Business

Friday 28 April 2017

NAMA had a difficult birth and its growing pains are impinging on ability to get a good deal for taxpayers

NAMA chairman Frank Daly and chief executive Brendan McDonagh at the
publication last July of the agency’s first annual report for 2010
NAMA chairman Frank Daly and chief executive Brendan McDonagh at the publication last July of the agency’s first annual report for 2010

Emmet Oliver

NAMA had been leading something of a charmed life since it was set up two years ago, but life for the gigantic 'bad bank' became a lot more challenging when a new administration swept into government buildings in March.

NAMA, which manages €30bn of assets, was set up at the height of the financial crisis and was something of a pet project of the late finance minister Brian Lenihan.

Lenihan got the NAMA legislation through the Oireachtas and he made its two crucial appointments - Brendan McDonagh as chief executive and Frank Daly as chairman. Lenihan also saw NAMA as a way to get banks lending again, although everyone now agrees that particular ambition went unfulfilled.

Either way, Lenihan was seen as NAMA's most steadfast supporter, so when the new Labour/Fine Gael government took the reins of power in March, the agency was seen by many as living on borrowed time.

Fine Gael in particular outlined a series of radical reforms it was going to subject NAMA to. "A new Fine Gael Government will make a number of changes to the way NAMA works to help reduce taxpayer exposures and to kick-start the economy,'' said its manifesto.

There certainly was tough talk about NAMA in its document, particularly in relation to transparency at the agency. One that raised some eyebrows was a commitment to reveal who the borrowers were in NAMA.

"A Fine Gael government will strengthen the transparency of NAMA's operations and its management of the assets paid for by the taxpayer.

"The details of all non-performing loans acquired by NAMA will be available for scrutiny on a public register, including the names of the creditors, the price paid by the taxpayer for the loans and the actions taken by NAMA''.

However as the year ended, this commitment had not been delivered on, and transparency from NAMA is still relatively selective - for example, the agency is not covered under the Freedom of Information Act, but yet it does publish a list of assets it has taken control of and is selling.

New government

Despite the new government's obvious suspicion of NAMA, the agency has not yet been radically restructured and it was very much getting on with business in 2011.

The one moment when it looked like NAMA might be neutered was when high-flying ex-HSBC Michael Geoghegan was called in by the government to review its operations

Geoghegan reviewed the agency for Finance Minister Michael Noonan, and broadly delivered a glowing assessment.

Yes, the agency needed to be more strategic and, yes, the agency board needs a broader mix of people, but in the main Geoghegan said NAMA was where he expected it to be after two years. Still the agency is not out of the political woods yet.

An advisory panel, to be chaired by Geoghegan, is to be set up and will be filled by a number of heavy hitters from the property and private equity worlds. The exact relationship between this advisory panel and NAMA's board has not been fleshed out yet, but it is clear that NAMA will have a body looking over its shoulder from now on.

Key task

NAMA itself though has been getting on with its key task, which is selling down its assets in an attempt to make sure the taxpayer gets at least some level of return.

The outgoing year saw the level of sales starting to reach critical mass in the UK, even if Irish-based sales were minimal.

NAMA has been accused of selling the most attractive parts of its loan book first - prime real estate in southern England - while hoarding its less attractive assets, like development land in rural Ireland.

In some respects, the agency admits this is the strategy.

Frank Daly, its chairman, has sought to remind the public and politicans that in certain cases - like development land - it can hoard assets and take a longer view.

What nobody knows is what NAMA paid for specific assets it is selling.

While it discounted the assets it bought from the Irish banks by 58pc on average, the agency does not break down what it paid for individual assets.

As a result nobody knows whether it is getting a return on a specific asset or taking a loss.

The ultimate calculation is as follows - the agency spent €30bn buying up loans from the Irish banks, so it needs to bring in cash and hold assets to the same value by the time it winds up in around 10 years.

At this stage nobody knows whether it will get there, but the challenges are huge.

In the meantime, assets have to be managed, and NAMA has been castigated for paying developers to do this - sometimes paying them over €200,000 a year for the privilege.

Developers are paid

NAMA has countered that it either pays the developers, or it pays less experienced receivers €180 an hour to do the same job.

The management of the assets is one thing, but the value of them is even more important.

No self-respecting economist can really call the Irish property market ten years from now, although NAMA got a huge fillip just before Christmas when the government abandoned plans to scrap upward-only rent reviews, boosting NAMA as a landlord to thousands of businesses and home owners.

Retailers were furious with this decision on rent reviews, but NAMA clearly has strong lobbying power with the new administration, even if the two sides were not close allies earlier in the year.

Irish Independent

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