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Ulster Bank Makes Move to Deal with Toxic Property Debt

Late yesterday afternoon, Ulster Bank announced that they will be accepting bids on a portfolio of loans totalling €1.1 Billion in the next two weeks. This loan sale is known as Project Achill.

Project Achill is comprised of assets and lands over 3.53m sq ft of commercial property and a further 1,565 residential units, 817 acres of land and 918 hotel rooms. By real estate value, Project Achill is weighted Dublin 46.9%, Northern Ireland 26.3%, Rest of Republic of Ireland 9.5%, England 9.3%, Scotland 7.6%, Other 0.4%.

This sale is similar to the recent sales of loans by NAMA and IBRC which were bought by US vulture funds Cerberus Capital management, Goldman Sachs and CarVal Real Estate Investment company. Typically what has been happening in Ireland over the past twenty four months is that the US vulture funds are paying in some instances as low as 10c in the € for these loans with the view to getting a very strong return over a relatively short space of time. Not a bad deal if you could get a piece of the action. 

 Where does this sale leave the borrowers? 

 We have seen previous vulture funds take a cold, clinical approach to realising their new acquisitions. The Vulture funds are driven by profit like any business and therefore any borrower wishing to retain their assets will have to be savvy and intelligent enough to demonstrate that by working with the borrower they [the Vulture fund] will get more profit back. This is not an ideal process for a recovering economy, and in many cases it won’t be a pleasant process for the borrowers, many of whom will have viable businesses and will need to negotiate with the fund and have their “A” game in place. With change there is opportunity, and therefore potential for adding value to your business; however, borrowers will need to act quickly in order to get the best deal possible and survive.

 What actually happens?

 The fund/investors write the cheque for the loan and subsequently contract the servicing of the loans to debt servicing companies like Pepper Finance or Capita to name two.  They will then write out to the borrowers and invite proposals to pay down the debt. The debt servicing company will then make a recommendation to their client in terms of the next steps.  The trend in this country to date is that they appear to favour the road of enforcement, get full control of the assets and then work to a business plan.  If you were writing a cheque for £1bn then you would likely do the same, unless you are in receipt of fairly innovative and strong business proposals.

 What should borrowers do?

The borrower needs to be ready to engage with the new lender and have a plan/strategy in place. In most cases, the borrower will have to have access to new finance if they are to have any chance of retaining ownership of the assets. The new owners of the debt will not be here to procrastinate. They will work to a very tight 3 - 5 year business plan for the most part, with their main aim being threefold 1) profit 2) profit and 3) profit.

In the last month, our own practice has launched a new £50m fund, which was set up to assist borrowers in unlocking exactly the sort of positions being created by project Achill.  If you need some more information on this, please give us a call.  Whether it be with us or someone else, access to new finance is the name of the game.

So what next for Ulster Bank?

Ulster bank has experienced its fair share of problems, like a lot of the banks in the last few years. Their policy has changed several times and, being as objective as possible, it would be fair to say that their conduct and policy changes have been somewhat erratic. What has happened in the last 12 - 18 months is that RBS are tightening the screw on the bank. We all now know that Ulster has lost the RBS group billions of pounds as a result of the property crash, and it has also caused serious other stresses and pressure points within the group. In the last few months, they have gotten rid of West Register, the infamous property development wing of the bank, and they have also rebranded the highly controversial and unsuccessful Global Restructuring Division, which now trades under RBS RCR Ireland.

We were advised last year that the bank was moving towards a more aggressive stance in dealing with their toxic property book and this development with Project Achill demonstrates exactly where they are now and what they are trying to achieve. 

Some may see this loan sale as another signal of the impending exit of Ulster Bank from Ireland. Already some of the media are speculating today that this loan sale may be linked to the failed merger with PTSB which came up in the press recently.  Some suggest that post this clear out, the merger may be back on. Let’s wait and see what develops.

Although Ulster Bank is far from currently functioning as a normal Bank, its exit from the market could be bad for the long term economy in Ireland. A healthy economy needs strong competition between Banks who compete for customers, lending at competitive rates.

The only conclusion anyone could arrive at today regarding Ulster Bank's future in Ireland is that it is less than certain.  It’s clear that RBS are trying to offload, however for the moment, there are no takers.

 It’s certainly a very interesting development and we all watch this space with interest.

Conor DevineComment