Greece's No. 1 Listing, Coca-Cola Hellenic, Flees Crisis For London Listing

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Coca-Cola's Q3 earnings were up, but not enough to meet Street estimates

Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling SA (ATHEX: EEEK), the world’s No. 2 Coca-Cola bottler and Greece's biggest company by market value, plans to leave the epicenter of Europe’s debt crisis in favor of a London stock listing and Swiss domicile.

The bottler, which accounts for roughly one-fifth of the Greek stock market and has a capitalization of about $7.4 billion, generates only 5 percent of its business domestically.

The news sent Coca-Cola Hellenic shares up about 7 percent Friday. They closed at €16.75 (US $21.72).

Coca-Cola Hellenic, 23-percent-owned by Coca-Cola Co. (NYSE: KO) of Atlanta, the No. 1 drinks maker, operates in 28 countries across three continents and employs more than 40,000 people.

The move by Coca-Cola Hellenic is a major blow to Athens' rapidly shrinking stock market, which is languishing at 20-year lows amid the euro zone’s debt crisis, now well into its third year. Nevertheless, the Athens Stock Exchange General Index rose 3.2 percent to 824.86 on Friday.

Coca-Cola Hellenic represented only about 5 percent of the Athens stock market in 2009. Its exit is roughly equivalent to what might happen if Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) were to exit the U.S. market and list abroad.

Coca-Cola Hellenic picked Switzerland as its new home, citing the country's stable economic and regulatory environment. It will also move its primary stock listing to the London Stock Exchange (London: LSE) through a share exchange with Swiss-based Coca-Cola HBC AG (London: CCB).

Coca-Cola HBC AG will also seek to list in New York.

A London listing could allow for the inclusion of the shares in the FTSE 100. Based on current capitalizations and exchange rates, it would rank the 69th-biggest stock in the index.

The move will give the company "access to both the international equity and debt capital markets and increase its flexibility in raising new funds to support its operations and future growth."

“This transaction makes clear business sense,” said Dimitris Lois, CEO of Coca-Cola Hellenic, in a statement. “A potential FTSE Index inclusion will allow index tracker funds to add our stock to their portfolio, leading to higher volumes and liquidity.”

The company generated $8.9 billion in revenue last year and 95 percent of its business and shareholders are outside of Greece.

The Greek government has been cutting spending and raising taxes in a bid to keep Greece in the single currency bloc, but the austerity measures have sparked waves of social unrest and political instability, and prompted a flight of capital.

Unemployment in Greece hit a record 25.1 percent in July, with the level among young people reaching 54.2 percent, according to the latest official figures. Greece's statistical authority said 1.26 million Greeks were jobless in July, with more than 1,000 jobs lost every day over the past year.

Greece's unemployment rate has been stuck above the 25 percent level for 35 consecutive months and with austerity cuts continuing, the jobless rate may rise further.

Coca-Cola Hellenic is not the first company to leave Athens in search of a more stable environment.

Fage Dairy Industry SA, one of Greece's biggest dairy companies and owner of the Total yogurt brand, said last week it would move its domicile from Athens to Luxembourg, in part to facilitate access to financing. Fage bonds valued around $318 million trade on the Athens exchange.

Fitch Ratings said Friday that both companies’ decision to relocate their headquarters are limited precedents for other euro zone corporates for now, despite incentives to reduce share price discounts or protect against the risk of a full-blown sovereign crisis.

Shares of Coca-Cola rose 7 cents to $38.18 in midday trading.

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