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Ilija Batljan’s Rating Shopping Spree

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Are upgrades driven by improvements in creditworthiness or by hopping from agency to agency?

The activities of self-made millionaire Ilija Batljan are too conspicuous to be ignored in the financial markets. Ilija Batljan came to Sweden from Montenegro. He moved to Sweden in 1993 during the breakup of his native Yugoslavia and in 1996 earned a B.A. in economics at Stockholm University, later disputing in 2007. A man with a migration background, Ilija Batljan quickly made a career in politics and became mayor of Nynäshamn in 2005 and campaigned against wealth and property taxes in his Social Democratic Party of Sweden in 2010.

There is now a long list of companies in which he plays or played the role of investor, Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and/or Director:

However, the long list of mandates and investments does not suggest diversified assets and balanced risk positions. Some of the mandates are subsidiaries or small companies. His largest investments is reportedly Samhällsbyggnadsbolaget i Norden AB (SBB). According to the shareholder structure as of March 31, 2021, Ilija Batljan held (private and through company) 8.46 % of share capital and 32.54 % of votes in SBB.

Moody’s Single B Credit Rating Category

Anyone looking for information from the internally recognized credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Service on the high debts of Ilija Batljan’s numerous companies will have to go back years in their research. Moody’s Investors Service had on November 8, 2017 assigned a first-time B1(Single B One) corporate family rating to Samhällsbyggnadsbolaget i Norden AB (SBB), a Stockholm-based real estate company. controlled by CEO and founder Ph.D. Ilija Batljan. The outlook on the rating was Stable. According to Moody’s rating scale, obligations rated B (Single B) “are considered speculative and are subject to high credit risk“. Moody’s appends numerical modifiers 1, 2 and 3 to each generic rating classification from Aa through Caa.

At the time and according to Daniel Harlid, a Moody’s Assistant Vice President, Analyst and also Lead Analyst for SBB, the B1 (Single B One) rating reflected the company’s midsized property portfolio of low risk community services and residential properties in Sweden and Norway, reflecting the company’s focus on rental income from regulated markets or activities that are, in one way or another, funded by the government.

On November 8, 2017 the B1 (Single B One) corporate family rating assigned to SBB reflected all the company’s strenghts (see Moody’s):

  • high share of low-risk revenue derived from residential properties in Sweden, community service properties, as well as offices in Sweden and Norway;
  • high share of revenue generated from public tenants (over 30%);
  • diversified tenant base and property portfolio, with almost full occupancy;
  • long lease maturity profile, with an average lease length of seven years;
  • good deal-sourcing capabilities, leading to a medium-sized portfolio of SEK 22.1 billion as of the third quarter of 2017, only after 20 months since the creation of SBB; and
  • expected positive free cash flow, which will fund capital spending.

Despite all these favorable factors, it was only enough for a B1 (Single B One) rating, since the credit rating also reflected a number of challenges such as a low unencumbered asset ratio, properties located in small cities and in less liquid real estate markets than in the metropolitan area and elevated leveraged.

On April 10, 2019 Moody’s had withdrawn the corporate family rating of SBB. At the time of the of withdrawal the rating was still B1 (Single B One) and had a positive outlook. Moody’s had decided to withdraw the rating for its own business reasons: “Please refer to the Moody’s Investors Service Policy for Withdrawal of Credit Ratings, available on its website, www.moodys.com.” Ultimately, it remains in the dark what would have happened to the rating and the outlook if Moody’s had continued to assess the company. The rating history has ended.

Credit Rating Agency (CRA) - Definition of "Rating Shopping"

“Rating shopping can be understood as occurring when an issuer engages with a number of credit rating agencies with a view to selecting only those credit rating agencies that will provide the most favourable assessment for the entity or debt instrument. In choosing to appoint only those credit rating agencies that provide the most favourable assessment, risks are created for investor protection and financial stability. Specifically, risks of ratings inflation and lack of applied methodological rigour. While concerns around this practice were initially focused on structured finance ratings, recent revisions of the CRA Regulation have expanded the area of focus to the broader spectrum of entities and debt instruments assessed by CRAs.”

