Northern Ireland

Cerberus' £1.3bn loan deal in Northern Ireland is a study in time

Nama's Dublin HQ
Image caption The deal was Nama's largest single transaction and ended its involvement in Northern Ireland

In April 2014, Northern Ireland's biggest ever property deal was agreed. A New York investment fund, Cerberus, paid £1.3bn for the entire Northern Ireland loan portfolio of the Republic of Ireland's bad bank, Nama. What has happened since?

"These guys are here to do business," is the verdict of the Newry developer Gerard O'Hare.

When Cerberus bought Nama's Northern Ireland loans it gained effective control of around 1,000 properties and took the fate of people like Mr O'Hare in its hands.

The fund's aim is simple - to get its £1.3bn back, with a decent profit on top, as quickly as possible.

That means people like Mr O'Hare are either selling properties or finding new lenders that will give them the funds to pay off Cerberus.

Image caption Gerard O'Hare said his experience of dealing with Cerberus had been very positive

Mr O'Hare, who owns the Quays shopping centre in Newry, has been able to take the latter route.

His company, Parker Green International, has new financial backing from the Garrison Investment Group in New York and Earlsfort Capital in Dublin.

He said dealing with Cerberus has been "a very interesting process".

"It was actually a relatively short process after five years of stagnation with Nama. Our experience with Cerberus has been very positive - they are pragmatic and practical."

'Restructuring'

Another major Cerberus debtor has also been able to find new finance.

Kilmona Holdings, controlled by the developer Paddy Kearney, struck a deal with Jefferies LoanCore - a joint venture between Jefferies bank and GIC Real Estate.

Image caption Belfast solicitor Gordon McElroy says the deals are about mutual interest

The attraction of these deals is obvious to Cerberus - it quickly gets back a large chunk of money.

They are also attractive to the borrowers as it can mean they ultimately pay back less than they originally borrowed in the distant, heady days of the boom.

Belfast solicitor Gordon McElroy specialises in advising borrowers who have had debts sold - he said the deals are about mutual interest.

"The new owner has bought the debt at what is called a 'discount to par' - in other words, it is less than the total amount the borrower owes," he added.

"It's reasonably obvious that what the new owner wants is more than he paid for the debt. And what the borrower wants is a settlement which is less than the total amount that is owed.

"The fact that the debt has been sold allows some restructuring to take place."

However, it is clear that in some cases there is no deal to be done: Cerberus has appointed administrators and receivers in a number of cases.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption The Ten Square hotel in Belfast city centre was placed into administration

The most high-profile has involved the Downpatrick-based developer John Miskelly.

Cerberus put his Ten Square hotel into administration and appointed receivers to other commercial properties in Belfast city centre.

Others have spoken in hushed voices about a very tough approach from Cerberus and that has been echoed in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report on the Northern Ireland banking sector.

Cerberus gave evidence to the MPs telling them the fund would "would be acting in the best interests of Northern Ireland".

However, in their report, the MPs said "we have heard disquieting stories from some businesses in Northern Ireland that they were being treated by Cerberus in a less than sympathetic manner".

'Too early'

In a statement to the BBC, Cerberus said "the majority of the properties and loans are now performing significantly better" because of the approach it has taken.

It added: "We've invested time and worked closely with borrowers to understand their business plans and, where it makes sense for all, there have been good opportunities to refinance and smartly restructure.

"Of course this cannot always be the case, but in a short period of time we have secured a remarkable level of consensual outcomes on long-term non-performing loans."

It describes itself as "a good steward and partner to Northern Ireland".

That echoes the words of First Minister Peter Robinson, who a year ago described the Cerberus deal as "excellent news for the Northern Ireland economy".

But the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee remains to be convinced, concluding "it is still too early to say whether this was indeed excellent news for the NI economy".

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