In a shocking reversal, Martin Ebner, the maverick Swiss investor, has been forced to sell control of his four investment funds, known as "Visions," to Switzerland's Zürcher Kantonalbank, a local institution. Ebner, who once had a golden touch, has been hit by huge losses in the past two years. The value of the funds has fallen from about $4.7 billion at the end of 2001 to $2.2 billion, raising questions about financial stability. Indeed, Zürcher Kantonalbank says it is acting in part to calm a worried Swiss market. Ebner's holding company, BZ Group Holding, was pressured into the move by investors dumping shares in the funds.
Ebner is credited with shaking up Swiss corporate governance--notably by harassing the management of Union Bank of Switzerland until it merged with Swiss Bank to form UBS in 1999. He gained prominence earlier this year when he orchestrated the humiliation of former ABB Chairman Percy Barnevik, forcing him to repay part of a previously undisclosed $78 million severance package.
But he reached too far. His investments in ABB and Credit Suisse Group have been disastrous. His stakes in the two companies may have cost him as much as $3.4 billion in losses this year alone. His attempt to force change through taking an 11.4% stake in Investor, the holding company of Sweden's Wallenberg family, has failed, and he is beginning to cut his holding. After the sale of the "Visions" funds, BZ Group will retain direct stakes of 5% in Credit Suisse, just under 10% of ABB, and 9% of Investor.
By Stanley Reed in London
Edited by Rose Brady