Former National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) boss Michael Somers received €1million in 2008 – earning him the title, The Million Euro Civil Servant. He retired in 2009 after 48 years in the public service, including 20 years managing Ireland’s debt with the NTMA.
Aine Lawlor talked to him on the RTE series One to One on Monday. It was a fascinating interview and, we thought, may help illuminate your path through what exactly happened here.
The lucid recollections of a sane man in a world gone mad or more self-serving hogwash?
Aine Lawlor: “I want to begin by reading you a quote, a description of you which, don’t look so nervous. It comes from Shane Ross’s book The Bankers. And he says: “Somers is one of the few non-elected public servants with a media profile. Successive ministers for finance have eaten out of his hands.’ Is that a description you recognise?”
Michael Somers: “Not really no, but eh, I mean I know Shane reasonably well. I suppose we never really hired PR people so I got to know an awful lot of journalists because I did most of the interviewing myself. So to that extent he may have had a somewhat elevated notion of the influence that I had.”
Lawlor: “It’s a great image though – all those ministers for finance eating out of your hand?”
Somers: “Well I’m not sure that any of them would recognise it either. Depending on the minister, I had varying relationships with different ministers. Some I got on well with, others less well with. So it was a mixed bag.”
Lawlor: “But always a singular relationship, compared with the relationship of most civil servants with their political masters. You were always known to have a very direct relationship with the top table.
Lawlor: “You’re known as the one million euro civil servant.
Somers: “I know.”
Lawlor: “And your salary was kept secret for years. And one of your big things was being able to hire and fire and being able to offer the right money to the right person for the right job. You’ve always defended your salary. It’s a source though of massive anger to many of the public. That so many of the people at the top of society got great salaries, great pensions and they’re so broke now.”
Somers: “Well what I’d say to that, in that regard, is I kept the country running and solvent for the 19 years I ran the NTMA. We went through crisis after crisis but there was never a question of the State not being able to be funded or paying massive rates of interest or anything like that.”
We ran it well, we ran it with a small number of people and we took on all kinds of activities that the State wanted us to take on like the State Claims Agency, the Pension Fund and the National Development Finance Agency. And the pay rates, I mean the way pay, I didn’t set my own pay by the way.
The pay rates were set by outside advisers who evaluated the jobs that we were doing. And I had to hire people in from the private sector and most of these people were already in good jobs because, if they weren’t in good jobs, I didn’t want to know them…
But I was in the ha’penny place compared to what some others were pulling in. Now with the benefit of hindsight of course it looks as though we were overpaid. We were actually, as people used to say, we were correctly paid by reference to the times that were in it. And my pay, it was gone over by so many people and it was eventually signed off personally, every year, by the minister for finance.
And if they didn’t want we, they didn’t have to have me. I mean I had plenty of other job offers and I could have gone off to. As indeed could have the others that were working for me.
Lawlor: “…you had a good relationship with Charlie McCreevy?
Somers: “I had a very good relationship with Charlie McCreevy. Charlie was…he was good company. He was a very hard working guy.”
Lawlor: “He’s reviled now as a minister. I mean he’s the man of the decentralisation stunt. The man who, you know, fuelled the boom with pro-cyclical policies and so on. Do you agree with those criticisms?”
Somers: “Well, on the decentralisation policy, I disagreed with him on that. I told him so and we had a few robust exchanges on it. But he was the minister and that was his call.
In terms of the bust and boom. I mean Charlie ran up or allowed expenditure to run before I think it was, I think, the 2002 Budget. But as soon as that budget was out of the way, he moved in and slashed expenditure and Fianna Fail then did very badly in the local elections after that. And that was the kind of sequence of events that led to his departure for Brussels.”
Lawlor: “Was he shafted because he was tightening the belt?”
Somers: “In my opinion yes, that’s why he was shafted. If you regard going off to Brussels to be an EU Commissioner as being shafted.”
Lawlor: “Well the view at the time was that he didn’t want to leave finance. Initially, at least.”
Somers: “Yeah I think that’s probably correct. I mean I don’t want to put words in the man’s mouth but that would have been my impression. He would have been happy to stay on. But he was made the scapegoat for what happened to Fianna Fail in the local elections. And I think what happened then was, after the next election, they let expenditure go up but they didn’t cut it back sharply after they won it.”
Lawlor: “And then of course after McCreevy goes off to Brussels and Fianna Fail come back and Brian Cowen is now minister for finance and the spending is going merrily on, and anyone who was a nay-sayer was being told ‘look the economy is continuing to grow and what kind of idiot are you’, and the party went on. Were you getting worried?”
