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October 22nd, 2019

BY PAULO PENA

This is the story of how Portuguese bankers used China as a threat, using their close connection to ministers in the right-wing coalition government. The bank menaced the Prime Minister, both directly and through some of his closest friends, with the threat that China could stop diplomatic relations with Portugal.  Investigate Europe spoke to key stakeholders and discovered privatisation from behind the scenes.

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Also read Paulo’s introductory op-ed on the hypocrisy of the EU governments – first endorsing and now condemning Chinese investment: The smart, the stupid and the gamblers

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Context: The Troika arrived in Lisbon in May 2011. Seven months later, Portugal sold two of its most important energy companies: EDP (Energias de Portugal), the main producer, and REN (Redes Energéticas Nacionais), the grid. Both were bought by Chinese companies (China Three Gorges and State Grid) that were advised by the same investment bank, the Portuguese BESI (Banco Espírito Santo Investimento).

José Maria Ricciardi used at least four cell phones. And on that last day of January 2012, they didn ‘t stop ringing. The situation was critical. There were doubts within the government as to whether the privatisation of REN should proceed, feared the banker of the Espírito Santo group. What’s more, its own customers, the powerful Chinese State Grid, which is now the fifth largest company in the world, according to the Fortune ranking, were feeling harmed by the rules of the game.

Ricciardi who was CEO of BESI , one of the two major investment banks in Portugal at the time, received message after message from its closest employees, telling him to call the Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho. Ricciardi tried, but Passos Coelho, with whom he was a long-time friend, didn’t answer right away.

Friends in government

This is the story of how an investment bank’s strategy can be based on its proximity to policy-makers, and a group of people close to them who moved at ease between both groups. The bankers commented on the unpreparedness and ignorance of the cabinet members. Ricciardi had a list of allies in the government, to whom he addressed with bullet pointed arguments, and another of enemies, of whom he complained. And at the decisive moment, he raised the stakes and made a threat.

After trying to talk to Passos Coelho, Ricciardi called Miguel Relvas, a deputy minister. If the government decided to stop privatisation, he argued, China could cut diplomatic relations with Portugal and stop all investments (besides EDP and REN, Chinese companies would buy part of BCP, Fidelidade and important sectors of the Espírito Santo group, such as health or BESI itself).

Seven years later, Miguel Relvas told IE what he remembers of those events. Of the various contacts he had with José Maria Ricciardi at the time, Relvas minimises the apparent diplomatic threat posed by BESI. “They never pushed me, and if they had pushed me, they’d have the right answer.” For the former minister, the idea that there could be a cut in relations with China is nothing more than “excessive zeal”. “They never told me that. Would China ever say such a thing?”

“Threats” from China?

But the banker’s pressure didn’t stop at Miguel Relvas. The same day, Ricciardi made another attempt to get the Prime Minister’s attention. He called Angelo Correia, a friend and former boss of the Prime Minister, at Fomentinvest, and used exactly the same arguments he had used with Relvas.

We contacted Ângelo Correia who remembers Ricciardi’s phone call perfectly. “It’s true. They told me that. And I warned the Prime Minister of that.” The argument used was clear: “China may not invest and sever the relationship.” So Ângelo Correia explains that he called Passos Coelho to warn him of the problem. “I thought the seriousness of what they were telling me was so great that I suggested that someone should tell the Portuguese Government. They told me that in a serious way.”

Passos Coelho, according to Ângelo Correia, did not react: “He did not ask me anything. He just listened.” But the threat referred to by Ricciardi was made. “If they had a mandate from the Chinese, I don’t know,” warns Ângelo Correia. “But they told me that with a serious look.”

Diplomatic sources, contacted by IE, reject any possibility that there has been any kind of threat of diplomatic retaliation from State Grid, or China. “That would be blackmail. It never happened. It doesn’t make sense.”

But throughout the day of January 31, 2012, Ricciardi again used the same threat with other cabinet members. After talking to Relvas and Correia, he called Carlos Moedas, who at the time was the Deputy Secretary of State to the Prime Minister and the person responsible for monitoring the Troika, in the Council of Ministers. Moedas was in London with Finance minister Vitor Gaspar and his secretary of state, Maria Luís Albuquerque, when he received Ricciardi’s call. Carlos Moedas does not remember the exact content of the conversations, but he remembers that: “One of my duties was to receive every day a large number of entities, representatives of the real economy and of civil society, who wanted to convey complaints or opinions, thus preventing them from disturbing the Prime Minister.”

