WHEN you have chaired Ireland’s largest bank during a period of overheated property speculation only to watch as massive loan books crumble onto unwitting taxpayers, you must know who to blame – everybody.
Well, everybody but yourself that is.
Welcome to the world according to Dermot Gleeson – senior counsel and outgoing chairman of AIB.
Yesterday he treated the morning audience at the MacGill Summer School to a lengthy explanation on how it all went wrong.
Obviously being relieved of the burden of chairing the bank – which had doubled the size of its lending in recent years – has allowed Mr Gleeson to sit back and assess AIB’s embarrassing fall.
And here, for the first time, is a complete run-down of Gleeson’s Bad Guys – the people and factors who, he feels, created a situation where any banker could do little else but throw caution to the wind:
1. European regulations which imposed new accounting standards that only encouraged banks to be reckless.
2. Accountants. Don’t even start Mr Gleeson on accountants. According to him them and their “mark to market” valuing practices totally confused the price of heifers and houses alike.
3. Rating agencies who handed out healthy AAA ratings like a labelling machines at a Duracell factory to obviously unsustainable financial institutions.
4. Central banks. Their warnings of impending crashes could not be taken seriously because quarterly bulletins were otherwise gleefully optimistic. Interest rate policy is a grumble for another day.
5. Government policy. Public spending was excessive and stamp duty was never a long term option. Oh, and the litany of tax reliefs drove the construction boom which banks had to provide money for.
6. The Financial Regulator. It had access to the accounts of banks and should have saved lenders from themselves.
7. Monopoly power. GP fees were too high, energy prices were costly and social partnership was not competitive.
8. The feckless public. “When you are looking for the causes it is hard to exempt ourselves the public, I am not speaking from my capacity as a former chairman of a bank (of course, Mr Gleeson). The public played a role as well because many of us participated in the property bubble.”
9. The nation. “ We believed in things that weren’t actually true... And there is a sense that national pride and confidence boiled itself into over confidence.” You bold nation, you.
10. The media. The call by some commentators that people should vote no to Lisbon was evidence, Mr Gleeson felt, that the media had lost touch with reality.
And then, finally, we have the banks. They made mistakes and here, according to Mr Gleeson, are some of the reasons why.
1. Everybody the banks relied on to assess risks got it wrong. You name it, engineers, statisticians and PhD holders.
2. Risk assessors never exposed the problems in banking practices which markets needed to know.
3. “Sophisticated international consultants” who backed Anglo as a model for other banks and among their cheer leaders, financial journalists and brokers.
4. Anglo Irish Bank. “The presence of a competitor who appears to be striding ahead of you, certainly is taking customers from you, certainly is gaining market share and is being lauded and applauded not just by its own supporters but by [market analysts].” Clearly a bad example for impressionable bankers.
However, after pointing the finger at every other sector Mr Gleeson nobly conceded that following the crowd simply did not absolve his fellow senior bankers.
“The point I just made makes no excuse whatsoever for anyone who followed [Anglo’s] bad example. But it does make up a small part of the explanation,” he said.
And on this gracious note one can only assume had it all gone right, society would have been treated to an equally systematic singling out for praise.
Mr Gleeson’s speech certainly makes it hard to believe that a banker can take credit for anything.
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