Friday 30 September 2016

A rallying cry to claw back some of the vultures' massive gains in Ireland

Avid Dublin GAA fan Paul Wyse tells Dearbhail McDonald that it's time for the vulture funds to play ball and pay more to the State

Published 04/08/2016 | 02:30

'We’ve shown ourselves to be incredibly resilient, when you take what we’ve actually gone through,' says taxation expert Paul Wyse of the Ireland of the crash. Photo: Tony Gavin
'We’ve shown ourselves to be incredibly resilient, when you take what we’ve actually gone through,' says taxation expert Paul Wyse of the Ireland of the crash. Photo: Tony Gavin

When Stephen Donnelly accused the Government of facilitating widespread tax avoidance by allowing 'vulture funds' to buy and manage distressed Irish assets without paying tax on their Irish profits, the claims drew a calculated silence.

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The Social Democrats co-leader told the Dáil that the scale of missed tax losses through the purchase of distressed mortgage loan book portfolios by tax neutral Special Purpose Vehicles known as Section 110s, is "likely to be in the tens of billions of euro".

Finance Minister Michael Noonan issued soothing noises about closing any loopholes if abuses are found.

Indeed, 40 Section 110s have been issued aspect letters by the Revenue Commissioners, confirming that their potential misuse is troubling the taxman at a time when Ireland is under sustained pressure over our 12.5pc corporate tax rate and the alleged special tax treatment of tech giant Apple.

Few in Ireland's financial sector were prepared to say if vultures overstepped the mark: fewer still to offer a potential solution.

Paul Wyse is speaking out.

For the managing director of the Dublin office of Smith and Williamson, the global investment management, accountancy, tax and corporate advisory firm, the answer is quite simple: tax the vultures on their Irish profits.

"It is opportunistic on the part of some of the so-called vulture funds to use the structures that they can put in place," says Wyse, who started out corporate life as a trainee accountant and insolvency practitioner with accountant Oliver Freaney, the legendary Dublin GAA star.

In 2008, S&W merged with Freaney and Co and its now 70-strong accountancy, advisory and insolvency practice has €450m of assets under active investment, with some €20.2bn managed by its UK parent.

Wyse says that the Irish Government hasn't really caught up with "opportunistic planning" but that this must change.

"There is a moral and business conscience now in relation to paying tax," says the avid Dublin GAA supporter.

"I would limit the use of them [S110s] to assets overseas which the law was primarily designed to do. Where you have assets in this country and you are generating income on assets in this country, people expect that you will pay tax in this country."

Wyse, who has counselled countless clients and businesses through the most traumatic years of this recession, is not anti-vulture.

Far from it. He acknowledges the critical role that major real estate investors such as US distressed debt specialists Kennedy Wilson have played since the onset of the global recession in 2009 which collapsed the Irish banking system in all but name.

"We needed the Kennedy Wilson's and others that came into town at that time," says the passionate cyclist who jokes that he got way ahead of the 'Mamil' (middle aged men in lycra) craze that has swept the country in recent years.

In fairness Wyse, who completes the annual cycle for the Peter McVerry Trust, has been cycling for more than 20 years, but he wears the Mamil moniker lightly.

The married 53-year-old, whose Irish business heroes include Glen Dimplex's Martin Naughton, Ryanair's Michael O'Leary and Kerry Group founder Denis Brosnan, first began to get concerned about the activities of some vultures from 2013 onwards, when Nama launched major loan sales.

"As an Irish taxpayer, you would have some concern that we lost opportunities to keep some of the opportunities with rising property prices in the hands of Irish ownership to get the benefit of that and the tax take of those gains," he says.

He is also concerned that non-bank entities will not support those businesses and personal debtors through the final hard yards of recovery because of their short-term objective to secure the return of as much equity as possible.

He commends the Government and the banks for supporting as best they could as many trading businesses throughout the crisis and lauds the "extraordinary sacrifices" made by employer and employee alike to ensure businesses survived.

"Now is not the time to ruin all that work. Now it's time to deal with the debt problem that we have because we have the capacity to deal with it which we did not have in previous years," says Wyse, who said the number of business failures could arguably have been greater given the debt profile, often through property debts unconnected to firms' main businesses.

"We've shown ourselves to be incredibly resilient, when you take what we've actually gone through," he says of the period between 2009 and 2012, what he calls the "kicking the can down the road years".

"My hope is that the banks that we still have to deal with, in some cases will take on board those sacrifices, which they have done during the recession."

Wyse's forehead crinkles into a frown when I ask if the vultures will have such a hand-holding approach now that they have assumed large portfolios of corporate and personal debts, including mortgages.

"I think they have some regard to it, definitely, " he says, somewhat unconvincingly. "But they have a different motivation; they are not here as long term players.

"If you have a short-term objective, effectively you have less regard, whether we like it or not. If you are continuing business in this country, then the impact of making a decision short term can have significant effect in the long term". As an insolvency practitioner and seasoned business advisor, Wyse is something of a canary in the coal mine.

He is keeping a close eye on the highly competitive hotel and motor sectors, key barometers for the economy.

Hotels are being hit particularly hard by currency fluctuations. And although Ireland is experiencing something of a motor bubble - new car registrations are up 19pc (131,264) on the same period last year (109,931) - Wyse expects further consolidation as manufacturers seek safe haven dealerships.

Wyse is a fierce proponent of Ireland's corporate tax rate and, Brexit and bank stress tests notwithstanding - he says Irish businesses need to move from contingency to actual Brexit planning - he is upbeat on prospects for the Irish economy.

He leads an annual survey of Irish law firms and says they are well and truly back in the black, albeit with fixed cost fees now the rule rather than the exception.

Ireland's magic circle firms are currently riding a €32bn M&A wave.

However, post-Brexit, Wyse expects some Irish firms to themselves be M&A targets as UK firms seek access to Europe, via Dublin, for their clients.

His current focus now is the sometimes-tricky business of business succession.

Wyse is in awe of his father, Tony (76), another National Hunt fanatic whom he travels to Cheltenham every year with. But he says handing over management or ownership to a much-loved son or daughter requires careful analysis.

"The key thing is that you make enough provision for yourself. That's the starting point. But then you ask, what else do you want out of the business going forward?"

For Wyse, the way forward for business is securing the earliest and best advice.

Even the "most incredible entrepreneurs and risk takers" may lack financial acumen, even if they have superb sales, production or engineering acumen.

In a final parting shot, I ask if the accountancy profession can be trusted?

Wyse, a Fellow of the Chartered Accountants Ireland, says that all the regulation in the world will not stop fraud, but that the profession has raised its game.

"We have got better at making sure that what appears to be going on is going on," he says. "But we have solutions to most problems, that's an incredible asset to have."

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