Thursday 19 January 2017

We know who the property losers were, but who were the winners?

An analysis of the 20 biggest deals of the boom years reveals who came out ahead -- and who lost out on disastrous reinvestments

Laura Noonan and Ian Barrett

Published 12/08/2010 | 05:00

THE battlefields of corporate Ireland are littered with corpses, but few property plays have racked up as many high-profile casualties as the disastrous 2006 swoop on the Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend, Dublin.

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Bernard McNamara, the builder turned developer who led the €412m purchase, has declared himself "broke" with debts of €1.5bn.

The State's very own Dublin Docklands Development Authority, McNamara's joint-venture partner, has taken write-downs of close to €200m.

Anglo Irish Bank, which backed the transaction along with AIB, has collapsed into nationalisation after a long line of property-lending disasters.

The Irish taxpayer looks set to pick up the ultimate tab, with the remaining Glass Bottle site loan transferred to the bad bank NAMA at an 88pc discount -- meaning that most of the money loaned out will never be seen again.

But as the Glass Bottle site's body count grows and the saga is held up as the most horrific example of boomtime property plays gone awry, one key fact is frequently overlooked.

The €412m that McNamara and his allies spent didn't disappear into thin air, it went to a seller who pocketed it gleefully. The same is equally true for the other property deals struck at the dizzying heights of the boom-time market.

Offloaded

AN analysis by the Irish Independent shows that the bulk of the €4.35bn spent on Ireland's 20 biggest property deals didn't immediately vanish from the economy -- it went to Irish sellers.

Banks that were subsequently bailed out were the biggest beneficiaries, with AIB and Bank of Ireland hoovering up a combined €1.3bn by selling branches and landmark headquarters buildings at the peak of the boom.

Irish developers, some of them now within the clutches of NAMA, were the second-biggest group of sellers, reaping close to €1bn as they offloaded assets to their one-time rivals.

Another healthy tranche of the sales went to the Irish family behind the Jurys Doyle Hotel Group, which made about €650m from selling its trio of Ballsbridge hotels to Sean Dunne.

The State also came in for its fair share of the spoils, raking in more than €300m between the 2005 sale of UCD's veterinary college building and Dublin Port's €140m share of the Glass Bottle site.

But just as the Irish boom didn't defy the laws of gravity, so the Irish crash doesn't defy the laws of physics.

For every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction and for every buyer who bought at the top, there is a seller who sold at the top.

So where did all that money go?

And if it only went down the road, why are we in such an awful mess now?

Billions

A FIRST perusal of the top 20 deals -- the list was compiled with help from estate agents CBRE -- offers frustratingly few insights into the black hole that apparently gobbled up Ireland's billions.

Just four deals in that 20 involve money directly leaving the country and most of those are at the lower end of the financial scale.

Global insurance giant Allianz made €105m from selling its headquarters to the omnipresent McNamara in the heady days of 2007. Some of that money stayed with the insurer's local division, but some of it winged its merry way back to head office in Germany.

International electronics company FAAC made close to the same amount from selling its Sandyford site to construction giant Lalco and private investors back in 2006.

The UK bank RBS -- which has since been bailed out by the British taxpayer -- cashed in its Shelbourne Hotel chips for €140m in 2004, offloading the landmark hotel to property kingpins McNamara, David Courtney, Gerry O'Reilly and John Sweeney.

International sellers also got a pay-day from the €412m Irish Glass Bottle site, with some non-Irish believed to be among the South Wharf PLC group that pocketed 66pc of the massive proceeds.

But the experts stress that the Irish-to-Irish nature of the remainder of the other 16 major deals -- accounting for the vast majority of the money spent -- is just the start of a much longer story.

Even though every buyer's purchase was "offset on the national balance sheet" by a corresponding gain enjoyed by an Irish seller, "in reality, the majority of the large property deals did involve almost immediate reinvestment of funds into the property market," says economist Constantin Gurdgiev.

Damage

THAT reinvestment, it seems, is where the real damage was done. Gurdgiev's fellow economist Brian Lucey suggests that much of the money went into either property or bank shares, both of which have since "gone like the snows of spring".

An in-house property economist points out that these subsequent property purchases would have been particularly ill-timed.

"They (the sellers who reinvested) were buying at or close to the top of the property market, so they would have suffered the greatest decline in value terms in the downturn. If they were highly geared, the effect would have been more pronounced," he adds.

