Troubled Dutch food conglomerate Royal Ahold NV obtained a vital new bank loan today but had to pledge as collateral its most highly prized supermarket chains, including Giant Food Inc. of Landover.
The company, which last week disclosed major accounting "irregularities" and ousted its chief executive, announced that five Dutch and U.S. banks granted it a one-year credit line totaling $3.4 billion. Ahold needed the money to finance day-to-day operations after it lost its old credit line, for $2.2 billion, as a result of bookkeeping inconsistencies at its subsidiary U.S. Foodservice of Columbia, Md. The overstatement of profits by $500 million at the unit left Ahold in breach of the earlier loan agreement.
"Entering into this new credit facility is an important step in stabilizing Ahold's financial condition and demonstrates our continued access to significant liquidity," said Henny de Ruiter, chairman of Ahold's supervisory board.
Ahold paid a high price for the new loan, both in the collateral it offered and the interest and fees it paid, according to investors and market analysts.
More than half the loan, about $1.95 billion, is secured by a pledge of shares of Ahold's three most valuable grocery companies, as well as other, undisclosed properties, according to a company spokeswoman. She said the three pledged companies are Giant Food, the Washington area's largest supermarket chain; Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., Ahold's largest U.S. chain; and the Dutch chain Albert Heijn, the original core of Ahold's business.
The stock of U.S. Foodservice was not pledged. Ahold American depositary receipts fell 1.4 percent today, to close at $3.58. Ahold's previous credit line was not secured. By putting up the grocery companies as collateral, Ahold has less room to maneuver in selling assets to reduce its burdensome $13 billion of debt.
"They don't now have their choice of what to do with those assets," said Mia Kirchgaessner, global food retail analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Proceeds from selling the chains would go first to repaying banks rather than reducing other debt, she said.
But Ahold probably would prefer to sell smaller retail operations in Europe, Latin America and the Far East. The loan is a plus, Kirchgaessner said, because "it's reassuring that they'll have this capital for running the business, at least in the short term. It should give suppliers some feeling of security."
Ahold didn't disclose terms of the loan, but they were widely described as expensive for the company. That's partly a result of cuts in Ahold's long-term debt rating to junk status since the scandal broke.
"From what I've heard about terms of the deal, the banks are cleaning up" on the interest rate and fees, said Lodewijk van der Kroft, chief investment officer at Theodoor Gilissen Bankiers, a private banking firm in Amsterdam. "For a company that has relatively low [profit] margins, that really cuts into their flesh."