What do Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, James Gorman, John Thain, Jimmy Cayne, and any of the revolving door of AIG CEO’s have in common? Three things come to mind rather quickly: 1) All were financial executives during the 2008 global financial crisis. 2) All of their firms received massive public bailouts. 3) None of them went to jail for their firm’s involvement in said crisis. As a matter of fact, most are still plugged in somewhere on Wall Street, presumably helping to facilitate the next great financial crisis.
While everyday Americans were (and still are) quite disgusted with the fact that absolutely nobody was actually held accountable for the creation of the financial crisis, it’s safe to say that most have given up hope that anyone will be convicted. As a matter of fact, US Attorney General Eric Holder once said that banks are so large that it would be difficult to prosecute anyone.
Enter Iceland, a small country of roughly 330,000 residents, where as Bloomberg reports, bank executives are actively being prosecuted and sent to jail for their negligent actions.
Unlike the jellyfish in the US, Iceland appointed Olafur Hauksson as special prosecutor to investigate bankers and their roles in the financial crisis. The result? 26 convictions of bankers and financiers since 2010. In upholding the convictions, Iceland’s Supreme Court said that actions were “thoroughly planned”, and “committed with concentrated intent” – refreshingly different than Holder’s let’s just let them get away with it because it’s hard to figure out verbiage.
This is Olafur Haukson: a person who is the diametrical opposite of Holder; a person who dares to prosecute bankers.
Olafur Haukson, special prosecutor to investigate the banking cases
As Bloomberg writes, in contrast to the Icelandic saga, no bank CEOs in the U.S. or the U.K. have been convicted for their roles in the subprime mortgage crackup and related disasters. Bringing white-collar criminal cases may be easier in Iceland because courts don’t use juries. Rather, they employ neutral experts to help judges understand the intricacies of finance. In Britain’s highest-profile case stemming from the crash, the country’s Serious Fraud Office investigated London-based real estate magnates Vincent and Robert Tchenguiz in connection with their business dealings with Kaupthing. The brothers were never charged, and in 2014 the SFO even had to pay them £4.5 million ($6.4 million) in damages to settle their claims of malicious prosecution.
Hauksson, a bear of man with a fighter’s jaw, is pressing ahead with a half-dozen more cases related to the crash. The former top lawman in Akranes, a port town up the coast from Reykjavik, Hauksson was one of only two applicants for the job of special prosecutor—and the only lawyer. “It was important for the country to look carefully at what happened in the months that led up to the banking collapse,” he says. Few expected him to succeed in untangling the web of self-dealing that stretched from Reykjavik to Luxembourg to London. “He was used to issuing parking fines and breaking up drunken brawls,” says Sigrun Davidsdottir, a journalist who writes about the bank cases on her website, Icelog. “It’s earth-shattering what he’s accomplished.”
What he has accomplished is to do the unthinkable: send criminal bankers in prison.
Working with the Financial Supervisory Authority, his office found that the country’s top three banks routinely made huge loans to their biggest stockholders. Worse, the banks secured the debts with their own equity, which spelled doom when share prices nosedived in September 2008. That month, Kaupthing Chairman Einarsson and CEO Sigurdsson surprised investors by announcing that Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, a member of Qatar’s royal family, had acquired a 5.1 percent stake in the bank. The two bankers, with the help of Gudmundsson in Luxembourg and stockholder Olafsson, had directed Kaupthing to lend the sheik $280 million to buy the stake through a daisy chain of shell companies in the British Virgin Islands and Cyprus, according to court records. Arion Bank was formed from the domestic assets of Kaupthing after it failed in October 2008.
The result: Iceland's economy is vibrant and growing: "It’s a rebound other European nations would envy. Iceland’s gross domestic product is set to expand almost 4 percent this year, according to forecasts compiled by Bloomberg. The unemployment rate of 2.8 percent is about one-third the average of the European Union. As the state prepares to lift capital controls later this year, the banking sector continues to strengthen: State-owned Islandsbanki, the nation’s No. 2 lender with $8.4 billion in assets, boasts a common equity Tier 1 ratio of 28.3 percent. That’s more than twice the 12.7 percent average recorded by Europe’s 25 largest banks as of Dec. 31, according to Bloomberg data. “Before the crisis, the banks grew too fast and too much,” says Unnur Gunnarsdottir, director general of the Financial Supervisory Authority, which oversees the lenders. “That will not happen again.”
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Despite Haukson's success in ensuring criminal bankers pay for their actions, Hauksson isn’t letting up. He still has half a dozen more cases relating to the 2008 crash. Those on the receiving end of his convictions get to visit the beautiful Kviabryggja Prison, an old farmhouse turned prison, located in a remote area bordered by the North Atlantic.
Kviabryggja Prison in western Iceland doesn’t need walls, razor wire, or guard towers to keep the convicts inside. Alone on a wind-swept cape, the old farmhouse is bound by the frigid North Atlantic on one side and fields of snow-covered lava rock on another. To the east looms Snaefellsjokull, a dormant volcano blanketed by a glacier. There’s only one road back to civilization.
This is where the world’s only bank chiefs imprisoned in connection with the 2008 financial crisis are serving their sentences, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its forthcoming issue. Kviabryggja is home to Sigurdur Einarsson, Kaupthing Bank’s onetime chairman, and Hreidar Mar Sigurdsson, the bank’s former chief executive officer, who were convicted of market manipulation and fraud shortly before the collapse of what was then Iceland’s No. 1 lender. They spend their days doing laundry, working out in the jailhouse gym, and browsing the Internet. They and two associates incarcerated here—Magnus Gudmundsson, the ex-CEO of Kaupthing’s Luxembourg unit, and Olafur Olafsson, the No. 2 stockholder in the bank at the time of its demise—can even take walks outside, like Kviabryggja’s 19 other inmates, all of whom were convicted of nonviolent crimes.
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At Kviabryggja Prison, the tumult in the capital seems worlds away. It’s dead quiet around the single-story barracks, and in the distance rise massifs that form Iceland’s western fjords. The Kaupthing convicts are marking time in different ways. A couple of them are tutoring fellow inmates. The subjects: math and economics.
This is where Iceland's criminal bankers can be found now:
Meanwhile, in the US...