Allfirst puts Charm City on currency trading map

This Just In...

February 08, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

ALLFIRST WENT $750 million bad and they missed it? Hard to believe. When I tried to play the part of rogue with these people, they caught me right away. I was a rogue personal checking account customer. Once, during the height of the home-heating season, I committed an overdraft of $10 in my Allfirst account. Next day, I received an overdraft notice in the mail with a bill for, I believe, $25 in penalties. It was as if Allfirst Chairman Frank Bramble and President and CEO Susan Keating had been camped in the data processing center, eye shades down to their noses, so they could personally flag bum accounts.

These people don't miss a thing. They're a pain that way.

I learned my lesson. Now I always keep at least $11 in my checking account, and I go to an Allfirst ATM several times a week to ask the nice lady inside if it's still there. (Confession: I really like when Allfirst's ATM or account-information phone ladies speak. Their voices, they excite me as a man.)

So, I can't imagine how a bank that nailed me for a $10 overdraft missed $750 million.

I mean, that's 75 million times the problem I created. (And it only happened because a certain someone else in my household -- and I won't mention any names! -- went to the ATM and asked the nice lady for $60, and never told me about it.)

"Obviously we are shocked by the amount of this loss," Bramble said, just so we -- and his bosses in Ireland -- know that he's not used to this kind of thing.

Seven hundred and fifty million smackers?

What's Gaelic for "Ouch"?

Baltimore's own John Rusnak is the man identified by the Allfirst High Command as the "rogue" trader who made bad bets in the foreign currency markets, causing these huge losses for Baltimore-based Allfirst Financial Inc. and its big-daddy company, Allied Irish Banks PLC ("Pleasantly Loose Controls").

Some people look at this Rusnak and see an upstanding family man and resident of Mount Washington, your neighbor, the guy you bump into at Fresh Fields while reaching for the last wedge of organic gorgonzola.

Some see a guy who looks so much like Martin O'Malley he could be his stunt double, attending Board of Estimates meetings while the mayor sings, "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-rah" in senior centers.

Some see -- and this is my crowd -- a guy who got in way over his head and tried to do things he shouldn't have done to cover his huge mistakes -- like the railbird who tries to recoup his losses with one last bet on the ninth race at Pimlico. "This kind of currency trading is real gambling," a stockbroker said yesterday. "Once [Rusnak] took a hit, he probably should have cut his losses. Instead, it looks like he got in deeper."

And now the name of John Rusnak, mild-mannered currency trader in what a British tabloid called "sleepy, blue-collar Baltimore," has gone global.

The BBC World News devoted 10 minutes of its Wednesday night telecast to the story. Rusnak's wife and kids have to put up with a small swarm of local and international media around their clapboard house on Smith Avenue. I feel sorry for them. They can't walk outside without being confronted by Jayne Miller and three guys named Nigel.

But, look. Rusnak was not, as first rumored and reported in the British press, "on the run."

He wasn't a fugitive, it turns out.

He didn't take $750 million and parachute out of an airplane over the Pacific Northwest.

He's not in St. Tropez with a babe.

He's here in town, and apparently he's been cooperating with investigators.

That's why, however odd it seems, you hear expressions of sympathy for the guy.

We won't know exactly what happened until Allfirst finishes its investigation -- and Keating and Bramble explain why they didn't know about any of this until it was too late.

Meanwhile, I'm taking Pat Ryan at his word. He's Allied Irish's group treasurer; he came over from Dublin the other day to stand behind Keating and Bramble -- if only physically.

"Our capital base is very strong," Ryan said. "It was able to absorb what happened."

Of Allfirst depositors, he said: "Their money is safe."

So, call me meshuganah -- that's Yiddish, not Gaelic -- but I deposited a check in my Allfirst account yesterday. I did it without hesitation.

But I am suspicious of one thing -- this big talk of Allied Irish writing off the $750 million loss against the 2001 books. That's blarney. Mark my words, they're going to make up for this with an ATM fee for Allfirst customers. It'll be known as the Rusnak surcharge. It'll be 50 cents per transaction. At that rate, only 1.5 billion ATM transactions will be needed to make up the loss.

I have the grave suspicion this is coming.

So, a little advice to Pat Ryan: Give your ATM or account-information phone ladies an Irish accent.

I think I speak for many American male customers when I say I am a total sucker for an Irish accent. The woman in the Irish Spring commercial who says, "I like it, too"? She can mail me an overdraft notice any day.

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