Lifestyle

Saturday 30 August 2014

The billionaire who believes that Ireland Inc is a good bet

Michael Hasenstab has good reason for hoping Time magazine is right and that Taoiseach Enda Kenny really is leading a "Celtic comeback".

The whizzkid from California has gambled a staggering €8.5bn on an Irish recovery -- by far the biggest bet in Irish history.

Through his investment company, Franklin Templeton Funds, the somewhat geekish 38-year-old has acquired an eye-watering 10pc of the Irish national debt.

He has effectively bought government IOUs in the form of bonds.

If all goes to plan and the Irish Government continues to pay back what it owes, Hasenstab and his clients, which include ordinary American investors, will make the sort of fortunes that make Lotto jackpots look like small change.

The profits will be made because of the big interest demanded for Irish government loans, which have been considered hugely risky in recent years.

Hasenstab is believed to have bought many of the bonds from rival traders for as little as 80 cent in the euro.

"So far his investment would have shown a big return,'' said Peter Brown of the Irish Institute of Financial Trading.

"However, these things can turn on a sixpence, and he will lose a fortune if things turn nasty."

Hasenstab lives in a €2m mansion in the idyllic Sonoma Valley, the wine country north of San Francisco.

Investors have rushed to place their millions in his fund after it was shown to be making an average profit of 12pc every year.

Two years ago the financial news agency Bloomberg named him as Top Bond Fund Manager in the world.

When he is not making billions, he likes to go off hiking and climbing mountains.

He has clambered to the top of Mount McKinley, which at 20,000ft is the tallest peak in North America.

On his honeymoon, he shunned the normal millionaire breaks such as a cruise on a yacht or a stint on a sun-drenched secluded beach.

Instead he and his wife, Mary Ann, ventured to the peak of Kilimanjaro.

Over the past two years he has taken on his biggest challenge of all -- a mountain of Irish debt.

Hasenstab is what is known in the trade as "a contrarian investor''.

According to The New York Times, his supporters say the secret to his success is that he is not afraid to make big, concentrated bets in countries or currencies that are off the beaten track, or simply unloved.

Dublin financial traders noticed that something strange was afoot in the middle of last year.

Suddenly an unknown big investor was splurging millions and then billions on Irish bonds.

Most investors had run a mile from Ireland, and many dumped their holdings when the country was downgraded to junk status by the ratings agency Moody's.

The big investments came during the lull at lunchtime in Dublin, and the sudden spending spree is believed to have come from Hasenstab's fund in California.

Hasenstab visited Ireland last year and said he found it a "beautiful country", but he clearly wasn't just here for the scenery. So why does he think we have a bright future, defying the doom-laden pronouncements of some of our own economists?

He believes the wage cuts inflicted on Irish workers have been painful, but have helped the country to become much more competitive.

In recent weeks he has said that Ireland has been working to clean things up after getting stuck in the "economic muck" of 2008 as one of Europe's PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain).

"What's been happening in Ireland is positive," he says on his website. "The country, despite facing great adversity, continues to make progress on fiscal reform. It (is) a pro-growth and pro-austerity package.

"I believe the Irish model could be an ideal prescription for problems in the other parts of Europe.

"And hopefully, even the US could look a little bit deeper into what the Irish have done and try to emulate some of those policies."

Of course, Hasenstab now has a vested interest in spreading positive news about Ireland.

If we do well, his bonds will increase in value.

He has steadily built up his investment in Irish debt over the past year to €8.5bn, according to recent accounts. Earlier this week there was speculation that his holding might be even greater at €10bn.

No wonder government politicians love him.

That amount of money pays for the entire Irish education system -- including the salaries of 55,000 teachers -- for a year.

Government ministers see the investment as a massive vote of confidence, and a sign that the country has turned a corner. It will also make it easier for the Government to borrow money in the future.

Hasenstab may now be regarded as one of the world's shrewdest investors, but his mammoth purchase of Irish bonds is still seen as a huge risk.

"The market for bonds is very fickle," says Peter Brown of the Irish Institute of Financial Trading.

"It is surprising for a fund to have such a huge exposure to a small economy like Ireland.

"The real risk is if there is a break-up of the euro and we have to leave the single currency. Then Hasenstab would be paid back in the new Irish pounds and he would lose a lot of money."

For the moment we can only hope that Hasenstab is right on the money, and that the Celtic Comeback is more than a figment of Time magazine's imagination.

If the sceptics are proved right, the California mountain climber might have been better off gambling his fund's money on the favourite in the 2.30 race at Kilbeggan.

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