Kevin Nowlan, CEO of Hibernia REIT
Ireland’s Great Wealth Divide was on RTÉ One last night introducing us to some of the colourful characters defending and profiting from Ireland’s unprecedented inequality.
David McWilliams spoke with Kevin Nowlan, CEO Hibernia REIT, a real estate investment trust which has raised over €600million from a variety of investors, including George Soros, by helping them find bargain properties in Ireland.
Kevin Nowlan: “Ireland became an extraordinary place for a moment because virtually everything was for sale. It was a catch 22 in Ireland. If you didn’t have the money, you couldn’t buy the property and if you didn’t have the property, you couldn’t raise the money.”
David McWilliams: “There was no cash in Ireland, no access to cash, so you had to go to where the cash was. When you knocked on the door of Georg Soros’s, what did you say to them?”
Nowlan: “So we basically said that Dublin is a great office market. We said that you can buy office buildings basically in, or below, basement cost.”
McWilliams: “What does that mean?”
Nowlan: “So you can buy them below what they can be built for. What we had to answer was we said we could do off markets.”
McWilliams: “What does that mean?”
Nowlan: “That means, you know, a lot of property ends up in the Irish Times or in the Irish Independent for sale by receivers or whatever. Be basically said we know enough people in Dublin to be able to go and buy the properties, without having to go to auction. Or having to go to the market. And we’ve done 18 deals, and 16 of them we’ve done off market. We’ve bought debt, we’ve, you know, we’ve done quiet deals with people, we’ve done deals with banks, we’ve done them in a variety of different ways. If you buy something in an active vibrant economy, below what it actually costs to replace it, you should be in pretty good shape to make money.”
McWilliams: “Who, just in that case, who pays the outstanding debt then?”
McWilliams: “Not the taxpayer?”
Nowlan: “Well yes, I mean it is being factored in now. You move back three years and it’s factored into the bailout. I mean that…”
McWilliams: “So there is a massive transfer of wealth from the average Joe who pays tax to the incredibly wealthy guy who sees the opportunity.”
Nowlan: “He sees the opportunity and he works, you know, let’s say he bought, you know let’s say they bought those loans for 35c in the euro, or 30c in the euro and they sell them for 40c, they make their 10c and they move on. And it’s basically a bulk business model.”
McWilliams: “But the difference is the 35c in the euro means somebody else has paid the 65c, the 65c – and that’s the taxpayer.”
Nowlan: “The 40 to the 80, unfortunately, ends up on our…”
McWilliams: “On the taxpayer.”
Nowlan: “On our national debt.”
McWilliams: “The taxpayer ends up subsidising or financing or, in some way, underwriting the opportunistic move which is totally legal and totally within their rights of the already wealthy.”
Nolwan: “Yeah. Basically.”
David McWilliams with Professor Richard Murphy, director of Tax Research UK
Mr McWilliams tackled the subject of Ireland’s corporation tax, saying Ireland has made a distinct choice – to tax labour much more than capital. As an example, he spoke about American corporations based here in Ireland. He said US corporations make $970,000 profit per employee per year in Ireland yet, on those profits, they only pay $25,000 tax per employee per year to the Irish exchequer.
Mr McWilliams spoke to to Prof Richard Murphy, director of Tax Research UK and a campaigner for tax fairness. He said we needed to be braver and raise our corporation tax rates in order to narrow the wealth gap in Ireland.
David McWilliams: “In a way, Ireland it taking a massive bet on the very wealthy.”
Professor Richard Murphy: “Oh yes. Ireland’s role in all of this is to increase the wealth of the wealthiest. That is the position it has chosen for itself. By offering a low tax rate to the world’s major corporations which are, of course, owned by the very wealthiest in the world and of course are also staffed at their top levels by some of the wealthiest of all the world then Ireland is betting that that’s going to carry on. That the wealthiest are going to carry on getting wealthy and those who are at the very top of those corporations are going to want to carry on using Ireland as their launchpad into Europe and beyond Europe, particularly if they’re US corporations.”