Somers: “Well I suppose what would have concerned me was the number of houses that were being built and for what useful purpose. Because I think we got to the stage where we were bringing in people from abroad to build houses which were being bought by Irish people to rent back to those very people who were coming in and building them in the first place. You say to yourself ‘is there really a future in this’.
“I mean we got to the stage, I think it was in 2006, where 90,000 dwellings were built in this country. In the UK, with 14 times our population, they were building about twice that. And in the United States, with 70 times our population, I mean, on that basis, they should have been building something like 5 or 6 million houses. They were building maybe 1 million or less.
“You said to yourself: ‘Are we crazy in this country, what we’re doing?’ Then I recall, at one stage, probably somewhat later, I couldn’t understand how bank credit was growing at 20% or 30% a year when nominal GNP was growing by maybe 8 or 10% per year. Because what economics I learned told me that the monetary aggregate’s credit, money supply, all these great things, grew more or less in line with nominal GNP but not in multiples. But somehow or other, I think we fooled ourselves that we’d found some new branch of economics. That the normal rules of economics didn’t apply to us. And I recall getting out the Central Bank reports one evening and going through them, trying to figure out how is all this credit being created.
Lawlor: “So, in other words, there was this massive gap opening up between, kind of, the real wealth that was being generated and the amount of money that was sloshing around and being lent out.”
Somers: “Yes, yeah. I mean how could you be increasing your lending by 20%, 25%, 30% a year, and ensuring that it was good lending in the first place, and secondly, where was the money coming from? And of course what emerged was, the money was all, in so far as I could figure it out, the Irish banks had borrowed somewhere between €100 billion and €200 billion from outside the country to fund their Irish activities. Now the Central Bank reports are not easy reading and I got one of my colleagues then to say ‘listen am I mad here? is this really happening?’. And he went through it and he said ‘yeah, no you’re right, that is what has happened’.
Lawlor: “And you’re the man with, you know, you’re the head of the NTMA, you’re this great civil servant with this fantastic success story, you’re the man with direct access to the minister, did you talk to Brian Cowen about any of this?”
Somers: “Just on your first point, I wasn’t a civil servant actually.”
Lawlor: “Public servant, sorry.”
Somers: “No, I spoke to one of his officials about it and said ‘This seems very strange’ and the response I got was ‘What are you on about? This, the banking system here is robust, it’s been stress-tested. Why are you raising these issues?’ So I said, well, maybe [I’ll] mind my own business.”
Lawlor: “Did you have a sense that politically nobody wanted to hear questions like that? Did you have a sense that Brian Cowen wouldn’t want to hear it, that Bertie Ahern wouldn’t want to hear it?”
Somers: “I suppose I would have had that sense, yes. I didn’t have a very close relationship with Brian Cowen, as minister for finance. I mean, I had a pretty close relationship with Charlie McCreevy. He used to pop over to the NTMA for breakfast every 3 or 4 weeks. I didn’t have that kind of relationship with Brian Cowen. It was a much more stressed relationship when he was Minister for Finance. I had a much better relationship with him when he became Taoiseach. But no, they wouldn’t have wanted to hear this bad news.
“Well, was it bad news? Or had we some how or other found some new economic theory? I don’t know. I mean I was minding what I was responsible for, as best I could. And I delivered on what I was responsible for. And I mean I’d masses of cash just in case anything went wrong. But I mean you did have there the whole structure. The bankers being lauded as great people, the developers were great people. They were all marvellous guys.”
Lawlor: “And anyone with questions was out of step?”
Somers: “You would be out of step yeah, you would be out of step. Very much out of step.”
Lawlor: “And of course the other area in which you were kind of out of step with the consensus was Anglo.”
Somers: “Well as I said to you a minute ago, I always kept an awful lot of cash on hand because I saw what happened with the South American countries in the 1980s. They were actually, from a debt point of view, not in the same kind of mess that we were in. But they did run out of liquidity because they didn’t plan ahead. Now I always believed in planning ahead. And I had loads and loads of money. And we had to place that somewhere and we had about 100 banks that we used to place cash with. And depending on who gave us the best rates in return, we’d place money with them. But we had limits on how much we’d place with each of them depending, largely on their credit rating. If they were AAA, AA, A, etc.. And Anglo didn’t qualify for the top ranking. We would have put €200 million or €300 million with the AIB and Bank of Ireland. But we put €40 million with Anglo. Now I’m not saying I’d any, I didn’t have any tremendous insights into Anglo. I didn’t have any business with them. I was always a bit uncomfortable with their business model because they were growing at an enormous rate. They were lending vast amounts of money. I mean anybody who wanted money for some project, it seemed to be the case that you went to Anglo. You didn’t go to the two main banks, and they didn’t have an actual funding base. They didn’t have branches around the country, where they were collecting deposits from people.”
