Retail giant Steinhoff rocked by accounting scandal

Johannesburg (AFP) –


South Africa-based German-listed retail giant Steinhoff had been a darling of fund managers with its eclectic, sprawling, consumer-focused empire with outposts in 30 countries.

Its businesses include British high street discounter Poundland, France's Ligue 1 sponsor Conforama and Pep Africa, which runs the continent's largest clothing factory.

But on Wednesday the music stopped when Steinhoff revealed it was under criminal and tax investigation in Germany over suspicions of accounting irregularities and that its chief executive, Markus Jooste, had resigned. He had led the firm for two decades.

Shares listed in Frankfurt fell almost 60 percent in the hours following the bombshell announcement.

Investigators have been conducting an inquiry into possible "falsification of a balance sheet" since the European summer, according to German media.

Late on Tuesday Steinhoff's Frankfurt-listed shares were changing hands for three euros a piece but by the market open on Friday they had slumped to 38 cents.

"The sell-off will probably end when all the facts are on the table -- and those facts are going to take a while," Johannesburg-based economist Mike Schussler told AFP.

In an attempt to stem the rout and reassure the market, Steinhoff announced on Thursday that it would sell one billion euros ($1.17 billion) of assets to bolster liquidity.

It also sought to shore up chief financial officer Ben La Grange, insisting that "there is no evidence to suggest that the CFO had any involvement in the matters under investigation".

But Steinhoff's actions were not enough for some market players.

Credit ratings agency Moody's slashed Steinhoff's credit rating by four notches, below investment grade to junk -- and warned that further downgrades could follow.

"The downgrade of Steinhoff's ratings and review for further downgrade reflect the uncertainties," the agency said.

- 'Exceptional' share price bloodbath -

At the heart of the crisis raging at Steinhoff is a reported six billion-euro hole in the accounts.

A voracious appetite for acquisitions won Steinhoff a reputation among some investors as a thrusting, dynamic business, but also saddled the group with a formidable 9.2 billion-euro debt mountain.

South Africa's Business Day newspaper describes Steinhoff as a "nest of interrelated manufacturers and retailers".

British Daily Mail City Editor Alex Brummer wrote that "even by the standards of recent share price bloodbaths, the 60 percent fall in the value of Steinhoff International is exceptional".

"There is a tendency in the UK and, seemingly, in Germany, to believe that companies ultimately run by South African billionaires must be solid," he added.

"More serious was a lack of discussion of apparent governance shortcomings."

In 2015, Steinhoff revealed to investors as part of its application to list on the Frankfurt bourse that its offices in Westerstede, northwest Germany, had been searched in connection with a tax probe.

But the company did not formally mention the investigation again.

- 'I made some big mistakes' -

The mystery around the crisis grew when a letter apparently written by Jooste emerged this week, accepting responsibility for the share collapse.

"I made some big mistakes and have now caused financial loss to many innocent people," the typed letter said.

"It is time for me to move on and take the consequences of my behaviour like a man."

In South Africa, Steinhoff now faces the prospect of investigations by the Public Investment Corporation, the Financial Services Board and the Government Employees Pension Fund, which holds shares in the beleaguered conglomerate.

Steinhoff has also called in auditor PwC to investigate its actions.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange, where Steinhoff has a secondary listing, confirmed that it had launched its own probe but declined to suspend trading in the troubled stock.

"It looks like the (South African) Ministry of Finance is looking at what went wrong. I think in other jurisdictions like the United States it is also likely to face some sort of investigation," said Schussler, the economist.

But despite the challenges, Schussler said the company could still turn around the situation.

"I think the re-liquidation plan will make a difference. They owe... debt that obviously is stifling them," he said.

"It's very likely they will have to sell-off a lot of their subsidiaries, therefore we're going to be looking at a very different Steinhoff a year from now."