McWilliams: “We’re in Soho [in London] which is traditionally the red light district of this part of the world so are you saying Ireland is a bit like Soho, you can do stuff here you can’t do at home?”
Murphy: “Absolutely. You can do stuff in Ireland that you can’t do at home which you wouldn’t want home to know about either.”
Murphy: “The 12.5% tax rate, and we actually know of course the real tax rate is less than 12.5%, that is sort of a prop for their insecurity and that is the weakness in the Irish political mentality. That it has to get over this lack of confidence in its own ability to sell the qualities of the Irish people in the international community. If Ireland actually established itself as a better location to exploit its real ability to, and in particular, its people, then Ireland could actually guarantee a tax base which it could tax, not at just 12.5% but at the same rate as the UK and have no problem at all, contribute more to the Irish economy, make a better balance and actually not be seen as the pariah state which, I hate to say it, it is seen as around the world at the moment.”
Danny McCoy, CEO of IBEC
IBEC doesn’t agree with Prof Murphy, as was evident when Mr McWilliams spoke with the CEO of IBEC, Danny McCoy:
McWilliams: “Do you think that it’s sustainable for us to keep a tax policy which many countries seem to think is ‘beggar my neighbour’?”
Danny McCoy: “No, it’s not ‘beggar my neighbour’ because…”
McWilliams: “But many countries seem to think it.”
McCoy: “Of course they do. And in fact, you know, you lose your reason. There’s nothing, as I think it was JP Morgan said, ‘there’s nothing to make you lose your sense of proportion than seeing your neighbour getting rich.’ To see people on the western seaboard of Europe who have been, by generations poor, suddenly have this huge surge in wealth in a 40-year period, people are saying there must be something wrong there, there must be some factor that’s creating this surge in Irish prosperity. Aw – it must be the corporate tax rate.”
McWilliams: “What effective tax do they pay?”
McCoy: “Well, look, the headline rate is 12.5% but legitimately companies go through losses. So effective tax rates can be lower than 12.5% but that’s the official rate. I wouldn’t get hung up on the rate so much as the money…”
McWilliams: “And the revenue is what?”
McCoy: “The revenue is in the order of about €4billion which, again,for a small open economy is a disproportionate amount of, of actual cash to raise from a corporate sector.”
McWilliams: “The income, the Americans, suggest is close to €100billion. The tax revenue that we get is €4billion. They are supposed to pay, let’s say €12billion – does that mean that there’s €8billion potentially not being paid here?”
McCoy: “If we’re after more revenue, to deal with the wealth distribution. For a small, open economy the logic here is get more activity in here. The way to encourage that is to put up a flare that says the tax rates, their trajectory is actually downwards. We’re, you know, 12.5% is going to be the maximum as we move through time, we get more competitive, corporation rates should go down, it doesn’t mean revenue goes down.”
McWilliams: “So we’re in a situation where into perpetuity we have to accept a 4% effective tax rate.”
McCoy: “Well we certainly have to realise that we are 4.6million people in a 7,000 million world. We don’t get to do demands. What we do get to do is leverage our position which is a gateway into the Europe of 500 million and to be tax efficient, not a tax evasion country, a tax efficient country that gives rise to activity, that gives €4billion from corporations to 4.6million people is off the chart.”
Towards the end of his programme, Mr McWilliams proposed his own theory in relation to the Irish psyche and its seemingly inability to be braver.
“My granny had a good room. It was so good, I wasn’t good enough to go into it. It was preserved for people who were better than our family, good-er than our family if you will. The core of the good room psychology is a fear of rejection. It’s a fear that what you are is just not good enough so therefore you pretend to be something that you’re not.
“This good room mentality, I think, permeates a lot of the ways in which the Irish Government, for example, negotiates abroad, for example, this discussion we’re having now about the tax system: rather than say, ‘it would be in our interests to revisit this’, we say, ‘don’t rock the boat. Will the multinationals reject me if I have that conversation about tax? Will, for example, the European Union reject us if we have that conversation about bank debt?’ It’s all of a certain similarity and it’s down to a national insecurity.”
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