(Corrects to remove reference to shareholder stake in third paragraph.)
Dec. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Centro Properties Group, whose shareholders and debt holders agreed to a plan to wipe out A$2.9 billion ($3 billion) of debt last week, won court approval for the proposal, avoiding receivership.
New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Ian Barrett today approved the plan over the objections of Centro’s former auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, which said the company improperly transferred A$100 million with almost half benefiting shareholders at the expense of creditors.
Centro has A$2.9 billion of debt maturing Dec. 15 and failure to win approval for the reorganization plan would likely have pushed the company into receivership, Centro Properties Group Chairman Paul Cooper told security holders on Nov. 22. Current shareholders wouldn’t have received any payments, he said.
Centro first announced a restructuring plan in 2009 after a debt-fueled U.S. buying spree backfired when the global financial crisis caused property values to plummet and borrowing costs to soar, leaving the company unable to refinance its liabilities.
Share and debt holders of Centro Properties and listed unit Centro Retail Trust last week approved the restructuring, which will give senior lenders control of the new Centro Retail Australia trust in exchange for forgiving the company’s debt maturing Dec. 15.
Hedge funds who’ve bought Centro’s debt from its original lenders would own 72.3 percent of Centro Retail Australia. Centro Properties investors would get 5.03 Australian cents for each security they own. Holders of hybrid securities would receive A$20 million and convertible bond holders A$21 million, it said. The rest would be set aside to pay other creditors.
PricewaterhouseCoopers alleged the money set aside under the plan to pay Centro shareholders should have been retained to pay contingent creditors, who rank ahead of equity holders in a default.
Centro Properties, Centro Retail Group and PricewaterhouseCoopers are facing class action lawsuits from former investors who alleged the companies and their auditor misled them and the stock exchange about the full extent of both groups’ maturing debt obligations and their ability to refinance them.
Payouts related to class action lawsuits faced by Centro and the auditor could exceed the A$10 million the company had allocated for contingent creditors in the plan, Richard McHugh, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ lawyer, told the judge last week. The company shouldn’t have allocated A$49 million for shareholders when it had a “very significant outstanding claim,” he said.
Centro’s former director Andrew Scott was fined A$30,000 in August and former Chief Financial Officer Romano Nenna was barred from serving as a director for two years after a judge found they failed to fully disclose the company’s debts in financial statements. Four other former directors and two current directors were reprimanded.
Centro’s 2007 annual report failed to disclose A$1.5 billion of short-term liabilities by classifying them as non- current, and the company didn’t declare $1.75 billion of short- term debt guarantees of an associated company, Justice John Middleton said in a June 27 ruling finding the directors liable.
Centro, which managed about A$16.5 billion of shopping malls in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., had about A$16 billion of debt across its businesses as of Dec. 31, according to the company’s first-half results released Feb. 24.
The case is In the matter of Centro Properties Ltd. 2011/00283647. New South Wales Supreme Court (Sydney).
--With assistance from Tim Smith in Sydney. Editors: Edward Johnson, Douglas Wong
To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Schneider in Sydney at email@example.com Nichola Saminather in Sydney at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Douglas Wong at email@example.com; Andreea Papuc at firstname.lastname@example.org