Farm Ireland

Monday 18 December 2017

Farm despair as vulture funds swoop on troubled fields

Farm families in financial difficulty suffer in silence as US-based private equity firms claim their livelihoods

Bullied: IFA presidential candidate Joe Healy claims farmers are being bullied Photo: Ray Ryan
Bullied: IFA presidential candidate Joe Healy claims farmers are being bullied Photo: Ray Ryan
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

Rural Ireland has been dealt another crippling blow as so called 'vulture funds' silently hover above farming families in financial difficulties.

During the last six months, representatives within the farming community have received numerous calls and letters from distressed farmers who claim they are being "bullied" by some mainstream banks.

Instead of engaging with farmers to seek a resolution, debt advisors allege some creditors are either employing law firms to legally pursue debtors or they're selling off agricultural debts to multinational property asset companies who subsequently demand immediate payment of monies owed.

Experts working with farm families claim moves to sell off deteriorated agri loans are being arranged "behind closed doors," leaving distraught farming families in the dark.

Fears are growing that an entire generation of farmers could be wiped out, stalling hopes of a sustainable rural recovery.

Meanwhile, some lenders are also preventing farmers, with outstanding borrowings, from giving sites to their sons and daughters until even performing loans, with land as security, are paid off in full.

In the majority of cases the value of the security far outweighs the value of the loan.

David Hall, CEO of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation (IMHO) said vulture funds are heaping misery on the agriculture community.

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"They are not normal funding bodies, they have no interest in farmer incomes or herd numbers. They just want to know how much the land is worth," he said.

"These funds are now in possession of significant lands the length and breadth of the country. Farmers are under immense pressure. Many have family homes on the land, it's all cross securitised," he said.

"When they lose the land, they lose their life and their children lose their futures too," he said.

The IMHO are aware of at least one recent case where a farmer, in similar situation, has taken his own life.

Last weekend, the Sunday Independent exclusively revealed a national survey on the mental turmoil of debt.

The IMHO survey, based on the experience of almost 500 respondents, found that 44pc of participants felt depressed either "all of the time" or "most of the time".

Over 30pc said they had had suicidal thoughts in the last four weeks, with 22pc admitting that they had "active plans" to kill themselves.

A total of 45pc of people indicated harmful levels of alcohol use.

Mr Hall is calling on the Government to implement strict legislation to regulate vulture funds.

"We need to regulate vulture funds within an inch of their lives, whatever chance you have with mainstream banks you have a much less chance with a vulture fund," he said

However, he says such hedge funds are particularly destructive when they enter struggling rural communities.

"It will wipe out a generation of farming. Why would you be interested in farming when you are looking at your parents and the stress they are under," he said.

"It's going to pause rural recovery because of the negative impact on families, on the metal health of farmers involved and on any business development. It's the biggest disincentive to a rural community to have vulture fund preying on farmers in their area," he said.

The IMHO is calling for an agricultural strategy whereby all agriculture loans could be put into a mainstream bank at their market value in order to protect rural areas and get vulture funds out of farming communities completely.

"There is a flood already, farmers are worse than a normal person because of the pride that is involved for the farming family so they are not engaging, they are not speaking out," he said.

"The vulture funds are only getting themselves ready now. They've been getting themselves organised with administration and staff and they're only starting to put the pressure on now," he said.

Last week, Joe Healy, an IFA presidential candidate, received a call from an extremely distressed "hard working" farmer who feels he is being "bullied" by Ulster Bank.

"He was paying back €14,500 a month and never missed a repayment, he had already paid back in the region of €170,000. His problem started with a stocking loan (short-term loan) that he got in April and he had 12 months to pay it back during a tough farming year," he said.

"He told the bank manager that he would be a month late on clearing it and the bank manager told him that would be fine but it was only a verbal agreement, nothing was on paper," he said.

"He broke the term for one month on the stocking loan and all his loans were put into a specialised lending unit for six months and sold on to a vulture fund," he said.

Mr Healy claims the farmer, from Leinster, went to another bank and offered 90pc of the loan to buy it back from the vulture fund but he claims they wouldn't accept it.

"What's being said is that Ulster Bank are trying to tidy up their loan books in order to give itself options going forward, but there is a serious lack of communication and understanding from the bank on the pressure and volatility associated on different years within agriculture," he said.

Another farmer that contacted Mr Healy is extremely distressed because all his assets, land, property, stock and machinery are tied up in security for his loan which has been bought by a vulture fund.

His assets are worth a market value of about twice the loan.

This week, the same farmer will meet with advisors to sign affidavits on his current liability affairs and to ensure that he won't sell anything or hasn't sold anything in the past two years.

Mr Healy vouched for the farmer, who didn't want to be named, saying everything he borrowed was farming related including land purchase and grain stores. He had no loans for holidays, houses or apartments.

"Banks are acting in a manner that is not acceptable and they are piling stress and misery on embattled farmers. They are destroying viable farms and undermining rural recovery," said Mr Healy.

The dairy farmer from Athenry, Galway, says many farmers have raised the issue with him along his campaign trail.

However, he believes many feel too embarrassed to speak out.

"We don't want to see a situation where farmers feel ashamed about what has happened to them. They're in a delicate situation and they're trying to bottle it up which could have more serious consequences," he said.

Last Thursday the IFA met with AIB, Ulster Bank and Bank of Ireland to discuss solutions to the escalating crisis.

Matt Carey, a debt resolution advisor who represents many farmers, anticipates a surge in these cases over the coming months as some banks may sell off deteriorated loan books to vulture funds.

The former bank manager, who worked at ACC bank for 37 years, says the rural scene is very attractive to international private equity firms.

"They're basing the purchase of the agri book on the underlying security that supports that book. Once that book is sold that vulture company is in control and they can decide what they will accept," he said.

From the cases he is dealing with, Mr Carey says vulture funds are only interested in short-term solutions.

"They are putting the gun to the head and they are saying : 'look we want a quick response here we're not interested that the land is your asset and your income'," he said.

Mr Carey is particularly concerned that Ulster Bank are gearing up to sell their bad agri loan book which could potentially leave many midland farmers at the mercy of vulture funds.

Meanwhile, Mr Carey also highlights an emerging issue where some banks are refusing to release sites to the son or daughter of a farmer who is paying off a loan.

"In days gone by there would have been no problem in getting a site release. I'm dealing with live cases where banks have steadfastly refused to release any security they hold because they want the loan book repaid in full first - they're not prepared to change any contract," he said.

It is understood that Ulster Bank set a deadline of March 30 for borrowers to refinance their debts and avoid the sale of their loans to a vulture fund.

Earlier this month the Sunday Business Post reported that the face value of the RBS-owned lender's book of toxic debts could be as high as €6bn.

In response to the issue a spokesperson for Ulster Bank told the Sunday Independent they are in contact with a number of business customers, who are outside current arrangements or in arrears and under special debt management.

"We discuss with them the potential inclusion of their debt in a future Ulster Bank loan disposal process together with their options for repaying or refinancing their debt in advance of any such process," she said.

"This action is part of the bank's strategy to manage non-performing loans," she said.

Permanent TSB said they have "no plans" to sell off their small agricultural loan book.

However, some agricultural loans were included in a sale of loans to a subsidiary of Dutch bank Rabobank in 2012.

A Permanent TSB spokesperson said they have published a guide for small and medium enterprises in, or facing, financial difficulty with making their repayments.

Sunday Independent