Steinhoff Chair Walks As Break-Up Looms

By Glenn Dyer | More Articles by Glenn Dyer

More than a billions of dollars of Australian retail assets look likely to become available next year after further fractures in the huge South African-based global retailer, Steinhoff International saw chairman Cristo Wiese quit last week and some of the world’s biggest banks emerge as having lent billions to the company and Mr Wiese.

Steinhoff owns a number of Australian retail chains – including Best and Less, Snooze, Freedom, Harris Scarfe and Fantastic Furniture – and these are likely to come onto the market next year as the Steinhoff empire is broken up to pay creditors.

Chairman and major shareholder Christo Wiese has stepped down as chairman late last week in an attempt to try and save the company from problems with poor corporate governance.

But investigations are underway in Germany and South Africa into the company and its affairs, the performance of the board and management, the accounts and the accuracy of its audits in the past couple of years.

Steinhoff, which moved its primary share listing from Johannesburg to Frankfurt two years ago, has been under investigation for suspected accounting irregularities in Germany since 2015.

The company denied the claims for years but were forced to admit to problems earlier this month when auditors Deloittes refused to sign off on the 2016-17 annual profit statement and accounts. That admission saw the shares lose around 90% of their value,

Four current and former managers(incouding former CEO, Marcus Jooste) are under suspicion of having overstated revenues at subsidiaries, according to German prosecutors.

Steinhoff has previously said that the investigation related to whether revenues were booked properly, and whether taxable profits were correctly declared.

South African state pension fund, The Public Investment Corporation (PIC), which owns about 10% in Steinhoff, had said there was the risk of a possible conflict of interest in having Wiese serve as interim CEO after the departure of Markus Jooste, and it wanted the appointment of at least two independent non-executive directors.

Mr Wiese has gone and independent directors are now being sought.

Meanwhile the Financial Times has reported that global banks including Bank of America and Citigroup are facing potential losses of more than 1 billion euros on loans made Mr Weise

The banks lent 1.6 billion euros to Wiese in September 2016, which was secured against 3.2 billion euros worth of Wiese’s shares in Steinhoff.

However, the value of Mr Wiese’s shares pledged against the debt has plummeted sharply with the 80% plunge in Steinhoff’s share price, which has wiped 10 billion euros off its market capitalisation since lin the past 12 days. This has left the value of the stock held against the loans at less than 400 million euros.

The FT reported late last week that the margin loan was assembled by Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, HSBC and Nomura, and later extended to a more institutions including Bank of America.

"People familiar with the structure of the agreement said that they were non-recourse, meaning that Mr Wiese’s other assets and holdings could not be seized by the banks to pay back the loan. Given the sudden and unexpected drop, the normal triggers built into such structures to protect banks from a loss did not kick into place,” The FT said.

BofA has the largest net exposure to the loan of between €300 million and €400 million to Mr Wiese’s loan, while Citigroup’s exposure is more than €200 million, according to several people following the situation.

Goldman Sachs and HSBC are exposed to about €120 million each, while BNP Paribas has roughly €100 million. JPMorgan Chase, Nomura and UBS are also exposed, these people said. according to the FT report.

Steinhoff late last Thursday announced that banks sold 98.4 million shares, (around 16% of the 628 million Steinhoff’s shares Mr Wiese pledged as collateral in 2016).

More shares are likely to be sold unless there is a standstill agreement to try and protect the weakened share price from further downward pressure. Another fall would see the bank loans to Weise further under water.

The only way for the company to survive is to start selling its retail assets in the UK and the US, as well as Australia and trying to retreat to its South African core.

Glenn Dyer

About Glenn Dyer

Glenn Dyer has been a finance journalist and TV producer for more than 40 years. He has worked at Maxwell Newton Publications, Queensland Newspapers, AAP, The Australian Financial Review, The Nine Network and Crikey.

View more articles by Glenn Dyer →