Osmond’s plan no joke for Pearl bondholders

April 9, 2009

REUTERS— Neil Collins is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

By Neil Collins
LONDON, April 9 (Reuters) – Is Hugh Osmond having a laugh?
The answer is obviously yes, except that Osmond doesn’t do jokes, and if he can persuade the banks that have lent to his leveraged insurance vehicle, Pearl, with his reconstruction arithmetic, he’s the one who will end up with the biggest grin.
He’s talking of floating shares in the disparate collection of closed life assurance companies he put together only last year, because “the debt funded acquisition model that served Pearl and others so well in the past is no longer appropriate.”
It may have served him well, but the holders of a 500 million pound ($736.5 million) sterling eurobond, issued by a company that is now a Pearl subsidiary, are not laughing.
Rather, they are spitting tacks after Osmond said last month that he wasn’t going to pay the coupon on the bond, even though he had the money.
The price, already weak in anticipation of bad news, has collapsed to 5 pence in the pound bid, 10 pence offered.
The holders have formed themselves into an action group, and forced Pearl to agree to meet them next month.
Legally, they are on weak ground, since the deed allows payment to be deferred, but if Osmond is serious about flotation, their position looks much better.
The holders range across the usual spectrum of UK life offices and pension funds, who would be the natural buyers in the share issue.
There is more at stake here than the loss of 90% of the bond’s value. If Osmond can effectively turn this issue into a perpetual zero-coupon bond, plenty of others will try to do the same in this $100 billion market.
Where the bondholders’ lawyers look likely to fail, institutional pressure may well force better behaviour – assuming Osmond really is serious about coming back to market.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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