UK banks feel the effects of the Irish debt crisis

By Morland Sanders
BBC Radio 4, The Report

Image caption,
The Navenny Place apartments - once valued at 9.5m euros - stand empty

There's nothing particularly executive about the town of Ballybofey in Donegal but away from the main street looms a three-four storey development that wouldn't look amiss in certain areas of London's Docklands.

It is home to 47 apartments - curved, swanky penthouses at the top, supermarkets and delis on the ground floor and an underground car park to house the swish cars belonging to the upwardly mobile.

It also has have one particularly striking feature at the moment, it's all very quiet.

Unfinished and empty

The flats at Navenny Place remain unfinished and empty, with locals claiming it has lurched from emblem to eyesore, standing testament to the folly of the Irish building boom.

The project was financed by Ulster Bank, part of the UK taxpayer bailed-out Royal Bank of Scotland.

Ulster Bank pulled the plug, the development company went into receivership and the entire residential site went up for sale.

This is where the numbers become difficult to compute, because this block was once seen as being worth around 9.5m euros (£8bn; $12.6bn).

Yet the bank put it up for auction with a reserve of just 550,000 euros. That works out at around 11,700 per flat.

The marketing pitch was not helped by dozens of angry sub-contractors protesting outside the auction claiming they are owed hundreds of thousands of euro from the project.

They want Ulster Bank to sell it for a price high enough that would allow them to claim some of their money back.

"Every time you pass by the building you feel sick," said Mary McCroary, the subcontractors' spokesperson and financial director of Maine Heating and Plumbing

"Every contractor in there did their work and will be reminded of that for the rest of their lives.

"I stand to lose my job because of it. Do you not think our own banks are saying to us how are you going to claw back this 100,000 euros? And all because of 47 apartments where all the work has been done but we haven't been paid out."

It is not only the roofers and electricians of Donegal who have lost out.

RBS is 84%-owned by the UK taxpayer. Its subsidiary, Ulster Bank, said it couldn't comment on the case as it was in the hands of the receivers.

Losses dwarfed by bank deals

However, any losses from Ballybofey could be dwarfed by the deals the bank signed up to in the Irish capital.

D4 is a four-acre site in Dublin's fanciest area, snapped up at the height of the property boom with finance from Ulster Bank.

It is believed the overall deal cost nearly 400 million euros, but it may now be worth as little as 100 million according to Nick Webb, Deputy Business Editor at the Sunday Independent.

"This was Ulster Bank's first really big property deal in the country.

"This deal announced them and said 'hey we're players on the table right now, we financed this mega deal get in touch with us if you want money' - now it just looks like an absolute turkey."

Ulster Bank said it "didn't comment on individual customer cases".

Significant provision

Image caption,
The D4 development in Dublin

The total of RBS loans in the Republic of Ireland is just more than £50bn according to investment analysts Morgan Stanley.

In research published last month it reported that RBS' impaired loans, those that the bank does not expect to collect all the money owing or at the very least payments could be overdue, constitute £10bn or around 20% of their total exposure.

Another of the UK's state-aided lenders, Lloyds, has gross loans amounting to around £27bn.

Both banks have made significant provision for the impaired loans and feel they are well placed to weather the financial storms across the Irish sea.

However, there is a mood of concern amongst some financial analysts.

"These situations are always worse than you expect, the level of impairment charge they have taken - ie those loans that go bad - was not nearly significant enough," said Howard Wheeldon, Senior Strategist at BGC Partners.

"The dangers are out there," he said.

Lloyds and RBS feel confident they have made sufficient provision and are working hard in the interests of their shareholders.

Worst yet to come

The Republic of Ireland has been granted a bail-out by the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Union worth 85bn euros and Dublin has announced measures that will see public sector wages and welfare cut.

Herein lies the next warning for the UK banks; residential mortgages make up much of their portfolio, with RBS looking at more than £20bn worth of exposure.

Some economists expect unemployment to rise even further in the Republic, so you can expect people to start defaulting on their mortgages.

As far as UK banks are concerned, despite the UK government's £3.25bn loan, there may be worse to come from Dublin.

The Report is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 16 December at 2000 GMT and repeated on Sunday 19 December 2100 GMT. Or listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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