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Diddled

EDITORIAL 

One of the biggest scandals in the history of the state, one of the greatest injustices, is now becoming manifest. The National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) which Brian Lenihan then Minister for Finance who established it, assured us would be a bailout of the (largely taxpayer-owned) banks is in fact a bailout of developers.  This is a massive corruption of fairness and a sign of just how little progress has been made in eliminating the attitudes that led to our boom, and bust. It is a pity the left has not made it the centrepiece of its campaigning, instead of the small and diminishing issue that is the water tax. For the rebooting of the speculators who cost us a decade is at the heart of the inequality that drives this country, an inequality that favours those who know enough to buy a few apartments – in Ballina or Bucharest, who vote Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and know their way around the development flanks of those two dinosaurs, to the detriment of the little people.

“Nothing in the proposed Bill will provide a bailout for borrowers, whether builders, developers or otherwise . . . anyone who owes money before NAMA, continues to owe it and is expected to repay the full amount of the debt”, proclaimed Lenihan in 2009.

His master, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, a few days later laid down that while NAMA would acquire loans from the banks at a discount, the developers who had borrowed from the banks would still have to pay back to NAMA the full value of the loans they had taken out.

Writing in the Irish Times, John MacManus noted:

“Nobody suggested that NAMA was going to involve anything other than huge write-downs of the loans given by the banks to property developers. And, likewise, anybody who was paying attention knew the bill for the write-downs was always going to be borne by the taxpayer, who would have to re-capitalise the banks – to the tune of €65bn – in order to allow them absorb these and other losses.

But what did turn out to be at best a fib was the claim that NAMA would operate in a way that would make it impossible for the developers who took out the loans to benefit from the write-downs. The NAMA legislation did include a clause that the developers could not buy their loans back from NAMA but, as we have seen, it was not possible to prevent them having a continued interest in the underlying business and assets once the debt had been written down and sold off by NAMA”.

Nor, as the dust settles on the Great Recession, do we any longer hear anything of the fifteen transfers from developers, including the majority of the top 30 developers in NAMA, to their wives, three reverse-transfers from wives to husbands and eight NAMA registrations of charges against property associated with the wives of developers that occupied us five years ago.  No punitive action was ever taken. Can we be confident that none of it was done to avoid the rigours of the law:

The central point is that while the likes of Ray Grehan, Bernard McNamara, Tom McFeely, John Fleming and Paddy Shovlin more or less put their hands up and declared themselves bankrupt, developers who made a fist of their position and co-operated with NAMA by selling assets and paying down debt are back; as are developers like Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett of liquidated Treasury Holdings, who retained property in their own personal names, outside their principal operating companies.

Treasury Holdings went belly-up with debts of €2.7bn, €1.7bn of which was owed to NAMA, on foot of an action taken by KBC Bank Ireland. But it was more serious than that: the liquidator, Michael McAteer of Grant Thornton, accused Ronan and Barrett of carrying out two asset-stripping transactions – as Treasury writhed in its last throes leaving behind its giant debt – that in effect defrauded the company’s creditors.

One of these involved the sale by Treasury to Barrett of two other companies which managed its Chinese properties for something around a fifth of their real value. McAteer ended up agreeing to a proposal to repay him €47m, with Barrett bagging €5m for putting the deal together, and he and Ronan getting €36.3m each in cash from the sale of the shares they held directly in Treasury’s Chinese operation.

Judge Peter Kelly in the High Court approved the deal as being in the best interest of creditors but ventilated disquiet at payments to Barrett who he described as “ a defendant against whom there is an allegation of fraud”. That allegation appears now  to have  been dropped.

Meanwhile Ronan has recently finalised a deal with two multi-billion dollar funds, Colony Capital and M&G to secure his leave-taking from NAMA. Between them they will pay over €250m to buy out Ronan’s personal debts of over €290m. The Sunday Independent cannot get enough of it.

But nearly all of the boomtown boyos are back, one way or another – in the Sindo and, even worse, in reality.

NAMA has recently written off €300m in debts for 23 major property developers, we hear.

It has been reported that representatives for the Quinn family and the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC) are currently negotiating a settlement of their €4.5bn case against the former Anglo Irish Bank and the Irish state. The family might drop its €4.5bn claim arising from the seizure of the Quinn Group in 2011, a claim already found by the Supreme Court to be partially infirm, and the liquidators might drop the so-called conspiracy case against members of the family.

