Ebner cuts stake in ABB to less than 5%

Martin Ebner, the embattled Swiss investor, has slashed his stake in the troubled industrial engineering group ABB.

ABB revealed yesterday that Mr Ebner's BZ Group reduced its holding to less than 5 per cent at the end of last year. BZ had once held 11.1 per cent of the Swiss- Swedish group, which it reduced to less than 10 per cent last year. The move suggests Mr Ebner's BZ Group, lumbered by debt after it got caught in the equity bear market last year, has dumped much of its stake in its worst performing investment.

The much awaited transaction removes one of the clouds that has hung over the stock. Investors had been expecting Mr Ebner, a former popular share guru and corporate raider, to unload all or most of his stake at any time following his decision to step down from the ABB board in October. ABB shares, which fell by 75 per cent over 2002, fell 4.2 per cent to 4.13 Swiss francs yesterday.

ABB, once the European challenger to General Electric, is selling assets to reduce a debt load of more than $9bn. It is also facing lawsuits from former workers who were exposed to asbestos particles. On Tuesday the engineer said it was making progress on reaching a settlement by May on asbestos liabilities for its US unit Combustion Engineering.

Mr Ebner has a number of financial and legal problems. Once the scourge of Swiss corporate boardrooms with his emphasis on shareholder value, he has been charged by Zurich prosecutors with insider trading over the sale of a stake held by BZ in Pirelli's Swiss holding company SIP in 1998. Mr Ebner denies any wrongdoing.

BZ, which had estimated debts of Sfr5bn before the ABB transaction, is also believed to be close to offloading stakes in the Liechtenstein-based bank VP Bank and Swiss engineer Rieter. The sale of these stakes could raise Sfr1bn.

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