Saturday 24 September 2016

Nama has half its original €74bn of loans to sell - and it is the really awful half

Published 15/09/2016 | 02:30

Nama chairman Frank Daly at Treasury Building in Dublin
Nama chairman Frank Daly at Treasury Building in Dublin

If Nama thought it was going to go speedily and smoothly glide towards the finish line it will have to think again. The agency is likely to be dragged into a long and protracted inquiry which might not make for pretty reading when it is finished.

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Firstly, there are the multiple allegations surrounding bribery by certain individuals in the North regarding the sale of Nama's Northern portfolio.

Nama's response has been co-operative in relation to these probes but not exactly pro-active. Its chairman, Frank Daly, declined an invitation to go to Stormont's finance committee and take questions on the sale of the portfolio.

Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan have persistently claimed there were no allegations against Nama and therefore there was no need for an inquiry on this side of the border.

However, as more and more damaging evidence and details of secret tape recordings have emerged, questions are being asked about individuals south of the border who may have been in a position to pass on confidential information or exercise some influence.

Secondly, there is the Comptroller and Auditor General's report into the sale of the Northern portfolio which has found what it believes are shortcomings and irregularities in the sale process that may have cost the Irish taxpayer hundreds of millions of euro.

Nama disagrees with the findings.

Nama was always going to be a controversial agency. The sheer scale of the €74bn in loans it acquired left it open to mistakes and disagreements about what could or should have been done differently.

From the start it has been incredibly secretive. It has systems in place to ensure accountability through a wide board membership, Oireachtas committee hearings and links with the Department of Finance and the NTMA.

However, it has never been prepared to disclose what it paid for assets and how much it received in selling them. There are some genuine commercial reasons for this.

If a prospective buyer knew what the agency had paid for a particular loan, it could pitch its price accordingly. Once Nama sells an asset, the buyer may not agree to have the purchase price disclosed.

So when being asked to assess how the Nama team has performed, we can only judge it on the final score of the game and not the game played out.

In other words, when Nama is finally wound up, it will have made a profit or a loss, but we would never get to find out whether it did bad deals, or could have done better deals.

The Comptroller and Auditor General has taken a look at one transaction, namely the sale of Project Eagle, and he clearly doesn't think the best deal was done.

It raises the question of what would shortcomings or irregularities would emerge through a similar analysis of other large asset sales. We may get to find out. Nama could find itself dragged through lots value for money probes in the years ahead.

This is not a reflection of a dishonest culture at the organisation but a late response to the lack of information that was available in the first place.

When former Nama executive Enda Farrell was charged with disclosing confidential Nama information, it raised the question of whether this was one bad apple. Inevitably, there might be at least one person in any large organisation who would break the rules.

But not only had Mr Farrell made allegations against others within Nama, but the controversy surrounding the Northern property sale, has cut right to the heart of the organisation and its potential vulnerabilities.

The allegations of fraud surrounding the sale of Project Eagle are predicated on two things. Firstly, for bribery to have happened, individuals outside Nama must have had some influence on the sale process. That influence might have been through disclosure of confidential information about valuations or exerting political influence down South for the portfolio to be sold in the first place.

Secondly, the allegations about fixers getting paid a lot money to help individuals buy back debts is predicated on those fixers getting access to important inside information about the valuations placed on certain assets.

If there has been a scam in the sale of Project Eagle, then it could not have worked without certain individuals in Nama or connected to Nama playing key roles. Yet, nobody in government or in Nama felt it was necessary to examine this sale in any great detail.

After the calamity of the banking crisis and its €62bn bill, Nama was charged with making sure it didn't lose any more money. It would be a bonus if it made a profit.

However, how could Nama not make a profit when it bought €74bn of loans for €32bn? Look at what it has done.

By the end of March 2016 it had bagged €28.4bn from selling property and loans. This equated to approximately €35bn of the original €74bn of loans or just a 20pc discount.

Of the €39bn of original loans Nama still has left, €36.7bn of them representing 7,343 loans, are non-performing. In the three months to March 2016 borrowers paid just €58m in interest on them. The remaining €2.8bn of loans are performing and will be easier to sell.

Nama has sold almost all of the good stuff. It has used the proceeds to rapidly pay back borrowings it used to buy the assets in the first place. Selling the good stuff early, meant it got cash in early and reduced its debts early.

It didn't mean it got the best price. However, it did mean it reduced the €32bn risk to the state that the Nama balance sheet represented.

It values the remaining €36bn in non-performing loans at just €5.3bn or a discount of 85pc of original nominal loan value.

Nama has processed and sold off properties that originally carried €35bn of loans on them, in the space of four years. It has been an incredible sale.

Lack of information means we cannot discern whether good prices were achieved or not. The remaining sales will involve much weaker assets and it will be interesting to see how many global vulture funds want to buy them.

They will involve a lot more work to extract the return than the easily-flipped assets Nama has already sold. At those discounts, there are likely to be problems with the title and other complexities.

It has not been possible to determine how much Nama has got back from the loans of which banks so far. For example it bought €34bn worth of Anglo Irish Bank assets for €13bn.

How much has it got back on its Anglo assets to date? It bought €8.7bn of Irish Nationwide Assets for €3.4bn but how much has it got back so far on the Irish Nationwide Assets? Its figures are not broken down in that way.

Putting a value on a property at a moment in time is not a science. There are different valuation methodologies and ultimately its value is what someone is prepared to pay for it. Were some of the purchasers of Nama assets willing to pay more than they did? Could Nama have got more for assets if it had waited longer to sell? The answer to both might well be 'yes'.

In Nama's defence, the pace of wind-up accelerated once Michael Noonan became finance minister. He did not want to see Nama hanging around forever with a €32bn balance sheet that represented a real risk to Ireland Inc.

What Ireland gained by reducing that risk down to about €6bn in just a few years, it may have lost by selling some assets too quickly. We may never know for sure but it looks like the question is now very seriously being asked.

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