As the world retreated into lockdown, German financier Lars Windhorst criss-crossed the globe in a private jet on a mission to raise billions.
The 44-year-old needs to make good on a promise to buy back more than €1bn of bonds from H2O Asset Management, a once-feted European fund manager whose backing helped Windhorst assemble an eclectic collection of businesses that includes Italian lingerie maker La Perla and German football club Hertha Berlin.
After the extraordinary scale of H2O’s bets on the financier threatened to capsize the asset manager in 2019, Windhorst last year vowed to buy back the illiquid debt at the heart of a crisis which has drawn regulatory scrutiny. But more than 12 months later, H2O’s clients, whose money is tied up in the troublesome securities, are still waiting.
The challenge is one of the toughest yet for Windhorst. Hailed as a precocious entrepreneur by then-German chancellor Helmut Kohl when he burst on to the business world in the mid-nineties, his chequered career has included personal bankruptcy.
An initial plan to use an investment vehicle called Evergreen to buy back half the bonds last year and the rest by this June fell apart. Then last August French regulators ordered H2O to suspend several funds because of uncertainties over the valuation of the bonds.
The London-based asset manager has significantly written down the value of the securities, which in some cases Windhorst has agreed to buy back several years ahead of their maturity, and shifted them into so-called side pockets that are closed to investor redemptions.
A criminal investigation launched by the Berlin prosecutor’s office into Windhorst is a further complication. Authorities are probing whether Evergreen violated German law by allegedly engaging in banking activities without the necessary licences. Windhorst denies any wrongdoing and said he has offered his assistance to authorities.
Armed with infectious optimism, an insatiable thirst for dealmaking and an uncanny ability to escape from near ruinous predicaments, Windhorst insists that a large chunk of the debt will be bought back this year.
“Tennor [Windhorst’s main investment company] expects to pay down a major part of the H2O debt before the end of the year,” Windhorst told the Financial Times.
Following the collapse of the Evergreen plan, Windhorst bought himself some breathing space until early next year when Tennor in May announced a restructuring of its debts with “major creditors”, the biggest of which is H2O.
Under the agreement, Tennor Group’s debt will be consolidated into a new €1.45bn bond, carrying a 4.5 per cent interest rate, which is due to be repaid in early 2022. H2O said that the agreement provided a “more stable platform” to liquidate the securities in the funds’ side pockets.
Bet on Hertha Berlin
Windhorst, who operates from a swanky office in London’s Mayfair and a new base in the pricey “Palme” office building in Zurich once occupied by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, says he tires of the scrutiny that his relationship with H2O has generated.
“It’s normal in business that things are difficult. It’s not a problem for me, I deal with it,” said Windhorst. “I get beaten up for this and we need to move on here and make money and do business.”
Obtaining a clear view of Tennor’s finances is difficult. La Perla, one of its highest-profile investments, posted a €136m loss last year. However, several subsidiaries’ accounts have not been signed off, with filings citing delays in finalising Tennor’s own audited accounts that were due to be filed by the end of March.
According to a 2019 provisional balance sheet filing, the latest that is publicly available, Tennor Holdings had €2.6bn in liabilities at the end of that year.
Windhorst has long lent on debt and short-term funding deals, including repurchase agreements, to finance his businesses. It is a pattern he says he wants to break.
The shadow cast by H2O has done little to dull Windhorst’s ambitions, however. The financier is on track to complete his €374m investment in Hertha Berlin, a German football club with a long history but largely empty trophy cabinet. The agreement to acquire a majority stake was announced just a week after the H2O scandal erupted in 2019.
In June, he took to Twitter to scotch rumours he had fallen behind on payments to the club. “Hello to all doubters who don’t believe this is my account,” Windhorst declared. “Everything is on schedule,” Björn Bäring, Hertha Berlin’s head of finance, told the FT. A final €30m instalment is due this month.
Since Windhorst took control, Hertha Berlin broke its transfer record for a player but lost a manager, the legendary German striker Jürgen Klinsmann, after just 10 weeks in February 2020.
Earlier this year a creditor obtained a judgment in a Dutch court to auction off the investment vehicle Windhorst used to buy his Hertha Berlin stake. The suit, which relates to a short-term loan, is “generally settled”, according to a lawyer for the creditor.
