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Monday, April 24, 2017

Thessaloniki's Private Equity Port

It was announced that 67% of the Thessaloniki Port Authority has been sold by the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund to a socalled 'German-led consortium'. The lead member of this consortium is "Deutsche Invest Equity Partners GmbH", joined by the French "Terminal Link SAS" and "Belterra Investments Ltd." of Cyprus.

The financials of the transaction sound rather attractive: the total value of the deal is said to be 1,1 BEUR, of which 232 MEUR are for the acquisition of the shares. The remainder consists of mandatory investments, license fees, dividends, etc.

Deutsche Invest is a Munich-based private equity fund. Its website doesn't reveal very much information. The internet information about Terminal Link is even less. And no information can be found about Belterra (other than the fact that it is domiciled in Cyprus).

The above consortium won the deal over two other bidders: the International Container Terminal Services, a Philippines-based powerhouse in the field of container ports and terminals worldwide, and P&O Steam Navigation Company, the 168-year old bastion of the British shipping industry which now belongs to Dubai Ports World, a giant in the industry.

Since I have no background information on this transaction, I can only comment on it based on the brief announcement about the transaction in the media.

Here is, on one hand, a Munich-based private equity firm whose website lists a total staff of 5, and two powerhouses in the industry on the other. That is in and by itself highly unusual. The Deutsche Invest consortium won the deal because it had submitted the highest bid. If that was the only criterion of the seller, the HRADF, it was a rather short-sighted criterion.

A private equity firm has only one strategic interest when making investments: to sell the investment to someone else within a foreseeable time frame, seldom more than 5 years. Obviously at a good profit. That's neither good or bad; it's the business model of a private equity firm. Everything that is done during the limited period of ownership, every decision which is taken has one single priority - to increase the value of the investment for resale. More often than not, the methods applied in making the bride presentable for the next wedding are somewhat questionable.

Not in my wildest imagination can I come up with any explanation as to why the HRADF would have chosen a private equity firm over seemingly interesting strategic investors. Sorry, I can come up with one: maximize short-term profit. The only problem with that is: when privatizing state assets, the maximization of short-term profits should be the least priority of all. Far greater priorities would be the strategic importance of the buyer, the potential for know-how transfer, etc.

I have written on many occasions that I consider Cosco, the investor in the Piraeus port, as the prototype of an ideal foreign investor for Greece. Based on what I know so far, The Deutsche Invest consortium seems to be the prototype of the foreign investor that Greece should stay away from.

ADDENDUM per April 25, 2017
According to an article in DER SPIEGEL, the person behind Belterra of Cyprus is Ivan Savvidis, the Greek-Russian dealmaker of questionable renown. That rounds out the picture quite nicely: a small private equity firm which wants to cash-out reasonably soon; a questionable Greek-Russian miniature oligarch who obviously aims at collateral benefits and two global players in the industry who wonder about the ways and means of the Greek government.

ADDENDUM #2
I have just learned that behind the French "Terminal Link SAS" is the French Group CMA CGM Group. That also seems to be a powerhouse in the industry so that I have to take some of my above criticism back. The question would still be: why does such an industry powerhouse need the services of a small Munich-based private equity firm and a questionable Greek-Russian dealmaker?

Friday, April 21, 2017

On One Hand... And On The Other...

My return to Greece after a 4-month absence coincided with 2 articles which nicely sum up what the 'Greek problem' is all about. The first one was the following comment in the Ekathimerini:

"Foreign investors and international markets are awaiting tangible results from Athens in order to be convinced that the country is, finally, turning a corner, and that something is moving after years of frustration. Their wait has been a long one and the economic pressure on the country has been unbearable. But the deals regarding the old airport, and the new one as well, could do the trick. However, if foreign investors are to be convinced of Athens’s commitment to change, it will need to make some bold decisions that will allow the country to circumvent, and essentially neutralize, the naysayers within the administration and within the state that are doing everything in their power to stand in the way of the growth Greece so desperately needs. The problem is that those opposed to progress are determined as ever to keep standing in the way."

And the second article was written by Bill Rhodes, the doyen of sovereign financial crises. I had written about Rhodes on several occasions in the early years of this blog when I lamented that no one was listening to his advice (had they listened, the crisis would have been resolved within 2-3 years, in my opinion). The gist of Rhodes' message is summarized in the following sentence:

"Debt relief really means softening the terms on interest rate payments on the outstanding debt as the Greeks have no requirement for many years to come to start repaying principle."

We have now observed a song-and-dance around the above two positions between Greece and its creditors for months and it is likely that it will continue for even more months. Bill Rhodes once said exasperatingly: "We are in a sense of gamemanship here and everything is being played out in the public rather than getting in a room, something that I was accustomed to for 25 years with so many debt restructurings around the world, and to say 'Let's get it done!'"

In case of doubt, one is well advised to take the advice of those who have the most experience and the best track record. Between the Eurogroup, the IMF and Bill Rhodes, there is only one party which has a good track record; an excellent one, for that matter! And that party is not the Eurogroup nor the IMF!

As a starting point, it would be helpful to do some public educating that there are various kinds of debt relief. The key available elements are: forgiveness of principal, extension of maturities and reduction of interest. Greece so far has had a bit of all but never in a truly consequential manner. And the big mistake is that many understand debt relief to be a forgiveness of principal. A forgiveness of principal of official debt is totally out of the question in a year with several important European elections.

And - a forgiveness of principal is really not necessary because principal debt only matters to the extent that it carries interest and has maturities for repayment. If, for example, interest is brought down to close to zero and if maturities are extended into the next century, debt assumes the character of equity.

So far, the IMF has taken a huge profit on its 'help for Greece' because its lending margins are in the area of 2-3% and, as a super senior lender, it faces no credit loss. With the Eurogroup, the situation is a bit different because they now have a large portion of their loans on zero interest and they certainly face the risk of credit loss sooner or later. Neither is the IMF's 'help for Greece' recognizable with their maturity structure because all their loans mature in the foreseeable future. The Eurogroup, on the other hand, has already extended some maturities substantially.

Perhaps it is wise to have the IMF in there with maturities in the foreseeable future because, that way, one always has some leverage over the borrower. However, there would have to be some explanation why the IMF is not lowering its interest rate to the lowest they have ever charged a country because, as they have stated, they have never had a country in as bad a shape as Greece.

The Eurogroup should restructure its maturities in such as manner that there are no maturities for at least 10 years. And on the interest side, they should reduce the rate to their funding cost and lock in as much of the rate for as much of time as possible. That would be some 'help for Greece' without really costing anything. As a final 'gift', one could offer the deferral of interest for, say, 5-10 years.

If Greece were a company with the benefit of bankruptcy laws, its creditors would already have given debt relief involving massive forgiveness of principal, significant extension of maturities and zero interest rates on large portions of the debt. All that because it would still have been a less costly affair than a bankruptcy.

The only reason why Greece has not gotten such debt relief is that there are no bankruptcy laws for countries. But that should not be a free ticket to get away with bloody murder.