Lawlor: “But they were making these massive profits and all the other banks in fact were chasing after them going ‘well why haven’t we got that relationship with our clients, why aren’t we getting that business. And the bubble was getting inflated the whole time. Did you’ve any sense of the scale of the disaster that was unfolding?”
Somers: “No, no, I didn’t. I mean I reckoned that this thing can’t continue for much longer, that it is ridiculous. And that house prices were grossly overvalued. And I mean economists, and various outside commentators had written articles about all this. But they were all poo-pooed. ‘What are you on about? We’re a great success. The Celtic Tiger and the huge inward investment and all into the country, population growing, fastest growing country in Europe’.”
Lawlor: “And patriotism became a substitute for clear thinking? The green jersey?”
Somers: “Well the green jersey was certainly there. There is no doubt about it. ‘Put on the green jersey because..'”
Lawlor: “Don’t be talking us down.”
Somers: “Don’t be talking us down, yeah. And support the… support Ireland Inc.”
Lawlor: “And you’ve spoken about the pressure of course that was brought to bear on you, quite subtly, but there, the phonecall. Who was..a phonecall about Anglo Irish?”
Somers: “They never rang me. They would have called my colleagues.”
Lawlor: “Who were ‘they’ by the way?”
Somers: “They were fairly senior people in Anglo. Not Sean Fitzpatrick by the way, some people below him. But there would have been nothing unusual about that, to say ‘place a bigger deposit with us’. A lot of of banks would have done that. That would have been par for the course. ‘Open a line with us and place some of your cash with us’. I wouldn’t have seen that as out of court or anything. We, we…Inititally we had nothing with them and then we eventually said, ‘OK, we’ll put 40 with them’.
Lawlor: “And was that due to kind of pressure from (Department of) Finance?”
Somers: “No it wasn’t from Finance, none of this pressure was from Finance.”
Lawlor: “From Anglo?”
Somers: “Yeah it was from Anglo. And eh we thought ‘ok, 40 isn’t a vast amount of money that we’re talking about here. And they’re a huge outfit so we put 40 with them. And the pressure then was to increase it. But we wouldn’t increase it. But it wasn’t like I had any particular insights that they were going to go belly up or anything. I didn’t…”
Lawlor: “Just a caution?”
Somers: “You get a gut feeling that all is not well here. But I can’t say that I would have forseen the size of the collapse that took place.”
lawlor: “And of course you were out of the country the night of the infamous bank bailout.”
Somers: “Yes, the guarantee, yes.”
Lawlor: “You didn’t get a call, you didn’t get a call either, do you regret that?
Lawlor: “Would you have wished to have been part of it? Would you have wished to have been here?”
Somers: “Em, I’m not sure even if I was here I’d have been part of the group that made the decision.”
Lawlor: “You were out of the loop?”
Somers: “We had a peculiar relationship in regards to the loop. Sometimes we were in, sometimes we were out. And I mean, just to give you an example, I recall..I think it was in December 2008… they were forever calling meetings. Usually at the most inconvenient times and..”
Lawlor: “They would be Lenihan and the senior people in Finance, is that right?”
Somers: “Yeah, a thing was never urgent until the Friday evening or Friday night or the Saturday or the Sunday. The rest of the week it didn’t seem somehow or other to be urgent. And I recall on one Sunday, going in, we were told assemble in the Taoiseach’s department at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning, which we duly did. And we were all brought into this big room, cold office, no tea, no coffee, nothing.And we were kind of left there and the politicians, the people from the Department of Finance and the Governor of the Central Bank go into another room.
“And I’m left there with the chairman and his colleagues, from the Financial Regulator, the senior guy from the Central Bank at the time and ourselves from the NTMA, and we were all left there twiddling our thumbs at 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock, 1 o’clock. Then sometime around 2 o’clock or whatever, the Taoiseach puts his head in and said ‘Oh, you’re still here, we’re going out to get something to eat’. So they disappeared, I don’t know where they went. We went across to the Merrion Hotel where we were lucky to get a bowl of soup and then we went back to the same room and we sat there again..3 o’clock, 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock, I dunno, half-five or something, and we were called in. And we were told ‘well, we’ve decided such and such, have you any comments?’
