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The Spectacular Collapse of Signa: A Tale of Real Estate Overreach

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Benjamin Hughes

April 6, 2024 - 06:46 am

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The Unraveling of a Real Estate Empire: The Signa Story

In the warmth of the summer of 2022, Austrian magnate Rene Benko radiated confidence to shareholders about the bright future of Signa, the real estate empire he had meticulously crafted over two decades. The company, which Benko had developed into a significant name in the property market, had just secured a substantial capital influx of nearly one billion euros from its shareholders, signaling strong investor confidence. Notably, this investment included contributions from Germany's wealthiest individual, Klaus-Michael Kuehne.

As Europe's real estate sphere grappled with soaring interest rates and dipping property values, Signa appeared to sail against the storm, a testament to the resilience and strategy of the company under Benko's leadership. He bombastically declared the creation of a "war chest" to excited investors, promising that this new financial muscle would enable him to cherry-pick coveted assets from floundering competitors to bolster his already impressive collection of luxury properties—a collection soon to be crowned by the acquisition of the prestigious Selfridges department store located on London's iconic Oxford Street.

However, a mere eighteen months later, the tables had turned dramatically. The very rivals Benko once aimed to outmaneuver were now dissecting the remnants of his 23 billion euro empire. Benko himself had spiraled from billionaire status to the poster child for the European property market's collapse. Political circles and regulators in Austria are using Signa's downfall as a stark example, prompting urgent discussions on the need to overhaul the nation's financial oversight.

As a testament to his networking prowess, Benko had secured support from some of the globe's most astute corporate minds. This made the sudden nosedive of Signa all the more puzzling. Anne d'Arcy, director of the Institute for Corporate Governance at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, reflected on this, noting that classic warning signs of financial trouble flagged in earlier literature were all evident in Signa's trajectory.

Hailing from humble beginnings in the Austrian city of Innsbruck, Benko began his ascent in the real estate sector by transforming vacant loft spaces into opulent penthouses. His drive and charisma served him well; they were his tickets to securing crucial funds for ever more ambitious ventures. His arsenal for persuasion and a flair for luxury not only attracted investors but also enabled him to draw in funding from yield-seeking billionaires and sovereign wealth funds. This strategy flourished in the low-interest-rate era, allowing Benko to amass iconic properties like stakes in New York's Chrysler Building, Berlin's KaDeWe department store, and the Hotel Bauer in Venice.

Behind the luster of real estate successes, however, was a much more complex reality. Signa's foundation rested on a multitude of subsidiaries and a towering pile of debt, masked by an opaque corporate structure. Despite numerous red flags—such as a lack of transparency, questionable corporate governance, and a convoluted private debt structure—investors continued to flock towards Signa. They were enticed by Benko's political connective ties and the allure of investing in real estate presumed to be impervious to crises.

In a move to engender confidence, Benko provided investors with put options, offering them an opportunity to reacquire shares under particular circumstances, thereby mitigating potential risks. The details of this decline are chronicled in an examination dubbed Billionaire Benko’s Empire Risks Unraveling From the Pandemic.

Legal teams and insolvency administrators are now tasked with the intricate endeavor of deciphering Signa's elaborate structure, while investors reckon with their losses. The protections once heralded by Benko have largely failed; those who previously enjoyed generous dividends are now facing the harsh reality of writing off their investments. On the other hand, unsecured lenders are confronted with the daunting prospect of potentially waiting years to recoup a mere third of their original stakes. Rene Benko himself, once a billionaire with a wealth surpassing 4 billion dollars, has been compelled to file for insolvency.

Leonhard Dobusch, a strategic management professor at the University of Innsbruck, echoes the cyclical nature of real estate and reflects on how, for years, people turn substantial profits, often allured by the fallacy that they can exit the market in time.

Revelations based on a series of confidential discussions with over a dozen managers, advisors, and investors linked to Signa highlight the extent to which private dealings were intertwined with the company's operations. The silence from spokespeople for Signa and its subsidiaries, including Signa Prime Selection, Signa Development Selection, and Signa Holding, alongside the reticence of Benko and his attorneys to respond to inquiries, further wraps the demise in mystery.

Looking at the origins of these concerns, Benko's investors seemingly turned a blind eye to the growing number of warning signals. The allure of a consistent dividend stream from Signa's properties was enough to overshadow unusual accounting behaviors, including the absence of consolidated group statements and withheld annual reports from the various business units. Even when Benko encountered a legal hiccup in 2012, securing a suspended jail sentence for soliciting assistance with a tax investigation from a Croatian politician, his financial partners remained steadfast.

