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Friday Newspaper Review - - Irish Business News - - April 19, 2013
By Finfacts Team
Apr 19, 2013 - 7:01 AM

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The Irish Independent reports that the first round of negotiations on a landmark trade deal between the EU and the US could begin this summer after a successful meeting of European trade ministers yesterday.

EU trade ministers moved closer to agreeing a mandate for negotiations with the US at an informal meeting in Dublin.

The progress means the EU remains on course to sign off on its platform for talks on June 14. That would open the way for formal talks to begin a month later.

In a statement after the Dublin meetings had concluded, Trade Minister Richard Bruton, who chaired the council of trade ministers' meeting as part of the Irish presidency, said the EU was "closer to reaching a common position" required to start negotiations.

"We had a very broad-based discussion on trade agreement, which would go well beyond agreements of the past. It would be a dynamic and living agreement rather than just having it agreed and then leaving it at that.

"There is a great appetite to complete the mandate by June 14, when a formal decision at council will be made," he added.

Mandate

Agreeing a mandate for negotiations would open the way to talks beginning as soon as July, according to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who later told the US embassy that the talks were a "key focus" of the Irish presidency of the EU.

Significantly, Michael Froman, who is US President Barack Obama's national security adviser for economic affairs and the "go-to" person for the trade talks, attended the ministers' meeting.

Since Mr Obama highlighted willingness for an agreement earlier this year, the market has been looking forward to negotiations to begin.

Studies indicate that EU exports to the US would increase by 28pc, or €187bn, each year as a result of the increased trade from a new EU-US Trade Agreement.

A deal between the two economic blocs would also increase global trade, producing an additional 6pc growth in exports for the EU. Altogether, the total benefit to the EU is forecast at €220bn. In Ireland, that would translate to about €800m more in GDP and 4,000 jobs.

EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht said a trade agreement was necessary despite the already close ties between the two regions.

"The door is only half-open. There are still tariffs on both sides that are almost too effective, and [hamper trade]," he said.

Any talks will take time, however. Many countries in Europe and the US have concerns about an agreement.

France, in particular, is concerned about protecting regional variations, such as types of cheese.

The US has previously indicated absolute opposition to protections for "regionality". "We should be under no illusions that finding a deal will be easy. We will have to allay fears about co-operating, it would be unrealistic to expect otherwise," said Mr De Gucht.

Closer to home the farming industry has made plain its concerns about the trade agreement and the prospect of cheaply produced US beef flooding the protected EU market. However, Mr Bruton said the trade talks represent a chance for Irish beef to re-enter the US market for the first time since the BSE crisis in the early 90s.

"There are opportunities as well as threats in any trade talks," he said.

The Irish Independent also reports that two barristers were paid almost €800,000 between them last year in fees and costs linked to NAMA. A further 16 shared about €200,000 as figures show the State's toxic loans agency was hit with a bill of about €20m in legal fees in 2012.

And around €17.7m of this was incurred by the bad bank on behalf of its borrowers. The agency hopes the figure can be clawed back.

Senior counsels Cian Ferriter and Paul Sreenan topped the list, bringing in €375,000 and €396,000 respectively.

McCann Fitzgerald was among the best-paid law firms, raking in about €2m, while Arthur Cox took in around €1.6m, followed by A&L Goodbody which earned €1.57m.

Legal fees paid directly by the bad bank last year totalled €3.28m in relation to the management of distressed loans.

But it also paid further legal fees of €18.4m which the agency hopes to be able to recoup.

These include €0.68m in due diligence expenses connected with taking on the bad loans from the banks. The money was recovered by knocking the figure off the price for taking on the loans.

But €17.7m was incurred by NAMA on behalf of NAMA borrowers who couldn't pay themselves, according to a response from a parliamentary question by Sinn Fein's Pearse Doherty.

"To the extent the borrower is not in a position to repay those costs, NAMA will add these costs to the borrower's debt obligations to NAMA," the response, from Finance Minister Michael Noonan, states.

"Such costs have been taken as an impairment charge as necessary in NAMA's financial statements."

Mr Ferriter and Mr Sreenan were paid €129,000 and €169,000 respectively by NAMA, while the agency assumed €246,000 and €227,000 that were due to the two barristers from NAMA borrowers. The agency also assumed €22,000 paid to Michael McDowell SC.

NAMA's direct legal costs of €3.28m includes a payment of €34,000 to Private Security (Ireland) Ltd and law firms in the UK, Portugal, Luxembourg, Holland, Singapore, the Channel Islands and Jersey.

In its forward-looking statement for this year, published in October, NAMA said that it intends to cut operating costs by 16pc to €140m, including by reducing its legal expenses to a budget of €13m.

The Irish Times reports that mortgage debt forgiveness will have to be a central plank of the banks’ approach to dealing with borrowers with unsustainable levels of debt, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said yesterday.

The Minster was speaking at the launch of the Insolvency Service of Ireland, at which details of the new system were released, including the income distressed borrowers who enter into an insolvency arrangement will be allowed to live on.

Distressed borrowers

Mr Shatter said that while banks could not be compelled to act in a certain way when dealing with genuinely distressed borrowers, he said that he fully expected them to use various models of debt forgiveness rather than take on the costs and difficulties of repossessing homes. He said in some cases “you can only bring about a sustainable solution if a portion of the debt is written off” and he warned the banks the Government would be “keeping a watching brief on the approach” they took to make sure they “fully engage with borrowers”.

