RPT-New Portugal BES bank boss reassures investors but must explain family loans

Mon Jul 7, 2014 10:59am EDT

(Repeats with graphic)

By Laura Noonan and Andrei Khalip

LONDON/LISBON, July 7 (Reuters) - The naming of the first CEO from outside the founding clan of Banco Espirito Santo (BES) has reassured investors, but he will be under pressure to explain how Portugal's biggest bank will recover nearly a billion euros lent to family-controlled firms.

BES nominated respected economist Vitor Bento on Saturday as CEO, just five days after revealing it was owed 980 million euros by firms controlled by the founding Espirito Santo family, 700 million more than had been disclosed when it raised 1.045 billion in new capital from shareholders on June 11.

The weekend nomination of Bento, a former head of Portugal's debt agency, signalled a break from the past. Shares in BES were lower on Monday but had risen last week as it became clear that new management was likely to be named. The share price had lost 30 percent since early June.

The bank has been under scrutiny for weeks after reporting "material irregularities" at a holding company of the Espirito Santo family, which founded the bank in the 19th Century but surrendered control as part of last month's capital increase.

Family patriarch Ricardo Espirito Santo Salgado stepped down as CEO last month. The Bank of Portugal, as regulator, had urged the bank to name an independent CEO. Bento, 60, is expected to be confirmed as new boss at a shareholder meeting on July 31.

"There is a perception that this (Bento) is what the Bank of Portugal wanted and the market hoped for," said Andre Rodrigues, an analyst at Caixa Banco de Investimento.

The Espirito Santo clan still holds a 25 percent stake in the bank through a holding company, the Espirito Santo Financial Group (ESFG) whose interests range from insurance to hotels and property.

Investors, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the firm had still not fully explained all of the debt to family-controlled holding companies.

"There is a good deal more that needs to come out in terms of intra group debt and guarantees," one investor, who sold his holdings of BES bonds in recent weeks, told Reuters.

Investors and analysts have also pinpointed BES's Angolan subsidiary, which has more than 2 billion euros of funding from the Portuguese bank, as cause for concern.

However, BES stock has supporters, such as London-based Citigroup analyst Stefan Nedialkov who rated it a strong buy last week, arguing that the worst news was already accounted for in the share price.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

The bank revealed on June 30 that it was owed 980 million euros by family-controlled companies, including 780 million euros of direct exposure to ESFG and unspecified ESFG subsidiaries, and 200 million euros owed by a company called Rioforte, which in turn owns 49.25 percent of ESFG.

Investors said they were concerned not only by the size of the exposure but also by the absence of a detailed breakdown of who the loans are to.

"If the debt is to trading companies, I'm fine with that, if the debt is to holding companies, there's no obvious assets and recoverability," said one analyst, a view echoed by several.

In the May capital raising documents, BES said that none of the loans to related parties were subject to individual impairment, meaning they had no specific evidence that any of them would not be repaid in full.

Any related party loans granted after March 2014 had to pass through a newly-created Related Party Transactions Control Committee. BES did not answer questions on what level of scrutiny was present before this committee was established.

ANGOLAN LINK

Another worry lurking for investors is Angola, the former Portuguese colony where BES has a 55 percent stake in a bank with a 6 billion euro loan book.

The Angolan state has guaranteed 70 percent of the bank's loan book, but several investors and analysts said this did not give them much comfort, citing a lack of information about its legal basis and Angola's poor credit rating.

BES's holding in the bank is only worth a few hundred million euros, but BES confirmed to Reuters that it has more than 2 billion euros of cash placed with the Angola bank. In an extreme situation, that liquidity could be hard to get back.

"The biggest concern for investors is that BES has more liabilities than they had recorded and too few assets and the guarantee from Angola is not very assuring," said a London portfolio manager who would not disclose if he has BES exposure.

However, last month's recapitalisation gives the bank the ability to withstand some losses, both on its loans to family companies and its exposure to Angola.

Dublin-based Merrion Stockbrokers told clients the bank should still have a capital buffer of 1.5 billion euros even if it is forced to write off 25 percent of its Angolan loans and half its intergroup liabilities.

($1 = 0.7331 Euros) (Additional reporting by Axel Bugge in Lisbon; Editing by Peter Graff)

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