Thursday 19 April 2018

'Bad bank' tackles man, ball and all in rebuttal of report's findings

Nama chairman Frank Daly Picture: Tony Gavin
Nama chairman Frank Daly Picture: Tony Gavin
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Nama took a right pasting from Comptroller & Auditor General Seamus McCarthy over its handling of the increasingly toxic-looking Project Eagle deal.

Mr McCarthy has been the State spending watchdog since 2012 and is well-regarded, producing a significant volume of reports highlighting areas of waste and inefficiencies in public bodies.

By and large his criticisms tend to be taken on the chin by the organisations involved.

Most put their hands up, as if to say: "You've got me there. I won't do it again."

Not so the National Asset Management Agency.

Mr McCarthy found that Nama probably lost Stg£190m on the sale of the portfolio, loans linked to more than 850 properties owned by Northern Irish businesspeople.

This, he found, was because it applied too high a discount to the loans before they were flogged to US vulture fund Cerberus in 2014.

Not only that, he found that the agency did not react correctly when it learned about potentially dodgy behaviour on the sidelines of the deal by one of its former advisers.

Mr McCarthy concluded Nama never even contacted the adviser at the time to ask him what the hell he was up to.

But unlike other bodies who have come within Mr McCarthy's sights, there has been no soul searching in Nama or signs of remorse for decisions taken.

To borrow a footballing analogy, the State's bad bank's tackling of the C&AG's findings has been the equivalent of seeking to take out man, ball and all.

Nama has taken the unprecedented step of disagreeing with virtually all of the main points in Mr McCarthy's report. Not only that, it has effectively questioned whether his office had the expertise to reach the findings it did.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Nama chairman Frank Daly said he was not being critical of the C&AG's office in any way.

However, in the very next breath he added: "But they do not have loan sale expertise."

Mr Daly went further. He claimed Mr McCarthy had acknowledged his office lacked expertise in the area when it placed a tender looking for an expert in the area. The tender was ultimately abandoned, for reasons not yet clear.

Mr Daly said Nama suggested international experts who could give him a steer on the correct discounts that would be applied to similar loan portfolios.

"He didn't take us up on the suggestion to talk to our people. I understand if he didn't want to do that, but there are plenty of others out there that he could have gone to," said Mr Daly.

The loan valuation findings were the key "difference of opinion" Nama was concerned about, he said.

"It boils down to a rather technical but nevertheless important point in relation to the discount that was used to bring the loan values to present day values," he said.

"The C&AG used a 5.5pc discount rate, which is a standard rate Nama would use across its full book all around. We have used a 10pc rate [for Project Eagle]."

He argued a higher discount was required as the properties were largely provincial and were not as attractive as other Nama assets. Mr Daly said four international expert firms had told Nama that a rate of between 10pc-15pc would have been appropriate.

When probed a bit further, he clarified that only one firm had given this advice prior to the sale.

This was Lazard, a UK firm Nama hired to conduct the auction.

The advice of the three others only came afterwards.

"They were all consistent in their view that a 10pc-15pc rate was appropriate," he said.

Mr Daly said the C&AG had not produced any commercial expertise to back up his findings.

Mr McCarthy was not swayed on the issue by Nama, when it made representations to him prior to the report's publication.

The C&AG will have the opportunity to explain how he reached his findings and why he did not accept Nama's views when he appears before the Dáil Public Accounts Committee in a fortnight.

While the valuation findings were the "key issue" for Nama's top brass, it seemed less concerned about the criticism of how it responded to information about a former adviser.

Frank Cushnahan left his role with Nama in November 2013. Just four months later the agency was informed by investment giant Pimco that Mr Cushnahan was set to be paid a fee of Stg£5m if it was selected as the winning bidder. Nama cried foul. Pimco had reservations too and exited the process.

Mr McCarthy said Nama should have sought advice from the National Treasury Management Agency on the issue or written to Mr Cushnahan to seek an explanation.

He said Lazard, which was handling the sale, was not briefed and not asked to assess the implications for the sale process.

"Nama appears to have taken a narrow approach, focusing on what were its legal obligations, rather than on what were the options for action that should be considered," Mr McCarthy found.

Read More: Analysis: Too late now to decide it's time to deal with Nama's 'secret society' 

Nama only sought and relied upon an assurance from winning bidder Cerberus that no fee would be paid to anyone connected with Nama.

The UK's National Crime Agency is currently investigating whether millions of pounds found in an offshore bank account, diverted from fees paid by Cerberus, were destined for Mr Cushnahan.

But Mr Daly tried to brush these complaints aside. "I think we took the appropriate action at the time," he said.

"I think the C&AG has said we should have inquired more of him. He was gone since the previous November and Pimco was gone, so what was to be gained?"

Asked if, with hindsight, Nama would do anything differently, Mr Daly held firm. "I'm very happy with those decisions," he said.

Irish Independent

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