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Capital Markets

Mysterious bidder drives YKB's stock

A $5 billion loan is not to be dismissed lightly in a country where foreign investment is running at just $1 billion a year. But the mystery benefactor is a company whose name rings no bells and whose principal investors have yet to be identified. It could only happen in Turkey. Metin Munir reports.

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ONE DAY LAST summer an official of Cukurova, once Turkey's largest privately owned company, had a bizarre meeting. He was visited by representatives of a company he had not heard of called Northway Petroleum Services, which offered to pay Cukurova's $5 billion debt to the Turkish government over a period of two years. "I gave them a long hard look and told them they were either spooks or crooks," says the Cukurova official.

As security, financially hard pressed Cukurova was expected to give Northway Petroleum Services its holdings in two of the most valuable companies in Turkey: its 42% of Turkcell, the country's largest cellular telephone operator, and 58% of Yapi Kredi (YKB), one of the top three private banks. On repayment of the loan Cukurova would get these shares back. The scheme needed approval from the government because Cukurova's Turkcell and YKB shares are being held by state agencies as security for the company's debt.

In 2000, Cukurova was Turkey's largest privately owned company. It had $17 billion in assets and $4.5 billion in debt, according to Cukurova board member Osman Berkmen.

Mehmet Emin Karamehmet, who owns the Istanbul-based conglomerate, became one of the world's wealthiest men by investing in 1994 in a little-known new product – cellular phones.

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