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Wirecard’s Markus Braun says regulators not to blame in scandal

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Markus Braun, the former chief executive of disgraced payments company Wirecard, told MPs that German regulators and politicians were not to blame for the fall of the company, and that he hoped prosecutors would succeed in tracing its missing billions. 

Mr Braun is one of at least seven former top managers of Wirecard suspected of running a criminal racket that defrauded creditors of €3.2bn. His appearance on Thursday before the Bundestag inquiry investigating Wirecard was his first in public since his arrest last summer, shortly after the company he led collapsed into insolvency in one of the biggest accounting scandals in postwar German history.

In a statement to the inquiry, Mr Braun said he had “at no point” concluded that “authorities, supervisory bodies or politicians had behaved improperly, dishonestly or in breach of their duties” in the run-up to Wirecard’s collapse.

“I can’t understand why external regulators should be held responsible for failures here,” he said. Mr Braun added that EY, Wirecard’s longtime auditor, was “apparently comprehensively deceived” during the annual audits as it did not spot irregularities “despite extensive checks”. 

But having delivered his statement, Mr Braun refused to answer any questions from MPs, citing his right under German law to remain silent. He declined to answer even basic inquiries, such as what the subject of his PhD thesis was or if he had a daughter. 

Mr Braun did, however, emphasise that he had signalled his willingness to co-operate with prosecutors, adding that he had “full confidence in the independence and objectivity of the investigative authorities” and their ability to trace “the whereabouts of the embezzled money”.

MPs were infuriated by his reluctance to answer their questions. Cansel Kiziltepe, a lawmaker for the Social Democrats, suggested he had “destroyed people’s faith” in German institutions. “Are you aware that your silence is dragging people into the abyss?” she asked.

Hans Michelbach, an MP for Angela Merkel’s CDU-CSU bloc, suggested in the proceedings that Mr Braun should be fined for refusing to engage with MPs.

Mr Braun, right, arrives to testify at the Bundestag © Maja Hitij/Getty

Munich prosecutors accuse Mr Braun of being the leader of a “gang” of white-collar criminals who for years ran an elaborate fraud scheme, hoodwinked banks and investors and embezzled billions of euros — crimes that are punishable by up to 15 years in jail. Mr Braun has dismissed all the allegations against him. 

MPs set up the parliamentary inquiry last summer as the Wirecard affair began to escalate from a corporate affair into a political scandal.

Lawmakers want to know why the authorities seemed so slow to recognise the gravity of the situation at Wirecard, and why Germany’s financial regulator BaFin seemed more eager to pursue journalists and short-sellers who had exposed irregularities at the payments processing group than to go after the company itself.

The nine members of the investigative committee will also look at why German politicians, including Angela Merkel herself, lobbied for Wirecard even after irregularities at the company had come to light. They will also want to know if Jan Marsalek, the former Wirecard executive who is now on an Interpol wanted list, had any connections to the intelligence services. 

Mr Braun’s appearance in Berlin came almost exactly six months after his last public statement on June 18 — the day that marked the ultimate downfall of the once high-flying technology start-up. EY had refused to audit Wirecard’s 2019 financial report after uncovering that bank documents showing €1.9bn of corporate cash were “spurious”.

In a video recorded late at night, Mr Braun told investors that “at present, it cannot be ruled out that Wirecard AG has become the aggrieved party in a case of fraud of considerable proportions”. 

Just hours after the video statement was published on Wirecard’s website, the company’s supervisory board forced Mr Braun to resign. Within days, he had been arrested by Munich prosecutors and Wirecard had crashed into insolvency.

Mr Braun was initially released on bail but rearrested a month later after Oliver Bellenhaus, a former senior Wirecard executive who turned crown witness, raised serious allegations against the former chief executive. 

He has been in custody since late July alongside Mr Bellenhaus and Wirecard’s former head of accounting, Stephan von Erffa. A fourth suspect, former chief financial officer Burkhard Ley, was released on bail earlier this month. Mr von Erffa and Mr Ley are denying wrongdoing.



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German regulator steps in as Greensill warns of threat to 50,000 jobs

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Germany’s financial watchdog has taken direct oversight of day-to-day operations at Greensill Bank, as the lender’s ailing parent company warned that its loss of $4.6bn of credit insurance could cause a wave of defaults and 50,000 job losses.

BaFin appointed a special representative to oversee Greensill Bank’s activities in recent weeks, according to three people familiar with the matter, as concern mounted about the state of the lender’s balance sheet.

The German-based lender is one part of a group — advised by former UK prime minister David Cameron and backed by SoftBank — that extends from Australia to the UK and is now fighting for its survival.

On Monday night Greensill was denied an injunction by an Australian court after the finance group tried to prevent its insurers pulling coverage.

Greensill’s lawyers said that if the policies covering loans to 40 companies were not renewed, Greensill Bank would be “unable to provide further funding for working capital of Greensill’s clients”, some of whom were “likely to become insolvent, defaulting on their existing facilities”.

In turn that may “trigger further adverse consequences”, putting over 50,000 jobs around the world at risk, including more than 7,000 in Australia, the company’s lawyers told the court.

A judge ruled Greensill had delayed its application “despite the fact that the underwriters’ position was made clear eight months ago” and denied the injunction.

Greensill Capital is locked in talks with Apollo about a potential rescue deal, involving the sale of certain assets and operations. It has also sought protection from Australia’s insolvency regime.

