Monday, November 24, 2008

Banking on the Barbarians?

The Irish Times has a couple of interesting and divergent takes on the proposed investment of US private equity groups in the Irish banks.

On page one, Simon Carswell (financial correspondent) describes it as “the Irish-led consortium of private investment firms seeking to buy into Bank of Ireland and possibly Irish Life Permanent“. On page 18 John McManus (business editor) sees the situation somewhat differently: “the barbarians are at the gates with their cheque books”.

Carswell reports the declared willingness of the Mallabraca consortium to lend up to €60bn to small businesses over 5 years through the banks. That may sound promising but surely there’s a reality check needed from Carswell? In a recession the increased risk of company failures and further bad debts will influence the actual volume of credit made available. No-one is going to throw finance at badly run or failing businesses.

McManus, on the other hand, reminds us that “you only have to take a cursory look at Eircom - and the destruction wrought by two bouts of private equity ownership”. It’s worth recalling that the initial privatisation battle was won by the Irish-led Valentia consortium, put together by Sir Anthony O’Reilly. The Fianna Fail Government at the time introduced special tax legislation to allow O’Reilly’s debt-laden bid to succeed.

So “Irish-led” does not necessarily translate into “barbarian-free”!

Until the economy comes out of recession, the main thrust of any private equity investors will be to cut costs as ruthlessly as possible and John McManus concludes his opinion piece with a very apt description of what is likely to come next: “One would not want to be a rural TD facing an election while fighting to save the local Bank of Ireland branch as Carlyle, JC Flowers and the like start cashing out”.
I'm with McManus on this one.

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