Business Irish

Thursday 23 March 2017

Stepping into the limelight

Notoriously media-shy tycoon has put his business dealings centre stage with hotly contested legal challenge to NAMA

Paddy McKillen's High Court challenge to NAMA has thrust the low-key developer into the limelight. With the State vigorously defending the action, we are getting an unprecedented inside view of the Belfast-born developer's business affairs.

One of the reasons it took the Government so long to get its NAMA 'bad bank' up and running was its determination that the legislation governing the operation of the new organisation would be able to withstand any legal challenge.

After staking the solvency of the State on the success of NAMA, the last thing the Government wanted was for the centrepiece of its banking strategy to be struck down by the courts.

The challenge, which wasn't long in coming, came from an unexpected quarter. Unlike many of his fellow-developers, McKillen has so far managed to survive the Irish property bust more or less intact.

According to McKillen's senior counsel Michael Cush, the Belfast-born developer has properties worth between €1.7bn and €2.8bn and an annual rent roll of €150m. He owes the Irish banks €2.1bn against those properties.



Properties

Only a quarter of McKillen's 62 properties, which include shopping centres, hotels and offices, are located in the Republic of Ireland with the remainder being in France, the UK and the US. McKillen's barrister also claimed that these properties were 96pc let to "blue chip" tenants on 25-year leases.

McKillen objects to his loans being transferred to NAMA. He claims that to do so would be "the cause of significant adverse effect on him and his companies, particularly on their financial well-being".

Translated into plain English McKillen is arguing that the stigma of having his loans transferred to NAMA would make it much more difficult for him to conduct his business, particularly to borrow money from other banks.

To buttress his case, McKillen has assembled one of the most impressive rosters of expert witnesses ever seen in an Irish legal case -- including Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

It's not just McKillen who has brought up the big guns. Leading the State's legal team is none other than the Attorney General Paul Gallagher.

The fact that the Attorney General, the Government's leading legal adviser, has chosen to appear in person, to defend the case is virtually unprecedented, and shows just how seriously the Government is taking McKillen's challenge.

Gallagher wasn't long putting the boot into McKillen's claim that his loans should not have been transferred to NAMA. He quickly identified what many see as the key weakness in McKillen's case, which is given that the problems of the Irish banks were well-known from mid-2008, why didn't McKillen refinance his loans with other less-stressed banks and thus avoid any possible stigma attached to having his loans transferred to NAMA?

The AG also shredded McKiIlen's objections to NAMA's refusal to hear objections from him or other developers whose loans it is buying from the banks.

Gallagher pointed out that if even one-third of the 1,500 borrowers whose loans are being transferred to NAMA were each allowed one day to plead their case, the entire process would take a year-and-a-half. Given the urgency of the banking crisis that is time we simply don't have.

Default

The State is also arguing that, contrary to McKillen's own claims, not all of his loans are performing and that some of them are technically in default. What is at issue here is what constitutes a 'performing' or 'non-performing' loan and how does one define when a loan is in default.

While McKillen is paying interest on most or all of his loans, something which can't be said about many other Irish property developers these days, even a cursory glance at the figures presented by his legal team to the High Court quickly demonstrates that his ability to repay more than a tiny proportion of the amount borrowed must be open to doubt.

A €150m annual rent roll may sound impressive but it still represents just 7.14pc of the €2.1bn that McKillen owes the banks. At current market interest rates it would take him decades to make a meaningful inroad into his debt mountain.

McKillen's case wasn't helped by Wednesday's news that the Liffey Valley shopping centre in west Dublin is to be sold for €350m.

While the sale of such a high-profile property was good news for a market that has seen transaction levels fall to virtually nothing, the fact that it took a yield (the annual rent roll as a percentage of the purchase price) of 9.4pc to get the deal done spoke volumes about the current health of the Irish property market.

If one were to apply a similar 9.4pc yield to McKillen's property portfolio it would give a capital value of just under €1.6bn. Not alone is this €100m less than McKillen's lowest valuation of his properties, it is also €500m less than the amount which he owes his banks.

Also further weakening McKillen's case was yesterday's announcement from ratings agency Fitch that it expected the value of Irish commercial and residential properties to fall even further.

Even before any further falls in property values it seems that McKillen is already in breach of the loan-to-value covenants on many of his loans, which specify that the amount borrowed shall not exceed a certain percentage of the total value of the property. It would also appear that many of his loans, most of which are interest-only, are overdue for repayment.

While McKillen is still paying interest on these loans, his failure to repay the principal may, depending on the loan contract, technically constitute a default.

Like most property developers McKillen's business was built on steadily-rising property prices. As the value of his properties rose he was able borrow more money against them to fund his next development.

Unfortunately, now that property prices have collapsed, McKillen is underwater on many of his loans.

The High Court heard one example of this during the week. McKillen is best-known in this country as the developer of the Jervis Shopping Centre on the site of Dublin's former Jervis Street Hospital.

NAMA argues that, although he has borrowed €251m from Anglo Irish Bank against his 50pc stake in the Jervis Centre, it was valued at just €118.5m in November 2009.

By bringing this case, McKillen has almost certainly damaged any chance of a harmonious relationship with NAMA in the future.

NAMA

Instead of going to law would he not have been better off engaging with NAMA, pointing out that, with his rent roll more than covering the interest on his debts, the most sensible course of action for everyone would be to manage the portfolio until values rise once again rather than selling properties now for fire-sale prices?

With many of his fellow competitors in far worse shape than he is, it's difficult not to suspect that NAMA would have been prepared to cut McKillen at least some slack. A prolonged bout of legal hostilities will, regardless of the outcome, make any rapprochement extremely difficult.

By taking a legal challenge against NAMA the notoriously shy McKillen -- the last known photograph of him was taken at a Construction Industry Federation bash over 20 years ago -- has ensured that he will dominate the headlines for weeks to come as details of his business are dissected in the courts.

Something similar happened last year when he was exposed as one of the 'Anglo Ten', who borrowed €450m from Anglo to buy 10pc of Anglo's shares from embattled businessman Sean Quinn. For someone who professes to loath publicity McKillen has demonstrated a remarkable ability to attract it.

Irish Independent

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