Saturday 24 March 2018

Richard Curran: €100m help-to-buy bill will make it victim of own success

Pat McCann of Dalata Hotels has a difficult task in reading the market in the UK with Brexit on the horizon Picture: Maxwells
Pat McCann of Dalata Hotels has a difficult task in reading the market in the UK with Brexit on the horizon Picture: Maxwells
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

The Government's help-to-buy scheme could end up costing double its original estimate by the time a review is completed in September - and the tens of millions involved will go to a relatively small number of developers.

Mortgage borrowing surged in January according to figures this week. The relaxation of the Central Bank mortgage rules combined with the Government's new help-to-buy scheme made it easier for more first-time buyers to borrow more to buy a house in what is normally a quiet month.

The number of people approved for a mortgage in January was up 47pc on the same month a year ago, and the average first-time buyer was borrowing around €200,000 - €25,000 more than a year earlier.

The figures really undermine the logic behind continuing with the help-to-buy scheme, even though it only began in January. When it was announced in the Budget last October, it was presented as helping first-time buyers to actually secure a mortgage. However, the relaxation of the Central Bank rules negated the need for this free-money scheme.

The only remaining rationale is that it boosts developers' profits, which will encourage them to build more houses. It has already become a developers' subsidy that is driving up house prices.

In the first two months of the scheme, 55 developers have registered for it and 3,000 people have applied for the 5pc cash back from the State.

That is an average of €10,000 in free cash per applicant which goes straight to the developer.

Applications to the scheme in the first two months could cost around €30m. That is €30m going to 55 developers, and it's only the end of February.

When it was announced, the Department of Finance estimated that the full year cost of the scheme would be €50m. The Department also said it expected 4,000 to 6,000 to benefit from it in a year.

Michael Noonan confirmed back in October that his department would conduct a review on the need for the scheme and its operation, which will be completed by September - a year after it was announced.

Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty rather colourfully described this process as doing it "arseways", because it involved reviewing the cost after the scheme's introduction and not before. Even if it is scrapped in September, at the current pace, it is on track to cost €100m by then or nearly €2m per developer.

AIB dividend good news but hurdles still remain

Investors in bank shares always get excited when the company says it is going to pay a dividend. In the case of AIB it is particularly good news because the €250m dividend to be paid to ordinary shareholders is its first since 2008.

The bad news is that investors in the bank won't receive very much of it. The state will get €249.75m, and the 80,000 or so ordinary investors will share out about €250,000 between them across their 2.7 million shares. They won't be enjoying any shopping sprees on that.

The good news for taxpayers is that AIB has reached a point in its recovery that it can now pay a dividend and this will ease the path of its IPO which it is hoping to launch this year.

The State is expected to float around 25pc of the bank in an IPO possibly as soon as May but it could be later depending on the appetite from international markets.

The mood music around banks is good but there are still legacy issues that might weigh on the AIB valuation. When it does float, the sale of 25pc might yield between €2bn and €3bn for the Exchequer.

Add on the €6.6bn paid by AIB to the State so far in fees, preference shares buybacks and this new dividend and the State will have got back €8.6bn-€9.6bn when the IPO of 25pc is complete. The State would still be sitting on 75pc, which it would hope to gradually sell down in time. A lot has been done to get AIB from the intensive care unit in 2010 to finishing rehabilitation and physio in 2017. It has cut costs, grown new lending, returned to profitability and reduced its impaired loans by €20bn. But before they all start giving "high fives" at Bankcentre in Ballsbridge, there are still some hurdles. An election could delay or scupper the IPO plan.

Remaining impaired loans on its balance sheet remain high at €9.1bn and shouldn't spook prospective investors but might allow them to low-ball the price they pay for their shares. The tracker mortgage debacle across all the banks was appalling and no less so at AIB which has paid out €93m to 2,600 accounts so far and identified another 400 accounts that were not given the correct rate.

Nevertheless, payback time for taxpayers is inching closer.

Dalata's McCann has lot of eggs in Irish basket

Dalata Group chief executive Pat McCann has done quite a job building up the hotel chain. Go into a Dalata hotel, especially under its Clayton brand, and it reminds you of the old Jurys Doyle Hotel Group, which of course McCann ran.

The hotel formerly known as The Burlington (hard to call it anything else) felt very different when it was run by the Hilton group and owned by Blackstone. I was even asked to produce my passport checking into it one time.

But since Dalata took it over, it has recovered that friendly familiarity again.

McCann has effectively rebuilt a genuinely Irish hotel group like Jurys by putting chunks of the old Jurys Group back together. The portfolio includes the likes of the old Jurys in Ballsbridge and the Burlington.

But there is one big difference with the old Jurys business. Dalata has put 80pc of its eggs in the Irish basket. Dalata owns and operates 41 hotels. The old Jurys had just over 30. When Dalata's new room plans are completed, it will have 7,100 rooms. Jurys had around 6,500 to 7,000.

Dalata's revenues last year were €290m. Jurys Doyle's were €253m in 2003, before it started selling off hotels.

Ireland accounts for most of its business, and the UK just 20pc. Ireland accounted for just half of the old Jurys Group revenues as it had 13 hotels in Ireland, 15 in the UK and 3 in the US.

Dalata has more than 20pc of the hotel market in Dublin and Cork and 10pc of the national hotel market. It is a massive play on the Irish economy and tourism sector.

No wonder McCann said last week, that when it comes to expansion in Ireland, they are more or less "done". Instead, he plans to concentrate on the UK market.

The UK market could prove tricky. With Brexit on the horizon, is the economy poised to slide in the next few years or will it kick on? Waiting until the Brexit fog clears might be an option, even a necessity. McCann has got his timing perfectly right in the Irish market. Reading the UK market over the next three years will be a lot more difficult.

Coming out of the recession here, he was able to acquire great assets cheaply, and at a time when the tourism sector was on the cusp of achieving record figures.

But he must be conscious that having hoovered up so many rooms in Ireland, there is that lack of balance to the portfolio.

Having moved so quickly, McCann finally appears ready to pause for breath, with talk of a dividend coming shortly. Profits last year were up 55pc to €44.1m. But he doesn't like to hang around.

Sunday Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business