Well we weren’t going to make any comments, we weren’t part of the discussion. But the annoying thing then was you read in the paper the next day that you were present at the meeting. Now, we were physically in the building, but the guys that were making the decisions were in another room. And we weren’t really part of the decision-making process, except that at the end they said to us, do you want to make any comment on this stuff.
Lawlor: “So with experiences like that what do you make of the way the bank guarantee was given? And what did you make of the guarantee itself?”
Somers: “Well, first of all, I think it’s crazy to make decisions in the middle of the night, or early in the morning. People are not at their best and you should really sleep on anything. I don’t know how the crisis suddenly blew up, just like that – to the extent that everything that moved or didn’t move had to be guaranteed. I mean there was no case for guaranteeing bonds, etc. If there’s a run on a bank, you will have to guarantee the deposits because otherwise the thing would just spin out of control. Now I was in no position to determine whether there was a run on Anglo that was going to spin out of control the following morning. I’m not sure there was any necessary run on any of the other institutions. So why the blanket thing was given, I don’t know. And why it was given at 2 or 3 in the morning, I don’t know.
Lawlor: “It sounds as though you should have been in that room.”
Somers: “Well I probably wouldn’t have been. I mean if we were treated the same way we’d been treated at that meeting I mentioned, which by the way was not unique – that was the general way meetings took place – what we would have been told: this is the decision.”
Lawlor: “You knew from the get go, the guarantee was a bad idea, a disaster?”
Somers: “Well I always kept a very tight hand on giving any lean on any government spending or taxes, or anything like that. I mean notwithstanding the allegations made against me, in regards to pay, I never spent a ha’penny of State funds that I didn’t have to spend. And I never gave an inch on anything to do with the State that I didn’t have to give, absolutely have to give. So I wouldn’t have been giving guarantees to anybody unless I was absolutely forced to do it.
Lawlor: “And that wouldn’t have improved your relationship with the minister, Brian Lenihan?”
Somers: “Well I didn’t know Brian Lenihan before he became Minister for Finance. He was a very courteous man, always very courteous, very pleasant, and I never had any stand-up row with him or anything. But em, we were just on different paths. He felt one thing should be done, I felt another thing should be done.”
Lawlor: “Do you think he knew what he was doing?”
Somers: “Well it certainly wasn’t the area that he was trained in. I mean he was a very smart man, he trained as a lawyer. He got dumped in probably at a very, very bad time as Minister for Finance, you know the worst crisis that we’d ever ended up in. And he certainly worked very hard at it. I mean he couldn’t be faulted in terms of his dedication, etc. I was never quite sure who was influencing him, in terms of his decisions. But he had a rough time of it.”
Lawlor: “Were his officials up the job at the time?”
Somers: “Well I’ve already got myself into trouble over commenting on his officials, so I’m going to desist.”
lawlor: “You don’t seem to have the highest of opinions there clearly.. anyhow the outcome speaks for itself surely, doesn’t it?”
Somers: “It does yes, yeah. I mean I got the impression from talking to Brian Lenihan afterwards that he mightn’t have been entirely at ease with some of the advice that he got.”
Lawlor: “You think he might have had regrets about some of the actions.”
Somers: “I think he….Again, you know, the man isn’t here to defend himself or whatever..He might, I suppose that’s how far I could really go on that one.”
Lawlor: “Of course you also, again, you were very publically at odds with the Government over the other great big thing they did, which was to set up NAMA as a solution to the banks’ problems. In simple terms, because most people are really bamboozled by this, do you know what I mean, they’ve been listening to experts talking about the ins and outs of this, backwards and forwards. What was so wrong with NAMA? Did it start out as a good idea and then grow like topsy?”
Somers: “Well it was probably a good idea to take loans off the banks’ balance sheets so they could start lending again because they were going to be frozen. They lent whatever they had and that was it.
“I suppose my first approach would have been to say to the banks ‘listen, you created this mess, you go and sort it out and come back to us and we’re going to lean on you to sort it out’. Because they knew where all the bodies were buried. They had the expertise, they had the numbers of people, they knew exactly what was going on. The idea of trying to set up a new outfit to deal with the mess the banks had created, I wasn’t too sure about it because I believe that if you have people there who know what’s happened, well, let them at it. Rather than trying to set up some new organisation.”
Lawlor: “But there was a view that the banks wouldn’t tell the truth. That, until some outside body would go in and actually thoroughly go through everything and value everything, none of us would know what the real picture was.”
Somers: “Well Price Waterhouse had gone in and they had gone through all the books of all the banks and, at that stage, we’d a fair idea of the mess, in terms of what they’d lent and who they’d lent it to.
