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Chinese interest will boost State asset values

Long after most of the hoopla surrounding this week's visit to China by Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been forgotten, the deal struck between the NTMA and the Chinese sovereign wealth fund CIC International is likely to be remembered.

At a time when Ireland has effectively been locked out of the international bond markets and most investors have little appetite for any class of Irish assets, the interest shown by China, the world's leading creditor nation, sends a very powerful signal.

As part of its deal with the EU/ECB/IMF troika, the Government is committed to selling at least €3bn of state-owned assets. Most analysts believe that the eventual sale of state assets will be much greater than that currently being proposed by the Government -- basically the Bord Gais retail energy business, some of the ESB's "non-strategic" generating assets and harvesting rights to some of Coillte's forests.

An essential part of Ireland's return to the bond markets will be a comprehensive deal on Irish bank debt. For this to happen the Irish Government will be expected to pony up a significant contribution to match whatever pain is inflicted on the ECB. This will entail a car boot sale of the state asset portfolio.

On the auction block will be sacred cows like the ESB and Bord Gais energy distribution networks and the interconnectors with the UK networks. The rest of the ESB will also be put up for sale, no matter what the trade unions might think. The Coillte estate rather than merely the timber that stands on it, the airports and ports, fresh motorway tolling franchises and the national lottery will also be flogged off to the highest bidder. Don't be surprised if the VHI and large chunks of the health service are also privatised.

In short everything that isn't nailed down will go.

The problem is that, regardless of one's opinion on the subject of privatisation, the absence of buyers means that there is an enormous risk of potentially valuable assets being sold off for a proverbial song. Already there is clear evidence of bottom-fishers picking up Irish assets at what could well prove to be bargain-basement prices.

Which is where yesterday's deal with CIC International comes in. The presence of such a well-financed bidder in the market ensures that a better price will be achieved when assets are sold. Even if CIC isn't the eventual purchaser, its declaration of interest means that the usual suspects of "vulture" capitalists and hedge funds will face a formidable rival.

Let us not delude ourselves. We will get nothing for nothing from the Chinese but by declaring its interest in such a public manner CIC International has almost certainly guaranteed the Irish Government a better price when it does sell state-owned assets.

Irish Independent