Anglo bestseller by Limerick’s Simon reads like a real thriller

Alan Owens

Reporter:

Alan Owens

AT 2pm on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, in a co-ordinated action, workers began removing the heavy steel letters from the front of Anglo Irish Bank branches around the country.

AT 2pm on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, in a co-ordinated action, workers began removing the heavy steel letters from the front of Anglo Irish Bank branches around the country.

In Limerick, at 98 Henry Street, a small group of onlookers – the Limerick Leader among them – watched quietly as the letters were removed. In Dublin a media scrum took place as photographers jockeyed for position, eager to capture the best view of the physical end of maligned institution, which had brought Ireland to the very brink of bankruptcy, the bank set to cost the state in excess of €29 billion due to its nationalisation.

This scene is referred to in Simon Carswell’s book ‘Anglo Republic - Inside The Bank That Broke Ireland’, currently sitting at the top of the non-fiction bestseller list in the country for the second week in a row. The Irish Times’ finance correspondent – who hails from Limerick – has captured the life of this ultimately toxic bank in forensic detail, from its humble beginnings to crippling downfall, Ireland’s most aggressive bank brought to its knees by the global downturn and arrogant lending practices, the story, in Carswell’s words, of “how a small Dublin bank became too big fail and too rotten to save”.

Limerick accountant Tom Duffy played a role in the bank’s early years, but it was Sean FitzPatrick, future chief executive and chairman, who was key to the bank’s aggressive expansion, believing that “we can’t make money if we don’t lend money”.

By 2007, the bank was being proclaimed as the ‘best bank in the world’, had seen shareholder profits rise 826 per cent in the previous seven years after a period of extraordinary growth, and it was thought that Anglo had found “a new way of doing banking”. Cracks, indeed gaping chasms, had already appeared behind the scenes due to its overexposure to the property market and reckless lending, yet this was ignored by the bank until it was too late.

Still, at this point, Anglo chief executive David Drumm travelled to Limerick to meet Fordmount boss Michael Daly to encourage him, although already bankrolled by the bank to the tune of around €300 million, to pursue property deals outside Ireland to a potential billion euro value. Equity was not an issue, Drumm told Daly.

“I think it is a very good example of the wider story, a good local story to explain what Anglo was doing on a very broad level and Daly’s story tells the bigger story very well,” says Carswell, who hails from Raheen and went to Crescent College Comprehensive.

“That’s a very good story to explain two things; one, Anglo looking to expand out of Ireland, because it went to Daly and liked what he did in Limerick, but also the investment made in Germany and it shows how Anglo was a player, rather than a lender, coming to its own developers with deals.

“The bank was proactively seeking out new business. Banks don’t operate like that, they wait for customers to come to them, but this is all part of Drumm’s strategy when he took over at the bank in 2005, he said they had too much property in Ireland, so they should invest in property in Europe.

“In Daly’s story, he went into court and said the personal guarantees really weren’t worth the paper they were written on. At one point his personal wealth was €50m, yet he had accepted guarantees for €160m, so it was worthless that he would guarantee those debts with his net worth - there was no way the bank could come after him, because there was no way he could meet the guarantees he had agreed.”

Carswell’s is a vivid account of the life of the bank, with fascinating material gleaned from a wealth of key sources, former directors, executives and board members, allowing the reader to get behind the scenes at the bank.

“I wasn’t sure what the appetite would be among the public for a book on Anglo,” says Carswell, “but it is very important, because I would like to think that there are very clear lessons in the book as well that people can take from it. I don’t for a second say what banking needs to do to change in the book, I think that is for another day. I felt it was important to try and forensically understand the decisions that were made in the bank - to actually get into some of these meetings and see how these decisions were arrived at.

“I think that, as a narrative story, it has the makings of a thriller about it, because in the run up to the guarantee [in September 2008], there was minute by minute panic as to how to save the bank, the bank themselves knew that they where getting into major difficulty. With the passage of time, I was able to get access to people to actually describe those events and other dramatic moments and I thought that story had never been told before.”

‘Anglo Republic’ (Penguin Ireland) is in bookshops now.