Source: Consultation Paper - Guidelines on Disclosure Requirements for Initial Reviews and Preliminary Ratings, European Securities and Markets Authority, May 26, 2021, ESMA33-9-412, p. 5.

S&P Global Ratings’ Triple B Rating Category

On January 15, 2018, S&P Global Ratings had SBB assigned a BB (Double B) rating with stable outlook. This was SBB’s second public rating from a leading credit rating agency and was a two step improvement over the first rating the company received in November 2017 from Moody’s.

On April 26, 2019, S&P Global Ratings announced that SBB had been assigned a BBB- (Triple B Minus) rating with stable outlook. This upgrade came after a competitor of S&P Global came into play, namely Fitch Ratings with its BB+ (Double B Plus), which superseded Moody’s B1 (Single B One).

hallway with window

On May 5, 2020, SBB reported that SBB had been informed by the Swedish Economic Crime Authority that the company’s CEO Ilija Batljan had been detained in custody on alleged violation of the Market Abuse Regulation. The company had no additional information at this stage and did not know which company or security these allegations relate to. During Ilija Batljan’s absence, SBB’s deputy CEO Krister Karlsson was acting CEO for SBB.

Although SBB had been informed that the company’s CEO had been released from custody, the credit rating agency S&P Global announced on May 8, 2020, that they were placing SBB on Credit Watch Negative due to ”at this stage, there are some uncertainties about how” the charges against the CEO ”will affect SBB’s management and operations, including deleveraging plans which may take longer than S&P previously anticipated”.

On June 10, 2020, S&P Global Ratings affirmed SBB’s “investment grade” rating BBB- (Triple B Minus) with stable outlook and removed SBB from Credit Watch Negative. That means that SBB’s new rating was from that day on BBB- (Triple B Minus) with stable outlook for ratings on the company and its senior unsecured debt.

“Thanks to SBB’s focus on deleveraging, despite its strategy to continue to expand its portfolio, we expect the company will maintain or improve its credit metrics over 2021-2022”, wrote S&P Global Ratings on March 1, 2021. “We are therefore revising our outlook on SBB to positive from stable and affirming our ‘BBB-‘ (Triple B Minus) issuer credit rating on the company. We are also affirming our ‘BBB-‘ (Triple B Minus) ratings on the senior unsecured debt and ‘BB’ (Double B) rating on the subordinated hybrid instruments.”

Fitch Ratings’ Triple B Rating Category

On May 30, 2018, there was better news for SBB, namely from Fitch Ratings by its “Long Term Issuer Default Rating”: SBB had now been rated BB (Double B) by these analysts. On April 8, 2019, there was an upgrade to BB+ (Double B Plus). A little later it went up to BBB- (Triple B Minus) on April 16, 2019. It stayed that way to this day. The credit rating for the debt level “subordinated” remained at BB (Double B).

The close temporal relationship between the end of Moody’s rating and the upgrade by Fitch Ratings is striking. It was only on April 8, 2019 that Fitch ratings upgraded to BB+ (Double B Plus), two days later Moody’s removed its rating for the company. That was good business for SBB, because according to the EU regulation on credit rating agencies and due to the recognition of Fitch Ratings, the rating of this agency has about the same legal significance as that of Moody’s.

Scope Ratings’ Triple B Rating Category

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6 thoughts on “Ilija Batljan’s Rating Shopping Spree

  1. On August 22, 2021, Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven announced that he would resign as prime minister and party leader. Social Democratic Party’s congress in November 2021 will have to elect a new leader. It is not certain that Löfven’s successor as party leader will become prime minister. Sweden already went through a parliamentary crisis earlier this summer. Therefore it is likely to face more political turbulence this autumn. It is not sure how the minority government – comprising the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party – could pass a budget. An extended period of political uncertainty would increase political risk and complicate policymaking. All of this is bad news for Stefan Löfven’s fellow party member Ilija Batljan. When the business model is essentially based on maintaining good relationships with authorities and political bodies, his company’s performance could be vulnerable to political changes. A review of the credit rating with a negative implication and a downgrade with a negative outlook could result.

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