The resemblances grew Friday between Refco ( RFXCQ), the fallen New York commodities brokerage, and its Austrian patron, the Bank Fur Arbeit und Wirtschaft, or Bawag. Both were involved in hiding hundreds of millions of dollars in bad debts and losses, for one thing. Bawag officials said Friday that by the end of 2000, the bank had run up $1.2 billion in losses, much of them stemming from a series of bad investments made by a hedge fund run by the son of a former CEO. Vienna-based Bawag shifted the losses to six obscure Anguilla-based companies and several brokerage accounts at Refco, until it could eventually write off all its bad debts by 2005. The off-the-books maneuvering bought Bawag time to clean up its act and avoid attracting negative publicity. Bawag says it has since been to able "absorb the losses'' and "there are no further exposures on our books.'' The latest revelation adds a new twist to last year's collapse of Refco, in which Bawag continues to be a pivotal player. Separately, TheStreet.com has learned that Bawag's one-time ownership interest in Refco may have been far greater than the 10% equity stake that's been previously reported. Indeed, the behind-the-scenes shifting of debt by the bank is eerily similar to the scheme hatched by former Refco CEO Phillip Bennett, who allegedly hid hundreds of millions of dollars in customer trading losses in a series of hedge funds and a private company he controlled, Refco Group Holdings Inc. Just days after Refco revealed Bennett's scheme last October, the former CEO was indicted on federal securities fraud charges; he is awaiting trial. Bawag, a one-time minority owner of Refco, got dragged into the Refco scandal when it was revealed that the bank made a $410 million loan to Bennett just hours before the brokerage disclosed the hidden debt scheme. Bennett used the Bawag loan proceeds to pay down the debt he'd been hiding from investors.
Bawag claims it was duped by Bennett into making the loan, which was backed by Refco shares that Bennett pledged as collateral. The stock became worthless when the commodities and derivatives brokerage filed for bankruptcy a week after the scandal erupted. Refco imploded just months after its $585 million IPO in August 2005. That Bawag was hiding losses in Refco accounts could provide new point of inquiry for federal prosecutors, regulators and Refco creditors, all of whom are trying to determine just how widespread the fraud at Refco extended. Speaking at a press conference in Vienna, Bawag CEO Ewald Nowotny says the bank might sue Wolfgang Flottl, the former hedge fund manage allegedly responsible for the $1 billion in losses. Nowotny, according to Bloomberg, says, "Flottl influenced these investments and he is to be held accountable." Flottl is the son of former Bawag CEO Walter Flottl and the former manager of Ross Capital Markets, a Bermuda hedge fund. Flottl, who could not be reached for comment, is something of a New York socialite. He's married to a granddaughter of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. TheStreet.com has found another wrinkle in the increasingly complicated relationship between Bawag and Refco, which suggests the Austrian bank's financial stake in the scandal-tarred broker may have been greater than previously thought. Bawag always has said it owned 10% of Refco from 1999 to August 2004, when the brokerage was acquired by the private equity firm Thomas H. Lee Partners in a $1.4 billion leveraged buyout. Neither Bawag nor Refco has ever said how much Bawag received in the buyout, a transaction that set the stage for Refco's initial public offering last August. But TheStreet.com has obtained a copy of a November 2003 financing statement that suggests Bawag may have had rights to payments made by Refco to a company called DF Capital, a small Delaware corporation that had ties to Bennett. TheStreet.com previously reported that in December 2004, DF Capital was merged into Refco Group Holdings Inc., the Bennett-controlled company he allegedly used to hide millions of dollars in debt.
The November 2003 financing statement, which was filed with the Delaware Department of State, lists Bawag as being a secured lender to DF Capital, which was formed in July 2002. The document does not disclose how much money Bawag provided to DF Capital, but it provides a lengthy description of the collateral posted as the security for the loan. In sum, the collateral consisted of all of DF Capital's "rights under the proceeds participation agreement with Refco Group.'' Those rights included "payment of money,'' and possible "insurance claims and proceeds.'' The proceeds participation agreement is a mysterious document; few people familiar with the Refco scandal seem to know much about it. One source claims the agreement, which was drawn up in 2003, was designed to provide a mechanism for giving Bawag a greater financial interest in Refco than its initial 10% equity stake. The source says Bawag had wanted to keep its increased financial interest in Refco a secret. Bawag officials did not return a phone call on the matter.