Ten years ago, I took my family on a trip to Dublin, Ireland, and while we saw many wonderful and delightful things—ranging from some of the best street music I’ve ever heard to an awe-inspiring excursion to Newgrange—one of the images that has stuck with me most was one I had expected the least.
Cranes. Cranes everywhere.
The year was 2006, and Ireland, like much of the Western world, was still riding the top curve of a financial bubble that was about to burst. As an EU state with a low corporate tax rate, lots of foreign investment, and strong emigration, Ireland’s economy was dubbed the “Celtic Tiger,” In Dublin especially, it fueled a real estate boom that fueled other booms—but to a visitor, you just saw new construction everywhere in that ancient city. It was jarring to me. I knew Ireland had transformed itself into an offshore financial center; as I covered the insurance industry, the rise of Ireland’s prominence as a captive domicile paralleled its rise as a destination for other financial services. I just wasn’t prepared for how much the Irish economy was suddenly wedded to what appeared to be a magical amount of money.
Neither were the Irish, apparently. When the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009 struck, Ireland was one of the first countries whose banking sector went to its knees. The failure of Anglo Irish bank in particular prompted a massive EU bailout. In the financial chaos that followed, between 2009 and 2013, Ireland’s overall wealth dropped by €18,000 per person, the highest per-capita drop in the Eurozone. The poorest Irish were particularly hard hit, which added outrage on top of hardship as the country slipped into a deep and painful recession.
So it’s not exactly surprising that some eight years later, some of Ireland’s top bankers are going to jail over it. Just last week, three top executives with Anglo Irish were sentenced to prison for various counts of fraud and market manipulation, mainly for a scheme in which they lent money to each other and falsely assigned the money as outside deposits by customers. The idea was this would make the severely over-leveraged bank appear more stable than it was, falsely inflating its worth by some €8 billion. For their actions, the executives will face prison terms of two to four years, which to some will seem light, considering how many lives were impacted by these crimes. Two more top Anglo Irish executives await sentencing. And there might be more to follow.
What is perhaps most important about all of this isn’t those who were convicted, but that Ireland convicted at all. Ireland is only the second country to jail senior bankers for the financial disaster of 2008-2009. The other is Iceland.
Iceland, in stark contrast to the rest of the world, moved fairly swiftly against its own finance sector after the Great Crash. Like Ireland, it too had transformed itself into a financial center, courting offshore clients in particular, and for a time, Reykyavik was utterly flush with cash. But when the crash came, Iceland suffered badly, with serious bank failures that exposed a fundamentally weak system rife with bad behavior, poor internal compliance, and simply abysmal risk management. To date, 26 finance executives have been sent to jail for their misdeeds that contributed to the country’s financial collapse. For a time, Iceland stood out as a lone beacon of hope to those so outraged by the financial crisis that they wanted to see all bankers go behind bars. But the truth, as usual, is more complex than that.
Iceland may very well prosecute more bankers, but in the meantime, concerns of crony capitalism are still pretty widespread, underscored by a move in March by Iceland’s policymakers to relax the prison terms for those financiers already in jail. Indeed, it seemed like Iceland might be stepping back from its long retribution against its own finance sector. But in April, the Panama Papers leak revealed that Iceland’s own prime minister had connections to an offshore bank he neglected to tell anyone about. And not just any bank; one that had been bailed out during the crisis. Immense public pressure, spurred by smoldering anger over the financial crisis, forced his swift resignation.
Meanwhile, the United States’ own banking sector—as well as that of the United Kingdom, Germany (whose bankers bought huge amounts of awful commingled debt), France, and elsewhere—has shown little to no interest in actually prosecuting bankers for their role in the disaster. Why?
The easy answer is that much of what laid the groundwork for the crisis wasn’t exactly illegal. It was just phenomenally stupid, lazy, and careless. But even if illegality was at the heart of the crisis, that might not have been enough to really drive the kind of social outcry that resulted in arrests in Iceland and Ireland.
Both Iceland and Ireland are both relatively small countries without a lot of direct foreign investment to fuel growth. Becoming a finance sector requires little infrastructure buildup or massive capital outlays—just ask any of the 35 or so U.S. states that have decided over the last 10 years to get into the captive insurance game. And so-called paper industries are great for a country’s collective profit margin, but they bring with them what some call the “finance curse,” that is, a situation where the finance sector gains outsized influence over the governance of an entire country. Not only does it go beyond the reach of regulators, but it tends to drive other bad behaviors outside of its own immediate sphere of influence. It’s similar to the “resource curse” or “petroleum curse” we see in places like Afghanistan, Congo, and Venezuela, all places with vast potential for wealth and an endemic inability to develop it without falling into a deep cycle of corruption, crime, tyranny, and violence.
A recent article in the Atlantic goes into depth about how finance centers tend to have greater crime rates (among other problems) than when they weren’t finance centers. It’s easy to hand-wave away the troubles of a small Caribbean island on the OECD gray list, but a lot less so for places like the Isle of Jersey. And, yet, that is what becoming a finance center has done to these places: transformed them into something at once richer and poorer than before. That certainly appears to be the case in both Iceland and Ireland, which also explains a willingness to prosecute there that we haven’t seen elsewhere.
When I was explaining this story to my son, he immediately came up with a comparison. He said Iceland and Ireland were like houses built on stilts, except they were only built on a single stilt, so when it got knocked out, the house fell down. Countries like the United States, Germany, etc., had diverse enough economies—they had enough stilts underneath their houses, as it were—that when one stilt got knocked over, the house wobbled, but stayed up.
It’s easy to be right when you’re speaking in hindsight, but one has to consider that when a 13-year-old boy can instantly see the problem, it really is inexcusable that so many others couldn’t, or didn’t. Just as richesse is the enemy of good risk management, so too it is the enemy of good compliance. Thankfully, the most recent financial disaster seems to have only strengthened the cause of compliance and the position of compliance officers themselves, but memories are short. While Ireland’s economy is still a few years off from true recovery, and the rest of the world surely isn’t going great guns, things are considerably better than they were during the dark days of 4Q 2008 and 1Q 2009, and it won’t be long before we start seeing strange new methods of risk-taking by the financial world that might bear an uncanny resemblance to disaster-makers of the past. Or a push to relax financial regulations to allow for more fluid risk-taking.
For compliance, the task ahead is clear: to watch for these resurgent practices, or new novelties that go outside the lines of an organization’s accepted practices and principles, and stand firm against them … for the good of the organization, for the good of the profession, and for the good of everybody. Hold the line. Somebody has to do it.