Everything Must Go! The Great European Fire Sale

All over Europe, nations have been looking for a quick, innovative way out of the debt trap. Unfortunately, they've all had the same idea. Tom Bawden explains, while Charlie Cooper anatomises the great European fire sale

Tom Bawden
Saturday 18 February 2012 01:00 GMT

What do Rome's 2020 Olympic bid, Portugal's Shrove Tuesday carnival, Greece's sunlight, Ireland's National Stud, Spain's national lottery and Britain's national air traffic control service have in common? Answer: they are all being either sold or cancelled by European governments desperate to whip their public finances back into shape after a decade of living beyond their means.

Such measures would once have suggested incomprehensible panic. Now everyone's at it. It would have been more surprising if Mario Monti hadn't called off an Olympic bid that could have swallowed up €9.5bn (£8bn) that his near-bankrupt nation didn't have.

But it's not just radical belt-tightening that we're seeing. A remarkable number of nations are also doing the equivalent of selling the family silver, in a Europe-wide fire sale of state assets with no obvious precedent.

Greece is probably the Continent's biggest auctioneer, with an estimated €50bn of assets up for sale (see far right). But others have had the same idea. Ireland, for example, is considering the sale of billions of euros of assets, from Dublin's historic port to the Irish National Stud horsebreeding operation.

Spain is looking to raise cash by offloading, among other things, two major airports and a large chunk of its most famous lottery ("El Gordo", or "The Fat One").

Britain is hoping to convert the Government's 49 per cent stake in National Air Traffic Services into ready cash, along with the BBC's "doughnut" Television Centre, in West London, and the iconic Admiralty Arch. The latter, on the edge of Trafalgar Square, is expected to fetch £75m and be turned into a hotel. The Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office are also planning spectacular disposals of assets to plug holes in their finances. (And that's without mentioning the sales that have already taken place, such as that of the high-speed rail link from London St Pancras station to the Channel Tunnel, which went to a pair of Canadian pension funds for £2.1bn in November 2010.)

These desperate remedies might seem ambitious at the best of times – but this isn't the best of times. Most nations in Europe urgently need need to get their finances in order, and most have had the same idea of raising some quick cash through fire sales. And if everyone puts things up for sale at the same time, it is bound to depress prices.

That may explain why there's such a gap between the headline figures that get reported when mooted sales are announced and the sums that are actually raised. Greece, for example, has so far raised a mere €180m of its declared target of €50bn.

Yet there should, ultimately, be no shortage of buyers. China is looking to invest its riches in every nook and cranny of the world, while governments in the Middle East still seek to spend their oil wealth.

It is hard to know whether to feel cheered or depressed by this prospect. On the one hand, anything that can speed our escape from debt is to be welcomed. On the other, family silver, once sold, remains sold. As our economy is increasingly sidelined by China and India, there is a strong danger that things will never get back to the way they were.

Tom Bawden

The great European fire sale

#1: Ireland

Forests, utilities, an airline, the National Stud

The Irish state is in the process of selling off stakes in a range of assets, including the gas utility, Aer Lingus, the forestry company Coillte and the famed National Stud (worth nearly €1bn). Bord Gais, the Irish gas utility has been valued at €2.5bn. The Department of Transport confirmed last week that there had been "strong interest" in the government's €123m share in Aer Lingus.

#2: Portugal

Energy infrastructure

An early entrant into the fire sale fray and, as a result, one of the more successful. The Portugese national power grid is now part-owned by the Chinese, and part by Oman Oil. The deals were worth €592m to Portugal. An even bigger deal, worth €8bn, saw 21 per cent of Energias de Portugal, the national energy company, bought up by China's Three Gorges Corporation.

#3: Netherlands

Military hardware

The Dutch defence ministry raised several million euros last year – as part of a €1bn austerity drive – by selling of a job lot of 18 F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets to Chile. A number of naval vessels were also put up for sale.

#4: UK

Embassies, government buildings, military equipment

Plans have been drawn up to sell off hundreds of embassies and homes owned by the Foreign Office in countries around the world, at a total value of around £240m.

At home, the Cabinet Office is selling Admiralty Arch, the London landmark that overlooks the Mall, for £75m. It is expected to be converted into a hotel.

The Ministry of Defence is selling the site of Deepcut Barracks – and lots of unwanted military hardware. Seventy-two "retired" Harrier jump jets were recently sold to the US for about £116m, and the decommissioned aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal was put up for auction last year. (A decision on its sale is thought to be imminent.) Other MoD property on sale includes helicopters, Land-Rovers and luxury watches.

#5: Spain

Infrastructure (including the Madrid Metro?)

Plans to raise several billion euros from the part-privatisation of the Spanish national lottery were aborted in September when the finance ministry deemed its market valuation too low. However, the debt-stricken government is still planning to sell off assets in Madrid, where a deal worth up to €3.5bn to sell a minority stake in the city's water company, Canal Isabel II, is underway. The Madrid Metro, believed to be worth €2bn, could also be sold off.

#6: Finland

Father Christmas's home

Not even Santa himself is immune to the great European debt pandemic. The Finnish government, which has its own financial presssures, sold its 32 per cent stake in Santapark in Lapland to a travel firm a couple of years ago.

#7: France

Prime real estate

France has been selling off government real estate for several years. In 2010, the sale of 1,700 more properties was announced, to help cut the country's multi-billion-euro debt. Historic châteaux, Parisian mansions and even the royal hunting lodge at la Muette (above), valued at £10m, have gone on sale.

#8: Austria

Alps (almost)

The Government caused a public outcry in June when it put two mountains up for sale for a combined price of €121,000. Local opposition to the plan to sell Rosskopf (2,600m) and its neighbour, Grosse Kinigat (2,700m) forced a climb-down. But a minister said the mountains could go on sale again in the future.

#9: Italy

Buildings? Beaches? Gold? Bits of ancient buildings?

In 2010 the government began a mass sell-off of up to 9,000 buildings, beaches, forts and even islands to help pay off national debt. Their combined value was estimated at more than £3bn. It is not clear that much of this has materialised, but dozens of Venetian palazzos were sold to become hotels. More cash has been raised by selling the right to advertise on the Colosseum. More recently, the country has been urged by Germany to sell its substantial gold reserves while the price is still high.

#10: Latvia

An unwanted town

An entire town was auctioned off to a Russian firm in 2010 for the sum of £1.9m. Skrunda-1, once a Russian military base, had been left abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union.

#11: Greece

Just about everything (except the Acropolis)

The Greek government is trying to raise a staggering €50bn from the sale or rental of national assets including Athens International Airport (and 38 other airports), state oil and gas companies, ports in Thessaloniki and Piraeus, the Hellenic Post Bank, the motorways, the state-run horseracing organisation, and 35 large government-owned buildings. Hellenikon – a strip of coastline three times larger than Monaco which was once home to an international airport – is up for grabs, as is a 44-acre chunk of Corfu and, reportedly, numerous other stretches of scenic coastline. There has even been talk about Greece selling its sunshine, as Athens holds talks with Berlin about exporting solar power.

A special government agency, the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund, has been tasked with attracting investors, but the plan so far raised has little, presumably because of fears that a national default or disorderly exit from the euro could rapidly render any acquisitions almost worthless.

Charlie Cooper

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