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Debt battle looms after ABB asbestos ruling

ABB is seeking to repair its balance sheet by selling off its oil, gas and petroechemical division (ABB)

The heavily indebted ABB engineering group has welcomed the news that asbestos litigation in the United States may soon be over.

However, analysts say that the company, based in Zurich, still has much to do to put its financial house in order.

A United States bankruptcy court on Monday approved a $1.3 billion (SFr1.72 billion) settlement of asbestos lawsuits, provided that further details are supplied within ten days.

US judge Judith Fitzgerald in Pittsburgh delayed giving her blessing to ABB's proposed settlement of 130,000 suits against its US-based Combustion Engineering business until ABB supplies the necessary information.

"This is good news. The court has issued a strong and detailed opinion in favour of the plan. The court now asks for two limited items of information to be provided," ABB spokesman Thomas Schmidt told swissinfo.

"We are confident that we can provide the court with that information very soon," he added.

Further approval needed

If Judge Fitzgerald definitively accepts the settlement, it still needs approval by a US district court judge before ABB is protected from further asbestos lawsuits.

In addition, asbestos claimants and other creditors would have ten days to appeal.

ABB has been seeking an early settlement so that it can concentrate on its efforts to reduce its debt mountain.

A key part in repairing the company's balance sheet has been the proposed sale of its oil, gas and petrochemicals division

"That sale cannot go on without the plan being approved, because some of the parts in the OGP business were related to Combustion Engineering in the US," analyst Sebastien Petit at Barclays told swissinfo.

"There was a fear for the buyer that OGP could be tainted with asbestos and all the litigation problems. In that respect, it's very good that the plan could be approved," he added.

Unfinished business

But Petit warned that ABB's financial problems were far from over.

"The debt problem is really serious. The net debt is about $5.6 billion and obviously ABB isn't out of the woods yet," he commented.

"This ruling on asbestos is not the end of the road for ABB. It still has a lot to do to sort out its balance sheet. That's why we also expect a rights issue by the company in the coming year," he added.

ABB's Schmidt did not underplay the debt problem but stressed that the company's energies also had to be used elsewhere.

"The debt is certainly an important issue for ABB at the moment. There's no doubt about it," he said.

"But it is also important for us to focus our management and financial resources on the two core businesses [power and automation technologies] from which we are growing into the future," he added.

The company, which once had a staff of more than 200,000 worldwide, is expected to be trimmed by half once the plans of chief executive officer Jürgen Dormann can be put in place.

swissinfo, Robert Brookes


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