he did, he completely lost the run of himself and destroyed what had been Ireland's largest and most arrogant bank.

Insane

While Brian Goggin's appointment as Bank of Ireland chief executive in June 2001 was initially welcomed by most of his colleagues, who had wearied of his demanding and abrasive predecessor, it quickly became apparent that the expected "safe pair of hands" was anything but.

By 2004 the Celtic Tiger had long since ceased to be based on Ireland's competitive advantage and was, instead, being fuelled by an insane, credit-fuelled property bubble.

In fairness to Goggin, it would have taken a truly remarkable Bank of Ireland boss to have shouted "stop".

However, all the evidence is that Goggin didn't try to call a halt to the runaway growth in Bank of Ireland's loan book. Bank of Ireland had a €67.5bn loan book when Goggin took over as chief executive. Three years later this had almost doubled to €125bn.

By the time its loan book peaked at €144bn in September 2008, Bank of Ireland had €101bn of property-based loans on its balance sheet, of which €37bn was to builders and developers.

This meant that when the property bubble burst, Bank of Ireland was left dreadfully exposed. It has already had to write off more than €7bn of bad loans. And there are lots more where they came from. These mounting losses have left a huge hole in Bank of Ireland's balance sheet.

In 2009, the Government injected €3.5bn of fresh capital into Bank of Ireland and it raised a further €3.4bn, mainly from private investors, earlier this year. Now it needs to raise a further €2.2bn by the end of February if it is to stay out of majority State ownership.

With AIB increasingly likely to be broken up, the truly disastrous nature of Sheehy's stewardship of what was once Ireland's largest bank is now becoming apparent.

When he was promoted to be chief executive of AIB in 2005 the bank officials' union IBOA issued a public statement welcoming the appointment.

Now that the full extent of the disaster at AIB is finally beginning to emerge, it is difficult to recall the high regard in which Sheehy was held just over five years ago.

Sheehy spent the first half of his career making steady but unspectacular progress in retail branch banking.

His big chance to shine came in 2002, when it was revealed that AIB's rogue trader, John Rusnak, had cost its US subsidiary Allfirst $692m (then worth well over €700m) as a result of undisclosed currency trading losses.

Debacle

Sheehy was dispatched to the US to clean up the mess. His success in extricating AIB from the Allfirst debacle meant he was the runaway favourite to succeed Michael Buckley as chief executive in 2005.

Becoming chief executive seemed to change Sheehy, and not for the better. Having previously striven to build consensus among his colleagues, he now harangued them "to do something" about Anglo, which, by the middle of the noughties, had become the bank of choice for the builders and property developers who had previously done business with AIB. Going toe to toe with Anglo was the most disastrous decision ever made by any AIB chief executive.

In the three years to the end of 2008 AIB's loan book jumped from €65bn to €128bn, of which €46bn was to builders and property developers. The result was that when the bubble burst, AIB was stuffed to the gills with top-of-the-cycle property loans.

AIB has already had to write off almost €10bn of bad loans, with lots more to come.

In 2009, the Government pumped in €3.5bn of fresh capital and it has raised a further €4bn from assets sales, including the M&T shareholding this year. Now AIB has to find another €9.8bn if it is to avoid outright nationalisation.

Unlike Goggin, who quickly departed the scene once the scale of Bank of Ireland's losses became obvious, Sheehy initially tried to tough it out.

In July 2008 he increased the dividends AIB paid to its shareholders by 10pc. Then, in October 2008, he infamously declared that he would rather die than accept fresh capital from the State.

Even when he did finally announce his decision to quit, in April 2009, a dispute between the AIB board and the Government over who should succeed him meant that he remained at his desk for a further seven months.

Arrogance

Then to add insult to injury, after leaving AIB in ruins, he walked off into the sunset with a €526,000-a-year pension. And while all this was going on, Michael Fingleton was turning a modest-sized building society into an institution that would cost us billions. Along with Seanie FitzPatrick, Fingleton embodies the arrogance that got us into this mess.

Having built up Irish Nationwide from a tiny company with a staff of just five, he then undid all his good work with a series of massive commercial property loans that left the bank fatally over-exposed and forced it to transfer a whopping €8.5bn to NAMA.

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