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Investors find Irish market shut

FUND manager Josh Brayman visited Ireland earlier this year with a chequebook, ready to snap up bargains in the Irish property market. A few months later, he left frustrated and empty-handed to hunt for deals elsewhere. He's not alone and he blames NAMA for his problems.

"We looked at property in Dublin and Cork but were effectively told by the banks and others that the assets were not available for immediate sale. My impression was that decision-making was stuck in a political quagmire," recalls the Englishman, who is the director of UK-based Statten Capital.

More and more investors are circling the commercial property market here but they can't seem to seal the deal.

Many blame an overwhelmed National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) for distorting the market and making it all but impossible to buy and sell land.

Mr Brayman is no property novice. He was involved in the multibillion-euro sell-off of impaired loans by Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008 and his fund had the firepower to do deals in Ireland without having to borrow from banks.

That should have made it an ideal investor in a market where bank financing remains scarce.

Mr Brayman says NAMA is at least partly responsible for the lack of deal flow and he won't be coming back for the time being.

"We have put real estate investment in Ireland on indefinite hold," he told the Irish Independent this week.

Sean O'Brien, head of capital markets for CB Richard Ellis in Ireland, says Statten Capital's inability to buy is typical.

"That's absolutely the experience buyers are having from a variety of potential sellers. Some of those buyers are genuine long-term funds looking to invest at the market rate and there is a big risk that they will go to Poland or France."

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Mr O'Brien's would-be clients are mostly interested in prime commercial real estate. These professional investors are looking for a return over five or seven-year investment periods.

Residential property holds little attraction at the moment but a pick-up in the commercial market will eventually boost the rest of the market as well.

"To wash its face, an investment probably needs a yield of 7pc to 8pc per year," said Mr O'Brien. "But once you establish a marker for the prime real-estate assets, then everything prices as a percentage."

At current prices, that should be feasible. So why the lack of deal flow?

Domestic property professionals are unwilling to talk down NAMA but this is hardly surprising -- the €81bn property vehicle will be by far the biggest user of professional services for a decade. But off the record, all agree that NAMA is, at best, slow moving.

One Dublin-based property source said investors looking to buy assets were finding it worse than slow. The source said offers for commercial property were being made at the levels to which banks have written deals down, but they were still not going through. Even where price is not an issue, decisions were not being made.

There is little doubt that there are bargains to be had for investors who stayed out of Ireland during the boom. Just two examples will serve for hundreds more.

Receiver Martin Ferris & Associates is behind a plan to sell 30 apartments at Blakes Road in Mulhuddart, west Dublin, for less than €1.9m -- or €63,000 each.

In upmarket Booterstown, south Dublin, Irish Nationwide is selling two-bed apartments at €289,000 -- that's 50pc below prices in the same neighbourhood three years ago.

The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) reckons that such sales are at or below build cost, even reckoning land values at zero.

CIF's Martin Whelan said such prices wouldn't cover development contributions to the local authorities of up to €20,000 per unit, legal and professional fees and the cost of labour and materials.

Declan Taite should know. As head of corporate restructuring and insolvency at Farrell Grant Sparks, he has acted as receiver in many of the property deals that have soured over the years.

He has witnessed this pick-up of foreign interest in buying up some of the overhang of apartment blocks in the greater Dublin area.

"There are enquiries from investors looking to buy entire blocks of 25 or 40 apartments. Some of the interest in that is Irish but there are also bidders from the continent.

"In Germany, Austria or Switzerland, the residential model is totally different, so investors there have a different mindset."

However, he agreed that most banks, which ultimately control the blocks, were simply not selling.

"As a rule of thumb, the non-NAMA banks are willing to sell at the lower prices," he said. "Those banks take the view that there are buyers for any asset at the right price."

But he added that even the more market-oriented banks were conscious not to drive prices too low, too fast.

"There is a fear that if a bank authorises a fire sale, then it will end up driving down values for similar loans it has outstanding."

The size and reach of NAMA means that it is much more conscious of the risks of sparking further slides in property prices and this makes it a slower-moving beast than some of the smaller banks.

One London-based debt market adviser said he was not surprised that investors were exasperated. But he also noted that NAMA faces complex decisions.

"I think NAMA is overwhelmed, so at the minimum, you'll end up with a queuing issue. Even with only the top 10 NAMA names, they are dealing with enormously complicated situations," he said.

While NAMA delays, investors and the money they could be bringing into the economy are going elsewhere.

"My experience was of having conversations that led nowhere," a disappointed investor said this week.

He makes the point that it's not just an Irish thing -- the UK's loan-asset guarantee can have a similar effect.

But in other places, the NAMA equivalent is smaller or the market is more diverse, limiting the impact on the overall market. Here in Ireland, NAMA is such a key part of the market that the agency's size -- coupled with the reluctance of many of the banks to do deals -- is forcing would-be investors to look elsewhere.

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