Hamish Rutherford: Grant Robertsons hand on Air NZ cash call raises questions about what investors are being asked to invest in


At least Grant Robertson’s latest letter to the Air New Zealand chair, instructing her to delay the airline’s long-awaited capital raise, had the decency to read like something of an apology.

This morning the airline released Robertson’s letter to Dame Therese Walsh, informing her that conditions were not “sufficiently certain and stable” for the Crown to formally commit to the planned equity raise.

The Crown has long promised to support a capital raise to retain its 52 per cent shareholding, so it is unclear why Robertson decided to withdraw it now.

“Now” means about two weeks before Air NZ is due to release its financial results, when it was widely expected – including internally – to announce plans to tap shareholders for around $1 billion or so.

Robertson’s letter to Walsh did not explicitly say sorry for the sudden roadblock, but did implicitly.

He acknowledged how much work had been done to get ready to raise money, that the work would have to be done over again, and then praised the company for running well “under very difficult conditions”.

A small part of the difficulty is Robertson, because it is fair to say that Air NZ was ready to roll.

The airline was ready to raise capital by about June last year, when many of its NZX peers were doing so, but was quietly told not to bring a proposal to the Government before the election.

At the time it was assumed this was due to the risk that Winston Peters might try to capitalise on a fundraising during the election cycle, to call for the airline to be back in government hands.

The election came and went and there was no announcement. Eventually, the airline elicited a statement from the Government indicating support for a capital raise before the end of March 2021. Then it was pushed back to the end of September. Now it is some time in the first quarter of 2022 – “barring further significant Covid-19 adverse developments”.

It appears that Robertson has been convinced the airline has the luxury of time. The Government has extended it a loan, on terms more generous than when it was announced, which allows it to continue to operate in trying times well beyond the end of September.

Neither the airline’s staff nor passengers care whether it is running on money borrowed from the Government or cash invested by shareholders.

Working on the assumption that by early 2022 the outlook for the vaccine and borders may become so much clearer, the airline may be in a position to present more concrete information when it launches a capital raise than it can now.

The argument has several drawbacks. We have been wrong before about life returning to normal. Experts believe the Delta variant will inevitably arrive in New Zealand sooner or later.

If the airline and its advisers believe now is as good a time as any to raise money, for the sake of the taxpayer Robertson should be keen to bring private capital on board.

The terms of the capital raise may change, regarding whether they are more generous to new shareholders or existing ones.

But assuming the Government’s intention is to exactly maintain its current shareholding, then it is entirely indifferent to what price the new shares are sold for. The delay lends weight to the theory that Robertson may be mulling mopping up the whole lot, restoring the airline to near-complete public ownership.

The delay also serves to further confuse whether the Government is a shareholder or a manager.

Under Finance Ministers Michael Cullen and Bill English, journalists got nowhere asking about the airline closing this route or using that plane. Those were operational decisions.

That relationship has changed dramatically under Robertson.

He has already declared himself an active investor, leaned on the company on board appointments, told it he expects it to maintain its network, fly at reasonable cost, and all the while act as a reasonable employer.

Now, once again, he has decided he knows better than the company about the right time to raise capital.

When he eventually makes the decision, potential investors will be right to be asking what exactly they are being asked to invest in.

An innovative, nimble airline hoping to maximise returns to shareholders when conditions allow?

Or an arm of the government which has shown itself to be highly reactive to the daily news cycle?

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