The investment in Hertha Berlin is one of several demands on Windhorst even as the H2O bill remains outstanding.
Shortly before H2O described the financier’s efforts in August 2020 to buy back the bonds under the Evergreen plan as “very partial”, Tennor committed €100m to medical robotics start-up AvateraMedical.
It also announced a major stake in a joint venture with New York-based luxury condo developer Extell to build what is intended to become the tallest Manhattan skyscraper. Despite sluggish progress following planning objections, Windhorst is confident that the project will be “perfectly timed” for an eventual recovery in Manhattan’s luxury residential market.
Windhorst has also expanded his shipping business. Tennor first acquired ailing shipbuilder Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft in 2019 from Norwegian businessman Kristian Siem. FSG late last year laid the keel on the first ship since it relaunched its operations after insolvency proceedings. The customer: a company owned by Windhorst.
Then last month, FSG snapped up luxury yacht shipyard Nobiskrug in Germany for an undisclosed price. Previously owned by French billionaire Iskander Safa’s Privinvest, Nobiskrug was placed into insolvency in April.
“Both shipyards combined have secured orders in excess of €1bn”, said Windhorst.
If a reliance on debt has been a feature of his business career, so have legal battles.
Earlier this year Siem filed suits at London’s High Court. Meanwhile, in June a judge in Amsterdam ordered Windhorst to “disclose his assets and to provide security” in relation to a long-running dispute over his acquisition of a 50 per cent stake worth €169m in international show jumping event Global Champions Tour from US billionaire Frank McCourt.
Windhorst is adamant that the public filings paint a misleading picture. All the suits bar one filed by entities linked to former Tennor advisory board member Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, which have made claims worth more than €120m, have been amicably settled, he says. Representatives for Siem, Lefebvre d’Ovidio and McCourt declined to comment.
There are signs that the businessman’s frantic flight schedule is beginning to pay off. Windhorst in May sold Berlin-based ad-tech company Fyber, which he owned 90 per cent of, to Nasdaq-listed Digital Turbine at a $600m valuation. The transaction was settled for $150m in cash plus shares in Digital Turbine.
Meanwhile, Windhorst says Tennor has agreed to sell a minority stake in Avatera for €600m. A start-up in the fast-growing field of medical robotics, Avatera has long been considered a potential crown in Tennor’s investment portfolio.
H2O disclosed in a corporate filing that it was unable to dispose of a 12.5 per cent Avatera stake held by one its funds in an “orderly fashion” earlier this year, with a spokesperson saying the asset manager’s priority was to sell at the best price.
Although Avatera is likely to require considerable investments to realise its potential, Windhorst remains bullish. “Avatera has the potential to be a €10bn to €20bn business,” he said.
If that proves the case, it would mark a remarkable turnround for the financier. But four years since H2O stepped in as Windhorst’s saviour, backing his empire as he fought off aggressive creditors, including a Belize-based company linked to a former Russian energy minister, it is the asset manager’s clients who remain in need of rescuing.
Gerard Maurin, an investor, who is spearheading efforts by some to claim damages from H2O, says that communication from the asset manager on the repayment schedule has been vague.
“It motivates us even more to continue our action,” he said. “It’s not normal to have to wait [to redeem your investment].”
Paris terror victims to make voices heard at landmark French trial
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The Palais de Justice in Paris has been at the heart of French legal affairs for centuries but the case starting there on Wednesday is like no other: the landmark trial of 20 men accused of planning and carrying out terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more.
Those deadly hours starting on November 13 2015, have been labelled by some as France’s own version of what the US lived through on September 11 2001. They formed part of a traumatic period in France when Isis fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, and French citizens who adhered to their cause, carried out a series of deadly acts, from killing journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 to the truck rampage in Nice in July 2016.
Only one of the men on trial, which will take place with five judges in a specially prepared courtroom over nine months, is accused of being directly involved in the attacks. Most of the perpetrators died that night.
François Molins, the then Paris prosecutor who rushed to the scene of the attacks, said the trial would have stakes beyond judging the accused.
“The trial must fulfil several objectives, the first of which is revealing the truth of what happened,” he added. “It should help the victims in their healing process by having a cathartic effect. It will also be an occasion to remind us of our society’s values of humanity and dignity, which stands in stark contrast to those espoused by the Islamist terrorists.”
