Tuesday 17 September 2019

AIB chief to meet farmers after protest over vulture fund sales

Concession: AIB chief Colin Hunt CEO at yesterday’s AGM at the Ballsbridge Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Concession: AIB chief Colin Hunt CEO at yesterday’s AGM at the Ballsbridge Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

David Chance

Farmers protesting against loan sales at AIB's annual meeting scored a coup when they managed to get CEO Colin Hunt to agree to meet them.

Led by the IFA's Farm Business chairman Martin Stapleton, 30-plus protesters made their way into the foyer of the Ballsbridge Hotel where yesterday's meeting was being held and delivered a statement condemning the actions of Ireland's largest bank in selling farm loans to vulture funds.

"It is wrong that AIB would sell these loans to a vulture fund that is not interested in resolving issues by entering into long-term arrangements with farmers," Mr Stapleton said.

The IFA official told the Irish Independent that loans against up to 130 farming families were being sold by AIB to vulture funds and said the bank had not been willing to consult.

"Many of those are making every effort to try and pay, on an informal or restructured basis," he told this newspaper as protesters circled outside the hotel carrying placard that read 'Backing Brave, Really?', a parody of AIB's latest advertising campaign.

Inside the meeting, Mr Hunt, who took up the role of CEO in December, defended the bank's approach. He said that unless the issue of non-performing loans was addressed, AIB would not have the financial capacity to work with customers and as a result it would press ahead with reductions. However, he also made a concession to the farmers who have threatened to take their protest to every AIB branch in the country.

"A meeting has been arranged for me with leadership of the IFA in the next couple of days, I understand," he said in response to questions from the Irish Independent and after insisting that the bank needed to "retain the right" to use a variety of options to deal with non-performing exposures.

Even so, Dr Hunt, a former economist who had been a special adviser to then Finance Minister Brian Cowen until mid-2007, said that the figure of an NPL book that was no larger than 5pc of loans that was the target for the end of this year should now be viewed as a "milestone" and not as an end point. The bad loan book has been cut to around €6bn from more than €30bn in 2013.

He pressed the case for a lifting of government-imposed pay caps on Irish banks, noting that 100 financial institutions who were not covered by the caps had either set up or expanded operations here in preparation for Brexit which meant AIB was "finding it challenging to attract and retain the sort of skills that we need".

Dr Hunt and his fellow executives refused to give ground in a complaint over 6,000 AIB mortgage-holders who campaigners say were unfairly denied the opportunity to shift to a tracker mortgage in 2008. They said the bank would vigorously defend its position.

He also criticised legislative attempts by Sinn Féin to introduce a "no consent-no sale" that would prevent mortgages from being sold on without the agreement of the loan holder.

"Our view is that it would lead to a more inefficient mortgage market, it would lead to less competition and it would lead to higher mortgages," Dr Hunt said.

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