October 7, 2015 / 1:15 AM / 2 years ago

AirAsia's potential management-led buyout faces headwinds

A girl pushes the door of an AirAisia ticketing office at Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Jakarta, July 8, 2015.Beawiharta

KUALA LUMPUR/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes may find it tough to take the budget airline private due to large funding needs as potential partners worry about a floundering Malaysian economy and a weak regional aviation market.

Reuters exclusively reported on Tuesday that AirAsia's founders were talking to banks to secure financing for a management-led buyout, which could be launched this year.

Fernandes and his business partner Kamarudin Meranun, who together own about 19 percent of AirAsia through a holding firm, would need about $800 million to take it private, based on a 25 percent premium, analysts said.

"We think it is a challenge to secure financing," Maybank analyst Mohshin Aziz said in a report.

Fernandes founded AirAsia in 2001 with two aircraft and it has since become Asia's largest budget airline with a fleet of over 170 Airbus jets serving Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and India.

But after the 2008 financial crisis and the growth of Jetstar Asia and Lion Air, AirAsia's business has been hit.

AirAsia has come under scrutiny since June when GMT Research issued a critical report questioning its accounts and warned of high debt levels, driving its shares down to seven-year lows.

Fernandes has steadfastly backed AirAsia's finances. He said in June the airline could easily raise $1 billion by sale and lease back of aircraft and that it had investments worth $500 million.

But AirAsia's valuations are still cheaper than smaller rivals. It is trading at less than six times expected earnings for the next twelve months, while Philippine rival Cebu Air is trading at more than 7 times, according to Thomson Reuters data.

"It would make one of Asia's most over-leveraged airlines even more leveraged," GMT's founder Gillem Tulloch told Reuters, referring to a possible debt-funded buyout.

Like its Asian peers, AirAsia's sales are largely in local currencies such as the Malaysian ringgit, which has lost 17 percent this year, while costs are mostly in U.S. dollars. AirAsia had net debt of 10.5 billion ringgit ($2.4 billion) as of June 2015.

"The founders may not have the financial muscle to launch a privatization bid on their own, so a consortium together with another airline or PE fund is more likely," said Jian Bo Gan, an analyst with brokerage CLSA.

AirAsia said on Wednesday it had no knowledge of a privatization.

Its shares jumped 5.6 percent on Wednesday with 108 million shares changing hands, more than double the daily average volume traded over the past three months.

Additional reporting by Siva Govindasamy; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Miral Fahmy and Muralikumar Anantharaman

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