Ireland to play important role as aviation leasing sector faces challenging year

Ireland’s position as the backbone of global aircraft financing was brought into sharp relief over the past week.

A huge number of high level executives from across the aviation complex were in Dublin to network, do business and debate the fortunes of the enormous industry in which they operate.

This is a useful opportunity to assess whether or not Ireland is doing enough to retain and further grow its reputation as a base for such a sophisticated part of the global finance sector. 

A few eye-watering numbers are indicative of the size of this prize; 

(1) in 2015 over $120bn of new commercial aircraft were delivered worldwide; 

(2) leasing accounts for about 45% of all aircraft being delivered to airlines; 

(3) 50% of the global lessor set are based in Ireland, and;

(4) it is projected that over $120bn of aircraft will be supplied by manufacturers in each of the next ten years, creating a large market in which lessors can grow and expand. 

The leasing companies are in a constant state of dynamic development. 

Each of them operates a fleet which is regularly moving between airline customers.

All have large order books with manufacturers that ensure further growth and expansion.

An intense period of corporate activity has ensued over the last five years, including mergers, acquisitions and IPOs with a lot more planned for 2016 and beyond.

Amid this hyper-finance activity Ireland has played a cool but powerful hand in forging a key role in supporting and growing the air finance market. 

Continuous efforts are underway to broaden out the sophisticated network of bilateral tax and ownership treaties that offer unparalleled assurance for aircraft owners that their assets can be accessed in the event of a customer crisis. 

Ireland has emerged from the global push against tax havens as a location where legitimate low-tax strategies are validated.

One of these is Aercap. Its fleet is no less than 1,300 aircraft and another 460 are on order.

Its asset base is valued at $43bn. 

After transferring a large amount of the fleet it acquired when buying US based ILFC in 2014 it moved the administration of those planes to Dublin. 

As importantly it is now moving its leadership team to a brand new landmark office in Dublin city.

Another global air finance leader – GECAS — has also recently migrated a key element of its management to Dublin and Shannon.

Yet another interesting entity in this context is Avolon. 

It was recently acquired by the Chinese conglomerate Bohai. 

Avolon’s CEO is spending time in Hong Kong as part of that transaction but he and Bohai have affirmed Ireland as the headquarters for its aircraft leasing unit. 

This, too, is an indicator that despite various changes in ownership, and lobbies by other jurisdictions to attract the leasing industry, Ireland maintains a strong and vibrant role in the business.

Other major lessors that have expressed an interest in tapping public equity markets for finance are reported to include CIT (which has important assets in Ireland) and ACG. 

Both of these are profitable components of larger financial services companies and both could create value for their owners by being separately listed. However, any IPO will have to navigate the choppy waters that financial markets, including aviation, have entered.

Given its global exposure and the newsflow since year-end it is no surprise that the aircraft leasing sector is being challenged for 2016. 

The share prices of the four listed lessors in New York have suffered heavily since January 1. 

This reflects investor worries about the exposure of lessors to weakening economies and currencies in the developing world. 

It is also reflective of concerns that funding costs for aircraft lessors will tighten.

This year will pose a challenge to the leasing sector which prides itself on an ability to ride out economic and aviation cycles while providing consistent positive returns for investors. 

Ireland, as a stable and tax efficient base populated with senior air finance professionals, will play an important role in that debate as the year unfolds.

Joe Gill is director of Corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.



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