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Where Were The Auditors

Posted on: January 12th, 2009 1 Comment

There is a glimmer of hope for Anglo Irish Banks. As the big meeting beckons in the Mansion House on Friday, directors are tumbling from their pedestals.

First ,chairman Sean FitzPatrick and director Lar Bradshaw fell on their swords, then chief executive David Drumm hit the tarmac. And last Wednesday financial boss Willie McAteer resigned. Suddenly, the guard is changing. The big three are gone. A fourth was caught in the cauldron.

In a sense they have all cheated the gallows. Do not expect them to be in the Mansion House on Friday to face questioning from shareholders.

So, hopefully new chairman Donal O’Connor is about to spill the beans on their behalf. The meeting has been called to persuade shareholders to vote through the Government’s deal with Anglo, hatched far away from the eyes and ears of small investors. Shareholders (of which I am a tiny one) are entitled to make a decision based on accurate information, not blindfold on the recommendation of those who tolerated the previous board’s antics.

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan must be relieved to see the top brass at Anglo’s board riding off into the sunset, hopefully morphing the bank into a less cavalier outfit.

The minister seems to have drawn blood. New directors will soon be appointed. Perhaps we will see fewer cowboys and genuine independents. Most important of all, the new full-time boss, to be appointed before Friday, must be untainted by association with Ireland’s banking system.

But if Anglo is to make a clean breast of things, shareholders are entitled to know what really happened at the bank in past years. And in recent days. Have new directors Alan Dukes and Frank Daly already flexed their muscles? Did they force the exit of McAteer? Is the Lenihan cleansing strategy finally beginning to reap dividends?

Lots of questions need to be answered by the anonymous, non-executive board, even though the main players will be absent.

The surviving part-timers should be challenged about how much they knew of the activities of FitzPatrick and the departed trio. The key question is this: was Sean Fitz able to do as he pleased ?

One or two well-placed questions to Anglo director Gary McGann — chief executive of Smurfit Kappa which Sean FitzPatrick also chaired — should help to establish where the power lay in the Anglo Irish Bank’s axis. Ditto Anglo director Ned Sullivan who chaired Greencore while Sean was recruited as a director there. How come there were so many inter-board relationships?

Yet the board is only one target for Friday. More pertinently, shareholders have a right to demand serious answers from others who acted on their behalf.

First, the auditors. They will be at the meeting. Let us ask O’Connor to wheel out the blue bloods from Ernst & Young for a few run-of-the-mill questions.

Ernst & Young are among the biggest auditors in the world. So they are presumably professional and conscientious.

Anglo shareholders paid a stunning €1.8m audit fee to them to ensure that the accounts were transparent and that no one was pulling the wool over their eyes. That is Ernst &Young’s job. They are not there to help out the staff, the management or the directors. They are engaged to give an independent opinion that the accounts are accurate. That, at least, is the theory. Our 18 carat gold auditors, E&Y, gave that opinion. All was well.

So the lads in E&Y will not mind being asked about Sean Fitz’s €87m loan?

Like, did they know about it?

If the answer is “Yes” it begs a few more questions. Like, was it legal? Like, why they did not insist on this being highlighted in the accounts? Like how they could have allowed such an obvious piece of evasion to persist for eight long years?

Like, did they bring it to the attention of the audit committee of the board?

Or was it just a dark secret, only known to a chosen few insiders?

If Ernst & Young reply “No”, that they did not know about the loan, it begs the obvious challenge: why not? Did they simply take a photograph of the accounts on the end-of-year date and stop at that? Did they not look at large movements of funds?

How come the same transaction repeated itself for eight consecutive years without E&Y taking out the yellow card?

Several shareholders have been in touch with me insisting that they would never have bought Anglo shares if they knew that the company was lending so generously to its chairman. Some are threatening a class action.

Satisfactory answers are necessary.

The auditors should also be asked if they agree with rival PricewaterhouseCoopers’ later conclusions that Anglo was solvent. And did they base their positive opinion on valuations provided solely by staff at Anglo itself?

The board must answer questions. The auditors must answer questions. But what about the regulator? Despite the announcment of his resignation on Friday night, he should still appear before an Oireachtas committee on Tuesday. Surely he should also attend the Anglo agm on Friday , as he is not leaving office until January 31? Rody Molloy of Fas took the stand at the Public Accounts Committee after he had walked the plank.

Did Paddy carry out any spot inspections on Anglo in recent years? A report from the Comptroller and Auditor General recently revealed that in one year, at least, no spot checks of any sort were carried out on the banks. The regulator must have simply assumed that all was well. No point in interfering with a bank making millions in apparent profits. He will have taken some comfort from the knowledge that most of Anglo’s profits are made on legitimate investments and loans. And the regulator should be at the meeting to answer questions about the mysterious position of entrepreneur Sean Quinn.

Quinn is the enigma in the Anglo fiasco. The Cavan billionaire owns 15 per cent of Anglo. He will have a large say in whether the resolutions are passed. But questions must be asked about the financial position of the largest stakeholder. Did the bank lend him the money to buy its own shares? What security did he provide? And above all, are other parts of his business — including Quinn-Direct Insurance and Quinn Health — providing security? Would the liquidation of Anglo bring down other large companies linked to Quinn?

There has always been a suspicion that the failure simply to liquidate Anglo is because of the knock-on effects elsewhere. It might force a domino effect on other banks.

Valuations might be written down, putting pressure on rivals, which have lent to the same developers, secured on the same developments.

Or that even the mighty Quinn might feel the breeze: the “appalling vista” excuse, which could be credible for a small economy like Ireland.

Shareholders and taxpayers have a right to know if there is a hidden agenda.

Any glimmer of hope is important for Ireland. Confidence has taken a massive blow in the past 12 to 18 months. Let us hope that this Anglo AGM, stormy as it promises to be, will mark a watershed.