by David Malone
Before I get stuck in, I want to make it clear. it is not my intent to paint Depfa as angels and HRE as devils. Depfa did stupid things. Their funding problems were not so dissimilar to Northern Rock’s. But Depfa had far better assets. And therein is part of the story.
So what went wrong? And why did HRE buy Depfa when it was already going wrong?
The fact is HRE bought Depfa and did so after the debt wave had already curled and started to break. But then again why shouldn’t the Germans be as thick as the Brits at RBS who at almost the same time bought ABN Ambro?
The question that always circles however, is did Depfa knowingly lie to HRE about their problems? Did they somehow withhold ugly problems? Well according to one of the very senior bankers, who was there and had full and complete access to the deal, and who agreed to talk to me on condition of anonymity, it would have been very hard for Depfa to hide anything. Inside the bank there was a secure room where ALL the bank’s data, all its books and accounts were available to the two boards of Directors during the months the deal was being negotiated. This room was run and controlled by a senior German employee. According to my source the HRE people looked VERY carefully at EVERYTHING.
This still leaves the possibility that there was a board within the board at Depfa and this inner circle was somehow concealing things even from the rest of the bank and board. The stuff of conspiracy stories which I am not much given to. Could there have been a board within the board? I have evidence there was; first hand testimony from someone who was there.
Interestingly this person does not believe the purpose of an inner group was to hoodwink HRE. If anything it was to keep some of Depfa’s own board slightly out of the loop.
All in all it does not seem as if Depfa lied to HRE or concealed any hidden debts. So if HRE didn’t buy Depfa because they were sold a pup, why did they? And particularly why did they pay 2 billion over its book value!
Depfa’s collapse was due to being unable to find funding. In other words the same idiocy as killed Northern Rock. But it’s the differences from Northern Rock that are important. Let’s look at the time line. Northern Rock collapsed in September of 2007. It did so because it could not get the short term funding it relied upon to keep its loans rolling over. The wholesale funding market locked it out. Why? Because the lenders in the market, other banks, were worried that Northern Rock’s assets were so dodgy that their ability to repay became highly doubtful.
Note that at the time the HRE/Depfa deal was being signed Depfa was NOT locked out of the markets; it was a whole year later that Depfa found itself unable to get funding. This document by the huge law firm Herbert Smith says (see p. 8) written just after the bail out in 08, makes it clear Depfa was having problems, they had about 35 billion euros of debt that needed funding in the markets and those markets were seizing up. Both Depfa and HRE knew about this funding need before the merger. But crucially Depfa was NOT locked out. It did not collapse in 2007 but was a going concern for another year. Why was that? What made them different from Norther Rock and others who did collapse in 2007?
The reason is simple, its funding worries were off-set by the fact that Depfa had some of the best, most solid gold assets of any bank. As noted in part one as many as 80% of their assets were rated higher than the bank itself or the banks lending to it. THAT is why HRE were so interested in Depfa and were even willing to buy it for 2 billion over book value.
HRE knew exactly how Depfa funded itself. There is NO WAY those details could have been hidden. We know that both banks were aware of funding problems. Let’s just note in passing that advising Depfa on the merger/sale was Goldman Sachs. So Goldman too would have known all there was to know about Depfa’s funding problems. Hang on to this.
It is worth pausing for a moment to understand how Depfa funded itself. It becomes important later. Depfa’s business was making large loans to cities and states for public works. 100% pure gold assets. Government backed all the way. It funded them by selling Pfandbrief which the Landesbanks and others bit their hand off to get hold of. The Pfandbrief typically is a bond for 5-7 years. But Depfa,like Northern Rock and ALL the big banks, swapped this long dated debt funding for shorter debt/funding. The idea seems foolish now, and I think it is foolish, but the risk managers I have spoken to still adhere to the holy writ of relying on short term market funding. I’ll explore this piece of banking some other time. But what is important is the Depfa’s reliance on short term wholesale funding was nothing unusual. It was the norm rather than the exception.
Back to the story.
Unlike Depfa, HRE had a legacy of poor quality assets, which I wrote about in Dominoes falling from the East. HRE had also been aggressively expanding its business in Real Estate and we know from the subsequent bails of HRE’s own collapsed debts that, as this article written in 2009 makes clear,
In reality, HRE was a ticking time bomb and this is the reason it had run into liquidity problems (By the way, this is much the way I see Northern Rock – which was also nationalized by the UK government). The company has massive commercial property (CRE) exposure and the CRE market is imploding in financial centers like Frankfurt, London and Dublin and elsewhere. HRE is highly leveraged to these places.
So it’s not just me who is saying that Depfa may have triggered events but the main blast was from within HRE. HRE was a ticking bomb and HRE’s board thought buying Depfa was the way to diffuse it. HRE also relied on wholesale funding, but unlike Depfa, didn’t have great assets. It was therefore more like Northern Rock than Depfa. HRE’s poor assets would have also, and this is my speculation, have meant HRE would have started to have problems on the Repo market. Remember repo is the oxygen of overnight funding. It is also what destroyed Lehmans. Lehman’s assets became distrusted and eventually other banks would not accept them as collateral for repo funding.
I think this is what HRE were worried about and why they were so desperate to buy Depfa. Depfa had what HRE didn’t – assets for the all important repo market. That is what they were trying to buy. Remember, funding problems are a threat to survival like starvation. But being unable to repo is not being able to get just one more breath.
