Monday 21 October 2019

'Baddest' bank's boss: there will be a return on new Anglo

Anglo head has little time for the old guard and is thinking only about the bank's future, writes Ronald Quinlan

SO what's it like to be the boss of the 'baddest' bank on the planet? "Head of the baddest bank. Yeah, I wish I wasn't known as the head of the baddest bank, but I love it."

With the bill for its bailout currently hovering in the region of €24.4bn and set to rise even further, it's a wonder that anyone can say that they love Anglo Irish Bank.

For the beleaguered bank's chief executive Mike Aynsley, however, it's a different matter.

Sitting at one of the marble-topped tables left over from the days of Anglo's old guard under Sean FitzPatrick, the 52-year-old Australian insists he is happy to be doing what is arguably the most unpopular job in the history of the State.

There are still some places he would rather be, of course. For a start, Aynsley isn't entirely comfortable that the bank's headquarters are in Connaught House on Dublin's Burlington Road.

The optics are, to say the least, not good, given the fact that the imposing office block was built by one of Nama's biggest clients, Treasury Holdings, and off the back of financing from Anglo Irish Bank.

In terms of making financial sense, however, a 35-year lease with no break clause proved to be the deciding factor when it came to moving Anglo from its former headquarters on St Stephen's Green to the one-time offices of its private banking division.

While looking after the money saved by keeping to the terms of the Connaught House lease won't do much to lessen the cost of the Anglo bailout, for Mike Aynsley, every little bit -- however inconsequential it may appear in the scheme of things -- helps.

When asked, however, what the worst case Anglo bailout scenario will be based on his current calculations, Aynsley is understandably reluctant to go into the numbers. Adjusting the monogrammed cufflinks on the monogrammed cuffs of his pristine white shirt, he says: "These are numbers we don't talk about because we don't have the clarity that we would like to have because of the Nama equation. You know the Nama haircuts [discounts on loans] are something looked at on a tranche by tranche basis. Now, when we did the €22bn calculation roughly in March, it was estimated that we needed another €10bn, which took us up into that €22bn range. It was based on Nama haircuts in the range of 55 per cent. We're going to have the second tranche completion this weekend, and it looks like that [discount] will be in the low 60s."

Asked if we can expect to see bigger writedowns on the loans Anglo will move to Nama in subsequent transfers, Aynsley says it all depends on the assets underlying those borrowings.

"It [the discount] is determined by what's in each of the tranches. You recall some of the publicity around something like the Irish Glass Bottle site where the discount was 87 per cent or something like that. That's a chunk of land. If you have pure land by itself, it's generally carrying very high discounts. Development sites and developments under way carry a lower discount generally. The associated loans might have investment properties in there and there would be a lower haircut again. So it depends on the mix of, and the number and the volume of, loans that are associated with the land," he says.

Given the fact that many of the loans being transferred by Anglo this weekend relate to land solely, can we take it that the bulk of the pain for the taxpayer is now over?

"It's probably too early to tell. We've shifted a good volume of loans over, some €16bn. There's still more to come. So far, the average discount between the two tranches has been 58 per cent. So, we've just got to go through the process of due diligence for the consecutive tranches, otherwise you're just pulling numbers out of the air. You're just guessing."

With Nama taking over the borrowings of Anglo's developer clients, what has it been like for the bank to break these longstanding relationships?

On this, Aynsley says: "The previous management have obviously all left the building, so that's not really an issue when it comes to breaking a relationship between the individuals and the client. That relationship was essentially gone when those people left the building."

Have there been complaints about the new regime from the bank's clients, given the close relationships they would have enjoyed under former chairman Sean FitzPatrick and former chief executive David Drumm?

"Yeah, of course. Every now and again you have a client come up, it's interesting, sometimes you have one come through the political network. It will come across your desk and you have something like: 'Here's a client over on the other side of Ireland who is really upset because Anglo is foreclosing, or taking action against him, and he hasn't done anything wrong, the loan is being fully serviced. There is nothing wrong whatsoever and the security on the loan is okay.' The reality is we are not in the business of taking action against people who are not in financial difficulty with their loans," he says.

So TDs make representations on behalf of Anglo clients then?

"Yeah. All the banks get the same thing," Aynsley says in the manner of a man now clearly used to, and just a little jaded by, what is clearly a futile exercise as far as he is concerned.

Asked if the representations Anglo receives come from across the spectrum of all the political parties, he adds: "They could come from anywhere. It's probably just a function of the business community. Ireland is a very small place in many respects. If you go to a small business community in a rural area, then if someone feels from a business perspective that they're in trouble, they often turn to their local representative and say 'can you help me'. So you'll get these inquiries coming through."

More recently, Aynsley found himself on the receiving end of calls from across the political spectrum in relation to Arnotts, after the department store came under the effective control of Anglo and Ulster Bank as a result of its inability to repay €300m in borrowings taken out at the height of the boom for the proposed development of the Northern Quarter in Dublin city centre.

Asked if anyone in Government had lobbied Anglo directly over the future of the iconic store, Aynsley says: "You'll always get in Government, or Opposition, representations saying you've got to protect something. This is where there is common ground among the political parties irrespective of the rhetoric. No one wants this country to go down further. Something like Arnotts, people hear it's in trouble, of course people contact you. But at the end of the day, it's up to the bank and the bank has to make a decision based on commercial grounds."