The new insolvency service outlined how it envisaged debt forgiveness for homeowners would operate in a series of case studies it published to highlight how the arrangements would operate in practice. In one example, a debtor has a mortgage of €120,000 on a property which is now worth €60,000. They also owe a credit union €18,000 and while they have net monthly income of €2,000, they can’t meet all repayments.

The insolvency service says that if half that mortgage is converted to unsecured debt, the secured debt falls to €60,000, which means the borrower can afford to meet their repayments.

Once all their living expenses are covered, they are left with €90 a month, which goes towards these unsecured debts, and after six years with just 2 per cent of the unsecured debt having been paid off, the remainder gets written off.

A debtor who finds themselves in circumstances such as this will, however, have had to pay a heavy price. Under the minimum income guidelines which were published yesterday after weeks of leaks, a single adult with no car will be permitted expenditure of €898.96 in set cost over and above any mortgage or rent payments each month. This rises to €1,030 if that adult has a car.

This Insolvency Service says that €247.04 can be spent on food, €35.73 on clothes while another €33.40 will be allowed for personal care, €31.09 can go on health costs while €48.87 is allowed for electricity, and a further €57.31. It has allowed €125.97 for social inclusion, €43.45 for communications, €24.50 for education and €136.29 for public transport or €240.13 if a person has a car.

Rent excluded

The new service has taken the decision to exclude rent or mortgage payments and childcare costs from its list of set costs as these can vary depending on circumstances. It said personal insolvency practitioners would look at such costs on a case-by-case basis.

While the figures outlined in the guide are very exact, the insolvency body stressed that they were guideline figures only. The service said once people in an insolvency arrangement did not spend more than the monthly allocation, they could use whatever income remained as they wished.

The Irish Times also reports that local authorities are preparing to hand over a database to the Revenue Commissioners that will help identify almost 400,000 households who have yet to pay the household charge.

New figures show almost 1.2 million – or 73 per cent – out of an estimated 1.6 million liable households have paid.

Householders who have not paid have less than 90 days to do so before local authorities pass on their register to the Revenue Commissioners.

Those who pay by April 30th will have the fee capped at €130 – the original charge plus €30 in arrears and penalties.

The charge is due to increase to €145 by May. If the tax is still outstanding by the end of June, it will increase to €200 and be added to local property tax due on the property.

The Revenue says it will begin to seek payment using normal collection or enforcement options, such as deduction at source, the sheriff or court orders. It says interest and penalties may also apply.

It is developing its own register of residential properties drawn from a range of sources including a household charge database compiled by the Local Government Management Agency, data from gas and electricity companies and other sources.

‘Tough time’

Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan thanked those who paid the charge despite having a “tough time of it”.

“They recognise the importance of compliance with the law of the land and, by paying the charge, they have made their contribution to the provision of essential services in their own areas,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Revenue said that any household charge arrears would be folded into the local property tax.

“Revenue will pursue this additional liability when the local property tax system is fully operational. Interest and penalties under will apply to the additional €200.”

Members of the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes have been picketing some Revenue offices over recent weeks, calling on employees “not to do the government’s dirty work”.

John Longeran, a member of the campaign’s Cork branch said: “Families are having a hard enough time putting food on the table without having to shell out hundreds of euro for a tax which is just being used to bail out the banks. They can send as many Revenue letters as they like – we’re not going to be bullied.”

To date, 1.19 million properties have been registered, including 23,600 waivers. Some €121.5 million has been collected and reallocated to local authorities through the Local Government Fund.

The Irish Examiner reports that up to 100 receiverships initiated by Bank of Scotland Ireland could be struck down by the courts following a High Court ruling.

The judgment in The Belohn Ltd versus Bank of Scotland Plc hinged on the bank’s failure to comply with its own internal practices that it inherited when it bought ICC Bank.

The case saw Sean Foley and wife Sherry Yan overturn Bank of Scotland’s application to place their pub, Foley’s on Merrion St, Dublin, into receivership.

Their counsels Ross Maguire and Jennifer Goode argued that under the legislation, property loans from ICC could only be enforced if a seal was placed on the deed of the appointment of a receiver, by the bank, something that Bank of Scotland failed to do.

Mr Justice Paul Gilligan ruled that a receiver can only be appointed in line with the terms of the loan agreement.

“Since a receiver’s authority is derived from the instrument under which he is appointed, an appointment is not valid unless it is made in accordance with the terms of that instrument. This principle has been recognised by the leading commentators in this area and accepted and applied by the courts throughout the Common Law world.”

Yesterday, Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan confirmed the appointment of the examiner in the High Court following the overturning of the receivership.

Insolvency accountant Seamus Sutcliffe, of Lansdowne Francs and Co, said that the ruling has possible wide-reaching consequences for other businesses that Bank of Scotland has moved against.

“I suppose there are about 15 or 20 cases per annum where a receiver has been appointed by the bank using ICC debentures.

“In addition, there have also been a significant number of fixed-charge receivers appointed. In total, there are probably about 100 cases,” he said.

Mr Sutcliffe said that it is clear from Mr Justice Gilligan’s judgment that where the bank failed to apply its seal, which it did not do as a matter of policy, that receiverships may be overturned.

Bank of Scotland has refused to comment about the implication that the case has on the appointment of receivers in Ireland.

Mr Sutcliffe said that receivership law is still a relatively new area of law in Ireland and that instead of sitting down with business owners, receivers were coming in and selling businesses on for a fraction of their worth.

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