PIBS investors await fateful call from Dublin

Bank of Ireland sign
Image caption The Irish government is threatening to show the PIBS investors the door

"For those of you who want an assured income and don't mind tying cash up long-term, this is not a bad bet."

Those were the words of Adam Faith, writing in the Daily Mail in 1991.

He was giving the thumbs up to a new investment being offered by the Bristol & West building society back then - Permanent Interest Bearing Shares (PIBS).

Many British pensioners followed his advice, and stumped the minimum £10,000 needed to buy the promise of a 13.375% interest payment - an unremarkable rate back in the early '90s - that would go on forever.

Twenty years later, and the Irish government may be about to wipe out their retirement income.

'Not wealthy'

Septuagenarian Albert Kempster is one such investor.

He actually bought his PIBS in 2010 on the recommendation of his son, Tim. Nonetheless, he now finds himself in the same position as the original buyers.

"My father is a farmer - he doesn't have anything but half a state pension," says the younger Mr Kempster.

He and his father bought the shares on the assumption that they could only be annulled through English courts.

"I am convinced this wouldn't happen in the UK."

Image caption The pensioners have found friends in high places

He may well be right, because the pensioners have found friends - and co-investors - in high places.

None other than the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, is now calling on the Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan not to cut off their income.

Fellow Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming has also invested in the shares.

"Although I personally am wealthy, many of the bondholders are not wealthy people," says the businessman-turned-politician.

He is one of several figures leading the challenge against the Irish government.

Another is financial adviser Mark Taber who, although he does not personally own any PIBS, has taken up the pensioners' cause purely altruistically.

He claims there are 850 original bondholders, most of whom are too old to defend their own financial interests.

Hot potato

The story of how a group of pensioners came to find themselves in this surprising predicament tells you a lot about modern finance, and the financial crisis.

In 1996, Bristol & West was bought out by the Bank of Ireland (BOI).

The permanent obligation to pay interest on the PIBS was then transferred to the new Irish parent.

It was this seemingly innocuous transfer that has landed the investors in hot water. Other lenders to Bristol & West can be thankful that their investments were left alone.

Because BOI then went on to have a near-death experience, along with the rest of the Irish banking sector, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Indeed the Irish Republic itself had to be rescued after its bloated and insolvent banks brought the government to its knees.

Part of the bailout deal, orchestrated by the other European governments, was that Dublin had to honour the guarantees it had rather foolishly given its banks' debts in the early days of the crisis.

Image caption The Irish government has its own angry voters to worry about

If the Irish banks had been allowed to go bust and write off their debts, a lot of other banks in Germany, France and the UK would have taken a big loss.

This demand from their European rescuers has rankled with Irish taxpayers, who understandably ask why on earth they should pay the cost of saving foreign lenders and Irish property speculators from their own stupidity.

The issue has become a political hot potato in the Republic. And the Irish government has been keen to show that lenders will not be given an easy ride.

Financially healthy

So it's too bad for the PIBS investors that their savings were among a minority of BOI debts that were never covered by the Irish government's guarantee.

Their investment counts as "junior" debt of the bank - which means that they are the last lenders to get repaid if the borrower goes bust.

But the thing is that BOI never actually went bust.

Far from it in fact. BOI is now one of the best capitalised (most financially healthy) banks in Europe, thanks in large part to the Irish government's largesse.

But precisely because of this largesse, there remains a political imperative for Dublin to extract its pound of flesh.

So, last year the Irish parliament passed a special law allowing the government to impose losses on junior lenders such as the PIBS investors.

Image caption Albert Kempster may yet see his day in court

The finance minister has already had one go at the PIBS, trying to force a write-off of two-thirds of their value in June.

The investors threatened legal action - Albert Kempster was to be the nominal plaintiff - and in the end the Irish backed down.

After all, the PIBS are small fry. Only some £46m of the shares now remain outstanding - compared with the 2bn euros of other junior debt already eliminated by BOI.

So why bother going after the PIBS?

The investors thought - or hoped - that was the end of it.

Heavy handed

Then on Wednesday 23 November, the finance ministry published a notice threatening to write off up to 100% of BOI's junior lenders, including the PIBS.

The notice was sent out via the Regulatory News Service - something typically only followed by big professional investors.

It gave investors only one week to respond.

It seems a heavy-handed approach. But perhaps the pensioners are, yet again, the victims of circumstance.

Their investment was not the only one listed in the notice. They were lumped together with a number of much bigger debts owned by large financial institutions.

And some of these other debts may well be owned by vulture funds - investors who specialise in buying up the debts of troubled borrowers on the cheap, and then litigating to get paid in full.

But the PIBS themselves are not afraid of litigating - or at least their champions are not.

They have hired their own City lawyers. And they think they have a strong case.

The key issue is the original transfer of their debts to BOI - or specifically its "UK branch", which it turns out is the same thing legally speaking.

The transfer was approved by the Financial Services Authority - the UK financial watchdog - which has washed its hands of the current dispute.

But the investors think it was flawed. Because it never made clear that their claim was financial rights were being transferred to a foreign bank - in contravention of the terms of the PIBS.

Certainly, if the investors' legal case is strong, this will weigh in the Irish finance minister's decision.

Political decision

But the reality is that Mr Noonan is not making a cold financial calculation.

Indeed, the few millions involved are a paltry sum compared to the billions needed to prop up the bank.

Instead, it is a political decision.

On the one hand, pushing pensioners into poverty does not look good.

Admittedly, the original investors have had a pretty good run for their money.

Image caption Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan can pick and choose which investors he wants to wipe out

After 20 years they have already made a 12% return, even if they don't get another penny, although a big chunk of that will have been taken by the taxman.

On the other hand, Mr Noonan will be keen to be seen to be giving vulture funds a kicking - if that is indeed who the owners of the other remaining junior debts are.

And he will be claiming money back for Irish taxpayers, although they only own 15% of BOI these days.

Which means that other shareholders - such as American bankruptcy king Wilbur Ross - will also share in the gain at the PIBS investors' expense.

Irish law allows Mr Noonan to pick and choose which investors to wipe out.

So perhaps he will give the PIBS another reprieve?

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