March 28, 2018 / 5:25 PM / a year ago

UPDATE 1-Dutch court lifts asset freeze on ex-Nidera owners in blow to Cofco

(Adds details of case, reactions of Cofco, Cygne)

AMSTERDAM, March 28 (Reuters) - A Dutch court on Wednesday lifted a freeze on assets of former owners of grain trading firm Nidera, rejecting claims worth hundreds of millions of dollars by China’s Cofco in a dispute over the price it paid to acquire Nidera.

State-owned food group Cofco bought Nidera in two stages between 2014 and 2017 as part of an overseas expansion that led to the launch of its Swiss-based trading unit Cofco International.

The integration of Nidera was complicated by the disclosure of a $150 million financial hole in Nidera’s Latin American accounts and $200 million in unauthorised trading losses on its Dutch biofuels desk.

In a summary judgment, the Rotterdam court ordered that a freeze imposed in January on assets of former Nidera owners be lifted, saying Cofco had failed to substantiate its claims, noting the two sides were in ongoing arbitration at the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).

A spokesman for Cofco International said it had taken note of the ruling, declining further comment.

Cofco had said previously its claims concerned accounting irregularities in Brazil in relation to the acquisition of Nidera.

Cygne BV, the shareholding vehicle that represented Nidera’s former family owners, welcomed the ruling.

“There is still a long way to go, but this is a first important victory. We are confident about the ongoing ICC arbitration,” it said in a statement.

Cofco says it overpaid in its acquisition of Rotterdam-based Nidera due to misrepresentations by the former owners.

It requested the asset freeze to support a claim of more than $500 million in damages against Cygne. It also claimed $288 million against individual directors of Cygne and Swansea as well as Swansea itself, which is the sole shareholder of Cygne, the court ruling showed.

The court justified its decision by arguing it was unlikely Cofco’s claim would amount to more than the $187.5 million which the ICC ordered last year to be put in an escrow account as part of the arbitration.

Cygne said the arbitration case was unsubstantiated as Cofco was arguing former Nidera shareholders should be liable for irregularities in Brazil, even if they had no knowledge of them.

Cofco bought Nidera in two steps, paying $1.3 billion in 2014 for a 51 percent stake, and buying the remainder in 2017 for $448 million.

Cofco International’s chief executive said last week his focus this year would be on integration. Cofco has invested more than $3 billion in acquiring both Nidera and the agriculture arm of Noble Group since 2014. (Reporting by Toby Sterling, additional reporting by Gus Trompiz; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Mark Potter)

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