More revelations plunge Parmalat deeper into crisis

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Things just keep going from bad to worse for Parmalat. Just a week
after it escaped defaulting on a bond repayment by the skin of its
teeth, and with barely enough time for new chairman and turnaround
expert Enrico Bondi to warm his seat at the head of the company's
board table, a new financial crisis is looming.

With a debt burden in excess of €6 billion, the revelations that the Italian dairy company's assets were far smaller than it claimed have come as a real blow. The company managed to broker a deal with its banks last week to help pay back a €150 million bond, but it now has to find $400 million to buy back an 18 per cent stake in its Brazilian subsidiary - and has already missed one deadline.

The Parma-based company is said to be still in talks with the investors exercising their option to sell back the stake, but it has already missed the first payment on 17 December and looks increasingly unlikely to meet the second deadline on 22 December.

The Brazilian unit is also reported to have suspended payments to its milk suppliers there in a move to protect its own operations from the financial problems of its parent. Brazilian newspaper Valor Economico​ has published a letter sent by the Parmalat Brasil Industria de Alimentos division to suppliers asking them for their "co-operation and collaboration in order to temporarily delay the payment of our financial obligations"​.

Bondi must keep talking with the investors - who at least appear to be happy to negotiate, for now - if he is to avoid triggering a default - which would have serious implications for all of Parmalat's other investments. Newspaper reports suggest that the company is seeking six months' grace before paying out, but that with Bondi at the helm, the suggestion is that the company's creditors will now be much more open to negotiation than before.

But while Bondi has an enviable reputation when it comes to turning around companies, even he may find that extricating Parmalat from the quagmire into which it has fallen is a challenge too far.

Up until about two months ago, the company said it had €4.2 billion in cash and liquid assets with which it would service the €6 billion in debts. But revelations of various dubious investments in offshore funds led analysts to question how much of this cash pile the company could actually get its hands on.

These doubts were confirmed earlier this month when Parmalat failed to realise its nearly €500 million investment in a Cayman Islands-based fund called Epicurum, triggering the near-default on the bond repayment.

The company announced earlier this week that it had temporarily suspended its efforts to retrieve this money as Bondi and his new management team try to find alternative means of reducing the company's debts.

But each new day seems to bring another embarrassing revelation, and today is no exception. The company has issued a statement this morning concerning its own Cayman Islands-based subsidiary Bonlat.

"Bank of America N.A., New York Branch, has informed Grant Thornton, the auditor of Bonlat Financing Corporation, a company based in the Cayman Islands and part of the Parmalat group, that it does not have 'an account' in the name of Bonlat,"​ the statement read.

"Further, Bank of America denied the authenticity of a document dated 6 March 2003 that certified the existence of securities and liquidity amounting to approximately €3,950 million as at 31 December 2002 relating to Bonlat. This document was taken as the basis for the certification of Bonlat's 2002 accounts."

Parmalat's board is due to meet today to discuss this latest unwanted revelation, and Bondi's agenda is looking increasingly crowded as he tries to untangle the mess of ill-advised investments and dubious accounting practices.

He is also scheduled for further talks with a group of US and UK bond investors claiming to hold $2 billion in Parmalat debt, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal​, and will be expected to come with some answers to the pressing question of just exactly where Parmalat's supposed cash pile has disappeared to and what is the full extent of its debts - questions that will not be answered until at least January, the new chairman has said.

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