Any “threats” would be ineffective

Ricciardi had tried to arrange a lunch with Carlos Moedas for the following day, February 1, the eve of the Council of Ministers, which would finally decide whether and how privatisation would proceed. Carlos Moedas doesn’t remember if that lunch happened, but denies having been pressured: “I don’t remember the specific lunch you mentioned with José Maria Ricciardi. But I’d certainly remember if I’d felt any kind of pressure, which wasn’t the case.”

The next day, February 1, Passos Coelho returned the call to Ricciardi. Today, the then Prime Minister assures IE that Ricciardi’s approaches to the government would have had “zero weight” in the way REN’s privatisation was decided. “Privatisation went ahead without any political calculation by the government,” he says. “None of the privatisation processes had any political-diplomatic evaluation. The decisions were not taken on the basis of such criteria.” For Pedro Passos Coelho, José Maria Ricciardi’s contacts are explained in another context, that of “negotiating tactics”, but they did not influence either the calendar or the executive’s decision. “I’ve never felt any pressure,” he says.

As for the content of the threat made by Ricciardi, and also communicated to Passos Coelho by Ângelo Correia, he attests that he has no memory. “I don’t remember, honestly. If it happened, I didn’t give it any credibility.”

IE also contacted José Maria Ricciardi, who asked not to be quoted in this article. The former banker is now on trial in a case opened in 2013 by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and has been under investigation for more than six years by the Central Department of Investigation and Criminal Action (DCIAP) in Lisbon. Passos Coelho and Miguel Relvas have already testified in this case. Through the services of the Attorney General’s Office of the Republic, we have tried to find out what stage the judicial investigation is at, and who are the defendants, in addition to Ricciardi, suspected of having committed the crimes of “influence peddling, improper use of secrecy and abuse of information”. The response from the Public Prosecutor’s Office (OPG) was brief: “The inquiry is under investigation and is subject to judicial secrecy”.

Inside information

It was through telephone tapping that DCIAP researchers learned that BESI’s banker knew in advance the offers of the candidates competing for the purchase of part of EDP and REN. In the case of EDP, where BESI provided financial advice to China Three Gorges, Ricciardi was heard telling his cousin, Ricardo Salgado, that he knew “inside” the value of the opponents’ proposals, on the last day of the competition (December 9, 2011). With this, the prosecutors believe, he was able to lower the price proposed by his client, from €3.60 per share to €3.45. This decrease has the exact value of €117,095,067.30. These were the millions that the state lost to China Three Gorges original, higher offer.

In the case of REN, the judicial investigators also suspect a fall of 10 cents per share in the offer of State Grid, managed by BESI. To corroborate this suspicion is a message sent by the chairman of Caixa BI, the other major Portuguese investment bank at the time, and a rival of BESI, that was then the advisor to the State. In this message, Jorge Tomé speaks, in coded words, about the price of shares with Ricciardi: “The other corridor is closer to 2.6 meters, but it would be good if the main corridor reached 3 meters. Hug.”

However, in this case, the information given by Jorge Tomé does not seem to have been confidential. It was sent on 24 January, when these values were public and the competitors presented only non-binding proposals. This is the argument put forward by Jorge Tomé, who is also accused in the same case as Ricciardi. The former Caixa banker explains that in the case of REN there was not even a competition between the bids of the competitors. State Grid and Oman Oil were the only candidates for the purchase, and did not dispute the same lot of shares. The Chinese company applied for a larger percentage (25%), while Oman Oil proposed to buy another 15%. In the end, both were chosen for direct selling, and the values per share are close to those of the non-binding proposals. State Grid paid €2.9 for each share, while Oman Oil paid less, €2.56 per share.

Conflict of interest

Banking sources also explain that there is another factor to be taken into account. With that message, Jorge Tomé could only be suggesting that BESI’s clients’ offer should be higher, which is justified given his role as financial advisor to the State, the seller.

For judicial investigators, this close relationship between rival banks (Caixa and BES) is an indication that privatisation tenders were subject to informal rules, when there should be more transparent processes. And this story is full of signs of that excessive closeness.

To be chosen as State Grid’s financial advisor at REN’s privatisation, Ricciardi had to knock on several doors. But before that, he tried his hand as an adviser to the State, that is, to be on the other side, in the same business. It sounds confusing – and then it gets even more confusing. In a privatisation audit, the Court of Auditors considered that BESI should never have been admitted as a consultant because it had had previously had a role in the evaluation of REN that was used in the privatisation, and this represented a ‘conflict of interest’ situation.

