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Cablegate: Brazilian Government Intervenes in Varig - Too Little, Too Late?

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

201519Z Oct 05




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) Summary. For months the Brazilian government has been urging a market solution to the debt-laden airline Varig, which filed for bankruptcy protection in June 2005. The new Varig management council has, nevertheless, continued to struggle to maintain adequate cash flow and pay its lessors (making it clear that the problem is not only its enormous debt). Since Varig's final effort to inject cash into the company by selling off its profitable VarigLog (cargo branch) fell through in September, no back-up plan has materialized. In an apparent about-face, the GOB is now preparing to intervene and GOB VP Jose Alencar has publicly stated that there will be a solution this week. On October 20 the press reported a GOB proposal for an immediate cash injection into Varig via the Brazilian development bank (to pay the lessors) and partial financing for selling off some of Varig's most profitable subsidiaries. It may be too little, too late because of the enormity of Varig's debt and operational inefficiencies, and because the lessors are poised to repossess their planes. End Summary.

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GOB Intervention Plans ----------------------

2. (U) According to press reports on October 18 the Brazilian government decided to intervene in the Varig crisis after months of pushing a market solution. GOB VP Jose Alencar is quoted as saying there will be a solution "this week." On October 20, the press reported that the GOB presented the following plan to the Varig creditors: a short- term capitalization by National Development Bank (BNDES) of US$62 million to pay the money Varig owes its lessors, and the creation of a Specific Purpose Society (SPE) to gather investors interested in purchasing Varig's two most profitable subsidiaries -- VarigLog (cargo branch) and Varig Engineering and Maintenance (VEM) -- with up to two-thirds of the value financed by BNDES. Apparently the door opened for government intervention last week when the Ruben Berta Foundation (FRB), a key company shareholder, reported that it would provide seats on the council to its creditors, and most crucially, that the FRB would relinquish its controlling role. A debt-swap, which we previously reported as essential for Varig's survival (Ref B), is not under consideration. How the existing debt would be settled is unclear at this point.

VarigLog Sale Blocked ---------------------

3. (U) Varig attempted to sell off its VarigLog subsidiary to inject cash into the company in August, only to have it blocked by the airline labor unions. The President of the Varig management council, David Zylbersztajn, publicly stated that the cash influx was necessary to make payments to the lessors in order to convince the U.S. courts to block repossession of the companies' airplanes. The U.S. investment company Matlin Patterson had expressed interest in purchasing VarigLog and the sale negotiations appeared to have been progressing well. It wasn't clear that the FRB would have granted final approval, but the deal didn't even make it to that point. The sale of VarigLog, as well as future consideration of selling VEM, was blocked by Brazil's Labor Court after a filing by the labor unions. In obvious desperation, Zylbersztajn admitted that the Varig council didn't have a "Plan B" if the sale of VarigLog fell through. We do not know if the new GOB plan will overcome the Labor Court decision.

Varig Must Pay Its Lessors --------------------------

4. (SBU) The GOB plan indicates its recognition that whatever the long-term plan for Varig may be, Varig must pay its lessors immediately. According to one industry source, the lessors have been very patient, but must have an investment return on their assets. If Varig does not pay them, our contact noted, the New York judge may lift the temporary restraining order (TRO) blocking the lessors' repossession of their airplanes before its current November 11 deadline. Repossession of these aircraft would be a mortal blow for Varig because it would mean the loss of its major income earning assets (the international flights).

Slow Death or Mortal Blow? --------------------------

5. (SBU) According to another industry source, the intervention of the GOB could increase lessors' confidence in a solution; this could include the GOB imitating the Matlin Patterson deal but with BNDES financing instead and extending the sale to include VarigLog, VEM, and possibly Smiles. (Note: The press expressed concern that Matlin Patterson is a "vulture" investment fund, which could have been a stumbling block to consummating the VarigLog sale. When EconOff mentioned this, our contact said it would be ironic if Matlin Patterson were viewed as the vulture when they offered US$103 million for only VarigLog, while BNDES may be asking for VarigLog, VEM, and Smiles for only US$130 million. End Note.) On the other hand, some believe that the GOB intervention could be only a ploy so that when Varig sinks, the GOB can say "we tried, but the U.S. companies repossessed the planes" (a perfect alibi). Not to Mention Maintenance, Lease Renewals, Insurance

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6. (SBU) Even if Varig is able to retain possession of its leased planes, it faces three additional obstacles to viability: its dismal maintenance record, expiring leases, and its insurance policy renewal. First, Varig's failure to keep current on its maintenance requirements may result in the grounding of a total of 29% of its fleet by the end of the year. According to press reports earlier this month, Varig's VP of Operations produced a technical report that predicted that Varig would have to ground at least eight of its planes by the end of the year because of maintenance reasons. The grounding would be the result of a pattern of cost reductions in maintenance over the last few years. The same article reported that Varig had only purchased 10% of its parts supplies needs in September, only 40% YTD, and 62% in 2004. If the additional eight planes were grounded, it would bring the total non-operating fleet to 23 planes, or 29% of it total fleet. Second, approximately 40% of the Varig leases will expire in 2006, and their renewal would seem unlikely if Varig were not in better health. Third, if Varig's insurance policy were not renewed or if its premiums increased (although relatively small in comparison to the leasing payments), this could be a serious problem.

Comment: Economics versus Politics ----------------------------------

7. (SBU) Looking at the problem from a strictly economic perspective, the rest of the airline industry in Brazil is booming, and trying to fix Varig would certainly be more expensive for the GOB than letting it ground to a halt. From a political perspective, however, with an election year in 2006 and a political crisis already on its hands, the GOB may have decided to intervene in the restructuring of its flagship air carrier to avoid another black spot on its record (e.g., the sacking of thousands of airline employees). Given VP Alencar's statements that the GOB intervention was motivated by its concern for "the workers," however, and given that the solution at this point may only be a leveraged cash-influx from BNDES, we believe that the GOB may still only be avoiding the inevitable. Indicative of its two minds on these issues, the GOB allowed the civil aviation authorities to order VASP to cease flying earlier this year, but then agreed to intervene to see if recovery was possible (which is dragging on in the judiciary).

8. (SBU) In any case, we do not believe the lessors will be appeased by superficial measures or wait for a prolonged viability study. We also do not believe that a short-term cash-influx from BNDES or even the sale of VarigLog and VEM will solve the problem. If the BNDES money only becomes available after a 3-4 week period, for example, that would be too long. If Varig does not pay the lessors quickly, we consider it highly likely that the lessors will seek to repossess their planes and take their business elsewhere. If beyond the cash injection and sale of VarigLog and VEM, there are not deep structural changes and downsizing to Varig, the loss of its profitable subsidiaries may only speed up the demise of the remaining (unprofitable) Varig. In sum, the GOB intervention may allow Varig a gentler or prolonged finale, or allow Varig to grind to a halt with the U.S. lessors as the scapegoat. However the GOB proceeds, it must maintain clear communication with the lessors or the fate of Varig may be out of its hands.


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