US private equity firm Cerberus 'making unreasonable demands'
A US private equity firm that bought up toxic loans owned by the British and Irish governments has been accused of subjecting under-pressure borrowers to "unrealistic and unreasonable demands".
Cerberus Capital Management has spent billions of pounds acquiring a number of high-profile distressed loan books for sums significantly below original face value.
These include the UK Government's £13 billion (17.3bn euro) portfolio of Northern Rock mortgages and multibillion euro debts the Irish state's National Asset Management Agency (Nama) bought off Ireland's bailed out banks.
The way the investment company has handled another loan book, acquired from RBS-owned Ulster Bank last year, was heavily criticised during a hearing of a Northern Ireland Assembly committee in Belfast.
A financial advisory firm that represents some of the borrowers whose Ulster Bank loans have transferred to Cerberus said its clients had been left "unbelievably stressed", "trapped" and "fearful".
Bell & Co said it appreciated Cerberus had to make profit, but accused the company of a lack of transparency in dealing with borrowers, claiming that lengthy assessments of property valuations were usually rejected with "one-line emails".
The accountants, who negotiate on behalf of borrowers, said the US firm was making "unreasonable demands", such as the requests for liabilities to be paid in full or asking for substantial lump sums within a 48-hour time-frame.
Claire McCarragher, from Bell & Co, said the demands were often accompanied with threats of calling in the receivers.
Addressing the committee, Ms McCarragher said: "We feel it imperative that we bring to your attention the hardships, difficulties and obstacles that your citizens are experiencing which can be avoided if we all came round a table and discuss matters practically, realistically and professionally."
She added: "This is not our sole perception (about Cerberus) and rather a perception shared by other leading firms and business colleagues."
Ms McCarragher highlighted eight case studies and said, if all were to go under, around 140 jobs would be lost.
"Local people and businesses are trying to carry on with their daily operation and employment, yet are living under eternal threat that receivers could be appointed at any instance unless they meet unreasonable and unrealistic demands," she said.
A spokesman for Cerberus said the company was "fair and consistent" with borrowers.
"Cerberus is a well-respected and responsible international company that has invested heavily in the island of Ireland," he said.
"Since 2014 we have written off more than £3 billion (4bn euro) in local debt, helping to strengthen the local economy, creating jobs and the stimulus for growth that has enabled others to invest and recruit for the future.
"We are fair and consistent in our approach and have secured consensual outcomes with the vast majority of borrowers."
Another Stormont committee is carrying out a separate investigation into a controversy surrounding Cerberus's purchase of Nama's loan portfolio in Northern Ireland.
All parties involved in the huge £1.2 billion (1.6bn euro) transaction in 2014 have denied wrongdoing.
The sale is also being investigated by the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA).
Members of the Finance Committee, which is conducting Stormont's Cerberus/Nama inquiry, were invited to attend Tuesday morning's Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee meeting at Parliament Buildings to hear Bell & Co's evidence.