Mick Wallace: Vulture funds are cheating us all

State may have lost billions of euro as a result of fire sales of Nama loans to US companies

A poster campaign by the Independents4Change group, in Dublin.

A poster campaign by the Independents4Change group, in Dublin.

 

You might have noticed a media and advertising campaign by Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar in recent weeks, asking people to report welfare fraud.

We at NamaLeaks decided to run a slightly different campaign, asking people to report any instances of malpractice or wrongdoing they have experienced, when dealing with vulture funds or the National Asset Management Agency.

Here’s a text we received to our NamaLeaks phone line last Friday: “Saw your ad on bus. ***** are trying to illegally sell my mother’s home. They changed the locks and cleared the house of private possessions without any court order. Can you help?”

Since 2013, Ireland has been up for sale. Facilitated by the Fine Gael and Labour government in power at the time, Nama and the banks began offloading their loan books in large bundles and at huge discounts.

Ireland has now been the number-one seller of distressed loans in  Europe for four years in a row

They have been bought mainly by US vulture funds, including firms such as Lone Star, Blackstone, Oaktree, Starwood, CarVal, Deutsche Bank and Cerberus and their subsidiaries.

Discounts

Ireland has now been the number-one seller of distressed loans in Europe for four years in row.

In 2016, loan sales by Nama and Irish banks totalled €12.1 billion, making up almost a quarter of the total of €49.9 billion of distressed debt sales in Europe.

In 2015, Irish loan sales amounted to €23.3 billion par debt.

These are astonishing figures for a country with a population of 4.5 million.

What makes it all the worse is the discounts these loans were bought at – usually between 70 per cent and 80 per cent. No wonder we are top of the table.

These loan sales, at fire-sale prices, have resulted in the mortgages and loans of Irish homeowners, and owners of small and medium-sized businesses, being controlled by vulture funds who care about one thing only: profit.

The Central Bank said last December that vulture funds now own 45,678 residential mortgages and 38 per cent of these mortgages are more than 720 days in arrears.

This is a ticking time bomb, but the Government seems to have no appetite to challenge big business – some even welcome them.

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan told the Dáil Committee on Housing and Homelessness last year that, “Investment companies in question may be colloquially known as vulture funds but it was, in the first instance, a compliment when they were so dubbed in the United States where vultures provide a very good service in the ecology through cleaning up dead animals that are littered across the landscape.”

He would do well to remember that the dead animals he refers to are the Irish people.

Not only have these vulture funds bought loans and mortgages from Nama and the banks at fire-sale prices, they also pay very little tax.

Take Cerberus, for example. It has purchased €14.5 billion of Nama debt since 2014, which amounts to 20 per cent of the entire Nama loan book.

But, as pointed out by Barry O’Halloran in this newspaper, Cerberus earned €77 million in profit on its Northern Ireland loan portfolio Project Eagle in 2015, which it bought from Nama in 2014. But it paid only €1,900 tax on the €77 million.

Sinking ship

Nama has sold more than €40 billion of par debt since 2013; more than 90 per cent of it to US vulture funds.

The agency was due to wind up in 2018 but has decided it would like to play a big part in the development game, and will be around until 2020. But Nama is a sinking ship.

After four to five years of fire sales the exchequer has most likely lost out on many billions of euro

The Cabinet approved terms of reference for a commission of investigation on Project Eagle this week, with more modules to be added if needed.

In my submission, I requested that the commission “shall investigate any alleged breaches of sections seven and 202 of the Nama Act 2009, regarding the unauthorised leaking and use of confidential Nama information for private gain”. At NamaLeaks we have received a lot of information regarding such gains.

In 2016, suspected fraud overpayments of jobseeker’s allowance cost the State €14 million, but these figures also included human error. In contrast, after four-five years of fire sales the exchequer has most likely lost out on billions of euro.

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar is heir apparent to the office of taoiseach and maybe he will take on big business if he gets the top job. But don’t count on it.

Mick Wallace is an Independents4Change TD for Wexford, and founder of NamaLeaks

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