Cerberus Capital Management: Purchase of Distressed Assets

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:44 pm on 22nd February 2017.

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Photo of George Kerevan George Kerevan Scottish National Party, East Lothian 4:44 pm, 22nd February 2017

My hon. Friend reveals something that many other Members, and people in other jurisdictions, have discovered: the company is unwilling to engage publically and is known to be highly secretive in its operations.

I want to continue on the issue of how Cerberus makes its cash. Cerberus is not a bank. Its business is not to make loans and earn interest. It is an investment fund that seeks a capital return, and that means it has to extract more value from the loan book than it paid to acquire it. Cerberus appoints local agents to review the loan books that it purchases, and it either squeezes more revenue by increasing lending rates or puts the client into liquidation in order to realise the value of the property.

Of course, it is theoretically open for SME clients to pay off their loan by refinancing with another lender. The problem is that Cerberus and its agents have no interest in letting that happen unless they can extract facility fees, which make such a transfer prohibitively expensive in most cases. Such fees often represent a significant percentage of the overall size of the original loan. For instance, the support group working with clients caught in the mis-selling of interest rate swaps by the Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks—clients transferred to Cerberus without their consent—reports that in many cases Cerberus or its agents refuse to accept full repayment of the loans. Instead they insist on adding backdated default interest and break clause costs, which were the subject of the original mis-selling.

I will now turn briefly, if you will indulge me, Mr Owen, to events in Northern Ireland. Again, I refer to the sale by NAMA—the Northern Ireland toxic bank agency—of property loans in the north of Ireland. That is subject to criminal investigation, and I will not go there, but I want to give some of the timings and the background of what happened.

The original bidder for the NAMA assets in Northern Ireland was a company called PIMCO, which is a California-based global investment company. PIMCO withdrew from that sale when it became aware of a £15 million private fee arrangement involving PIMCO’s US lawyers, Brown Rudnick, and two Irish individuals close to NAMA. After PIMCO withdrew, Cerberus had an unsolicited approach by agents acting on behalf of NAMA itself on 6 February 2014. Barely a week later, on 14 February 2014, Cerberus asked to be, and was, admitted to the bidding process for the NAMA loan book. Cerberus submitted a bid of £1.24 billion on 1 April 2014, a scant six weeks after entering the bidding process. The Cerberus bid was accepted on 3 April. Altogether, that is a breathtaking pace for a purchase of that magnitude—from entering into discussions on 6 February to the winning bid on 3 April.

We should note that at that point Cerberus had no investment history in Ireland, north or south. So why did the company feel confident enough to make such a large purchase—£1.24 billion of distressed loans in the north of Ireland? The answer is that Cerberus hired the firm of lawyers that had been employed by PIMCO, Brown Rudnick, which had previously been involved in the abortive sale. It did so on 24 March 2014, a mere week before Cerberus submitted its winning bid. Cerberus admitted to the Public Accounts Committee of the Irish Parliament that it paid Brown Rudnick £15 million for that one week’s work. Why was Cerberus willing to pay so much? As it admitted to the Irish Parliament, it was to gain detailed knowledge of the debts it was buying. However, NAMA had specifically banned prospective buyers from engaging directly with debtors or key stakeholders. Irish Deputies have accused Cerberus of paying Brown Rudnick so much—£15 million for one week’s work—precisely to obtain knowledge of debtors that it would not have been able to acquire through the formal bid process. Cerberus denies that—I put that on the record—but I leave it to others to assess why the company paid Brown Rudnick so much money for such a short amount of work.

That brings me to my next line of questioning to the Minister. Will he agree to conduct an inquiry into the NAMA sale of its assets in Northern Ireland once the legal proceedings have run their course? That way the issue can be aired, and if there was wrongdoing it can be found out, but if there was not everyone can be cleared. I make no allegations of illegality against Cerberus, but I do criticise its business methods and its growing stranglehold over so-called distressed assets in the UK and Europe. Its business model is bad for small companies and bad for the UK economy. In that context, I have a final question for the Minister: is there any substance to the persistent rumours that Cerberus has approached the Treasury with a view to buying debt from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?