Monday 25 September 2017

Fears that 'mission creep' will grip toxic debt agency

ANGLO IS DEAD, LONG LIVE NAMA: Tales of the reconstruction

WALK TALL: From left, Nama's head of asset recovery Ronnie Hanna, CEO Brendan McDonagh, relationship manager Martin Whelan and chairman Frank Daly
WALK TALL: From left, Nama's head of asset recovery Ronnie Hanna, CEO Brendan McDonagh, relationship manager Martin Whelan and chairman Frank Daly
Ronald Quinlan

Ronald Quinlan

AT the time of its establishment in December 2009, we were told it would have its work pretty much done and dusted by 2020, with the repayment of its senior bonds.

Four years into its anticipated 10-year lifetime, however, Nama appears to be succumbing to the kind of 'mission creep', which if left unchecked could see it becoming a permanent fixture on Ireland's financial and political landscape.

While all the talk initially was of how the agency was taking the development and associated loans of the country's developers off the balance sheets of our broken banks with a view to freeing them up to lend again, these days you're more likely to hear Nama's top brass holding forth on the rents being generated from the 10,000 apartments on their books, or their plans for joint ventures with the private investment funds who come looking to buy assets from them.

Not that Nama CEO Brendan McDonagh or any of his officials need to engage in empire building to assure either the agency's or their own survival. The Government's decision to liquidate the IBRC last February has given Nama a new lease of life that would appear to guarantee its future for the long term.

Indeed, with the vast majority of the former Anglo Irish Bank's €16bn loan book unlikely to be sold by special liquidator Kieran Wallace, Nama's balance sheet could swell by billions of euro in the coming months, thanks to the fresh transfer of loans that will take place.

In preparation for this anticipated growth, the agency announced the establishment two months ago of the special purpose vehicle, National Asset Resolution Ltd, to acquire and manage the loans that remain unsold from the IBRC special liquidation.

They also announced the selection of Certus as their preferred bidder to provide services on the portfolio of commercial property loans, residential investment and development loans and business banking loans that remain unsold by the special liquidator.

In a statement on the matter on July 3 last, Nama noted that this portfolio could "potentially comprise loans with an aggregate nominal par debt value of €22bn depending on the outcome of the special liquidators' sales process".

Quite apart from the selection of Certus as its preferred bidder for the bulk of the unsold IBRC loans, Nama is expected to tender this week for service providers to handle the management of personal loans and mortgages absorbed by the former Anglo Irish Bank from Irish Nationwide.

Nama estimates that this portfolio "could potentially comprise loans with an aggregate nominal par debt value of €1.8bn".

For anyone who is still in doubt as to whether the agency is now in the process of having its position within Ireland's economic infrastructure solidified, Nama's statement added: "It is envisaged that Nama will operate in close conjunction with both service providers and, in the case of the commercial loans portfolio, this will include the provision to the service provider of credit, legal, treasury, finance and accounting services."

Leaving aside the IBRC portfolios that will wing their way towards Nama headquarters in the coming months, the agency will also be assuming closer responsibility in conjunction with Capita Asset Services for the servicing of the loans of 300 debtors who, up until the liquidation of the IBRC, had been managed by a dedicated Nama unit within the bank.

Outside of its retention of and close co-operation with service providers such as Capita, Nama also looks set to increase its involvement with private equity real estate firms who have expressed an interest in investing in the assets and loans it holds on its books.

Only last May, the agency entered into an €800m joint venture with the Starwood Capital Group. Dubbed Project Aspen, the deal saw Nama sell the loan portfolio of developers David Courtney and Jerry O'Reilly to a joint venture 80 per cent owned by a consortium consisting of Starwood, Key Capital Real Estate and Catalyst Capital.

Nama, for its part, retains ownership of the remaining 20 per cent of the portfolio.

Commenting on its involvement in the deal, Nama said in a statement at the time that the sale would enable it to "capitalise on the current robust interest from global investors in Irish commercial property assets".

Just two months later, Nama came together with private equity once again, announcing the establishment of a Qualifying Investor Fund (QIF) in conjunction with LA-headquartered Oaktree Capital Management LP and Bennett Construction for the development of lands in Dublin's south docks area.

Almost at the same time, it emerged that another property investment giant, the Beverly Hills-based Kennedy Wilson, had submitted a draft proposal for the development of another site in the docklands for which it said it had collaborated with Nama in its "effort and inputs in devising an acceptable and viable scheme for their combined land holdings" in the area.

While such co-operation between Nama and private investors may well deliver positive outcomes for the economy and the taxpayer, it certainly wasn't envisaged when the agency was first established.

With the recovery in Ireland's commercial property market appearing to be very much under way and with demand for residential property once again growing in Dublin and its immediate surrounds, Nama would seem to perfectly placed to capitalise on the unique position and enormous power accorded to it by the previous government in the depths of the financial crisis.

Indeed, its importance, status and seeming immovability appears to have been confirmed by the current Government with Finance Minister Michael Noonan, for one, performing a volte-face in his attitude to it.

Referring to the agency at the launch of its annual report last May, Mr Noonan, who had been fiercely critical of Nama prior to the 2011 general election, declared: "Nama is now a vital and dynamic component of the recovery and particularly in the construction and development sector. I didn't think it would be as successful as quickly as it had been. I thought it would take longer to get where it is now, which is why I've been strongly complimenting Frank, Brendan and the board."

If you were even half as sceptical about Nama as Mr Noonan used to be, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that Fine Gael is already banking on the recovery of the property market to help it secure another term in government at the next election.

While the players may have changed in the wake of Ireland's economic crash, the link between politics and property and the power they confer on each other would appear to be stronger than ever.

Sunday Independent

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