Friday 17 November 2017

Ireland Inc could hedge its bets with fund administration growth

Digital media and cloud computing have their place but with 63pc of European hedge funds managed here, their future is bright

Emmet Oliver and Donal O'Donovan

As Queen Elizabeth and her entourage journey through Ireland this week, the country's establishment is doing its best to highlight a range of vibrant industries to the outside world -- from digital media, to nano science to green tech to medical devices to re-insurance to cloud computing.

For a long time the fund administration sector developed under the shadow of sectors it might have been easier to shout about -- hi-tech or medical devices.

The low profile of the industry in Ireland is curious when one considers that 7.5pc of the world's hedge funds are now domiciled in Ireland, with an astonishing 63pc of all European funds now based here.

While Ireland still has a long way to go -- for example few of the big hedge-fund decision makers are actually located here -- there is little doubt that the industry could be a major growth engine for the Irish economy in future years. Already 10,560 people are employed in what is loosely called the funds industry, an umbrella term that includes hedge funds. That's half of all IFSC workers.

Conference

Policymakers are starting to take notice. Taoiseach Enda Kenny will address the sector's Annual Investment Conference in Dublin on June 2. The IDA sees funds as a key engine of growth.

While not everyone is comfortable with the presence of so many funds in the Irish economy, neither the Government nor the Financial Regulator are going to take any step that might frighten away this growing segment of the economy. Countries and territories like Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands, Malta and Guernsey are all chasing similar businesses.

And well they might. The top 10 hedge funds made $28bn for their clients in the second half of 2010 alone -- $2bn more than all the main investment banks in the world.

At the start of the credit crisis, politicians were quick to blame hedge funds for causing the crisis. It has since become clear that old-fashioned banks lending too much for too little and in some cases dabbling in complex deals they didn't really understand was the real issue.

The cities where large hedge funds essentially originate -- New York and London -- continue to be the dominant locations.

For example, Ireland still doesn't host operations of the largest hedge fund in the world like Bridgewater Associates or Paulson & Co, the firm led by savvy investor John Paulson, who made a huge successful bet on the downturn in the US housing market.

Of course, operations is one thing, listing funds here is another. Many of the world's largest hedge-companies have funds listed here

But many have direct operations here, too. JP Morgan, which has one of the world's largest hedge funds, is based here, as is Goldman Sachs Asset Management, in the IFSC. Also based here is Lazard Asset Management, a crucial division of private bank Lazards.

Other funds that call Ireland home for at least some of their operations include Comgest, Oasis Crescent, Russell Investments, Sanlam Asset Management of South Africa and Gam, a former division of Julius Baer, the Swiss bank.

Transactions

There are also hedge funds like Bain Capital who use Ireland to do certain transactions, rather than basing large-scale operations here.

There are also the hedge funds that come to Ireland briefly and then move on. For example, Renaissance Technologies Corporation was here for a few years, but the Irish unit is now dissolved.

But the chief characteristic of Ireland's burgeoning hedge-fund industry is that in many ways it is not about the hedge-fund industry at all and more about administering to the global hedge-fund industry.

Flick through the membership book of the Irish Funds Industry Association and one soon realises that while Ireland definitely does not play host to every major hedge fund (George Soros has no operations here, for example), it does play host to virtually every hedge-fund administrator and law firm that matters globally.

Essentially, Ireland specialises in hedge-fund services, rather than hedge funds (although there are exceptions). If one takes the servicers of these funds -- from Arthur Cox to Apex Fund Services to Maples & Calder to State Street to HSBC Securities Services, you soon find that virtually every major hedge fund in the world has availed of the infrastructure here at some point.

Who, exactly, remains unknown. Hedge funds are still highly secretive and many don't even have a website, although transparency is improving worldwide.

The scale of Ireland's services is also improving and the IFSC is full of talk at present that German banking giant Deutsche Bank may use Dublin to host its entire Europe hedge-fund administration business.

Ken Owens, asset management partner at PwC who officially takes up the position of chairman of the Irish Funds Industry Association this week, said: "The Irish funds industry experienced a 6pc growth in employment during 2010, creating some 432 jobs. In fact in 2010 funds under administration in Ireland reached record highs, growing from €1.4trn at the end of 2009 compared to €1.87 at the end of 2010''.

"Despite the economic crisis, funds have proved surprisingly resilient with improved returns and asset values. It is reassuring that we are now seeing an increase in the level of fund activity in Ireland, particularly with the increased interest in EU domiciled products,'' he said.

Ireland is also home to some of the most important credit funds in Europe -- a number of them home grown.

Irish firms Avoca and Harbourmaster operate from small, discrete offices in Dublin but are at the coal-face of multi-million euro investing in Europe.

Unlike hedge funds, the big credit Irish funds don't try to play on both sides of deals. Unlike banks, both firms are niche players -- focusing their balance sheets on highly specialist corporate lending.

The two focus almost entirely on buying big chunks of mainly corporate debt, particularly higher-paying leveraged buyout (LBO) loans, which are the fuel of the private equity sector.

Crucial role

It's why Harbourmaster, unlike the Irish banks, has a crucial role as one of the key lenders in Eircom's €3.75bn debt structure. Harbourmaster, which was set up in Dublin in 2001, now has around €8bn in assets under management.

Avoca was established in 2002 by former AIB executives Alan Burke and Donal Daly and manages €6bn of client assets. Firms like these are international players, but they will never deliver the kind of job numbers that come from servicing the fund sector. Despite the scale of their operations, Avoca and Harbourmaster each has round 40 employees.

They are busy teams, and since the downturn both have been steadily buying up rival managers.

In January, Harbourmaster snapped up one of the most experienced infrastructure investment teams in the world. In April Avoca Capital closed a deal to buy a €100m UK hedge-fund business from Liontrust Asset Management, its first venture into the more controversial world of hedge-fund investing.

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