This did not, however, prevent BESI from being an informal consultant to the State – talking to ministers, giving them summaries of the matter, regularly contacting all stakeholders on the other side of the business, from Caixa to REN’s management, including its minority shareholders.

The Chinese giant State Grid had not yet decided to hire BESI for the business and Ricciardi was already asking Miguel Horta e Costa, his number two at the bank, to meet with Paulo Portas, the Foreign Affairs minister and leader of the CDS – People’s Party, the minor coalition party in the government.

But there was another strategy to convince Paulo Portas, number two in the government. Filipe de Botton, who refused to talk to IE about this issue, was one of REN’s minority shareholders. On January 8, after a long meeting with Portas, Botton gave Ricciardi a summary: the Minister of Foreign Affairs was undecided about privatisation. Botton argued with the minister that the situation was urgent. REN needed a capital injection of €800 million, which the state did not have. Ricciardi and Botton were convinced that the government was not at all well informed. Therefore, Botton made a list of talking points to use with the government.

And that was the strength of the strategy of those who wanted privatisation. Even though the contract with State Grid was only formalised days later, Ricciardi called journalists to explain the advantage of the operation. It was necessary to show the strength of the sale, because the risk was obvious: in 2011, EDP and REN had their worst stock market performance of the last 10 years, with the price of their shares reaching historic lows.

But the bankers’ information could also be flawed. The doubts of the ministers never led to any debate inside the government on the postponement or cancellation of the privatisation of REN. In fact, weeks before this generated panic at BESI, Passos Coelho received an email, sent by Vítor Gaspar, in which the Finance Minister detailed the process and proposed keeping to the initial timetable.

Opponents to the deal

Based on this seemingly false doubt about the government’s intention, BESI’s men began to identify who their opponents would be in the executive branch. The first name to emerge is that of the former Secretary of State for Energy, Henrique Gomes. BESI proposed to the government his resignation, which happened after the privatisation, in March 2012, two months after it was suggested by the bankers.

Henrique Gomes did not know this detail of his history, and reacts with irony: “I am satisfied. That’s a good sign.” As for the effectiveness of the bankers’ suggestion that he’d be dismissed, he cannot assess whether it was decisive (Gomes resigned at his own request, after having assessed the conditions he had to exercise his mandate). Has BESI pressed for the government to accept the resignation? “It’s very possible…”

What is strange about Henrique Gomes is the conviction of BES that he would be an “enemy” of privatisation. “I was never against privatisation. My conviction at the time, which was based on the wrong premise, was that it’s not the ownership of assets that’s important, as long as there’s strong regulation. But now I know that there are no conditions in Portugal for a strong regulation and, therefore, possession is important.”

While the bank justified its consultancy, sending State Grid detailed information on all contacts it had with the Prime Minister, or Paulo Portas, Ricciardi tried to find out from government sources what Maria Luís Albuquerque, the cabinet member in charge of privatisations, thought. The former Finance Minister responded to IE by email, stating that he preferred not to not to comment on this case.

The afternoon of January 27, Ricciardi learned that Maria Luís Albuquerque had asked the Chinese ambassador to go to the Finance Ministry for a meeting. The banker’s went berserk. Why is that? What would the meeting mean? Would that mean the business would stop? Or that it was already won?

For answers, Ricciardi contacted Miguel Relvas. The former minister has no memory of it, but says he didn’t give much weight to their importance: “I would always consider it more illegitimate for the government to give in than for the private sector to exert pressure”.

It was then, on the eve of the business decision, that the strongest and most unusual pressure came to bear on the Government: the threats that China might cut-off relations made by BESI officials, without any diplomatic support or precedent in history. In fact, Beijing has never severed relations with any country for economic or business reasons.

On 2 February, the Council of Ministers approved the direct sale of REN’s shares to both the buyers that had made bids, Oman Oil and State Grid (which did not respond to the questions sent by IE). As soon as he heard the news, Ricciardi sent several thank-you messages. One for Jorge Tomé, his rival at Caixa BI, another for Miguel Relvas and six for Pedro Passos Coelho. In just under a month – BESI’s advisory contract with State Grid was signed on January 10, 2012, and the sale was decided at the Council of Ministers on February 2 of that year – the bank received €14 million euros for its financial services.

Also read Paulo’s introductory op-ed on the hypocrisy of the EU governments – first endorsing and now condemning Chinese investment: The smart, the stupid and the gamblers

And find out more about the team’s full investigation and see where we’ve published:  China: Rescuer or Rival?

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