One of the intriguing characters in the story of ‘NAMA-land’, the title of the book I have written which has just been published by Gill Books, is the former general secretary of the Department of Finance, John Moran.
The Limerick man was appointed to the second most senior position in the Irish civil service by then finance minister and fellow County Limerick man, Michael Noonan in May 2012. His appointment was welcomed at the time as a breath of fresh air, given that he had only joined the department a couple of years earlier.
It was widely reported that his most recent business experience was in running a juice bar in the Languedoc region of France, where he was also renovating an old property. Not so well reported at the time were questions raised in the Dáil by Sinn Féin spokesman, Pearse Doherty, about Moran’s time with Swiss insurance company, Zurich Capital Markets (ZCM), where he was US-based chief executive from 1997 to 2005.
As Doherty pointed out, ZCM was fined $16m, in May 2007, by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) after it found that the insurance company had “provided financing, aided and abetted four hedge funds that were carrying out schemes to defraud mutual funds that prohibited market timing” and “employed various deceptive tactics to invest in mutual funds”. ZCM was an affiliate of Zurich Global Investments LLC and an indirect subsidiary of Zurich Financial Services, the Swiss holding company.
Not much notice was paid to Doherty’s remarks following the somewhat surprise appointment of Moran, except that the deputy was expelled from the Dáil for what the then ceann comhairle, Sean Barrett, described as “attempted character assassination”.
After settling in to his new position, Moran was an enthusiastic supporter, with Noonan, of the rapid disposal of NAMA assets and in encouraging global or ‘vulture’ investment funds in their acquisition from 2013. As has since been revealed, he met with a number of the funds which arrived in Ireland since then and purchased huge bundles of heavily discounted, distressed assets from NAMA, only to flip them within months, for much higher margins than achieved by the agency.
He was involved in designing some of the tax-efficient incentives which Noonan introduced during his term as finance minister, some of which are under scrutiny again, following the most recent revelations on tax avoidance in the Paradise Papers involving Apple and other multi-nationals.
In February 2013, Moran told the REIT Forum conference in Dublin, a gathering of 500 property investors, owners and auctioneers, of his “ambitions to make Ireland a base for international REITS (real estate investment trusts) in much the same way as Dublin is now an international centre for aircraft leasing”. Among those who spoke at the conference was the then head of asset recovery at NAMA, John Mulcahy, who left the agency later that year to join one of Ireland’s leading commercial property investors, IPUT.
Another former NAMA executive, Kevin Nowlan, whose father Bill had helped devise the REIT legislation introduced by the then government, went on to form Hibernia REIT in October 2013, less than a year after leaving the agency. Hibernia is now one of the country’s leading purchasers of commercial properties in Dublin, including some previously on the distressed loan books controlled by NAMA.
Last year, Moran was reported in Village as saying that he could not recall whether he attended a meeting between Noonan and senior Cerberus representatives, including former US treasury secretary, John Snow, in late March 2014. The meeting took place on the day before the final tenders were submitted to NAMA for the agency’s entire Northern Ireland loan book, known as Project Eagle. Noonan was criticised in a report by the Public Accounts Committee of the Oireachtas earlier this year for his participation at the meeting which was described as “not procedurally appropriate”.
In fact, the records and minutes since released and naming those finance department officials attending the meeting do not include Moran.
Within weeks, Cerberus emerged as the successful bidder and paid £1.2bn (€1.6 bn) for the portfolio. Some £730m, or almost two-thirds of the monies paid by Cerberus through its subsidiary, Promontoria Eagle, for Project Eagle was lent by Nomura, a Japanese Bank.
After just two years as secretary general with the department, Moran retired from the position in May 2014. In November 2015, Nomura announced that Moran had been appointed as an advisor to the bank. He lobbied Noonan and finance department officials on behalf of Nomura during 2016.
There is nothing illicit, improper or unsurprising about any senior civil servant going on to provide consultancy and other expertise to local and international companies following retirement. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to follow the global web of networking in the world of high finance.