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Three bidders now for South Canterbury Finance

Monday 30th August 2010

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Three private bidders are seeking to invest in South Canterbury Finance, the chief executive of the beleaguered Timaru finance company, Sandy Maier, says.

“We have three parties looking at the investment,” he told says. “I think some of those are bona fide so we working along with that.”

He expected to meet next Tuesday’s deadline for conclusion of the talks with potential new investors, and branded as “very unhelpful” the political and media attention the issue was gaining, owing largely to the activities of supporters of Allan Hubbard, the 82 year-old president-for-life of SCF.

Hubbard and his wife, Jean, were placed under statutory management in June.  While SCF was not part of that action, its affairs and those of the Hubbards have continued to intertwine. The StandByHubbard campaign today publicly issued a letter to Prime Minister John Key seeking a review of the statutory management decision.

“There’s quite a lot of noise and emotion and there are people who feel they can pressure the government and pressure us,” Maier said. “That’s very unhelpful to the government and to ourselves.”

Labour commerce spokeswoman Lianne Dalziel says the government’s handling of the Hubbards’ statutory management may yet come to be seen as a factor in its attempt to come back from the brink of financial collapse.

Maier said SCF’s new management team had been working for nine months to resuscitate a company that had “gone off the rails” and to elicit new investment interest ahead of the Tuesday deadline for a rescue plan.

Maier remained confident that deadline would be met.

“This is a process. We’ve been working towards this date. We don’t think anything will change or emerge at the last minute.”

Maier would not discuss bidder identities, but Fairfax BusinessDay reports that a front-running bidder is Sydney-based businessman Duncan Saville, with a $175 million bid for SCF's so-called "good bank", which has between $700 million and $1 billion of good loans.

Saville is Infratil's largest shareholder.

SCF was “working constructively with all stakeholders,” Maier said. Government agencies and ministers connected to the issue are declining comment.

SCF’s fate will be decided on Tuesday, when a five-month waiver expires on a breach of the company’s Trust Deed. People who have money deposited with SCF are protected already by the retail deposit guarantee scheme.

But the cost to the taxpayer through that scheme could be as much as $900 million, whereas the Crown might only take a $250 million hit if it agreed to a private recapitalisation which left the government owning a “bad bank” of non-performing loans from which it would seek value over time.

Such an approach was used effectively in the near-collapse of the Bank of New Zealand 20 years ago. While SCF is not as large as the BNZ, supporters of SCF founder Allan Hubbard fear there would be major economic impact in the South Island if it were to fail.

Maier dismissed as “speculative” a claim by Hubbard that the government would not consider any proposal involving a “bad bank” structure.

Finance Minister Bill English said earlier today that the question “too big to fail” did not apply in the SCF case.

“That’s not really the primary consideration,” he said on TVNZ’s Q&A programme. “The primary consideration is to fulfil the purpose of the Deposit Guarantee Scheme for anyone who's been invested in any finance company covered by it.  So we've made provision for that, and of course we've been keen to make sure the taxpayer’s interest is protected all the way through, and look I really do not want to speculate about South Canterbury Finance.”

While the Cabinet would expect at least an update at tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting, English said he would not be rescheduling his visit to South-East Asian capitals this week to deal with an SCF rescue.

Hubbard said on Friday that he also wanted to bring a bidder to the table, but scotched widely running rumours that the investor was Russian. The same rumour said that bid was worth $300 million or more.

Maier said he was disclosing the emergence of a third potential bidder for SCF today.

While the three parties could theoretically band together, “I’m not expecting it to happen,” Maier said.

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