South Korean activist fund KCGI eyes stake in Asiana Airlines

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SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s activist fund KCGI, the second-largest shareholder in the parent company of Korean Air Lines Co Ltd, is interested in buying a controlling stake in rival carrier Asiana Airlines Inc, KCGI Chief Executive Kang Sung-boo told Reuters. He said the fund is in talks with several local and overseas entities to form a consortium to bid for the 31.05% stake in Asiana Airlines, which has been put up for sale by top shareholder Kumho Industrial. The stake is worth $282 billion as of Friday’s closing price

Kang’s comment comes as the local airline industry grapples with several challenges, including rising competition from budget carriers to a U.S.-China trade war hitting cargo demand and a Korea-Japan diplomatic row hurting travel. Korean Air Lines and Asiana Airlines swung to operating losses for the April to June quarter, from a year earlier.

Asiana Airlines is expected to receive initial bids on Sept.3, followed by binding bids in October, Kang said. Credit Suisse is managing the deal.

An Asiana spokesman declined to comment.

Kang said the country’s full-fledged carriers need to restructure and consolidate to reduce competition and heavy debts.

“I believe the entire airline industry in Korea is in crisis,” Kang said over the phone.

Shares of Asiana Airlines, South Korea’s second-largest carrier after Korean Air Lines, outperformed the broader market and were up 2.2% in early trade.

FUNDING QUESTIONS

KCGI’s possible bid came amid concerns about lack of interest in the sales of the heavily indebted Asiana Airlines, analysts say.

“There are market doubts whether the fund has the firepower (war chest) to buy into Asiana Airlines,” said Bang Min-jin, an analyst at Eugene Investment & Securities said.

In April, Kumho Industrial it would sell its entire stake in the debt-ridden carrier to keep it afloat, after the conglomerate came under pressure from creditors including state-run Korea Development Bank.

Korean’s chip-to-refinery conglomerate SK Group and retail-focused Aekyung Group, which also has a stake in budget carrier Jeju Air, were named as potential suitors by local media, but the two firms did not publicly say whether they were interested in the bidding or not.

KCGI has increased its stake in Hanjin Kal, the parent of Korean Air Lines, fueling market expectations about a battle to control the family-owned group following the death of patriarch Cho Yang-ho in April.

But Delta Air Lines, which runs a joint venture of Korean Air Lines, bought a 5.13% stake in Hanjin Kal, giving a boost to the management of South Korea’s top carrier as it seeks to thwart KCGI’s challenge.

($1 = 1,209.1000 won)

Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Editing by Rashmi Aich & Shri Navaratnam

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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