An aspect of the French legal system that differs from common law in the UK or the US will lend a particular intensity to the trial: about 1,800 victims, often the families of those killed, have joined the case as civil parties.
That gives them the right to be represented by lawyers who can ask questions and call witnesses, just like the defence and prosecution. Victims who want to speak about how they were affected can do so during five weeks set aside for such testimony.
Philippe Duperron, whose 30-year-old son Thomas was killed in the attacks and who heads the victims’ association 13onze15 Fraternité et Vérité, will be among them.
“We must embody the victims so they are not relegated to anonymity,” he said. “I will carry the voice of Thomas. I owe him that as his father.”
Sharon Weill, a law professor specialising in terrorism trials at the American University of Paris, said the victims’ prominent role would set this trial apart. It will also allow for scrutiny of intelligence failures before the attacks, such as lack of co-ordination with other European countries.
“The proceedings will really be a mixture of a criminal trial and a sort of truth commission to establish the narrative and collective memory,” said Weill.
The attackers struck Parisians enjoying a Friday night. Supervised by Isis, three teams fanned out across the capital in rented cars. In just under four hours they set off suicide bombs near a football match at Stade de France, fired automatic weapons at people drinking at café terraces in the city’s trendy 10th arrondissement, and killed 90 people in a rampage at the Bataclan theatre, where an American metal band was playing.
Eleven attackers died, either blowing themselves up or being killed by police. French and Belgian investigators tracked the surviving attackers through recovered mobile phones to a cell in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels.
Soon after, police killed two alleged attackers in a Paris suburb, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian-Moroccan mastermind of the operation. But it took a long manhunt to catch Salah Abdeslam, who will be the sole defendant at the trial accused of being directly involved that night.
Abdeslam told Belgian investigators in 2016 that he had rented cars and dropped off the commandos at the Stade de France, but did not follow through on the plan to blow himself up there. He said little during years of investigations by French magistrates and it remains to be seen if he will speak at the trial.
Thirteen other defendants allegedly provided logistical support, such as renting cars or apartments, providing fake passports, or obtaining weapons. Six defendants, including several Isis leaders who allegedly planned operations in Europe, are being tried in absentia, although some are thought dead in Syria.
Among the witnesses will be former president François Hollande, as well as the then interior minister and intelligence services chiefs. They are likely to face questions about how the attackers pulled off the operation even though many were on the radar of security services. “This will not be a trial to judge the state’s actions, but that of the defendants,” Hollande told Libération newspaper in comments published this month. “But I feel I have a duty to help with the search for truth.”
Since no courtroom was big enough, the case will be heard in a 700 sq m temporary structure under the vaulted ceiling of a ceremonial hall in the Palais de Justice. Cameras will record the proceedings, while efforts have been made to ensure that the victims and their families can exercise their rights as civil parties without renewed trauma. An audio feed of the trial will be accessible only to them, so they can follow proceedings. Psychologists will be available to provide support.
Arthur Dénouveaux, a survivor of the Bataclan attack who leads Life for Paris, a victims’ group, said he was surprised by the powerful emotions revived by the upcoming trial.
“I do not have the control over them that I thought, despite having done many steps in recovery,” Dénouveaux said. “But the message I will carry at the trial is that terrorism does not destroy us. We are still here and we are alive.”
Norway’s oil rises to top of election agenda as climate fears grow
Norway’s voters are to give their verdict next week in what has become a “climate election” — jolted into life by the UN report last month that issued a stark “code red” over the impact of environmental change.
The UN report has forced Norway to examine a big contradiction at the heart of its economy. The country is one of the largest proponents of green solutions such as electric cars and carbon capture storage: seven in 10 new cars sold last month in Norway were fully electric.
But the country is also western Europe’s biggest petroleum producer, with a massive sovereign wealth fund accumulated on the back of oil and gas output.
That dissonance is being tested in the election on Sunday and Monday. Support is rising for the Green party, which says it will only join a government that promises an immediate halt to oil and gas exploration. The two other main parties campaigning on climate, the Socialist Left and Liberals, are also rising in the polls. The Greens’ membership numbers have jumped by a third in just a few weeks.
“It was a game-changer for Norway when that UN report came out. It is now the most important seven days in Norway’s history,” said Kriss Rokkan Iversen, deputy leader of the Greens.
