Belfast Telegraph

Loans advisor warns small firms over 'payback' plans

By Clare Weir

The new year could be a worrying time for small business owners as American private equity firms begin to start recouping money from Northern Ireland borrowers.

That was the warning from a debt advisory firm in Belfast as it was revealed that Royal Bank of Scotland, parent of Ulster Bank, has sold loans related to Northern Ireland properties to the US private equity fund Cerberus, which also purchased Nama's Northern Ireland portfolio of loans earlier this year.

Ulster Bank's wider Project Aran deal is worth £1bn and around 20% of the properties and land banks in the portfolio are said to be based in Northern Ireland - mainly in smaller towns and rural areas.

Conor Devine, principal at debt advisory firm GDP, said that borrowers were already being asked, through letters and meetings, how they intended to repay their loans.

"These big American private equity firms are in the business of buying things, fixing them up and selling them, in quite a sharp timescale," he said. "Small and medium businesses with property interests will need to acquire funding and prove that they can pay these loans off, if they are to retain control of their assets.

"In order to acquire funding, banks need to be prepared to offer loans on property - which many banks are reluctant to do in the current climate.

"By the middle of 2015, Ulster Bank's property bank will be non-existent, which is great for the bank, but that will be of little comfort to those whose loans have been sold."

Project Aran includes more than 1,150 residential units, 1.1million sq ft of office and retail space, 1.1million sq ft of industrial and 1,550 acres of land, split 76% in Republic, 21% in Northern Ireland, and 3% in the rest of the UK.

Around 50% of the real estate value is concentrated in the Dublin area and another 10% in five of the largest regional cities throughout Ireland as well as in Belfast.

The assets of the portfolio are worth £4.8bn, but lost £0.8bn last year.

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