I don’t think we’d a great idea of the extent to which the property values would fall.
I mean I was aghast when I saw the first report, at just the sheer amounts of money that the banking system had lent to individuals. I mean it wasn’t tens of millions or hundreds of millions, it was billions. And it sort of staggered me because the banks, particularly AIB, were not helpful in terms of our own fundraising on behalf of the State. In fact they were distinctly unhelpful.
And I was out there, some of the loans, some of the money that we would have raised, you know would have been €100 million or so, we were trying to raise money through the Small Saving Schemes.
And here were these guys lending out these vast amounts of money more or less to individuals, I couldn’t believe it. My approach would have been ‘Well you better get out and get that money back. And if these fellas have bought fancy houses for themselves, in Cap Ferrat, whatever, get them to sell them. And get back our money’.
Rather than setting up some other new entity that would chase them and wouldn’t know all the ins and outs as the banks would have known.
Lawlor: “Should the banks have been nationalised sooner? Because the other thing was they weren’t actually doing what they were told or asked very willingly a lot of the time?”
Somers: “The view is Anglo certainly should have been nationalised – it had no future. As regards the other two, I’d be less sure with them. There were few people at the top I suppose, who directed these outfits. And in many ways institutions are made or broken by the handful of people really at the top. Now when they moved off, and others came in, you could have said, I mean certainly the one I know most about, AIB..I thought [AIB boss] Colm Doherty was very good, that he had fire in his belly and he was moving the thing on. But I mean he was politically unacceptable. And unfortunately he left. Well sorry, he didn’t leave, he was forced to leave. And we ended up then in a situation where we’d no chairman and no chief executive. It wasn’t as though there was somebody waiting to jump into this job.”
Lawlor: “And now that you’re on the board of AIB, you were put in as public interest director, was it?”
Somers: “Effectively, yes.”
Lawlor: “Have you changed your mind about NAMA? Do you think it is working now?
Somers: “I think we’re stuck with it. But I think what it has done..I mean it was supposed to free up the banks, take some loans of the banks and give them cash so the banks could start lending again. That of course didn’t happen.
What has happened is that the banks have been wrecked. Shareholders have been wiped out and various others have been wiped out. Banks have had to be recapitalised, they’re not really lending. You know the volume of credit extended in the economy is shrinking.Money is still drifting out of the deposit books and NAMA is a bonanza, from the point of view for the lawyers and for the accountants. I mean they’re in and out…As I predicted at the Public Accounts Committee in, I think it was June 2009, this would be a bonanza for the lawyers and for the Four Courts and that is how it has turned out.”
Lawlor: “You weren’t thanked for that at the time.”
Somers: “No I was not thanked for it. No.”
Lawlor: “And we’re lumbered with it now?”
Somers: “We’re lumbered with it now. And, you know, it’s just going to roll on, and on, and on.”
Lawlor: “One of your mantras throughout your working life was ‘not to let the IMF in’. That was one of the things you worked for the whole time. The IMF as we know has come in with the Troika and the bailout programme. Maybe as you look back now and look ahead at what we will be enduring, and the change that will be forced on us in the years ahead. Maybe, however painful, the IMF coming in will force changes on us that will ultimately be good for us?”
Somers: My obsession with not letting the IMF in was that it would have been an admission of defeat, we’d failed to run our own show and had to get others in to do it. I have to say that, looking at what they have done since they came in, has been very favourable. Because what they have done is I think they have actually forced decisions on our governments here, that they wouldn’t have taken themselves, and that are probably the correct decisions. I mean there are all sorts of flaws in our systems here.
Our price levels are still far too high. I was looking at a Eurostat thing and..
Lawlor: “Just to cut across you there, and I know you mean that genuinely, there will be people looking at you going the one million euro civil servant is saying that to me. You can afford to say that.”
Somers: “Well I think the IMF will force down prices in this country, and force more competitiveness on us. I’m not necessarily saying they should be cutting social welfare benefits, that’s not what I’m saying. But I mean a lot of our costs are off the wall. If you go to a doctor in France, you pay €21, €22, we all know what you pay if you go in this country. You pay for everything in this country through the nose. If you get an Argos catalogue for Northern Ireland and and Argos catalogue for Dublin and compare the prices, you’ll see that we’re being ripped off. It’s the same if you look at another well-known department store here in Dublin, which has many branches elsewhere, and you’ll see the way we’re being ripped off. And this goes right through the system. Now is it possible to change it? I don’t know.”