Monday, November 28, 2011

How badly did “FukTuk” Fuck Up? If at all?

I just had to use that title. “FukTuk” (with the fuk like some Brits say, well, you know...) is how Latvians often pronounce the acronym for the Financial and Capital Markets Commission, Finanšu un kapitāla tirgus komisija or FKTK, the financial markets supervision and regulatory commission. The agency has been getting a lot of criticism recently after the looting of Latvijas Krājbanka, the Latvian Savings Bank, and its parent bank, Lithuania's Snoras, by their main shareholder, Vladimir Antonov and his lackeys.
On the one hand, it would seem that by offering to resign, the head of FKTK (FCMC is the English acronym) Irēna Krūmane, has admitted that – here we go again – FKTK fucked up. But this is actually a wrong and ignorant interpretation of events, even if mistakes were made. The mistakes didn't concern the direct regulatory and supervisory functions of FKTK. It was more of a public relations problem (Krūmane, who was out of town, may have sent the wrong people with inadequate briefing on what to say, to explain the Krājbanka fiasco) and the problem of having to face down ignorant media and the public, screaming for someone's, anyone's blood.
Strictly speaking, Krūmane's resignation is like a head of the national police resigning because the crime rate isn't zero. Well, almost. To have a crime rate of zero, you would have to have one cop following, say, every one or two citizens (an impossibility) and also have absolutely no corrupt or fallible cops who could be persuaded to join, rather than fight criminals (after all there is a lot of money and excitement in crime).
That is not how the system of criminal justice and law works. It works mostly by self-regulation and a number of other individual and social mechanisms. Most people, for one reason or another, stay within sight of the boundaries set by The Ten Commandments, or at least those, that apply to transitive actions (those affecting the rights of others). That may exclude idolatry – the having of other gods, etc, and another “ultry” reserved for – adults – that goes with the coveting your neighbors' wife and all that. But it certainly covers stealing, slaying, and, to a large extent, bearing false witness. That is because you have to be pretty much of a sorry-ass, evil fucker to do any of that, and most people are not like that, or evolution would have reduced us thousands of years ago to a small, about to be extinct pack of upright apes snarling and fighting with each other for the last bananas in some remote jungle. That's not how things are.
Peer pressure and the need to have the respect of others are also powerful restraints on the urge to do any kind of batshit stuff, whether it harms anyone or not. Driving up to a cloister, blowing your horn in the middle of the night, waking the nuns and then mooning them standing on the roof of your car really doesn't hurt anyone and would make a great and gross teenage movie scene, but it is not what you want on the front page of the newpaper. Nor do you want to make the evening TV news for being shitfaced at the wheel of your car as the cameras show up and then go into a racist rant about Uigurs or some other obscure nationality as the police take you away. Nobody, well, almost nobody, wants that kind of shit.
It is more or less the same with the financial system. Like the police, Krūmane could reasonably go to sleep at night on the assumption that most of those she rides herd on would not simply up and break every rule for the hell of it. In fact, with two layers of checking and regulation provided by the internal controls and risk management of any financial organization, combined with regular checks by independent auditors, there is enough of a self-running system to keep things on the straight and level. Finally, there are the regulators, seeing to it that the others are at least equipped, set up and ready to do their jobs. This means credit committees, risk managers and a lot of double checking and signing off on stuff before any other people's money is utilized. That is what banks are – other people's and enterprises' money entrusted to the bank or other financial actor. One shouldn't fuck with that, nor go unpunished for doing so.
What happened at Krājbanka is that, despite most of the necessary checks, balances and scarecrows (the idea of being jailed in disgrace keeps fingers off the cash like a scarecrow spooks the crows)being in place, the bank's managing board chairman Ivars Priedītis did go batshit and pledge some LVL 100 million in assets as collateral for loans made to Vlad the dude with a sportcar jones and his various projects. Priedītis had been a pretty straight and honest guy before that, but the mo-fo simply went or was pushed over the edge into crime when he agree to sign off on the deals on an adventure of his own. Apparently, the rest of the bank management knew fuck-all about it, or maybe merely suspected something. They certainly didn't suspect Vlad, assuming that several national intelligence agencies could have the dude's past in Russia all wrong. So maybe he found the cash needed to start his bank in paper bag in a Moscow back alley. Hey, those were the days in the Wild, Wild East.
So what failed was not really Krūmane and the system under her. The system is based largely on trust (most information is not submitted by liars). What failed was one guy, perhaps a few more people going rogue. Some financial institutions with some of the best monitoring and internal controls have had traders cut loose and create enormous losses, if not bring the whole motherfucker down if they were unlucky enough. Taking the wrong side of some financial derivative instruments can cause losses big enough to warp spacetime around them, dwarfing anything that Priedītis pulled off. Lucky that that didn't happen in Latvia, which is not to say that it couldn't be done. Just most people in the business won't try it.
You can do all the checks and cross checks you want, but no system is God, and most run themselves adequately, thank you. It is foolish to think anything can or should be designed to be everywhere all at once. Don't blame the overseers for failing to do or be that.
By offering to resign, Krūmane has actually thrown herself on her sword as a PR stunt to restore some trust in the FKTK. The blogger and political scientist Iveta Kažoka made this point about trust in the financial system being undermined by Krūmane's communication style. Her appeal for Krūmane to resign was borderline strident. But for Krūmane it was probably a tactically right move to keep the dogs from tearing apart the institution by thowing herself to them (sword, now dogs is only a sign that it is late and I am tired from pulling all sorts of shit for my employer over the weekend in Stockholm to in order get and do an important interview). When it is all over, whoever takes her place should remember that sitting in that chair, no one will excuse you because sometimes things just happen (“honest Ivars” at Krājbanka went wacko), and they will crucify you for not being god even if you said you couldn't be.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Russian investment in the Baltics -- by "whitelist" only

