Sunday, December 2, 2007

Subprime crisis hits Narvik, Norway?

You read right. Narvik and other towns in Norway had their municipal governments invested in CDO-type securities. The four communities may have lost as much as $64 million or even more. It’s bad enough that Narvik, population 18,000, has missed one city payroll.

“The people in City Hall were na├»ve and they were manipulated,” said Paal Droenen, who was buying fish at a market across the street from the mayor’s office. “The fund guys were telling them tales, like, ‘This could happen to you.’ It’s a catastrophe for a small town like this.”

Now, the towns are considering legal action against the Norwegian brokerage company, Terra Securities, that sold them the investments. They allege that they were duped by Terra’s brokers, who did not warn them that these types of securities were risky and subject to being cashed out, at a loss, if their market price fell below a certain level.

“When you sell something that is not what you say it is, that is a lie,” Mayor Karen Kuvaas said. She disputed the suggestion that people here lacked the sophistication to understand what they were buying. “We’re not especially stupid because we live so far in the north,” she said.

Norway’s financial regulator agreed that the brokers had misled the towns, and it revoked the license of Terra Securities, prompting the company to file for bankruptcy. But the company’s parent, Terra Group, which is in turn owned by 78 savings banks and remains in business, rejected calls for it to compensate the towns. A spokesman for the group said it too had taken a hit from the episode.

Norway’s finance minister, Kristin Halvorsen, has ruled out the possibility of a state bailout, and Citigroup, which announced Thursday that it would shut down one of the money-losing investments Narvik bought, said it had no legal obligation to step in.

Narvik has investments like this equal to about one-quarter its annual budget. The problem seems to have been created in part by city officials who didn’t read original documents thoroughly, and in at least equal part by Citigroup and others who added fine print after the initial documents were signed.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Citigroup sued in Norwegian court before this sorry episode is over.