Or, as Gurdgiev puts it: "Most of the proceeds from the larger speculative sales during the boom years were leveraged to finance even higher-risk property deals," with sellers "buying into even higher-priced assets".

Gurdgiev also points to the growing fashion for investing overseas, which ultimately drove the sellers' property windfalls away from Ireland's shores.

"Starting with 2005, professional Irish land and property investors started aggressively moving into high-risk countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, where Irish investors played a critically important role in driving commercial and residential real-estate booms," he says.

"In addition, vanity investments into lower-yielding, highly priced trophy real estate in the UK, US, Spain and France became popular with higher-calibre Irish investors."

Gurdgiev says much of the proceeds that didn't find their way into doomed property deals found their way into even more dubious homes -- complex financial products, such as contracts for difference, which were also decimated by the crash.

"All of this implies that ... most of the funds accumulated by those on the seller side of the larger property deals of the Celtic Tiger have been vaporised in the subsequent asset price collapses," he says.

Certainly, the fate of the biggest sellers of the boom would seem to confirm this.

Sean Dunne and his Mountbrook Homes vehicle made €197m from offloading a 50pc stake in Newbridge's Whitewater centre to Warren Private Clients in 2006. That same year, the Baron of Ballsbridge had a €170m pay-day when he sold the Riverside IV block at Sir John Rogerson's Quay to Irish Life.

But Dunne is also the most active buyer on the top 20 list, with four separate transactions on the list totalling €716m as he assembled his Ballsbridge hotel empire and snapped up Hume House from Irish Life, as well as part of AIB's Bankcentre.

With a lower profile of late, Dunne ceded control of his d4hotel empire to a consortium of his bankers earlier this year, after attempts to develop the site were waylaid by planning problems.

Syndicate

DEREK Quinlan's Quinlan Private is another example of a top-of-the-market buyer and seller. The investment vehicle made €320m from selling The Square in Tallaght to Noel Smyth's Alburn Developments in 2007, while Mr Quinlan personally was among the beneficiaries of the €165m sale of the Allegro site in Sandyford back in 2005.

A year earlier, Quinlan Private had put together a syndicate -- together with Landmark Development's Paddy Shovlin -- to buy Bank of Ireland's headquarters for €212m. Mr Quinlan also had a 33pc stake in the doomed €412m Glass Bottle deal.

Having dabbled in international property over the boom, Mr Quinlan has since moved to Switzerland and is currently in negotiations with NAMA over a personal debt pile of more than €600m. He has taken a step back from Quinlan Private, which has been renamed Avestus.

Ireland's banks, meanwhile, seem to be little better off for their well-timed property offloads, with both AIB and Bank of Ireland having to be bailed out by the State as the financial crisis hit.

"Banks, having made money on disposals, would have subsequently lent out that money, or multiples of it, at a very low margin to fund more purchases -- so they were caught there," observes a property economist.

While jam-packed with examples of sellers who let their spoils slip through their fingers, the top 20 list does contain some tales of those who emerged from the boom ahead.

Most notable is the Jurys Doyle family, which pulled off the deal of the decade by raising over €650m from selling their Dublin 4 hotels to McNamara and Dunne.

The sellers of the infamous Glass Bottle site, including the Dublin Port Company and investor Paul Coulson, also came out of the boom well, with Mr Coulson ranked 63rd on this year's 'Sunday Independent' Rich List, with assets of €135m.

Just a shade behind him is Sir Marc Cochrane, who offloaded a site at Woodbrook in Shankhill for €160m in 2006 and now has reported net worth of €136m.

Meanwhile, developers Jerry Conlan and Dermot O'Rourke, who raised €315m from selling on Naas's Millennium Park back in 2006, also appear to have come out well.

But even those victories aren't enough to restore order to Ireland's national account. Gurdgiev suggests that any proceeds which survived the crash were "most likely locked into single-premium insurance products and some large-scale bank deposits or as collateral on other investments -- making them illiquid."

He says: "Urban mythology is full of stories of small-town landowners who wisely sold at the top of the market and are now hoarding cash. While some of these stories might be true, aggregate data from the financial sector, as well as the information available about Irish investments abroad, suggest otherwise."

The economist believes that "in all likelihood" little of the proceeds of those sales "remains intact" given the "three years of continuous destruction of wealth in Irish asset markets".

He adds: "That wealth which did escape is now most likely safely tucked away in distant geographical locations -- out of reach of the Irish Exchequer."

Irish Independent

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