It's beginning to look like 1995 all over again. That was the year that Banka Baltija, Latvia's largest bank at the time, was destroyed by economic crime. In fact, looking back, the whole bank was the economic crime. It was probably never intended to be anything else. The case with Latvijas Krājbanka or the The Latvian Savings Bank, is not identical. For one thing, Krājbanka has historically been around since 1924. During the Soviet era, it was one of the few institutions where private persons could keep their money on deposit. After Latvian independence, it was privatized in 2003 and in 2005 Krājbanka was acquired by Lithuania's Snoras Bank. Snoras Bank, in turn, was owned by Vladimir Antonov, a Russian “investor” now suspected of looting both Snoras and Krājbanka, who also attempted to buy Sweden's Saab.
Like Banka Baltija, Krājbanka's customers were mostly private persons. On its home page, the bank says it is (was now) one of the largest providers of financial services to private persons. When Banka Baltija crashed, tens of thousands of Latvians lost their often meager savings, which they had been criminally lured into depositing with the bank. Krājbanka's customers entrusted their money in good faith to a bank that had, in fact, worked as some kind of functioning bank for over 80 years. In short, the bank did what it promised its customers, up to some as yet indeterminate point at which Antonov started influencing the operations of Snoras and Krājbanka with criminal intent.
Whatever the sequence of events, the effects of deliberate looting and deception are being felt – thousands of customers have had their savings thrust into limbo (theoretically, they are covered up to EUR 100 000, but the payout will take time) and hundreds of businesses and government and municipal institutions. The total cost to society will be in hundreds of millons of LVL, including businesses ruined by the crash, small municipalities losing most of their funds and further unemployment triggered by all of this.
In some cases, the losses have been staggering. The Latvian State Radio and Television Center had more than LVL 24 million on deposit at Krājbanka, having chosen the bank as offering the best and safest terms for holding this amount of money. This is now lost, especially as Krājbanka is likely to be liquidated. The famous Latvian composer and musician Raimonds Pauls has lost most of his savings of some LVL 700 000 on deposit with Krājbanka. It also looks like significant funds – something like LVL 70 000 may have been put on deposit by the Latvian Filmmaker's Union.
Recriminations are already starting, just as they did when Banka Baltija fell apart. The Financial and Capital Markets Commission, Latvia's banking watchdog, is being blamed for missing the signs (or looking the other way) when it should have seen the shady deal in August that plundered Krājbanka of funds, diverted, it is said, to Antonov's private projects, including his attempts to buy Saab.
All things considered, though, it is impossible for any regulator or watchdog, no matter what resources it commands (such as the Securities Exchange Commission/SEC in the US) to double check on everyone, especially when criminals ar lying. Banka Baltija founder Aleksandrs Lavents and his managers lied systematically to auditors, who had neither the duty nor the capability to test every number and assertion offered by the bank with a lie detector. The Krājbanka case was different, but at some point, most likely due to the actions of Antonov, the bank turned into a fraud against its customer.
Moreover, Antonov's behavior seems to fit into a pattern of criminality and fraud by Russian so-called investors, who have either earned their money by some form of crime at home, investing the spoils of plundering and corrupting Russia into relatively benign Western businesses, or who are simply taking the worst of so-called Russian business practices into the West, like a gang of Wild West bandits riding into town on money bags rather than horses.
Antonov seems to fit into the latter pattern, making destructive “investments” in Lithuania and Latvia, attempting to get a foot in the door at Saab (hindered, at least, by the Swedish authorities who were aware of his possible organized crime connection). Antonov's father Alexander survived a shooting, an incident that casts light on what his lines of business were and possibly still are.
At the end of the day, the impact of the Krājbanka collapse will probably be less dramatic than Banka Baltija and far less than Parex Bank's collapse in 2008, which cost the government around LVL 1 billion in bailout spending and almost made the country an international basket case (when the basket says IMF on it, it is just a temporary resting place until your limbs grow back). Parex Bank's collapse also has elements of criminal sleaze, but it was done by locals and perhaps with a bit more sophistication. There is a difference between getting rich owning a bank that earns money serving shady characters and doing for them (as well as its other customers) what it promises to do, rather than breaching its trust to depositors and customers and simply stealing or squandering their money. In any case, the full story of Parex and various criminal and semi-criminal activities may yet emerge.
What all this suggest that with the Baltic countries being of particular interest to Russian based criminal “investors” such as Antonov, it is time to take targetted action. To be sure, there are examples of Western fraudsters and financial criminals, from the people running Enron to Bernie Madoff. But these guys eventually go to jail in the US and other Western countries, they do not move to London and buy football (soccer) clubs when rival gangs in Russia star breathing down their neck, or when their gang falls out of favor with the Russian political elite and the secret services.
I would suggest that Russian investment in the Baltic countries be allowed on a “whitelist only” basis – that is, to put you money into any project in these countries (and why not the US as a whole), any person whose investment capital was accumulated in Russia (meaning any wealthy Russian citizen) shall be barred from significant investment in any enterprise except if he or she is on a “white list” of investors who have been thoroughly background checked and vetted to be as clean as possible of any criminal or Russian secret service ties.
Whitelisting would be fair to Russians who want to put largely honestly earned funds into legitimate businesses in the Baltics, but it would create a presumption borne out by events, that the Russian post-Soviet super-rich are not to be trusted and probably, by conscious intent or instinct, engage in barbarous business practices. It may be the only way to prevent a Banka Baltija 3.0, now that Krājbanka may prove to be a Banka Baltija 2.0 (Not So ) Lite.