Espen Barth Eide, energy spokesman for the centre-left Labour party agreed: “This is clearly the climate election, even more than people thought it would be.” Labour leads in polls but oil is likely to be an obstacle to a viable coalition.
Norway’s two biggest political parties — Labour and the centre-right Conservatives of prime minister Erna Solberg — stand firmly behind the oil industry, which is responsible for about 160,000 direct jobs, or about 6 per cent of the total.
Tina Bru, the Conservative oil and energy minister, is firmly against ending exploration or setting an end date for Norway’s petroleum production, arguing for doing more to cut global demand.
“We are preparing for a future with less demand for oil and gas, we’re building new green industries, but we won’t get there by hurting our economy, destroying jobs and dismantling an industry,” she said.
Eide said: “We want to undermine the prospects for a long-term oil industry rather than closing the supply.”
Norwegian oil production has risen in recent years following the discovery of the giant Johan Sverdrup field in the North Sea. It is set to fall again from 2025 or so.
Solberg told the Financial Times this summer that she would not act to accelerate that decline but that Norway was on a gradual “shift” to green industries.
Following a tax tweak last year that helped the oil industry, Solberg’s government this month proposed another complicated fiscal change that appears mildly positive in the short term for most companies active in Norway, while making speculative exploration costlier.
“It’s a sign that the oil market in Norway is becoming mature and is only attractive to fewer companies. But the worry is that this is the second change in two years after years of stability — it shows how oil could become more of a political football,” said a senior executive at an oil company active in Norway.
For the Greens, the tax debate is a sideshow. As well as ending exploration, they also want to halt production by 2035.
Iversen said Norway was a petroleum pioneer in the 1960s and 1970s but did not have the same spirit for the “green shift” — with, for instance, the world’s largest wind farm developer found in neighbouring Denmark.
Of the willingness to stick by the oil industry, she said: “It’s a question of feeling and identity for many Norwegians. I don’t think it’s rational.”
Defenders of the oil industry have also stepped up their rhetoric. Sylvi Listhaug, the leader of the populist Progress party, this summer posted a social media picture of her filling her car up, with the caption: “Lovely with the smell of real fuel.”
Barth Eide said Labour, under its leader Jonas Gahr Store, would not go into government with a party that insisted on stopping exploration or production. However, its two favourite coalition partners — Centre, and the Socialist Left — hold almost opposing views on Norway’s biggest industry.
Eide said a compromise was possible, avoiding over-investing in oil but refusing to put an end-date on either production or exploration. He also hinted that contentious exploration in the Barents Sea, inside the Arctic Circle, could end as companies such as state-controlled Equinor favour proven areas in the North and Norwegian Seas.
Labour is likely to have a much more interventionist industrial policy as it attempts to speed up the green transition. “It has clearly gone too slowly . . . The pace does not fit with the remaining time,” Barth Eide added.
Economists believe Norway’s move away from oil will be expensive but unavoidable. “Can we afford to wind down? It’s going to be extremely costly. But can we afford not to? No, we can’t. It’s hard to say that doing nothing is the best option, but we need to find a good balance,” said Hilde Bjornland, economics professor at BI Norwegian Business School.
Iversen argued that if Norway failed to move away from oil quickly enough, it could hurt both the climate and its famously generous welfare state.
“In the middle of the climate and Covid crises . . . we locked ourselves even more into oil and gas,” she said. “It is like we have this oil fog blurring our view and stopping us setting a course for our future.”
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El Salvador becomes a crypto laboratory with bitcoin gamble
Like millions of Salvadorans, chauffeur Ricardo López has spent the past few weeks trying to get his head around bitcoin. Once the digital currency becomes legal tender this week, he is not sure he will accept it, but if he does he will convert it immediately into US dollars.
“They say the price varies and that it’s a bit like the stock market,” the 37-year-old said. “Most people are afraid because of the lack of information.”
Twenty years after it adopted the US dollar as its national currency, El Salvador will on Tuesday become the first country in the world to make bitcoin legal tender.
In a plan spearheaded by the Central American nation’s populist president Nayib Bukele, citizens will be able to shop, pay taxes and buy land using the volatile cryptocurrency.
