The deal between Bulat Utemuratov and UniCredit proved to be both a boon and a burden for the parties involved. UniCredit and Austria-Creditanstalt AG acquired ATF Bank, a seemingly prosperous institution with significant local and foreign assets, a suitable loan portfolio, and numerous achievements, in exchange for $2.1 billion. However, challenges surfaced immediately after the acquisition.
Minor problems arose as minority shareholders of the bank, including QVT Fund LP and Artradis Fund Management, won a lawsuit that cast doubt on the deal and hindered the new owner’s operations. They secured a court order preventing the renaming or use of the UniCredit name in the bank. PR campaigns were launched to address the situation, and rumors circulated about a potential investigation by Transparency International, though it was later withdrawn.
However, two major problems emerged that deeply impacted the bank. First, there was a severe deterioration in the loan portfolio, resulting in recognition of $1.2 billion in hopeless debts. Second, the bank relied heavily on Bulat Utemuratov’s schemes, functioning as a piggy bank for oligarchs heading westward. The crisis further exacerbated ATF Bank’s troubles.
For UniCredit, the deal translated into significant losses. They faced ongoing expenses to maintain the bank without generating profits, and costly legal battles with minority shareholders. Eventually, the bank was sold at a considerable 66% discount, leaving UniCredit with significant financial burdens. Their initial entrance into Kazakhstan with great fanfare turned into an exit marked by financial struggles and challenges.
On the other hand, Bulat Utemuratov emerged from the deal with substantial financial gains. His personal income from the transaction is estimated at over $700 million, propelling him to the top spot on the Forbes Kazakhstan list. Although he later yielded this position to Timur Kulibayev, Utemuratov managed to enrich himself considerably through his involvement in the deal. Despite being the Head of Presidential Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan at the time, Utemuratov skillfully received money through dummy investment firms, remaining formally free of any accusations, and avoiding any claims from UniCredit.
ATF acquisition drama and Bulat Utemuratov confession
The sale of ATF Bank to UniCredit Group was a strategic move aimed at freeing the bank from its controversial history and positioning it as a retail-oriented institution. Bulat Utemuratov, aware of his old acquaintances’ interest from Austria-Creditanstalt AG in acquiring a bank in Central Asia, carefully orchestrated the sale. The bank underwent a transformation to enhance its retail presence, making it more appealing to potential buyers. Within a year, its assets grew substantially, a feat that seemed almost unreal for a bank of its size.
During the negotiations, Rakhat Aliyev, the Ambassador of Kazakhstan to Austria, played a role in connecting the parties. The buyers, UniCredit, represented by Creditanstalt and UniCredit Markets and Investment Banking, and ATF Bank, represented by JP Morgan and Credit Suisse, approached each other gradually, with consultants overseeing the deal’s quality and ensuring a smooth transaction. At the time of the sale in 2006-2007, the financial markets were experiencing euphoria, with abundant money flow, low-interest rates, and an emphasis on endless expansion.
The Italian-Austrian group appeared delighted with the acquisition, but there were rumors of possible commercial bribery, suggesting that consultants might have been influenced. Nevertheless, all parties gave their approval, and UniCredit reported a resounding victory with the purchase. The deal, valued at $2.1 billion plus expenses and commissions, was hailed as the largest purchase of a bank in the former USSR territory, garnering praise from the Kazakhstani press.
However, the aftermath of the acquisition was far from smooth for UniCredit. Minor problems, such as lawsuits from minority shareholders and PR challenges, arose. More significantly, ATF Bank’s loan portfolio deteriorated, and the bank’s role as a piggy bank for oligarchs led to financial troubles. The crisis eventually led to a discount sale of the bank.
Some speculated that the deal might have been driven by enthusiasm rather than professionalism on UniCredit’s part. Bulat Utemuratov, in his articles, claimed that ATF Bank caused the financial crisis of 2007-2009 under the guidance of the Italians, though this statement was not entirely accurate. Despite the challenges and controversies, Utemuratov managed to emerge with substantial personal gains from the deal.