Dexia SA, the Franco-Belgian mega-bank that collapsed and was bailed out in 2008 and that re-collapsed in early October, is a big deal in Belgium where it employs 10,000 people and has over 21 million bank accounts. Its assets of $715 billion dwarf Belgium’s $395 billion economy.
The three countries involved in the bailout agreed in October to guarantee €90 billion in loans, of which Belgium will be responsible for 60.5%, France for 36.5%, Luxembourg for 3%. Belgium’s portion, €54.5 billion, represents nearly 14% of its GDP. The process is moving forward. On December 21, the European Commission approved on a temporary basis €45 billion of those guarantees though they violate EU rules on government subsidies for private companies.
Taxpayers are paying a heavy price for Dexia’s bailout. Belgium nationalized the Belgian entities of Dexia, including untold amounts of toxic assets. The French entity, which was involved in an enormous subprime scandal à la française, was taken over by the Caisse des Dépôts and the Banque Postale—both owned by the French government. Precision Capital, a Luxembourg company controlled by Qatari investors, bought 90% of Dexia Bank International Luxembourg, valuing the firm at €730 million, a steep discount from the expected €1 billion. Luxembourg acquired the remaining 10%. Other entities remain on the block.
In trying to bail out its financial sector, Belgium has guaranteed a total of €138.1 billion in debt (35% of its GDP) and has injected €15.7 billion in capital and €8.6 billion in loans, according to Belgium’s Cour des Comptes (Audit Court), which released the results of its annual audit on December 20 (PDF of the 412-page 168th Cahier) . The largest recipients: Dexia Banque Belgique, Dexia SA, BNP Paribas, and Fortis Banque.
The ultimate costs to Belgian taxpayers will be huge and long-term, given how small the country is. Yet there have been no legal consequences for those responsible. Until now….
Lynx Capital, a Belgian investment firm, has sued Dexia SA and former CEO Pierre Mariani for “spreading false and misleading information” and “market manipulation.” The amount in the case is small—and irrelevant. Lynx purchased 5,350 shares on September 5, 2011, for €1.46 per share and lost 82% of its investment over the next few months. But in a potentially significant development for Belgium, where class-action law doesn’t exist, Bernard Delhez, CEO of Lynx, is now trying to encourage other shareholders to join the cause.
The complaint alleges that Mariani and Jean-Luc Dehaene, Dexia’s former president, issued reassuring statements about the financial condition of the bank from the time they took over, following its bailout in 2008, until September 2011. Because the bank was in a precarious situation throughout and engaged in high-risk activities, the information in those reassuring statements was false and misleading and was intended to artificially inflate Dexia’s share price. Hence, Dexia and Mariani engaged in market manipulation.
Moreover, Mariani must have known that the information was false and misleading. For example, Mariani confided in Dehaene in 2008 that Dexia was “not a bank but a hedge fund” (L’Expansion). Dehaene spilled the beans on this conversation last October during the presentation of the breakup plan. Among the others reasons why Mariani must have known about the true condition of Dexia was a note that Luc Coene, Governor of the National Bank of Belgium, had sent to Dexia last August, in which he recommended that Dexia be dismantled.
For Robert Witterwulghe, Lynx’s lawyer, the facts demonstrate that Mariani knew as early as October, 2008, that Dexia was in a precarious situation, and that the reassuring communications since then were willfully false and misleading.
The court action is based on the law of August 2, 2002, concerning insider trading and market manipulation. But: “Why impose a system for everyone when it is not applied in certain cases?” Delhez said (L’Echo), perhaps to justify in part why he is pushing the case though his investment is small and his legal expenses will pile up quickly.