Greensill was dealt a severe blow on Monday when Credit Suisse suspended $10bn of funds linked to the supply-chain finance firm, citing “considerable uncertainties” about the valuation of the funds’ assets. A second Swiss fund manager, GAM, also severed ties on Tuesday. Credit Suisse’s decision came after credit insurance expired, according to people familiar with the matter.

While the bulk of Greensill’s business is based in London, its parent company is registered in the Australian city of Bundaberg, the hometown of its founder Lex Greensill.

In Germany, where Greensill has owned a bank since 2014, BaFin, the financial watchdog, is drawing on a section of the German banking act that entitles the regulator to parachute in a special representative entrusted “with the performance of activities at an institution and assign [them] the requisite powers”.

The regulator has been conducting a special audit of Greensill Bank for the past six months and may soon impose a moratorium on the lender’s operations, these people said.

Concern is growing among regulators about the quality of some of the receivables that Greensill Bank is holding on its balance sheet, two people said. Regulators are also scrutinising the insurance that the lender has said is in place for its receivables.

Greensill Bank has provided much of the funding to GFG Alliance, a sprawling empire controlled by industrialist Sanjeev Gupta.

“There has been an ongoing regulatory audit of the bank since autumn,” said a spokesman for Greensill. “This regulatory audit report has specifically not revealed any malfeasance at the bank. We have constructive ongoing dialogue with all regulators in all jurisdictions where we operate.”

The spokesman added that all of the banks assets are “unequivocally” covered by insurance.

Greensill, a 44-year-old former investment banker, has said that the idea for his company was shaped by his experiences growing up on a watermelon farm in Bundaberg, where his family endured financial hardships when large corporations delayed payments.

Greensill Capital’s main financial product — supply-chain finance — is controversial, however, as critics have said it can be used to disguise mounting corporate borrowings.

Even if an agreement is struck with Apollo, it could still effectively wipe out shareholders such as SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which poured $1.5bn into the firm in 2019. SoftBank’s $100bn technology fund has already substantially written down the value of its stake.

Gupta, a British industrialist who is one of Greensill’s main clients, separately saw an attempt to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from Canadian asset manager Brookfield collapse.

Executives at Credit Suisse are particularly nervous about the supply-chain finance funds’ exposure to Gupta’s opaque web of ageing industrial assets, said people familiar with the matter.

The FT reported earlier on Tuesday that Credit Suisse has larger and broader exposure to Greensill Capital than previously known, with a $160m loan, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Additional reporting by Laurence Fletcher and Kaye Wiggins in London



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FT 1000: Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies

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The latest annual ranking of businesses by revenue growth. Explore the 2021 list here — the full report including in-depth analysis and case studies will be published on March 22



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EU plans digital vaccine passports to boost travel

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Brussels is to propose a personal electronic coronavirus vaccination certificate in an effort to boost travel around the EU once the bloc’s sluggish immunisation drive gathers pace.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said on Monday the planned “Digital Green Pass” would provide proof of inoculation, test results of those not yet jabbed, and information on the holder’s recovery if they had previously had the disease.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans‘ lives,” von der Leyen wrote in a tweet on Monday. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.”

The plan, expected to be outlined this month, is a response to a push by Greece and some other EU member states to introduce EU “vaccination passports” to help revive the region’s devastated travel industry and wider economy. 

But the commission’s proposed measures will be closely scrutinised over concerns including privacy, the chance that even inoculated people can spread Covid-19, and possible discrimination against those who have not had the opportunity to be immunised.

In an immediate sign of potential opposition, Sophie Wilmès, Belgium’s foreign minister, raised concerns about the plan. She said that while the idea of a standardised European digital document to gather the details outlined by von der Leyen was a good one, the decision to style it a “pass” was “confusing”. 

“For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom of movement around Europe,” Wilmès wrote in a tweet. “Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised.”

The travel sector tentatively welcomed the news of Europe-wide vaccine certification as a way to rebuild confidence ahead of the crucial summer season, but warned that regular and rapid testing was a more efficient and immediate way to allow the industry to restart.

Fritz Joussen, chief executive of Tui, Europe’s largest tour operator, said “with a uniform EU certificate, politicians can now create an important basis for summer travel”. But he added that testing remained “the second important building block for safe holidays” while large numbers of Europeans awaited a jab.

Marco Corradino, chief executive of online travel agent Lastminute.com, said he feared the infrastructure needed would not be ready in time for the summer season: “It will not work . . . at EU level because it is too complicated and would not be in place by June.”

He suggested that bilateral deals, such as the one agreed between Greece and Israel in February to allow vaccinated citizens to travel without the need to show a negative test result, had more potential.

Vaccine passport sceptics argue it would be unfair to restrict people’s travel rights simply because they are still waiting for their turn to be jabbed. 

Gloria Guevara, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said it was important not to discriminate against less advanced countries and younger travellers, or those who simply cannot or choose not to be vaccinated. “Future travel is about a combination of measures such as comprehensive testing, mask-wearing, enhanced health and hygiene protocols as well as digital passes for specific journeys,” she added.

A European Commission target to vaccinate 70 per cent of the bloc’s 446m residents by September means many people are likely to go through summer unimmunised.

While some countries around the world have long required visitors to be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as yellow fever, a crucial difference with coronavirus is that those inoculations are available to travellers on demand. 

Questions also remain about the risk of people who have already been vaccinated passing on coronavirus if they contract the disease.

 





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