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Emmet Oliver : Tycoon running out of options to pay vast debt


Struggling borrowers with Anglo Irish Bank have a new bank manager to worry about and this bank manager is impatient, unsentimental and very angry.

As some of Ireland's largest borrowers struggle to meet their obligations to nationalised bank Anglo Irish, their inability to pay up puts them on a collision course with the ultimate owner of the bank, the Irish taxpayer.

Sean Quinn and his family are on such a collision course. They are fast running out of options to repay a staggering €2.8bn of debt to Anglo Irish.

The bleak outlook for Quinn and his family was summed up yesterday by revelations that the bank has put aside €2.3bn in the expectation that the Quinns will be unable to repay the majority of the money.

Of course putting aside money (known as making a provision) is one thing, it does not prevent the bank pursuing the debt more extensively, potentially by trying to take direct personal assets of Sean Quinn and his family.

While the €2.8bn of loans come in all shapes and sizes, many of them are personal loans, which means the bank should be able to pursue the borrower for personal assets. Others are backed up by family guarantees for the amounts involved.

So it would seem Anglo have some options, but even with these, the amount of money likely to be repaid, measured against the scale of the loans, will be small whatever the bank does.

But in the vengeful age we live in, Anglo Irish is unlikely to be allowed to soft-pedal on the issue of the Quinn debts. Even yesterday the opposition was very clear, as was the government: all debts must be repaid. But in Quinn's case, the means for repayment are disappearing before his eyes.

The €2.8bn can only be paid from existing assets and cash from the trading businesses owned by Quinn and his family -- the Quinn Group and Quinn Insurance. However the Quinn Group has its own debt problems (totalling €1.2bn) and this is owed to a syndicate of banks and also overseas bondholders.

While Mr Quinn remains the owner of this company, any cashflow it produces in the years ahead will be directed towards paying down this €1.2bn debt, not paying down the Quinn family's €2.8bn debt.

In fact in an extreme scenario it could be worse than this -- those who are owed €1.2bn could seek to take complete control of the Quinn Group.

Over 30 hedge funds have bought some of the debt owed by the Quinn Group and they are pushing for what they call a "loan-to-own" strategy. In other words, they want to own the company and have their debts paid off that way.

Luckily for Quinn, so far most of the other lenders to Quinn Group are not taking such an extreme approach and are instead looking to refinance the debt of the firm at higher rates.

Either way the Quinn Group is not going to provide the salvation Quinn and family desperately need and the insurance company -- which is being sold -- is unlikely to, either.

Earlier this year it was placed in administration and while Anglo has a plan to take over the insurance group and use its profits as a way to reduce the Quinn family loans, the Financial Regulator Matthew Elderfield is not convinced that this is the right approach.

So again the chance of Quinn and family getting cash to pay down their loans from this source is open to significant doubt and a multitude of obstacles.

Of course, Sean Quinn, his wife and his children have assets of their own, which Anglo is believed to have security over. But while many of them could easily be described trophy assets (the Belfry golf resort for instance), the proceeds from their sale would not come anywhere near clearing the vast majority of the €2.8bn owed.

So if there is a huge gap between the proceeds raised and the amount owed, what should the bank do? Adopting a very hardline stance the bank could conceivably seek to take assets from the Quinns far closer to home -- like family dwellings or even artwork, if the Quinns have any.

In the current climate, nothing less than that type of full pursuit will be accepted. But as one source told this newspaper yesterday, "you can't squeeze blood from a stone''. In other words Anglo, and by implication its government shareholder, is facing a huge write-off on the Quinn exposure.

In fact it could be one of the largest single corporate write-offs ever suffered by an Irish bank. Then again, Anglo is no stranger to setting unenviable records.

To be fair to current managers, they were not in place when the original loans were advanced. Those loans were advanced when chief executive David Drumm was running the bank and it was chaired by Sean FitzPatrick. The decisions to extend such large sums now seem baffling, considering the huge fault line running through Quinn empire -- property.

From his cement business to his radiators business to his glass business to his hotel business, Quinn's empire was always going to be under significant pressure once property values declined in Ireland and elsewhere. This was going to place the Quinn empire in an alarming negative equity position and this is precisely what has happened at Quinn Group, where its shares are now considered worthless by Anglo.


Irish Independent