| SAO PAULO
SAO PAULO Banks are raising the heat on Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht SA to put its house in order after months of treating the scandal-hit company with kid gloves because of fears its collapse could hurt their balance sheets, sources said.
Odebrecht has agreed to accelerate asset sales as part of a deal with creditor banks to let the heavily indebted company keep $800 million from the divestiture of its water and waste unit announced last month, enough to fund its cash needs for two years, according to several executives, bankers and lawyers involved in the talks.
The conglomerate also agreed to surrender to creditors all dividends from its crown jewel, petrochemicals unit Braskem SA (BRKM5.SA), and to place more assets as collateral for loans under renegotiation, said the people, who asked not to be named because the terms of the agreement with creditors were not made public.
"All the parties agreed that steps to resolve this drama once and for all must be taken carefully but quickly," said one of the people involved.
The agreement shows how creditor banks holding a big chunk of Odebrecht's 76 billion reais ($24.34 billion) in outstanding debt are growing increasingly assertive.
In part, banks' new-found confidence stems from a plea deal struck by Odebrecht in December with U.S., Brazilian and Swiss prosecutors, which drew a line under the main legal risks to the group.
Odebrecht and Braskem admitted to bribing officials in 12 countries, mostly Latin America, and agreed to pay $3.5 billion in fines in return for freedom from prosecution.
Lenders also feel they have given Odebrecht enough time and have dealt with other headaches in their credit portfolio over the last year, giving them more room to maneuver.
"Now the leniency deal is a reality, we believe that Odebrecht can downsize assets and liabilities at a faster pace," one senior banker said.
The tougher stance is evident from how banks are dealing with Odebrecht's 38 percent stake in Braskem, Latin America's No. 1 petrochemical firm.
While Chairman Emilio Odebrecht wants Braskem to lead the group's recovery, bankers believe they have the right to decide the fate of the stake - pledged as collateral for a debt restructuring of agribusiness unit Odebrecht Agroindustrial SA.
"It should be up to us, not Odebrecht, to decide what to do with Braskem," said the chief executive officer of a large Brazilian lender.
HIT BY SCANDAL, RECESSION
Once the nation's biggest employer, Odebrecht has been floored by Brazil's "Operation Car Wash" investigation into political kickbacks on state infrastructure contracts. Brazil's harshest recession on record has compounded problems for the family-owned group.
Restricted access to capital and a tarnished reputation led Odebrecht to miss a 12 billion-real asset sale goal for mid-2017.
The target has been extended until next year under the accord governing April's sale of Odebrecht Ambiental SA.
However, Brazil's government has joined creditors in pushing for the bulk of the target to be completed this year, officials, bankers and lawyers familiar with the restructuring told Reuters.
Some banks have balked at how slowly the Odebrecht family, which retains control over the company it founded in 1944, is selling shipbuilding, biofuels and oil drilling assets. Others question whether the family should retain command after its role in the corruption scandal.
In a statement to Reuters, Odebrecht said it is pursuing the downsizing, noting that gross revenue fell to around 90 billion reais ($29 billion) last year. The group declared gross revenues of 132.5 billion reais in 2015.
"After reaching agreements with judicial authorities in Brazil, U.S., Switzerland and Dominican Republic, the group is working to sign similar deals with other countries to take the group to a new standard of ethics, governance and transparency."
On Friday, Odebrecht named Luciano Guidolin, who played a key role in negotiating the plea deals, as its new chief executive officer.
Yet revelations that Odebrecht bribed politicians across Latin America have complicated efforts to win new contracts.
The backlog for civil construction unit Odebrecht Engenharia & Construção SA shrank 50 percent over two years to December 2016 to $17 billion, the lowest since 2008, according to preliminary financial data seen by Reuters.
Emilio Odebrecht has created stricter compliance structures and vowed to keep family members out of the group's boardrooms.
A person familiar with Odebrecht SA's finances said management agreed to book all of December's fine in last year's income statement, alongside heavy asset writedowns and charges related to the bribery scheme.
That would lead to the group posting a record loss, to be announced in the coming weeks, the person said.
The question is whether the company can rebuild its order book after it was banned from bidding on Brazilian public works contracts and shown the exit from at least four other Latin American countries.
Several top Brazilian officials are lobbying antitrust and auditing agencies to avoid additional penalties.
"I've seen many people spreading the word that Odebrecht will not survive, but that goes against this whole idea of designing leniency deals," said Carlos Lima, a prosecutor in the Car Wash taskforce. "We want the company working and we want it clean."
($1 = 3.1222 reais)
(Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in São Paulo; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Christian Plumb and Mary Milliken)