According to the Sunday Business Post (March 29th) the Quinn family could, under the terms of the negotiations, resume control of hundreds of millions worth of property and other assets, though the Irish Times subsequently reported that there was no question of the family ending up with any of the valuable foreign property portfolio it tried to put beyond the bank’s reach, or that the IBRC would walk away from any suspected fraud it may have encountered.

Although whatever wealth Castlethorn’s Joe O’Reilly had before the crash pales alongside the €2.8bn his companies owed when his loans were taken into NAMA in 2010, the combination of a high-quality property portfolio including Dundrum Town Centre, the Pavillions in Swords, the Gaiety Centre on Dublin’s South King Street and offices at Grand Canal Dock, and their lucrative rent rolls coupled with well-located land banks in Dublin appears to make O’Reilly worth every cent of the €200,000 annual salary NAMA allows him. He remains in his 15,000 sq ft Foxrock mansion, Cnoc Ard.

Bernard McNamara is back, leaving his €1bn debts far away, working on Denis O’Brien’s Stephen’s Green offices and a €20m revamp of the  loathsome Kildare club for Michael Smurfit.

Michael O’Flynn owed his banks €1.8bn when he entered NAMA in 2009, but left NAMA owing vulture fund Blackstone €1.1bn – with the ultimate upshot a deal with Blackstone allowing him to keep 600 acres in Edinburgh, Cork and Dublin including the 20-acre former Nissan headquarters on the  Naas road. Blackstone had abortively called in the €1.1bn. John McManus noted that: “This amounts to a potential effective writedown of his debts by €700m. The loss ultimately shows up in the books of the banks that lent him the money – not NAMA, which probably made a profit buying and selling his debts. The loss will have been met by some of the €65bn pumped into the banks by the taxpayer. Hence the allegation of a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Exactly how much of the €1.8bn Mr O’Flynn repays is between him and Blackstone. No doubt they will squeeze him [and they did] but the chances are it’s not going to be far off €1.1bn unless NAMA has got its sums badly wrong”.

Accountant to the stars and globe-trotting dealmaker Derek Quinlan has paid off €3bn of his €3.5bn debts. He had a spectacular fall and quit Ireland for Switzerland. He is currently trying to flog his most expensive acquisition– the £1bn Citibank tower in Canary Wharf. He is also a shareholder in the Maybourne group, which owns Claridge’s Hotel.

MacManus quotes a source close to the developer: “The country needs to get going again and you can’t do it without developers and financiers. We actually need NAMA to allow the likes of Johnny Ronan and Derek Quinlan to get back to work and start spending money and create employment in the Irish economy”.

Mr Quinlan, we are told, has ‘sorted all his banks’ with the exception of NAMA – to which he owes €500m – but is fully cooperating with it, whatever that means.

Another way of putting this is that Quinlan still owes the Irish taxpayer €500m. To put that in perspective, we are currently trying to refinance our debts with the IMF in order to save €350m a year and avoid having to put up taxes again. If Mr Quinlan were to ‘sort’ NAMA, we might have some time for him.

The more pragmatic and compelling argument for keeping them as far away as possible from the property market is that they are not good developers and financiers. They are, in fact, bad developers and financiers. Neither of them seems to have seen the crash coming and both of them seemed to have doubled down at the wrong moment. This goes for most of their peers and the number of Irish developers who got it right can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

It is true that there is a need for players to finance and develop property in Ireland. But these guys are not the solution, they are part of the problem. In fact it is arguable as to whether property development should be done by “guys” at all.

The superstar developer model that prevails in Ireland is a creature of a small country blighted by political corruption”.

Very few of the recalcitrant bailed-out developers are in any way grateful for the interventions of the state through NAMA, for they each – being thoroughgoing Alpha males – assume they would have worked through their difficulties with their banks, if allowed to do so. In fact it is likely most of them would not because a crisis of confidence, unfair or not, would have toppled the whole system. And this inconveniently for the Alphas would have included them.

How many times must we read ‘Here’s Johnny’ in our broadsheets before we are allowed to say that it’s not a good thing that any of this crowd are back? •