Commenting on the negotiations on the refinancing of Arnotts' loans and the reconfiguring of its management, Aynsley describes it as "one of those things that makes life as a banker interesting".

And while he says Arnotts is a great brand, he readily admits that he has never shopped there.

"No. I walked the floor down there. But it's not in my neighbourhood. It's been a very interesting process going through it. The process we go through with a loan like that has to be very thorough. We hit from the commercial side. We're not about making decisions that aren't commercial terms just because it's an iconic brand.

"You've got to look at these things and ask 'what's the business model? Is it a viable business model? If it's viable, is it optimised? And if it's not, then you ask what do we have to do to get this thing in a position where its value is increased and we can sell it for more than we can today to increase the size of the [loan] recovery? Everything for us comes back to the recovery of the loan," he says.

The Anglo chief says he cannot rule out the possibility that his bank will take control of more of Ireland's household business names.

On this, he says: "It depends on how distressed loans become. Arnotts is a very good example of what can happen to a business that has an issue with a loan. This kind of activity, a loan recovery process, is a very natural activity. This happens in economic cycles and it's about this point in the cycle that banks pick up a lot of holdings of the underlying assets. Then as we go forward, it's about the timing of the release of those assets back into the hands of new owners. And that'll be nice. Won't that be nice when something happens, whoever the investor is comes in [and buys Arnotts]. That'll be a great story for the papers."

Leaving aside the future of Arnotts; what about the future of Anglo Irish Bank or the 'good bank' that is set to take its place? Will Irish taxpayers ever see a return for their 'investment'?

"There will be a return on the new bank. By the time we flip the assets over from the current entity, Anglo, into the new bank, we will be very clear about the quality of the assets going in, and we will have a profitable business model. We will have €2bn to €2.5bn of capital underpinning that in taxpayers' money. That's not lost. There will be a return on that. That's not money down a black hole," Aynsley claims.

Given that the current black hole has been caused by the implosion in Anglo's development loan book, can the taxpayer take it that the new and improved Anglo will steer clear of property lending? 'No' is the simple answer.

"Property lending in one shape or form is a huge component of activity in this economy. So to think that you've got an active operating bank there that's not involved in it . . . it will be involved in it, but certainly not to the extent that it was before. It will be a balanced part of it in the same way that hopefully in the future it will be a balanced part of AIB and Bank of Ireland," Aynsley says.

Nor can the Anglo chief rule out the possibility that the new bank will one day finance the purchase by investors of property assets from Nama.

"When you think about it, these assets have to go somewhere. What's a good example? A 300-apartment development in suburban Dublin currently in Nama gets finished. What's going to happen with the apartments? Nama's going to put them up for sale, and who's going to finance them? It will be one of the banks," he says.

While the thoughts of a new Anglo dabbling in property lending will no doubt prompt renewed outrage among an already angry public, Aynsley insists he understands and appreciates the feeling that is currently out there over the €24.4bn Anglo bailout.

He says: "It's an enormous amount of money. I mean, an enormous amount of money. What could you do with this money if it wasn't going into the black hole of Anglo that it's gone into?

"You could do a tremendous volume of things. The problem is it's already gone.

"What's driven this? It's not the fact that the ex-chairman [Sean FitzPatrick] shipped his loans off at the end of every quarter to Irish Life & Permanent and then brought them back, or the fact that there were a lot of shortcomings in corporate governance. The fact that this market inflated to the extent that it did and when it collapsed, property prices fell by 60 per cent. So the loss in value is actually being driven by that. All the other things should never have happened, but they did. In terms of the losses, they're already there. It's an awful thing to say that it [€22bn] has already gone, but the reality is that it has. It's a really difficult message. It's hard because of the number of people who have lost everything in terms of their wealth, their pensions, their savings with Anglo shares and the shares of the other banks."

While Aynsley has sympathy for the bank's former shareholders and for the taxpayer generally, he clearly has no time for Anglo's former chairman Sean FitzPatrick.

Asked if he has any sympathy for the man who is widely held to have built and broken Anglo, Aynsley pauses for a moment, before saying simply: "No, I don't."

Asked if he has any sympathy for any of the old guard who ran Ireland's banks in the lead-up to the bust, the quietly-spoken Australian is willing to offer a more detailed response.

"No, I don't. My view is that senior people have to bear the responsibility for what happens on their watch. In banking, it should be a very disciplined and precise area. You should approach it modestly. You should approach it with discipline and with a very analytical approach to what's happening in the economy both globally and domestically. That's one of the things that was at the heart of this, whether it was with the Financial Regulator or the banks or the Government.

"There were issues in not recognising when to stop this bubble that was inflating.

"Of course, it's always easy to look back in hindsight, but you look back at what was happening in Europe, and this real estate bubble that was just blowing out of all proportion. At some stage, it had to burst. The people who were running the banks at the time were really driving this, weren't they?"

And contrary to the view gaining currency among some commentators, Aynsley rejects the notion that we all played some part in inflating the bubble.

"I think people got sucked in. It's like everything. You can't say it's only the banks. Everyone is involved in this. But you think about the young person buying their first home. I wouldn't have thought in any way, shape or form they were involved in it. They just got sucked in. What are they concerned about? Am I going to be able to afford a house for my family and children?" he says.

Sunday Independent

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