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Jobless banker? Apply to CRO

Posted on: September 4th, 2011

So you thought the bankers were reeling? Far from it. Last week they scored a bullseye. We bank-bashers woke up on Monday morning with a flea in our ears.

We had led with our chins, excoriating the bankers for refusing to lend to small businesses. Suddenly, an independent report left us on the canvass.

The referee in the war of words between small business and the banks had awarded the bout to the banks.

John Trethowan, head of the Credit Review Office (CRO), challenged the protests from small businesses that the banks are refusing credit. His quarterly report blamed small businesses for their low- quality loan applications, claiming that they were not providing the required information. And in a killer blow, he insisted that the demand for credit was “slacker” this year.

The Irish Bankers Federation was euphoric. They issued a gleeful press release welcoming “the INDEPENDENT assessment by the Credit Review Office that small and medium enterprises which present a sound business proposition, supported by proper financial information and credible projections, are successful in their credit applications.”

A knockout. The bankers had been wronged.

It was time to grovel. If an INDEPENDENT body had given this verdict, we bank critics were in the manure business.

Yet Trethowan and his CRO colleagues merited a little closer scrutiny before we threw in the towel. John the judge, whose verdict the Irish Bankers Federation calls “independent”, turned out to boast a fascinating CV.

Referee Trethowan is a career banker. He is a former chief executive, chief operating officer and director of National Irish Bank. Indeed, the banking mafia loves him. Five years ago he was honoured by his fellow bankers when they made him president of the Institute of Bankers. Others to have held this lofty position in recent years include Brian Goggin of Bank of Ireland, Eugene Sheehy and Tom Mulcahy of AIB and Ted McGovern of EBS. None is remembered with affection by the Irish nation.

John’s career may be seen to give him a certain outlook as chief CRO reviewer, but no doubt it is balanced by the backgrounds of the assistant reviewers, the CRO guys who join him in judging appeals by small businesses aggrieved at their bank’s refusal to give them credit?

Just to make sure, I asked the CRO to give me the names of the reviewers who helped Trethowan to judge each appeal. They refused. Eventually it agreed to give their CVS, but not their names.

So 12 headless CVs arrived by email. No names attached. A ridiculous jigsaw puzzle faced me. Could I put names on the CVs?

It was unnecessary. The CVs were highly informative. The first nine ‘assistant reviewers’ had one thing in common: they were all bankers. Indeed Trethowan and his gang of reviewers had 300 years of banking experience between them.

The other three names made up what was called a “non-banking panel.” The first of those non-bankers was a nameless gentleman, who had spent much of his career as a director of bankers Citigroup and JP Morgan! He turned out to be Ian Talbot, boss of Chambers Ireland, a body that happens to have a joint venture with the Irish Bankers Federation.

When I protested to the CRO about its refusal to release the names, I got on my high horse, insisting that the public had a right to know as it was a publicly funded body.

The spokesman riposted triumphantly. “No it is not publicly funded. It is funded by the banks”.

Time for a new ref.

It is a fair bet that hidden behind the CVs are some pretty well-known ex-bankers bearing household names. Recently, such ex-bankers have been making a bit of a comeback. Some of those with the highest profiles during the property crash are resurfacing, rehabilitated.

Last week, Cormac McCarthy, chief executive of Ulster Bank during the property crash, landed on the board of Paddy Power bookmakers. Is he now to advise the bookmakers how to gamble on their property portfolio?

Cormac’s Ulster was a lender to dozens of property developers including Sean Dunne and Bernard McNamara. His decisions contributed to the parent bank, RBS, falling into the arms of the British government. He was the pioneer of 100 per cent mortgages. In 2008, he trousered €1m in recognition of his success. Since his departure, Ulster has written off billions in property losses.

Happily, rumours that Paddy Neary, regulator without parallel, had been given a job as a director of Anglo Irish have been scotched; but Gary Kennedy — who slipped out of Allied Irish Banks as finance director in 2005 but stayed on to advise them on risk –quietly re-emerged on the board of Anglo . Beside him at board meetings sits Maurice Keane, once a director of the old Bank of Ireland and unrepentant supporter of Jim Flavin in the insider dealing court case at DCC.

Directors of Anglo who resigned in ignominy after the revelations that Sean Fitzpatrick had warehoused his loans at Irish Nationwide have never looked back. Ned Sullivan reaps six figure rewards for chairing Greencore (Sell the shares) and Eircom (Switch to Blueface). His little accident at Anglo has not hindered his position at the top of public companies. Nor has ex-Anglo director Gary McGann suffered any setback to his career as boss at Smurfits although both McGann’s and Sullivan’s latest CVs modestly omit to list their time toiling at Seanie’s bank.

Mike Soden, chief executive of the Bank of Ireland until 2004, has recently been made a director of the Central Bank.

One of his successors, Richie Boucher, whose board membership at Bank of Ireland began in 2005, was actually promoted to the top job despite his weakness for property during the boom. He has doggedly dug in and still retains the confidence of a board, many of whom have been squatting in office for far too long. Semtex alone, it seems, will remove them.

At the bank itself two board members who stepped down as directors this year, Denis Donovan and Des Crowley, still hold their powerful executive posts, prompting accusations of mere window dressing.

Even at Irish Life, chief executive Kevin Murphy was yet another banking insider to win promotion from finance director after the fall of chief executive, Denis Casey. Last week Murphy was exposed by appalling figures revealing that IL&P’s mortgage arrears had soared, causing losses to multiply by ten to €349m.

Many of those who left banks under a cloud landed peaches of jobs. Ireland was not big enough for deposed Bank of Ireland governor Richard Burrows, who fell straight into the chair of UK giant BAT, while Donal Forde, head of AIB (Ireland) in times of all manner of trouble, re-emerged as the €140,000 a year boss of a humanitarian charity, the Red Cross. Forde’s appointment was possibly the most puzzling since Ann Fitzgerald, head of the Irish Association of Investment Managers, departed the high charging investment managers club to fight for the rights of Ireland’s humble consumers at the National Consumer Agency.

In corporate Ireland if you are an insider you are protected. If you are a banker –when all else fails — you can always apply to the CRO for a gig as an ‘independent’ referee of fellow-bankers’ battles with small business.