If you have a few billion in spare cash lying around, roll up, roll up, because Ireland is on sale. There are unbelievable bargains to be had.
You won't see value like this again for a very long time. Big chunks of a developed country on the block at knock down prices!
Get in before it's too late! It's the opportunity of a lifetime!
That's not exactly the international sales pitch that the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) is using, of course, but the message is clear -- Ireland is on sale.
The response has been extraordinary, both from some of the biggest capital investment funds in the world and from individual billionaires, some with Irish American connections. Even the Saudis have been looking for a piece of the action. All the big boys are piling in, buying up baskets of loans from Nama relating to office blocks, hotels, apartment complexes, even large bundles of home mortgages.
Nama is Ireland's bad bank, set up in December 2009 after the financial crisis had peaked and our banks were on the verge of collapse. The problem was that our banks had loaned out tens of billions to developers and speculators during the property boom, and when the bubble burst the loans could not be paid back.
So part of the solution was to set up Nama which would take these bad loans off the books of the banks and then hold on to them until at least a partial recovery in property prices happened. That's why it was called the National Asset Management Agency, the assets involved being mainly construction sites, buildings and development land.
At the time people speculated that Nama might have to hold on to the loans for 10 or 20 years, or even longer. The amount of money involved was truly mind boggling for a country of our size with a population the same as the city of Manchester in England.
Nama bought around €75 billion in loans for which they paid the banks around €32 billion. The discount applied was the best guesstimate at the time of how much reduction was necessary to get down to the real value of the assets behind the loans.
But it really was guesswork. And it still is.
The cost of the Nama process -- and the €60bn plus recapitalization of our banks -- was loaded on to Irish taxpayers via the IMF-EU bailout. We're paying for it through the massive repayments we have to make on that bailout debt.
So the ordinary taxpayer here has skin in the game. In fact the ordinary taxpayer here has been flayed alive with tax hikes and cuts in state spending to pay for the mess.
For that reason the ordinary taxpayer has a legitimate interest in what is now going on with Ireland on sale -- and a legitimate right to be very angry about it.
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan recently announced that there was now a real hope that much of Nama's work could be completed by the end of this decade -- in six years time -- and he seems to have directed them to aim for that. ‘
That would be much faster than had been originally envisaged when our property collapse was at its lowest point. There has even been talk in official circles in the last few weeks about Nama eventually making a profit. And this has been talked about with an air of satisfaction and self-congratulation, like it's a big achievement.
When they look at the numbers, however, the taxpayers here are unlikely to see it that way.
The first thing to note is that when Nama talks about making a profit, that is based on getting back more than it paid for the loans, which was a total of €32 billion. But the original loans were €77 billion. And it's the taxpayer who has to pick up the tab for the difference.
Money does not vanish. In the end someone always has to pay. And in this case, as so often happens, it is Sean Citizen.
So there is now a lot of concern here about how cheaply these loans -- and the properties that come with them -- are being sold to international buyers.
It's not just the 50 percent or more write down in the original loan value imposed by Nama when it took over the loans. Anecdotally we are hearing that some of these assets and properties are being written down further as Nama tries to clear its books as fast as it can.
In some cases, we are told, the bidding process may result in a small profit for Nama. But in many others there is a significant loss.
From the point of view of the minister and Nama it is possible to understand the urgency in selling off large chunks of Nama's assets.
Global interest rates are at historic lows. So international investment funds and venture funds (or as we call them here, vulture funds) at the moment are desperately looking for a home for large amounts of money.
Assets being sold off cheaply in a developed country like Ireland which is part of the EU are just perfect. They offer a good chance of significant returns within a few years.
Noonan and Nama see this as an opportunity which may not last too long. Interest rates will go back up and the focus of international investment funds may shift elsewhere. At the moment Ireland and its slowly recovering economy is seen as a safe bet and we should strike while the iron is hot, they say.
That's fine for Noonan and for Nama and for the investors, but where does it leave the Irish taxpayer who is stuck with paying off the full amount of the original loans? Deep in it, that's where.
A few months ago Nama said it intended to sell property portfolios worth €250 million or more every quarter of this year. And they appear already to be well ahead of that target.
In the past few months there has been a number of announcements about global funds making big investments here buying Nama assets. And invariably these have been characterized as an act of good faith in the future in Ireland, as clear evidence that there is a recovery underway in property and throughout the economy. That Ireland is being turned into a bargain basement is never mentioned.
The Nama assets have been divided into different bundles for sale. Some hotel and apartment bundles have gone to a few prominent Irish Americans. American investment funds and hedge funds are also heavily involved.
In the last few weeks came news that U.S. investor Cerebus Capital is buying a bundle of assets in Northern Ireland which have a face value of €5.4 billion. The portfolio consists of loans made by the Irish banks to debtors in the North which are secured by assets in Northern Ireland, the Republic, the U.K. and Europe.
This is the biggest ever sale by Nama, and speculation is that a significant discount on the original loans was involved. The price has not been revealed. Nama doesn't want to worry us taxpayers with too much information. We might get upset.
There have been a number of other big sales, but again we are told very little about them because Nama believes in the mushroom growing principle of people management -- keep the people in the dark and throw horse manure at them.
RTE made an effort to expose all this in a recent documentary called Who's Buying Ireland? This revealed that the biggest landlord in Ireland is now a man called Bill McMorrow, CEO of Kennedy Wilson, the big U.S. real estate investment company. It also featured the former Coca-Cola boss Neville Isdell, who bought the iconic CHQ building in Dublin's Docklands for less than a quarter of what the state spent on buying and restoring it. And there were others too.
What they all had in common is that they see great value here, whereas all our government and our banks see is an embarrassment of properties that led to the crash.
But the story that caused most anger and concern here in recent weeks was the news that the big American investment fund Lone Star, which specializes in buying distressed assets, had bought a huge bundle of individual home loans which together are worth nearly €7 billion. These are loans belonging to people who used to have mortgages with Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide building society, both of which were put into IBRC after the crash and which is now itself being wound up.
The loans had a face value of €6.68 billion, but Lone Star got them for somewhere just over €4 billion. That means Lone Star got a big write down on the value of the loans, and the more it can squeeze out of the mortgage holders the bigger its profits will be.
Of course the bundle does include distressed mortgages, both home loans and builder loans. But it also includes the majority of home loans which are being paid in full.
When word of this got out, some people representing the mortgage holders asked Nama and the government could they buy the loans back at the same one-third to one-half discount that Lone Star was getting. They would get another mortgage somewhere else and buy back their loan at the big discount.
But the answer was No. Don't be ridiculous. Too much trouble. All those individuals involved. Too messy.
Much simpler to sell the lot to a big American fund like Lone Star and let them deal with the people.
Ireland on sale. Roll up, roll up.