The Great Irish Sell-Off - turning the spotlight on Ireland’s vulture capitalists

The Great Irish Sell-Off - turning the spotlight on Ireland’s vulture capitalists

This article was originally published by The Irish Times.

It’s hardly surprising that few people are willing to defend vulture funds, the global private equity firms and hedge funds that swooped in to acquire billions of euro worth of distressed assets and debts in Ireland, then squeezed them for profit.

But it’s revealing that even vulture funds themselves get snippy at the description.

“I hate that word, whenever I see it in the newspaper, that term,” protests David Ehrlich, chief executive of Ires Reit, the Canadian investment firm that now finds itself Ireland’s biggest commercial landlord, where rents are as sky-high as their properties.

 “They are secretive and powerful,” announces presenter Ian Kehoe, editor of the Sunday Business Post, “and under the radar they have bought Ireland.” Ehrlich might be regretting that phone line.

Kehoe barely needs to sensationalise this roving report – even its driest detail could cause a spike in the national blood pressure.

When you learn the actual names of some of these the vulture funds, they hardly radiate approachability and understanding.

There is Lone Star, responsible for “widespread home evictions”, Cerberus, “named after the three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell”, Goldman Sachs “known as the vampire squid”, and Blackstone, which “says it likes to invest in countries with blood on the streets”. Markets are heartless, they say, but some profiteers come close to psychopathic.

Kehoe covers wide ground, both figuratively and geographically, from the context behind how a beleaguered, myopic government courted such private equity firms in a din of panic, to the galling lack of regulations that have made them such a blight in the United States and Europe.

To be invisible is to be invincible.

That’s why documentaries such as these can be just as useful as they are outraging.

And in the unlikely event that citizens lack sufficient antagonisms, the documentary will gladly supply them: take the UCD School of Social Policy’s finding that 15 examined private equity firm subsidiaries, controlling €10.3bn in debt between them, pay just €250 a year to the State in taxes, or Finance minister Michael Noonan’s comment that the term “vulture funds” is a “compliment”, because vultures “carry out a very good service in the ecology”.

Still, there’s potential in activist organisation, and … the programme concentrates on the efficacy of public resistance. Even vultures can eventually be shooed away if you don’t take things lying down.