My source tells me that HRE thought that by buying Depfa’s absolutely top quality assets, HRE would be upgraded by the ratings agencies and be able to breath again on the repo market. But instead, as my source said, “The minute HRE bought Depfa, the rating agencies downgraded Depfa.”
The merger ended with the worst of both worlds. Where each bank had exposure to one kind of risk HRE to credit risk, Depfa to funding (though I think HRE actually had both) by coming together they united the nitro with the glycerin. Sheer banking genius. Depfa brought funding worries to the marriage, HRE brought credit rating downgrades. I love you too darling.
So why did the whole thing wait a year until Oct ’08 to collapse? And what finally brought it all down?
So now we come to the nub of it. We have created the bomb with equal parts funding crisis and credit risk but even so nothing exploded for a year. During that year other banks went down. So what was it that jolted the container and set it off?
Well we know that Depfa’s funding was the trigger. So what happened to it? Turns out, while other banks like Northern Rock collapsed Depfa didn’t, because it had a sugar daddy funder. A big funder who was always happy to take Depfa’s Pfandbrief long term debt and fund it with shorter term money. Depfa’s sugar daddy was AIG’s Paris subsidiary, Banque AIG.
That should give you a bad feeling. AIG’s problems started as far back as ’06. Certainly by the 1st quarter of ’07 AIG had had to write down a 20 billion dollar loss. But the Dow was still going up. So there was still plenty of money around. By the time HRE and Depfa had kissed and exchanged vows, AIG had been downgraded and faced the first of what would turn out to be many Collateral calls. This first one was for $14 billion. Oops.
It was at this point that Northern Rock found there was no more funding. But HRE/Depfa survived.
Banque AIG in Paris was still in business, still funding Depfa’s needs. Banque AIG was not a small affair. It was systemically important for many banking clients in Europe for swapping one short of funding for another, for hedging and for derivatives. But it was also getting itself into a bit of a funding pickle. In part this was just its share of the over all implosion AIG was undergoing world wide. In part, I think, it was Paris’s own problem.
Banque AIG in Paris was an essential part of AIG’s funding mechanism. It was part of what was called AIG Financial Products (AIG-FP) whose notorious central office was AIG in London. This is where all the ‘losses were made’ and where the obligatory ‘rogue’ trader-type villain, Mr Joseph “Iron Hand” Cassano was in charge. What is a little less well known is that most of, if not all of London’s deals were routed through Banque AIG in Paris, where the deals were all supposed to be ‘reviewed’. And we know that as far as Depfa was concerned their funding was from Banque AIG.
So why tell you this? Well, on 31st of August 2007 a new branch of AIG-FP was set up in Ireland, AIG-FP Matched Funding (Ireland) Plc. Why? And why then and not before? I can’t know of course. But this is how it smells to me.
Why did any of the banks in our story end up going to Ireland? For access to money that liked the lax and laid back, ‘we have neither teeth nor balls’ regulatory atmosphere. AIG had been getting funds just fine for years. Suddenly, when AIG is in all sorts of trouble and its own funding is starting to get dicey it suddenly opens a brand new branch – in Ireland.
In under a month, on 25th September 2007 to be precise, AIG-FP Ireland has issued a funding prospectus for $20 billion. AIG is already beginning to feel the heat by now and wholesale funding has already locked out Northern Rock precipitating a bank run 11 days earlier.
To me, the fact that AIG-FP opened a branch in Ireland is a hint that its normal funding was, at the very least, in need of reinforcing, if not replacing with ‘other’ sources which could be best found in Dublin. So now Depfa’s sugar daddy funder is alongside it in Ireland looking for the SAME money as everyone else, such as HRE, for example. This situation does not fill me with confidence.
But would Depfa or HRE have known of this development at the time it was doing the deal with HRE? I doubt it. AIG would not share any plans with customers. Even ones to whom it was a sugar daddy. So did anyone know? Well it’s just a little footnote but it turns out that none other than Goldman Sachs was arranging and advising AIG-FP Ireland on its funding adventure.
No way would Goldman have told one client (Depfa) what another (AIG) was doing. So Depfa did not know from Goldman about any troubles at Banque AIG. But Goldman knew. Goldman was advising Depfa on merging/selling itself to HRE for 2 billion over its book value while it also knew that Depfa’s main funder was probably in more trouble than the rest of the market suspected.
I would love to know, but never will, if Goldman had any short position on the new HRE/Depfa bank it had helped broker?
In short what I hope to have shown is that Depfa did not ‘bring down’ HRE. HRE was going to collapse anyway. And buying Depfa was an ruinously ill-thought out attempt to solve HRE’s credit crisis. The plan back-fired and made every one’s position worse than it had been.
The entity which actually brought down HRE was AIG. It was their implosion along with the general shock of Lehmans which cut off Depfa from funding which had kept it alive for a year after other banks collapsed. So it was the Americans who brought down HRE not the Irish if you really want a scape goat.
And the only people who perhaps knew the whole HRE/Depfa deal was destined to end in disaster and bankruptcy, were Goldman. Goldman knew both how Depfa was funded an WHO was their lynch pin funder, while also knowing the true state of that funder (AIG-FP).
SO to circle back to where I started. It is NOT as simple case of a dodgy Irish bank bringing down a solid German one. If anything the opposite is just as true. And therefore it is NOT the case that Ireland has some moral debt it owes to ANYONE to bail them out.
The threats are already coming thick and fast. The Irish people MUST defend themselves, their children and their country. Their leaders haven’t and won’t.
David Malone is the author of the book Debt Generation. You can read and listen to excerpts from his book here: http://www.debtgeneration.org/index.php