(Adds ruling on sealing order)
By Ted Siefer and Tom Hals
MANCHESTER, N.H., Oct 9 (Reuters) - GT Advanced Technologies Inc on Thursday revealed it intends to wind down sapphire production, cutting short its once-promising bid to supply the scratch-resistant material for Apple Inc’s iPhones and other mobile devices.
Scant information has emerged since GT Advanced filed unexpectedly for bankruptcy on Monday, wiping out most of its market value and triggering speculation as to what may have soured its Apple relationship and torpedoed its prospects.
At the first public hearing since Monday’s filing, lawyers for GT Advanced argued it could not reveal why it sought bankruptcy and asked a court to keep crucial documents sealed, a highly unusual move that may keep investors in the dark for now about its financial implosion.
A lawyer for the company said a confidentiality agreement prevented it from revealing its Chapter 11 game plan. The company told the U.S. Bankruptcy Court it was barred from disclosures because it was “tied up in knots” by that pact.
Apple, which zealously guards the secrecy of its product pipeline, has been known in general to place strict confidentiality requirements on its many suppliers.
Industry insiders and Wall Street analysts have speculated that GT Advanced’s woes may have arisen from its half-billion dollar sapphire-supply deal, under which Apple helped bankroll a manufacturing plant in Mesa, Arizona, on the condition that GT hit certain operational targets.
Under terms of the deal, Apple would provide a total prepayment of about $578 million to help install furnaces and other gear in the factory, which would be owned by Apple and slated to employ more than 700. Apple would then be paid back over five years starting 2015.
Some analysts have speculated that GT Advanced may have had trouble hitting its targets. A source familiar with the situation has said that Apple tried to help the supplier meet those milestones.
The request to keep documents secret underscores the highly unusual nature of the case, starting with a bankruptcy filing that caught everyone from Wall Street to Apple itself off guard.
Lawyer Luc Despins of Paul Hastings told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Henry Boroff the confidentiality agreement prevented GT Advanced from disclosing the cause of its bankruptcy, or its turnaround plan.
GT Advanced acknowledged its request to seal might be unprecedented but said it risked damages of $50 million per violation of the agreement.
The judge ended the two-hour public hearing by retreating to his chambers for a private meeting with GT Advanced and lawyers for Apple and the U.S. Trustee, a Department of Justice official who acts as a watchdog in bankruptcy cases.
Boroff later ruled that GT Advanced should provide any reasonable information requested as part of the case, “except that in the event that any such information relates to the details of the debtors’ business relationship with Apple.”
In such cases, the information must be disclosed to Apple’s lawyers at least three days beforehand, during which time the iPhone maker can move to block such disclosure, Boroff wrote in the ruling.
On Thursday, shares of GT Advanced ended up 17.3 percent at $1.29 per share on Nasdaq. Shares of Apple closed 0.2 percent higher at $101.02 on Nasdaq.
Despins said at the close of Thursday’s hearing that GT Advanced’s sealing request was complex.
“It’s like a Russian doll. You open the first one and there are four more in there,” he said.
But Ann Marie Dirsa, a lawyer from the Office of the U.S. Trustee, criticized the lack of disclosure by GT Advanced.
“The record is insufficient for the court to find what the court needs to find.”
A hearing was scheduled for Oct. 15 in Springfield, Massachusetts, to consider a motion to wind down the company’s sapphire manufacturing facilities. The motion has not yet been publicly filed with the court.
On Tuesday, the Office of the U.S. Trustee will form a committee of unsecured creditors that will play a key role in working with the company to draft a reorganization plan. Boroff said he expected that GT Advanced would only have to provide creditors sensitive information if they signed a confidentiality agreement.
A Pennsylvania shareholder, Adam Levy, filed a proposed class action against the company’s officers and directors alleging the management provided false and misleading information regarding last year’s stock and bonds offerings.
The lawsuit also named as defendants the underwriters of those securities - Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Canaccord Genuity Inc.
The case is In re: GT Advanced Technologies Inc, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, District of New Hampshire, No: 14-11916. (Additional reporting by Tanya Agrawal in Bangalore, Editing by Edwin Chan, Ted Kerr, Robin Paxton, W Simon, Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker)