Page last updated at 14:26 GMT, Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Is salvation near for church society?

By Chris Thornton
BBC NI Spotlight

Church House
Church House is the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

The first tremors ran through world capitals and centres of high finance. Now deeper shockwaves from the global financial crisis are being felt in homes across Northern Ireland.

This month thousands of families suddenly faced a winter in which nest eggs, rainy day savings, retirement funds and other investments will be beyond reach.

Uncertainty descended when the Presbyterian Mutual Society, a previously unremarkable financial institution based in a small office in the centre of Belfast, was placed into administration to prevent its possible collapse.

On Tuesday, Spotlight reporter Stephen Walker looks at the reasons why a previously sound organisation suddenly found itself in jeopardy, examines its relationship with the Church that shares its name, and asks what will happen to more than 300m now beyond reach of the people who carefully saved the cash.

The first warning sign reached many members of the society earlier this month when they received a letter from the fund's directors, asking them not to withdraw money.

That letter was an indication that economic downturn had stretched the society's cash reserves - and soon afterwards the institution set up exclusively for members of Northern Ireland's largest Protestant Church would approach breaking point.

Days later Arlene Foster, Stormont's investment minister, intervened to place the society in administration. That may have saved the institution from immediate collapse, but it had another important effect - it meant that, for now, more than 10,000 investors find their money is trapped.

"A comfortable life - it doesn't look like that any more," said Hazel Russell, a Ballymoney woman who with her husband, a retired minister, invested thousands. "It's all gone down the tubes."

Mrs Foster's intervention also brought a low profile society into immediate public scrutiny.

The Presbyterian Mutual Society was set up in 1982 as an investment vehicle for members of that Church. Individuals or Presbyterian congregations could each buy up to 20,000 in society shares, and they could lend the society much more. Often they received healthy returns of up to 6% a year.

Membership tripled

For most of its life, the society remained relatively small. But it expanded rapidly over the past five years, increasing its assets from just under 50m to more than 300m.

Membership tripled, with some Presbyterians joining because the Church appeared to be encouraging investment.

The Presbyterian Church maintains that the society is a separate legal entity. That is true, but there is a close relationship. The Church and the fund share a website, and until two years ago the society was based in the church's Belfast headquarters.

Spotlight has also learned that under the society's rules, any funds left over if the fund is dissolved will go to the Church.

The society allowed investors to withdraw their money at any time, often at short notice, but most of its funds were tied up in property, including tens of millions of pounds in commercial property in England and Scotland.

A cash buffer was kept to cover withdrawals. Often that was about 20% of what the society owed to its investors, but in the past two years those cash reserves dropped dramatically, from over 40m to less than 5m. Earlier this year the reserves amounted to 1.6% of what the society potentially owed investors.

Dr Peter Green
Dr Peter Green has given his analysis of the society's finances

"The cash reserve was under 2% of the members' funds," Dr Peter Green, a senior lecturer in accountancy at the University of Ulster tells Spotlight. "That is dangerously low."

At the same time that the reserves were dwindling, economic circumstances were conspiring to make investors come looking for their cash. Nervous savers wanted to move money to banks covered by a UK government guarantee

The UK government decided to prop up wobbling banks by offering to guarantee savings accounts up to 50,000.

But some savings societies were not covered by the guarantee, leaving many savers to conclude their cash would be safer in one of the protected banks.

That started a rush of withdrawals that was suspended by the appointment of administrator Arthur Boyd. He is expected to report to the society's 10,000 members around the turn of the year.

Some are fearful of what will happen to their savings. Others believe patience is the best remedy for the troubled society.

"This is a problem for Presbyterians created by Presbyterians and the solution is in the hands of Presbyterians," said Roy Prescott, who acts for a charity which invested 155,000. "We can solve it."

Mr Boyd would not be interviewed for the programme, but in a statement he said his immediate duty is to "see if the society can be rescued and, should this prove impossible, to get the best possible return for members".

For some members, his conclusions will be the first indication of whether their savings still have a prayer.

Spotlight is on BBC1 on Tuesday 25 November at 2235 GMT.

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