Swiss financier admits mistakes

Did Martin Ebner take too many risks? Keystone Archive

Switzerland's shareholder champion, Martin Ebner - who is facing crippling debts - has admitted mistakes forced him to sell control of part of his BZ Group.

This content was published on August 5, 2002

In his first comments since the sale of the funds last week, Ebner said he had been forced to act because of the stock market slump. But he also admitted flaws in his business strategy.

"The mistake we made was in having a portfolio that was not diversified enough," Ebner told Swiss television on Sunday.

He declined to comment on media reports that the BZ Group - built up around the BZ Bank - had run up debts of around SFr10 billion ($6.8 billion). But he denied that it was facing collapse following the sale of controlling stakes in Pharma Vision, BK Vision, Spezialitaten Vision and Stillhalter Vision to the Zurich Cantonal Bank.

"The BZ bank is absolutely solid," Ebner said.

Loan extension

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal said the group had received some breathing space on its debts after creditor banks allowed it to miss scheduled payments on loans worth about SFr3 billion.

The paper quoted sources as saying the eight banks, which include leading Swiss bank Credit Suisse, had agreed to extend Ebner's payments by about a year.

It said the move was part of a package of measures to help steady the BZ Group through its liquidity crisis.

Other banks agreeing to the grace period were HSBC Holdings, Austria's Raiffeisen Zentralbank, the Landesbank of Germany's Buden-Wuerttemberg state, the Zurich Cantonal Bank and two Swiss regional banks, the paper said.

Although forced to sell the Vision funds, BZ Group still holds direct stakes in some of Switzerland's biggest companies, including the ABB engineering group, Credit Suisse, the insurer Baloise and the chemicals firm Lonza.

The 56-year-old Ebner built up his BZ Group after leaving a career in investment banking. The multi-millionaire - who styled himself on the American investment tycoon, Warren Buffet - convinced thousands of Swiss to sink money in his investment accounts rather than invest in lacklustre savings accounts.

But his liquidity position was badly hurt recently when a flood of retail investors sought to bail out of the stock market, forcing BZ to fork out hundreds of millions of francs.


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