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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 26 February, 2003, 17:12 GMT
Worries mount for Ahold
By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

Ahold headquarters
Is there more bad news to come?
Shares in troubled Dutch retailer Ahold have continued to fall, as investors digest the implications of the shocking accounting irregularities it admitted on Monday.

So far, the supermarket firm has only quantified losses of $500m related to accounting at a US subsidiary, a small amount when set against Ahold's 2002 turnover of $79bn.

But markets are nervous there could be more surprises to come, or that the company could take hasty action to dig itself out of its predicament.

In the meantime, with scandals at Enron, Worldcom and others still fresh in the memory, there are already frantic attempts to establish who was to blame.

Bad start to the week

Combined with Monday's 60% plummet, Ahold's shares have now lost three-quarters of their value this week.

Dutch shoppers
Ahold may have to slim down to keep the market happy

Although the accounting irregularities so far revealed are not gigantic by comparison with other recent scandals, they came as a nasty shock from a firm that had previously been regarded as solid.

And Ahold indicated that more news could come out: its US losses are not yet tallied up, and it admitted it was separately investigating the legality of transactions at its Argentine unit.

The admissions cap a period of accounting worry for shareholders in Ahold.

The firm has expanded with extraordinary rapidity into international markets, a drive that has resulted in a mish-mash of accounting practices from its various overseas units.

Sell, sell, sell

Ahold has said that an emergency loan package, agreed with its banks before it announced the accounting troubles, has shored up its finances.

Ahold shares

But it is still believed likely to set about some form of sell-off of non-core units, if only to reassure the markets that it means business.

Any fire sale is unlikely to involve Ahold's extensive US business, seen as crucial to its strategy; instead, analysts reckon, it might result in some spin-offs in Latin America and Asia.

With the retail business relatively buoyant, it is thought that finding buyers even for large retail assets should not prove too tricky.

But analysts are nervous that Ahold might sell off its better subsidiaries in its rush to generate cash.

The ripples spread

While markets await action from Ahold, the implications of the affair are spreading.

Dutch banks and insurers, almost all of which are involved with Ahold in some way, are counting the cost of the share price collapse.

According to the first investment bank research on the issue, Aegon, ING and Fortis, the financiers with the biggest exposure to Ahold, could face losses of up to 300m euros apiece.

And questions are already being asked as to whether negligence played a role.

Deloitte & Touche, Ahold's auditor, has insisted that it warned the firm about problems in its US unit.

It was Deloitte that first uncovered the irregularities, and the firm has been at pains to point out that Ahold did not supply it with full information.

Looking for a scapegoat

At this point, it seems that Deloitte has a case for avoiding direct blame.

Analysts have also pointed out that regulation of Ahold's accounting was almost non-existent.

Although the Dutch regulator is generally strict, Ahold's US subsidiary fell outside its control; EU regulators, meanwhile, have only just begun thinking about pan-European accounting rules.

On the Amsterdam stock market, too, fingers are being pointed.

Many investors want to know why certain Dutch brokers were recommending buying Ahold shares until the moment it released its bombshell.

Retail giant beats targets
06 Jun 02 |  Business

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