Banking Inquiry: ‘Doing your level best was not good enough’

Dermot Gleeson came before the banking inquiry not to make excuses but to provide explanations.

Banking Inquiry: ‘Doing your level best was not good enough’

So he said on more than one occasion yesterday, as the members of the inquiry committee prodded and probed him about his time as chairman of AIB.

Gleeson’s appearance was the first from a major figure in the commercial banks which led the charge to the economic abyss in 2008. Interestingly, he is not a career banker.

His route to the chair at AIB had its origins when he represented the bank in his capacity as a barrister at the DIRT inquiry back in 2000. On that occasion, he was there to question others on behalf of the bank.

He obviously made an impression on his client, as he was soon brought onto the bank board and fast-tracked to the chairman’s job.

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For this Oireachtas inquiry, he was required to provide answers as to how the bank got involved in something that made the DIRT scandal look like a teddy bear’s picnic.

His evidence had two main threads. He shone a little light on the night of the bank guarantee, when he was one of those who spent most of that night waiting around for a decision from the inner government sanctum.

He also attempted to explain how all the bankers and all the brainy financial whizzkids failed to see the property bubble was en route to bursting.

On the guarantee, he referenced a piece of paper that he and AIB chief executive Eugene Sheehy had brought with them to Government Buildings on the night in question. Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty initially seized on the paper as if it might be a smoking gun. It had a formula of words setting out what the AIB honchos felt was the type of guarantee the Government should put in place. Was this the proof that the Government had rolled over to the bankers on that fateful night? Close, but no cigar.

“What we asked for was a four-bank guarantee,” said Mr Gleeson. He and his colleagues had come to the conclusion that Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide were dead ducks. They suggested providing liquidity of €10bn — to be funded by AIB and Bank of Ireland — to take Anglo to the following weekend, when it could be nationalised at a time when world markets were in repose.

This is the first time that such a strategy has been revealed in stark terms. Mr Gleeson went home that night under the impression that such a strategy might have been implemented, but only heard in the morning that the two dead ducks were included in the guarantee.

For those who believe the guarantee was the major agent of the years of austerity that followed, this stuff will provide nourishment. However, it’s unclear how much different the national debt would have been if the four-bank strategy had been implemented.

He also reminded the committee of just how crazy was the world back then, pointing out that on the day after the guarantee, Goldman Sachs had recommended to investors to buy shares in Anglo, the dead duck bank.

On the bigger issue of blowing the bubble, Mr Gleeson presented a picture of a bank that thought itself diligent in patrolling risk and, like so many others, believing that the good times could keep rolling because all the experts said that that was how it was going to be.

“In 2007, there was a strong national consensus that Ireland was on track for rapid sustainable expansion,” he said. He claimed, as did his former colleague Donal Forde later in the day, that all the indicators were that there was a continuing shortage of housing in the country, and a requirement to keep building.

The honchos in AIB subscribed to the ‘soft landing’ theory. They performed stress tests, brought in independent economists, and scratched their heads, but rubbed their hands at the prospect of things only getting better, the bubble growing bigger.

Then there was Anglo. “Customers always said ‘why can’t you be more like Anglo’,” Gleeson recalled. “Commentators repeatedly said that Anglo was the best bank, it was determined by one to be the best bank in the world.”

So AIB looked into its loan book and saw a big Anglo-shaped hole.

Gleeson’s explanations did at times sound like excuses, but his presentation put clear blue water between AIB and Anglo, certainly in cultural terms. The obnoxious ‘masters of the universe’ attitude illustrated in the likes of the Anglo tapes does not appear to have been replicated in AIB. What does come across is that the executives found it easy to accept that history was, for once, not about to repeat itself by leading to a burst bubble.

In September 2008, weeks before the guarantee, but at a time when the financial world was already capsizing, the AIB board recommended an increased dividend of €270m for shareholders. Gleeson agreed that, in hindsight, it had been a bad decision, but it was also an indication of how far immersed were these bankers in a fantasy world.

No more. When invited yesterday, the former chairman of AIB ate his humble pie. “It’s a salutary thing when you discover for the first time, in your 60s, that doing your level best was not good enough,” he said.

“I was a teacher, a barrister, worked for the government [he served as Attorney General in the 1990s] …and I did my level best in this job but the outcome was entirely unsatisfactory.”

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