Thursday 19 January 2012

Why England's richest club doesn't have any money...

I wrote this article for the latest edition of the famous fanzine United We Stand and it is reproduced here with the very kind permission of the editor, Andy Mitten.

If you don't buy it at the match I'd heartily recommend United fans subscribe to UWS here (ten editions for only £28).

Whenever things go wrong on the pitch or when injury ravages the team, I get asked whether United “have got any money” to buy new players. The last few weeks have definitely been one of those times and regardless of the footballing wisdom of January signings, the question is being asked with great urgency. Can United afford to strengthen?

I believe there are actually two answers and both are important. The first is purely factual, how much cash does United have in the bank, and the second is more subtle, what is the cash earmarked for and what are the real restrictions on transfer spending? 

When it comes to cash in the bank, United has been very, very rich since 2009 (when the club received the £80m for Ronaldo from Real Madrid and Aon paid £35.9m of their four year sponsorship up front). At the end of June 2009, the club had a cash balance of £150m, a year later it was up to £164m and at the end of June 2011 was still £151m. To put that number into context, it is more than twice the club’s £67m net transfer spend in the six seasons from 2005/6 to 2010/11. 

Since last summer the cash balance has fallen very sharply, by September 2011 the figure was down to £65m. A big chunk of this fall (£47m) is down to the signings of Jones, De Gea and Young (less the cash received from the sales to our Wearside retirement home). The club also spent £5m on corporate box upgrades and £8m on more land purchases around Old Trafford. 

The remaining £26m fall in club’s cash pile is where “Glazernomics” kicks in. The club generated around £22m in profits during those three months, but the interest bill was £21m (interest is paid twice a year in August and February). On top of the interest paid, the Glazers decided to spend £23m buying back bonds in the market. This is not the first time the club’s money has been used in this way; since the bonds were issued in 2010 £88m has been spent repurchasing them from investors (see graph below).

These bond purchases go to the heart of how the Glazers run Manchester United and how horribly different it is from other “normal” clubs. At almost every other football club, any profits are reinvested. Real Madrid made a handsome pre-tax profit of €50m in 2010/11 and spent every penny of it on transfers. That is not the way United is managed. Over the last two years the club chose to spend that £88m on buying back bonds rather than on strengthening the squad. Just to be clear, there was no obligation to buy these bonds, it was a judgement made by the Glazers and their management team. 

The financial return on these bond buybacks is pretty good, with cash in the bank earning 1.5% being used to buy bonds that cost the club 8.7% in interest. But good financial sense is not always good sporting sense if money is diverted from the football club. Which brings us to the subject of wages. 

When Sneijder turned down United’s offer last summer (and again when Nasri chose City over us), the sticking point was wages. Now no football club should be held hostage by greedy players, but there is something distinctly odd about a club like Manchester United being unable to “compete” for the best talent. So what is the reason we can’t compete? As with transfer spending (or the lack of it), it is a conscious choice by the owners. 

United is run not only to make a profit, that is just commonsense, but is run to maximise value for its owners. That means maximising profits and thus operating on a far lower budget than a club of United’s scale can actually afford. In 2010/11, United made so much money that the club could have paid three new players the same wages as Rooney (around £140k a week) and still make EBITDA (cash profits) of £89m. But making £89m instead of the £111m reported by club would inevitably reduce the price that could be achieved in a listing on the Singapore Stock Exchange, or the value of any future sale to a Sheikh or Oligarch. So the Glazers chose to restrict the wage bill to a level they were happy with and thus chose to make Sneijder unaffordable. 

Older reds will no doubt point out that this dance with financial devil began when Edwards floated the club back in 1991, and there is much truth in that. The difference however is in the scale of impact on Manchester United. Across all the plc years, the total dividends paid were only £59m. The total cost in interest, fees and debt repayment in the six and a half years of the Glazers is £480m. 

So it doesn’t really matter if we have about £60m in the bank (we do). It’s that unfortunately for us the club is run to make money for a distant family from Florida and they’ll do what they want....