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'Superman' eyes up €10bn assets of semi-states


Chinese billionaire Li Ka Shing, known as "Superman". Photo: Reuters

Chinese billionaire Li Ka Shing, known as "Superman". Photo: Reuters

Chinese billionaire Li Ka Shing, known as "Superman". Photo: Reuters

Chinese billionaire Li Ka Shing -- known as "Superman" -- has indicated to the Government that he is interested in buying major State-owned infrastructure companies, including Dublin Port, ESB or Bord Gais.

Well-placed official sources have told the Sunday Independent that a high-level delegation from Li's €80bn conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa met with the National Pensions Reserve Fund, NTMA and the Taoiseach and Finance Minister before Christmas.

The delegation, which included Hutchison Whampoa European deputy chairman Christian Salbaing, indicated that Li would be interested in investing in Irish infrastructure, should the State decide to sell assets.

Forbes magazine estimated the Asian tycoon's wealth to be over €12bn last year.

The Government hired economist Colm McCarthy to assess the value of Ireland's semi-state assets and to highlight which ones could be sold off to private investors as Ireland struggles to reduce its massive debt mountain.

McCarthy's review is expected to be completed and presented to the Department of Finance shortly.

The publication of the McCarthy Report was delayed by the downgrading of Bord Gais debt by ratings agency Moody's, which had an impact on the valuations of other State companies.

Valuations of the State's assets vary wildly, with some corporate finance experts indicating that major pension fund deficits could dampen the price tags of these companies. However, EU officials involved in last December's €67.5bn bailout negotiations estimated that the semi-state portfolio could be worth close to €10bn.

Li is thought to be keen on investing in Ireland despite the appalling economic crisis, according to sources. The Hong Kong billionaire holds an honorary degree from Trinity College.

His company Hutchison Whampoa is already involved in the telecoms sector here through its ownership of the 3 Ireland mobile network. The company is best-known for its sponsorship of the Irish football team.

Hutchison Whampoa is now one of the largest investors in the UK. Last summer it paid €6.9bn to buy the UK assets of the EDF power company. It also owns three of Britain's biggest ports, including Harwich and Felixstowe, as well as the 3 mobile network and water utilities.

Green Party Energy Mini-ster Eamon Ryan indicated that he was opposed to a fire-sale of State assets, saying that it did not make "business sense".

FG has said that it would seek to sell some State assets.

"Fine Gael has advocated the privatisation of non-essential State assets that are not monopolies and we do not need to maintain in public ownership.

"These include ESB Power Gen, Bord Gais Energy and ESB Customer Supply," Leo Varadkar said last November.

The Labour Party is more vague about the semi-states' future, indicating it would "review" the number of quangos and reduce overlap.

The Department of Finance is believed to be considering a number of options, including stripping out all the wind assets owned by ESB, Bord Gais and Coillte and putting them into a new company, which could be sold off.

Another proposal is to merge parts of Coillte, Bord na Mona and Bord Gais. The proposals also include a plan to break the ESB up into three units comprising the national grid, overseas operations and power stations, which could be sold off separately.

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