Proponents say it will cut the fees Salvadorans pay to send home remittances — which represent one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product — promote financial inclusion for those without bank accounts and facilitate access to a potentially high-yielding asset.
Critics say the rushed plan could cost poorer Salvadorans when the price falls, raise costs for banks and insurers, provide a shield for money launderers and risk economic stability.
Rating agency Moody’s downgraded the country’s debt rating in part because of the law. The IMF — currently in talks with the government over a new loan — said adopting cryptocurrency as legal tender could destabilise prices and put the financial system at risk.
With a week to go, polls show the majority of Salvadorans are against the idea, and on the streets of the capital, few said they were prepared to switch to using the digital currency.
Small, sporadic protests by groups from pensioners to unions took place through the week, and a digital specialist who had spoken out against the plan was detained by police without an arrest warrant.
“I don’t know anything about it and I don’t want to learn either, I’m one of those people who says: no way, I won’t use it,” said Guadalupe Escobar, 35, who sells bread at a roundabout in the capital San Salvador.
Out of employees and owners from more than 20 different enterprises surveyed by the Financial Times in San Salvador — from informal street food stands to coffee shops chains — three said they knew they would accept bitcoin. The rest had not started preparing or rejected the idea.
Bukele’s government is rolling out a digital bitcoin wallet called “Chivo” — slang for “cool” — in the coming days with $30 in bitcoin free for every user. Across the country, Chivo ATMs will allow consumers to buy bitcoin or convert it into cash with the government absorbing commission costs.
The move has excited cryptocurrency advocates abroad. Juan Pablo Thieriot, chief executive of Uphold, a digital platform that enables payments and trading in cryptocurrencies, national currencies and precious metals, said El Salvador’s move made “a ton of sense”.
This was because the dollarised country needed better alternatives to dodge the negative effects of the US government’s giant stimulus package on the currency.
“You see something like a . . . six or eight trillion [dollar] debasement exercise where most of the benefit is going to US citizens . . . and you are not the beneficiary of that,” he told the FT. “You would logically look for something else.”
The country’s large retail businesses are preparing to accept bitcoin and expect a September bump in sales from the extra liquidity, said Leonor Selva, executive director of private sector association ANEP, but what will happen beyond that is unclear.
“The government is preparing more of a brand or product launch than public policy,” Selva said.
In response to questions, the government said it would publish more information in the coming days.
The inspiration for the bold move was a project called Bitcoin Beach in El Zonte, a laid-back surf town a 50-kilometre drive from the capital, where tourists and locals are already using the cryptocurrency.
In 2019, an anonymous US crypto “early adopter” began funding community work paid in bitcoin in the town and now a team of mostly young Salvadorans works to promote its use.
Idalia Mejia sells pupusas — a popular Salvadoran corn patty often filled with cheese or meat — in bitcoin in the town and thinks it is good for attracting clients, but tries not to hold on to it. “I have lost out when it’s gone down,” the 49-year-old said. “I prefer not to have it.”
In the past year, the price of bitcoin has soared from about $10,000 to more than $60,000 and it is currently worth a little under $50,000.
Jorge Valenzuela, one of the project leaders, estimates that about half the town’s residents use it. Some save it, he said, but for others it is convenient for transactions in a nation where 70 per cent lack access to financial services.
Across the country, anyone with access to technology will by law have to accept bitcoin from Tuesday, although the three pages of government regulations do not mention penalties for non-compliance.
Apart from the initial incentive, the Chivo wallet will allow immediate conversion into dollars, backed by a recently approved $150m fund. Some economists question whether that is big enough, and say that a fall in the price of bitcoin would put the government under broader fiscal pressure.
“If, for example, taxes are paid in cryptoassets, while expenditures remain primarily in dollars, there would be significant pressure on the exchange market, and on the level of international reserves,” Torino Capital said in a note.
El Salvador’s central bank did not respond to a request for comment.
Steve Hanke, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University who has advised emerging market nations on currency issues, said bitcoin made it virtually impossible for banks to comply with “know your customer” rules, and that the country risked a red flag from the anti-money laundering Financial Action Task Force.
“It isn’t a currency, it’s a very speculative asset,” said Hanke, a longtime advocate of dollarisation. “There is a lot of risk associated with bitcoin and that risk will be borne by the taxpayers.”
Additional reporting by Michael Stott in London
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