Signa Holding GmbH, the privately held Austrian retail property conglomerate that co-owns department stores like Selfridges in the UK, has filed for insolvency protection for several of its core real estate divisions after amassing over $1 billion in debts. The company’s financial troubles have sparked concerns over the future of its high-profile retail assets across Europe.
Signa Faces Cash Crunch Amid High Debts and Rising Interest Rates
Signa Holdings is owned by Austrian real estate investor René Benko. Up until recently, it was considered a formidable retail property investor across Europe with a portfolio that included landmark department stores like Germany’s Galeria Karstadt Kaufhof and apparel chains like Germany’s Karstadt Sports.
However, the company has run into financial difficulties as it struggled under a debt pile that stood at around $1.3 billion. With rising interest rates, Signa faced challenges in servicing its debts. The company had reportedly been seeking to raise fresh funds and restructure its debts for months.
On December 28, key divisions of Signa focused on real estate and retail filed for insolvency protection in an Austrian court after failing to successfully conclude debt restructuring negotiations with dozens of lenders. This includes:
- Signa Development Selection AG: Responsible for planning and developing real estate projects
- Signa Prime Selection AG: Holds Signa’s retail property assets
These two units reportedly hold the majority of Signa’s assets and debts.
By filing for insolvency protection, Signa aims to reorganize the two companies under court supervision and work out an arrangement with creditors to write off some debt.
Financial Troubles Spark Fears Over Fate of Signa’s Retail Assets
Signa owns or co-owns some iconic retail names across Europe:
|Central Group (Thailand)
|Galeria Karstadt Kaufhof (Germany)
|Le Bon Marché (France)
With Signa now facing deep financial problems, the fate of its retail properties has been thrown into doubt, sparking fears of potential asset sales or even bankruptcies that could impact thousands of retail jobs.
Signa’s biggest asset is Germany’s Galeria Karstadt Kaufhof department store chain, which it fully owns. The chain has struggled for years and narrowly avoided bankruptcy in 2020 after obtaining state aid. With Signa now insolvent, Galeria’s future remains uncertain.
In the UK, Signa co-owns the luxury Selfridges department store chain with Thailand’s Central Group. As Signa ran into financial trouble, Selfridges reportedly sought temporary financial support from Central Group to fund operations.
While Signa has stated that retail operations will continue unaffected for now, its financial woes will likely force restructuring or even sales of some marquee retail properties to raise cash in the coming months.
Austrian Government Under Pressure Over Links to Signa
Signa and owner René Benko have long-standing close links to Austrian politicians across parties. Benko’s connections enabled Signa to become a dominant force in Austrian real estate.
However, Signa’s insolvency filings have sparked scrutiny of these political ties in Austria. There are calls for investigations into past government deals with Signa, including the $1 billion purchase of Austria’s postal service headquarters in 2018, which was mired in controversy over links between politicians and the company.
The insolvency has also placed pressure on Chancellor Karl Nehammer, whose party ÖVP shares close ties with both Signa and Benko. Amidst allegations of questionable links between politicians and this now insolvent company, opposition leaders have demanded increased transparency in dealings between the state and large companies.
With Signa entering a court-overseen insolvency reconstruction process, details of the firm’s financial accounts and political connections are likely to face greater scrutiny in the coming months.
Outlook Remains Gloomy for Signa Despite Insolvency Protection
The insolvency process is expected to result in creditors taking large losses as Signa restructures debt. Swiss investment bank Credit Suisse, which helped arrange billions in financing for the company, is reportedly Signa’s single largest lender.
While insolvency offers temporary protection, Signa continues to face a challenging business environment. High interest rates and weak consumer spending across Europe has dampened investor appetite and retail sales. This strain comes on top of the company’s already-large debts.
To emerge from insolvency, painful restructuring appears unavoidable. This could involve large-scale job cuts across its retail properties, closing of unprofitable stores, and potential sales of some marquee assets like the KaDeWe department store in Berlin.
For now, Signa expects insolvency proceedings to stabilize the company. But if it fails to successfully rehabilitate its balance sheet, deeper restructuring and even eventual bankruptcy of parts of its retail empire remains a risk over 2023.
The coming months will determine whether Signa manages to restructure and bounce back, or collapses under the weight of its billion dollar liabilities – severely impacting Europe’s retail landscape.