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Swedish property group SBB sows doubts over deferred dividend

FILE PHOTO: The logo of SBB in Stockholm, Sweden

By Marie Mannes and Greta Rosen Fondahn

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Ailing Swedish property group SBB has no plans to pay a dividend until the company is in better shape, it said on Tuesday, and left investors uncertain whether it would still make a payout deferred from 2022.

Sweden's largest commercial landlord said it would not pay a dividend for 2023 after reporting a loss of more than 22 billion Swedish crowns ($2.1 billion) and writing down the value of its properties by more than 13 billion crowns.

Property companies across Europe have been hammered by a sharp rise in interest rates and plunging prices.

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CEO Leiv Synnes initially told Reuters that SBB still intended to pay its deferred dividend for 2022, amounting to roughly 2 billion crowns, in June.

But he later appeared to backtrack, telling analysts it was up to the board to decide if the company was able to.

"Our ambition is to pay the 2022 dividend if we have capacity to do so, but legally there is no certainty that we must," Synnes said.

Carl Svernlov, a lawyer at Baker McKenzie and associate professor at Stockholm University, said it would not be possible to withdraw a dividend approved by a general meeting - as SBB's 2022 payout was - unless all shareholders consented.

"And if so, it is probably not the case that the dividend can be withdrawn, but rather that the shareholders make a shareholder contribution to the company by not collecting their approved dividend," he added.

Asked for clarification, Synnes told Reuters: "We have a plan in place to be able to pay the dividend, and intend to do so, as decided by the AGM. At that point in time, the board will make an informed decision from an overall assessment of the situation, including legal and financial aspects."

The uncertainty is a far cry from SBB's ambitions just a few years ago.

"SBB cannot promise a specific share price, but we can promise increased dividends over the next 100 years," its founder and former CEO Ilija Batljan told Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet in 2022.

Since then, SBB's shares have plunged more than 90% from their 2021 peak.

Looking ahead, Synnes said SBB was "a bit reluctant to pay dividend for a while".

"We would like to come back to investment grade," he added, referring to attempts to claw back SBB's credit rating.

He also signalled that investment opportunities might take priority. "It is a trade-off to give the money to shareholders or to invest it," he said.

($1 = 10.3158 Swedish crowns)

(Reporting by Marie Mannes, Greta Rosen Fondahn, John O'Donnell; Editing by Mark Potter)