Fiat CEO keen for Chrysler buyout

MILAN Wed Jan 30, 2013 3:22pm EST

Fiat-Chrysler chief executive Sergio Marchionne makes his speech during the visit of Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti at the Fiat car factory in the southern city of Melfi December 20, 2012. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

Fiat-Chrysler chief executive Sergio Marchionne makes his speech during the visit of Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti at the Fiat car factory in the southern city of Melfi December 20, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ciro De Luca

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MILAN (Reuters) - Fiat SpA FIA.MI Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne said the Italian automaker would like to see the minority holder of U.S. affiliate Chrysler Group LLC sell out as soon as possible.

"The faster we do it, the better it is. It's up to them," he said, referring to a United Auto Workers union retiree healthcare trust called VEBA that owns 41 percent of Chrysler.

Earlier this month, VEBA asked Chrysler to register 16.6 percent of its Chrysler shares for a future public offering, setting the stage for the third-largest U.S. automaker to trade on the stock market again for the first time since 2007, when it was a unit of Germany's Daimler AG.

Marchionne said on Wednesday he would be "more than happy" to work toward making any future IPO a success, adding however he would prefer for Fiat to buy VEBA's stake in Chrysler. Marchionne has said in the past that Fiat would like to buy the rest of Chrysler.

Fiat owns 58.5 percent of Chrysler.

The trust needs to pay medical benefits to 121,624 retired Chrysler workers and their families plus some 40,000 more in the future, according to figures provided by VEBA.

As part of Chrysler's 2009 bankruptcy agreement, retired Chrysler workers exchanged about $7 billion of health care and life insurance liabilities for a stake in the collapsed company plus a promissory note for $4.8 billion.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) union is keen to see Chrysler hold an IPO, UAW Vice President and Director General Holiefield told Reuters in a recent interview.

"I would love to see Chrysler go public again," he said. "The VEBA has to have the proper amount of funding to provide healthcare for our retirees."

Holiefield and Marchionne worked together to produce the 2009 agreement that led to Chrysler's present turnaround, each taking on risk along with U.S. and Canadian taxpayers.

The healthcare trust's stake -- worthless when Chrysler exited bankruptcy -- could now be worth billions of dollars. Investment bank UBS has estimated Chrysler's market value at about $9 billion based on trading multiples for competitors Ford Motor Co (F.N) and General Motors (GM.N).

VEBA had a funding deficit of $5 billion at the end of 2011, a report from UBS in November showed.

Marchionne said the question of when and how VEBA could trade its Chrysler stake for the funds it needs to pay retiree health care is "fundamentally a question of price."

"I will tell you the secret - it's called cash," he said.

Fiat and VEBA are at odds over the value of VEBA's stake, and are trying to settle the matter in a Delaware court. Fiat has offered $139.7 million for a 3.3 percent stake that VEBA says is worth $342 million.

(Reporting by Jennifer Clark; Editing by Carol Bishopric)

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