Sunday 25 September 2016

We need a bit more than a 'pantomime' approach to solving the housing crisis

Published 24/03/2016 | 02:30

‘The seeds have been sown, by failed government policy, for a longer term housing crisis’
‘The seeds have been sown, by failed government policy, for a longer term housing crisis’

Every good story needs a villain. These are the bad guys whose role in the narrative is to make everything intelligible and simple. Someone we can point at and say "this is your fault."

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The new bad guys, dominating headlines in the post-crash Ireland, are these apparently awful, faceless, nasty, foreign blokes who control these things called vulture funds.

Vulture funds are presented as the new evil that stalks the land. A few years ago, the villains were Fianna Fáil, or the Central Bank, or developers who caused our financial problems, now it is the vultures feeding off the carcass of a dying Ireland.

The story of how dozens of residents renting houses in Tyrrelstown in Dublin received notices to leave, once their lease is up, has sparked understandable fury with the notion of vulture funds driving people out of their homes.

A bit of perspective might be useful. Since the property collapse Nama has sold around €29bn worth of properties and loans to all sorts of buyers. IBRC, the liquidated rump of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide, has sold around €27bn worth of assets.

Ulster Bank has offloaded around €9bn of bad loans. That comes to around €65bn and doesn't even include the disposals of ACC, Bank of Scotland (Ireland), or Danske Bank.

The first thing that happened was they sold these assets predominantly below their original nominal value. Secondly, they sold them to businesses that had the money to buy them.

An obvious point you might think, but some people seem to suggest that these loans should have miraculously been sold to Irish people who didn't have the money.

Some of the buyers were foreign private equity or pension funds. Others went to what might be called vulture funds. Other buyers included the likes of the Comer Brothers, who have spent over €600m buying Irish property assets on the cheap. They want to develop them and make a profit. What's wrong with that?

Some were even bought by Irish banks, while Irish developers who were still standing financially, acquired others. New stock market listed property investment entities called Reits, such as Green or Hibernia, also piled in.

I wouldn't call Green Reit a vulture fund, given the kind of steady returns it is targeting and its commitment long term to the Irish market. I wouldn't call the Comer Brothers a vulture fund either.

So which ones are the vulture funds here? Is it a label we save for foreign interests? The idea that an Irish investor couldn't behave in a predatory fashion is ludicrous.

A vulture fund has several different definitions. On the Nasdaq website it can be a "fund that buys distressed debt of commercial companies or sovereign nations at a cheap price and then often sues them for the entire value of the debt". It can also be defined as a "mutual fund that invests predominantly or exclusively in high risk stock and high-yield debt."

A third definition is that represents a "pool of investment money used to purchase distressed financial assets or real estate at bargain prices."

The 'Financial Times' lexicon describes it more benignly as "a fund that invests in companies in difficulty, hoping to gain control of them and improve their performance".

The key issue is whether a vulture fund will behave differently to a bank, or some other investor who might acquire a loan or control of an asset. Of course they will.

When it comes to codes of conduct for mortgages, these international funds are under no compulsion to adhere to agreed codes such as the Irish banks. But then again, you only have to look at the enormous tracker mortgage scandal to see how Irish banks can behave towards customers. Vulture funds have bought up Irish business loans too and are in control of the fate of multiple businesses up and down the country.

In truth, some businesspeople stuck in Nama for years might welcome the chance to make progress by working with a new "banker". Others, understandably, will dread it.

Take the Tyrrelstown case. Who is forcing out the residents? Firstly, they are tenants and not renewing a lease would be harsh but not that unusual, except for the fact there is a housing and rental crisis going on. That is where the real tragedy of this story lies.

Secondly, there are many small landlords who have held back on rental increases because of the personal circumstances of their tenants. Others swamped in debt have not been able to be so understanding.

Some are reluctant landlords caught with a boom time house purchase now caught in negative equity. They have hiked rents because they are actually losing money.

Others have bought at the bottom and have been allowed by government to behave in an utterly greedy manner. The problem is very complex.

Everyone is talking about the need for a new stable government to tackle the issue, forgetting that we've had a stable government with a large majority for five years, and it let the crisis evolve right under its nose.

In Tyrrelstown the owner of the loans on the houses is Goldman Sachs. There is no evidence that Goldman Sachs instructed anybody to turf people out by not renewing leases.

However, it does want the borrower to meet the terms of its financing deal. How that is achieved is up to developer Rick Larkin, the man behind the project.

Some of this mess could have been avoided, but other aspects of it could not. The country was broke. The banks were broke and they needed to sell assets. It was up to government to ensure that with so much property being sold, they didn't take their eye off the issues of housing supply, rent controls and tenant rights.

The real tragedy is this is only the beginning. The seeds have been sown, by failed government policy, for a longer term housing crisis. Billions of euro in loans sold to various types of buyers, have still to be worked out.

Nama has yet to sell smaller commercial property loans that had an original face value of tens of billions of euro. It will take the buyers of these loans years to work through them.

It is easy for politicians in Leinster House to find their new scapegoat. They feel they have to say something to Tyrrelstown residents who are now in the frontline of a failed housing policy.

But there is little point taking a scattergun approach to the new blame game. Some are calling for Goldman Sachs, not to receive government advisory work again. We should be careful. The arm of the business that bought the loan is different to the one that provides financial advice.

Surely, in the cut-throat world of international finance and corporate giants, the government should not rule out having one of the biggest corporate giants in its corner advising it.

When it came to burning Bank of Ireland junior bondholders a few years ago, some advisers said they should get 60c in the euro. Goldman Sachs advised the Department of Finance to pay 20c, which it did, saving the exchequer about €900m in the process.

We need more than a "hurray", "boo" pantomime approach to solving these problems.

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