However, the departure of former Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking from the fold of Signa in 2016 marked a rare break in loyalty. He cited inconsistencies in Benko's accounting practices as the primary reason. This situation began to peel back the layers, exposing Signa's reliance on a "cascade of leverage," per Manfred Wiesner at MWP Asset Management, to sustain its business model. With funds at his disposal, Benko followed a pattern of acquiring significant yet undervalued retail properties centrally located in cities, leveraging them with exorbitant rents, and in turn, inflating Signa's net worth.

Until the fall of 2023, Signa's precarious balance seemed tenable, but with rising interest rates, Benko's ability to stay ahead of his debt diminished. When the European Central Bank commenced an intense scrutiny of Signa's creditors, the company found itself devoid of new bank funding for half a year. In a desperate scramble for capital, Benko attempted to secure €350 million in credit, even from personal resources, albeit on severely stringent terms. Even a €400 million capital increase consented to by shareholders fell through, exacerbating Signa's financial crisis.

By the autumn months, the first fissures began to surface publicly. Benko's withdrawal of a €150 million capital pledge to online retailer Signa Sports United indicated the severity of the financial strain, eroding a business that had boasted a $3.2 billion valuation on the New York Stock Exchange just under two years prior. It was a grim harbinger of further troubles, including halted construction on Hamburg's Elbtower project due to unpaid debts.

The unraveling accelerated as support for Signa waned. Requests from high-profile shareholders like consultancy founder Roland Berger, who sought the repurchase of his stake, signaled increasing impatience and mistrust within the investor community. By the time financial advisory firm Rothschild & Co intervened, Signa Prime, the company's luxury arm, held a meager €5 million in its accounts.

Efforts to distance Benko from key decision-making roles culminated on November 8th, with shareholders compelling him to relinquish his position on Signa's advisory board. Despite the distrust, sidelining Benko was complex due to his indirect control over all Signa entities and crucial knowledge essential for potential restructuring efforts. In these dire circumstances, Benko continued negotiating for an approximately €600 million loan, even as others cast doubt on his capacity to spearhead a revival.

Advisors to Signa found themselves in frantic talks to stabilize existing debts and arrange negotiations with diverse lenders, often resorting to strikingly brief meetings under the pressure of time. The company's last-minute engagements with investment firms known for swift action in desperate funding situations, such as Elliott Investment Management and Attestor Ltd, ended without resolution—hindered by Signa's over-leveraged conditions and calls for swift deal closures.

As 2023 drew to a close, Signa's financial sources dried up, prompting the insolvency filings of its three main units and casting light on unsettling financial practices such as the movement of funds across the empire, often at the cost to creditors and shareholders alike. The end of Benko's consultancy contract severed his direct involvement further, leaving the onerous task of decoupling the web of cross-ownerships and debts to insolvency administrators.

Creditor consensus emerged on March 18, with the approval of a restructuring plan to assign all Signa property assets to a trustee, effectively leaving the involved companies and shareholders with nothing. This outcome, while not heartily supported, was preferred over the chaos of unregulated liquidation. Under the restructuring, trustees have the mandate to liquidate holdings and distribute 30% of owed amounts to the creditors. Loans provided by Haselsteiner and Attestor are now aiding Signa's principal property units through this wind-down phase. Benko and his fellow investors will retain control of the companies, now devoid of value.

Austria is only just beginning to come to terms with its largest-ever insolvency scenario. The government and its legal circles are reevaluating Signa's business machinations to guide future regulatory tightening. Legal observer Wolfgang Peschorn likened Signa's operation to a case study in "applied intransparency" and urged a thorough review of its actions in light of the nation's reputational stakes.

While Signa's internal complexities remain subject to scrutiny, heavyweights like Abu Dhabi's Mubadala Investment Co. and Al Mirqab Capital are laying arbitral claims totaling over one billion euros against Signa entities. The repercussions of Signa's downfall continue to unfurl as Austria braces for general elections, with political factions leveraging ties to Signa as ammunition in their campaigns.

Amidst the fallout, Rene Benko's own fate hangs in the balance, with him and his family trust filing for insolvency within his hometown of Innsbruck. Legal challenges also loom on the horizon, with ongoing investigations for alleged bribery and fraud in Germany and Austria. Benko's lawyers have dismissed the allegations, yet his once-celebrated presence casts a lingering shadow over the city of Vienna. The anticipation for a baroque commentary on his rise and fall through theatrical productions like "The Rise and Fall of Mr. René Benko" and the vestiges of his once-dominant influence in his office at Palais Harrach, all act as sobering reminders of an empire that flew too high on ambitions, only to be brought down to earth by the very gravity it sought to escape.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.