Simon English: Unrepentant and living in splendour, the kind of banker we just don't need
It is also to be hoped other bankers will decide Greenburgh is not who they want to emulate
Tuesday 13 December 2011
Where is Matthew Greenburgh? The word is that the former Merrill Lynch banker is swanning around Highgate, living in sumptuous splendour, thoroughly enjoying a retirement he was able to take in his late forties thanks in part to the extraordinary fee he got for encouraging Sir Fred Goodwin to buy ABN Amro.
Greenburgh was paid close to £11m for his part in this disastrous takeover, which has since cost the rest of us many billions to unravel. If he has regrets, they remain private. I asked Greenburgh a while ago if he had any sorrow for the trouble caused, and he was unrepentant. "My role was to perform in line with what the clients expected," he said.
In other words, whether deals were good or bad ideas was not an issue. If the client wanted to do it, his job was to facilitate. The FSA report into the collapse of RBS is scathing on the role of the bank's advisers.
It says: "The investment banking advice commissioned by the RBS board was provided by brokers whose fees would for the most part be payable only on completion of the acquisition. While this was common practice at the time, it did mean that, as the adviser had a substantial financial interest in the successful completion of the transaction, it is difficult to regard the adviser as independent."
Greenburgh and his boss Andrea Orcel, who remains in employment at the now-merged Bank of America Merrill Lynch, were paid in a fairly extraordinary way. They got a direct cut of the fees RBS gave to Merrill. So they were incentivised to tell the board what it wanted to hear, rather than be proper advisers.
Greenburgh was a clever operator. When chief executives needed cash raising in unpromising circumstances, or awkward deals shoving through, he was brilliant. By some accounts, he had cast a spell on Sir Fred, who came to assume that if his favourite banker said something, it must be true. Among other bankers, the Maserati-driving Greenburgh was not, shall we say, universally popular. Indeed, some still refer to him as The ELF, which does not stand for Erudite Likeable Fellow. The L stands for "Little" – that's about all I can confirm for reasons of politeness. Other bankers say they've seen Greenburgh at airports from time to time and reckon he has done the odd bit of private work for companies. Otherwise, he's off scot free and living high on the hog.
After the ABN debacle unravelled, it's worth remembering, Greenburgh turned up as an adviser to Lloyds TSB as it pushed through its takeover of HBOS. He has much to answer for, but there seems to be no process by which he will be held to account.
Part of the punishment for miscreant bankers should be social disapproval. Sir Fred has certainly got that. It is sort of to be hoped that something similar has happened to Greenburgh. That there are places where he is no longer welcome. That within the corners of his super-confident mind there lurks doubt about who he is and what he did.
It is also to be hoped that other bankers will decide that Greenburgh is not who they want to emulate. That their deals should succeed in the long term, not make them rich in the short term. We may never see his like again. Hopefully.
Sir Fred, banking's answer to Big Brother
When Sir Fred Goodwin, just plain old Mr back then, was pursuing the takeover of NatWest in 1999, banking correspondents would regularly be summoned across town to hear him hold forth.
That £21bn deal was the one that made his reputation – now in tatters – as the banker of the age. The FSA report doesn't delve much into his personality, thereby missing a key part of the story. You didn't have to be in a room with Goodwin for long to see that he was intense, impatient and extremely arrogant.
Anyone daring to doubt the wisdom of his next scheme was an idiot and could expect to be told as much. His PR people and even his chairman Sir George Mathewson bought into Sir Fred's certainty as evidence of his skill. No one, definitely not mere journalists, seemed able to cloud his conviction that he was smarter than everyone else.
More recently, a broker pal who worked for RBS's credit department says Goodwin had a giant screen installed so he could attend their meetings remotely. He'd sit there saying little, but would suddenly bellow Big Brother-style from the TV, "Who is that talking? I can't hear you! Stand up! Who are you?"
People who have talked to him lately say not much has changed. It's a truly extraordinary thing.
How about Exit Factor for the Cowells?
Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal, I'd still own the film rights and be working on the sequel. That was Elvis Costello in 1983. Even if Simon Cowell doesn't know the song – bit arty, probably – he would understand the sentiment.
Cowell is one of those tycoons whose output is impossible to escape. It is in your local pub, in your house and in your face. Especially at Christmas. Yesterday his brother Nicholas splashed out £17m on the five-star Verta Hotel at Battersea Heliport. It's to be hoped that the hotel will be better than the music. And that perhaps one day the brothers' appetite for world domination will be sated.
What do the Cowells want? If they were to provide us with a list, could we arrange to give it to them on the promise that they then stop?
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