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Economy Watch: View from Dublin

By Richard Curran

Published 04/08/2015

Dublin’s Ballsbridge Hotel
Dublin’s Ballsbridge Hotel

The developers are back, it seems. It is like a rebirth or second coming for some of the high profile names of boom and bust. Headlines in recent weeks, saying that Nama's biggest clients are buying up and developing trophy property assets will add to the sense of anger many people feel.

However, it is an easy, and even tempting, narrative to portray the return of these former giants as some kind of "business as usual".

A closer look at the facts and the finances of big developers suggests that the return of businessmen like Joe O'Reilly or Johnny Ronan is anything but business as usual.

Joe O'Reilly, still in Nama, is reported to have bid over €155m (£109m) for the Ballsbridge hotel sites previously owned by Sean Dunne. He has also sought planning permission for 166 housing units in Glasnevin.

Johnny Ronan, formerly of Treasury Holdings, is buying up a block of buildings that formed part of the old AIB Bankcentre head office, which were also owned by Sean Dunne. When the crash came, just a handful of these really big developers owed several billion euro to banks. A sizeable chunk of that was owed to Irish banks and it was taken over by Nama with a potential loss to the taxpayer.

Joe O'Reilly told the Oireachtas banking inquiry he owed Nama around €2bn (£1.4bn) in personal and business loans, having paid back around €600m (£423m) already. He said he aims to pay back every euro.

His bid for the Ballsbridge hotel sites isn't simply his bid. It isn't like the old days where he provided investment capital, held all of the equity and kept all of the profits. This bid is backed by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

Joe O'Reilly doesn't have €180m (£127m) in his back pocket any more. He will be in a position to make some money from the profits but it won't be his project in the way developments were in the past.

O'Reilly clearly has a lot to bring to a project of this sort. Otherwise, why would the Abu Dhabi fund need him at all?

Where big Irish developers fell down was not knowing when to stop. With these developer second comings, everything has changed.

The developers have lost their money. They have fewer assets, less cash to invest and they will have to hand over a lot of control and equity to international backers who do have the money. They aren't exactly starting from scratch again, but it is a bit like working for somebody else.

If it had been like this first time round, things might not have got so completely out of hand.

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