May 8, 2019 / 1:02 AM / 13 days ago

UPDATE 4-Scandal-hit Steinhoff posts $4 bln operating loss for fiscal 2017

* Operating loss at 3.7 bln euros vs restated profit 278 mln euros

* Company blames writedowns for loss

* Assets valued at 17.5 bln euros vs 32.2 bln in 2016

* On track to release 2018 results next month (Adds share price in Frankfurt)

By Tiisetso Motsoeneng

JOHANNESBURG, May 7 (Reuters) - South African retailer Steinhoff on Tuesday reported a $4 billion operating loss in the 2017 fiscal year, in a much-delayed earnings report revealing the impact of a $7.4 billion accounting fraud.

Steinhoff, which is also listed in Frankfurt, delayed the results after finding holes in its accounts, shocking investors who had backed its reinvention from small South African furniture outfit into a discount furniture retailer straddling four continents.

The owner of Mattress Firm Inc in the United States, the Fantastic chains in Australia and Conforama in France said operating loss came in at 3.7 billion euros ($4.14 billion) in the year ended September 2017 compared with profit of 278 million euros in the restated 2016 figures.

The company blamed writedowns for the loss as it cleans up its balance sheet. The total writedowns have already topped 13 billion euros since revealing the fraud that left it on the brink of collapse and wiped out more than 200 billion rand ($13.87 billion) of shareholder equity.

"The consequential impact of reversing the accounting irregularities is the fact that the restatements highlight that several of the group’s operating entities are unprofitable," Steinhoff said in a 359-page annual report posted on its website shortly before midnight.

An investigation by auditor PwC released in March found that eight people, including former Steinhoff executives, were involved in a complex scheme where potential intercompany transactions worth 6.5 billion euros were fraudulently recorded as external income to prop up profits and hide costs in money-losing subsidiaries.

The retailer has delayed releasing results several times as it waited for the findings of the PwC investigation and audit process of its external auditor Deloitte.

The 2018 results are now due on June 18.

FALL FROM GRACE

South Africa's biggest corporate scandal has all but wiped out shareholders’ equity and led to several resignations, including chief executive Markus Jooste, who was instrumental in putting Steinhoff on investors' radar screens.

Shares in the company closed 1 percent higher on Tuesday at 2.01 rand, valuing the company at around 8 billion rand ($554.02 million), a dramatic fall from grace in terms of market capitalisation, after it fetched more than 240 billion rand just 17 months ago.

Shares in Frankfurt, where the company has a secondary listing, were up 3.5 percent at 0.1314 euros shortly after the market open.

The 2017 results also showed the value of Steinhoff assets was around 17.5 billion euros, or nearly half the valuation reported a year earlier. The 2016 figure - 32.2 billion euros - had to restated to 21 billion euros to reflect the impact of writedowns stemming mainly from the so-called "goodwill", the intangible asset generated when one company buys another for more than the value of its hard assets.

Months before Steinhoff uncovered dodgy bookkeeping practices, it had been on an acquisition spree in Europe, scooping up Poundland in the UK and paying an eye-popping 115 percent premium to buy Mattress Firm for $4.8 billion.

The disclosure of the scandal in 2017 sparked multiple investigations, including by the elite police unit known as "the Hawks".

The state prosecutor in Oldenburg, Germany, has also been investigating the company for suspected accounting irregularities since 2015.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed against Steinhoff, including a 59-billion-rand claim by former chairman and top shareholder Christo Wiese and a class action suit from Dutch shareholder rights group VEB. ($1 = 0.8954 euro; $1 = 14.4400 rand) (Reporting by Nqobile Dludla; Additional reporting by Emma Rumney; Vera Eckert, editing by Jane Merriman, Chris Reese and G Crosse and Louise Heavens)

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