H2O Asset Management has incurred more steep writedowns on its holdings of bonds linked to Lars Windhorst, after agreeing to help the German financier avert a bankruptcy.
Once a star of European asset management, H2O was plunged into crisis in 2019 when the Financial Times revealed it had substantial exposure to illiquid securities tied to Windhorst, a flamboyant entrepreneur with a history of legal trouble.
H2O’s funds allowed ordinary investors to withdraw their money on a daily basis but the asset manager temporarily froze several of them in 2020 after France’s financial regulator raised concerns about their Windhorst-linked investments. H2O subsequently split these funds, setting up closed “side pockets” to house these hard-to-sell bonds and shares, trapping more than €1bn of investor money.
These investors were expecting to access their money within weeks, but H2O has now informed them it had written down their investments further, after cutting a deal that allows Windhorst to delay repaying his debt for six months.
In a letter to investors on Wednesday, H2O disclosed that the “estimated valuation” of the side pockets had tumbled as much as 44 per cent in some instances, due to “the absence of reimbursement” since striking a restructuring deal with Windhorst last year.
Under that May 2021 agreement, H2O said it had consolidated its disparate investments into a single bond at Windhorst’s main investment company Tennor Holding, due for repayment in “early 2022”. The German financier then told the FT in August that Tennor expected to “pay down a major part of the H2O debt before the end of the year ”.
The latest delay in repayment is likely to intensify regulatory scrutiny of H2O, which still manages €16bn in assets even after substantial withdrawals from investors. In accounts published last month, H2O confirmed that it is “currently under investigation” by multiple regulators, including for “alleged non-compliance with a number of principles established by the FCA [the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority]”. The firm says it is co-operating with the investigations.
H2O declined to comment. Tennor told the FT it has “made substantial repayments to all of its creditors including H2O”.
“Tennor will continue its normal course of business and is scheduled to pay down its debts in the coming weeks and months on a timely and regular basis,” Windhorst’s company added.
H2O’s letter to investors cited a recent Dutch court ruling, in which Windhorst’s lawyers successfully overturned a previous judgment that declared Tennor to be insolvent. To reverse the bankruptcy, Windhorst negotiated a six-month standstill agreement with major creditors including H2O, according to the December 21 court ruling, meaning they cannot demand repayment of their debts during this time.
Dominique Stucki, a lawyer representing a group of aggrieved investors that have taken legal action against H2O, expressed surprise at the agreement.
“We believe that if the debt was senior secured and guaranteed as strongly as H2O claimed, I don’t understand why they would have to waive their rights and agree to a six-month standstill,” he said.
The insolvency claim against Tennor was brought by Panamanian investment company Corvallis Navigation, which is linked to the billionaire heiress Athina Onassis, over an alleged debt of more than €36m. The professional showjumper inherited a fortune stemming from her grandfather, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
A lawyer acting for the company told the FT that neither “Corvallis nor Miss Onassis wish to make a statement or comment at this stage”.
Aside from Corvallis and H2O, other major creditors that signed the standstill include Heritage Travel and Tourism, a Bahamian investment vehicle linked to Monegasque billionaire cruise magnate Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio.
Heritage won a substantial judgment against Windhorst in London’s High Court last year, which ordered the financier to pay €172m to honour a series of disputed investment deals, which related to shares in companies including lingerie maker La Perla.
French bank Natixis is still H2O’s majority shareholder, despite announcing over a year ago that it planned to dispose of its stake. Natixis announced last month that the sale was still in progress and it would make a further announcement “in due course and in line with the regulatory process”.
Before it became mired in controversy, H2O proved a lucrative investment for Natixis, often paying out hundreds of millions of euros in dividends a year.
H2O’s auditor Mazars issued a qualified opinion for its 2020 accounts, while also indicating that there was “material uncertainty” that may cast “significant doubt” on the firm’s ability to continue as a going concern.