Stanford 20/20 smoke and mirrors and an update on Clico

The columns of Business Page have reported on far more financial scandals than it would have liked. Although it was soon overtaken as the biggest corporate scandal ever, Enron was covered in a series in February 2002 and remembered in a piece one year later to mark its anniversary. Parmalat too with a hole of billions on its balance sheet and Nick Leeson who brought down the 233-year-old Barings Bank, the Queen’s bank, were accorded their fair share of space. More recently it was Bernard Madoff of the US and B. Ramalinga Raju of Satyam Computer Ltd of India to add to the list of corporate fraudsters. Each fraud has had its own consequences, with Enron taking down with it Arthur Andersen, one of the world’s most respected accounting firms, as well as the investments of its employees’ pension scheme.

For the most part however the direct consequences have been felt by employees, creditors and shareholders, including pension schemes. And they have all had some common ingredients − a tale of lies, deception, smoke and mirrors, sleeping accountants and poor governance and weak regulators, all fed by frenzied greed in the name of capitalism. Each, however, took place in larger economies that could absorb a moderate level of stress and setbacks.

‘Sticky Wicket’
On the other hand, the fall from grace of cricket icon Sir Allen Stanford is in a different ballpark altogether. After the government, the Stanford group is/was the largest employer in its home base Antigua. It has its own cricket ground – named appropriately Sticky Wicket − with swimming pool, lighting and facilities that rival the government-owned stadium and the record-making Antigua Recreation Ground. It operates the Bank of Antigua which has a significant share of the retail banking in that country. It owns some of the choicest pieces of real estate on the island. It was, prior to its fall, planning to develop an area called Shell Beach and nearby Maiden Island, towards the end of the airport runway, with a marina, shopping and entertainment complex.

Stanford’s towering image, cosy relationship, influence and hold over Antigua simply cannot be under-estimated. The island’s Prime Minister, Baldwin Spencer, never a friend of Stanford, admitted that the charges brought by the SEC against Mr Stanford and two of his associates could have “catastrophic” consequences. He urged the public not to panic. It was like telling persons in a rainstorm not to take protective action – and such advice was quietly ignored by depositors who queued up to withdraw their money from the Stanford-owned Bank of Antigua. Seizing the political opportunity to crush Lester Bird, he has called general elections which he is certain to win.

There is also a wider, regional threat to the Eastern Caribbean Dollar – one of the most stable currencies in the world and which is managed by the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, the monetary authority for eight OECS island economies including Antigua. The bank in a statement reportedly handed to people queuing to get their money said its “liquidity position is sound.” It was careful to note however that that the bank’s ability to meet customer requirements applied “under normal circumstances” and that if individuals persisted in rushing to the bank in a panic, they would precipitate a collapse. The consequences of massive withdrawals and conversion into and flight of foreign currency is going to test the stability of the EC dollar over the coming weeks.

But the image Mr Stanford cultivated was even bigger than the assets or his plans. For example, the helicopter in which he landed at Lord’s to announce his “20/20 for 20 million” deal with the England and Wales Cricket Board was not, as the gold-plated Stanford name and logo emblem on its body indicated, corporate property but one rented for the day. Nor was the $20 million jackpot in the treasure chest shown to the world at the launch real money – it was at most about US$100,000 standing atop wads and wads of paper. It was one big con. The press, fascinated by the Texan billionaire, was too dazzled by the dollars to see the game at work and to ask questions.

Dazzled by wealth and….
Stanford was flamboyant, ambitious and most importantly for the gullible, including most of the region, fabulously rich. But contrary to his tale of a family heritage and inheritance associated with Stanford University, Stanford’s real wealth had its source in the early 1980s when he and his father James Stanford bought distressed properties in Texas during the oil industry bust and the S&L crisis, rehabilitated them and sold them at huge profits when the market got better.

But Texas was too big for the man who had visions of grandeur and royalty. He wanted to be king and chose first Montserrat to base his operations before moving to Antigua where he became a real force during the rule of the Bird family, the father-and-son dynasty that held power for more than 40 years. It was during that period that Stanford helped the Birds turn Antigua into a tax haven and soon made him into a billionaire. With his personal wealth estimated at more than US$2 billion, he was bigger than the economy of Antigua and so Stanford could get whatever Stanford wanted. He demanded and received the trappings of royalty that Texas could not give him – a knighthood without the need to bow in front of the Queen. In fact that knighthood was granted to him by the Birds. He ran his financial empire from the island’s airport office park which was the most iconic landmark to greet any visitor to the island. While his empire extended to Latin America his colossal status derived from his tryst with West Indian cricket of which he was seen as the saviour following years of the most pathetic management by a succession of the most pathetic Board of Directors ever to have ruled the game anywhere in the world. With the glitter of millions, he redefined West Indian cricket into a game of fast paced entertainment, money and image, particularly appealing to the lucrative television market.

Criminal charges likely
The details of Stanford’s fall are still unfolding but what seems to have emerged so far is that the company was selling investors high-yielding certificates of deposit on the basis they were safe and liquid investments. According to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Stanford’s investment portfolio was an opaque “black box,” including holdings in illiquid real estate and private equity. Following investigations that had been going on since last summer, the SEC has filed charges against three entities, Antigua-based Stanford International Bank, and its affiliated Houston-based investment advisers, Stanford Group Company and Stanford Capital Management.

Unlike Kenneth Lay or Madoff or Raju, Stanford has not been charged with any criminal offence – at least not yet. The action brought against Stanford is a civil action although the word fraud has been used by the SEC involving somewhere between $8 and $9.2 billion. It has been reported that the FBI is carrying out its own investigations but that it does not want to lay charges until it has been able to find sufficient evidence to secure a conviction. Should it move too early it will have set in train a schedule that would force criminal investigators to charge, indict and construct a trial within a tight time-frame. Whether it is criminal or civil fraud is the kind of fine distinction that does not interest depositors and investors who have been rushing to all locations where Stanford operates demanding the return of their money.

It has been reported that some of our cricketers have invested money in Stanford while the Ministry of Finance has confirmed that one major institutional investor, which Business Page suspects is either a commercial bank or an insurance company, has placed funds with the Stanford group. The Ministry has told the press that it is “monitoring the situation” although quite what this means in the light of its handling of the Clico issue is hardly reassuring. We must not forget that there are thousands of Guyanese living in Antigua and it is a fair guess that many of them would have had their savings in Stanford’s bank. If the government is truly monitoring the situation it should immediately send a high-level representative to Antigua to represent the interest of those persons.

At some time we will have to confront the threats to small countries by rich investors and oligarchs who can bribe, cajole and threaten to get what they want. The view that these people are here to save us must by now be surely mistaken. So too is the view that we are insulated from the world economic crisis. Our own politicians need to stop feeding us with their own form of garbage.

Clico update
Chairman of the National Insurance Scheme has told the press, more than a month after the news of the failure of Clico Investment Bank in Trinidad and Tobago that he is uncertain about the extent of the exposure of the NIS to the local Clico company. That is amazing and dangerous when in the same breath he estimates that the exposure can be as much as $6 billion.

Business Page has for two weeks been trying to obtain confirmation from various members of the NIS Investment Committee of the value of the exposure and has written to the acting General Manager of the Scheme seeking confirmation. By arrangement the Commissioner of Insurance has also been written to with a list of several questions the answers to which would form the basis of next week’s Business Page. If Dr Luncheon is right and the exposure is around $6 billion, then potentially we could have some really serious problems since the Scheme’s viability will depend on the continued success of Clico Guyana. The consequences of a failure are simply too frightening to contemplate.

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