Friday 21 July 2017

Football, finance and a Swiss brokerage

MARTIN FITZPATRICK

WHEN the news broke last Wednesday that a mysterious company from the British Virgin Islands called Cubic Expression had bought a 6.8 per cent stake in Manchester United, a puzzled spokesman for the Red Devils told the media: "Our position is that we will endeavour to find out

WHEN the news broke last Wednesday that a mysterious company from the British Virgin Islands called Cubic Expression had bought a 6.8 per cent stake in Manchester United, a puzzled spokesman for the Red Devils told the media: "Our position is that we will endeavour to find out who is behind this. At the moment, we're calm."

Only a tiny section of the Stretford End might know quite how calm the Man Utd people were when they discovered that those "kings of the turf", JP McManus and John Magnier, were the pair behind the deal. But if the United board really wanted to be impressed by their new shareholders, they should have sent their spies to the sales ring in Keeneland, Kentucky.

There, at precisely the time he and his partner were paying the equivalent of IR£37m for the Man Utd stake, they would have seen John Magnier cheerfully and ostentatiously hand over $9m for some top quality bloodstock.

It is suspected they will be back buying more Man Utd shares this week.

Typically the pair didn't rush to confirm their identities as the purchaser of the stock. Their indentity only became known when Man Utd triggered section 212 of the Stock Exchange Act to discover who the buyers were.

There was tangible relief in the UK media when it was discovered that the two were acquaintances of Alex Ferguson, the United manager. Soon the Irishmen were being portrayed as happy United fans rather than corporate predators.

But that's hardly the full story. Spending a possible £50m plus on a stake in a club is not like buying a season ticket. Last week's spending spree was unquestionably opportunistic before the purchase, United's price was some 60 per cent off its 52-week high.

Whatever their reason, it would be unrealistic to expect the pair to break the habit of a lifetime and explain themselves, much less to pour out their souls to the tabloids. Their philosophy ('Never explain, never complain') has given them the scope to build vast fortunes from businesses the public knows little about.

Magnier's Coolmore Stud dominates the thoroughbred racing sector in Ireland, as the results of this year's English and Irish flat racing classics amply prove. But the scale of this dominance and the way in which the Irish tax regime has facilitated that dominance, is something the public knows little about.

However, Coolmore is an open book compared with the money-broking business in Geneva which is said to be the spring from which JP's fortune gushes. McManus, Magnier and golfing companion Dermot Desmond run this business out of Switzerland. Its size, scope and profitability are all a deep, dark secret.

Only an inner circle seems to even know what the company is called, other than that it is probably called after the South Liberties Hurling team in Limerick, the love of JP's life.

It could be a firm called Liberties Strategic Services Ltd, registered in Bermuda and operating from 40 Rue du Rhone, Geneva. But if it is, JP is not on the board, though golfing pal Derrick Smith is listed as a director.

In the popularity stakes, JP McManus is a distance ahead of his friends. He's been known to bring crowds of Limerick friends and neighbours to the races, footing all bills. He has also promised to direct £50m towards the proposed National Sports Centre.

But despite his famous generousity, sceptics are still uncertain if he is a fan, a patron or trophy hunter or is he simply interested in making more money?

Becoming the largest shareholder in what is arguably the largest club in the world is sure to flush out JP's intentions and answer some of these questions.

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