With Air China Ltd (中國國際航空) last week boosting its stake in Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd (國泰航空), the renowned Hong Kong airline has moved a step closer to becoming a mainland company, analysts say.
By increasing its holding to 29.99 percent, Air China bolstered its position to just a hair’s breadth below the 30 percent threshold that would trigger a mandatory takeover offer, while also doubling its presence on the Cathay board to four members.
Yet the move was met with rumblings of disquiet in some corners, amid fears a Chinese takeover may tarnish a carrier regarded as a key emblem of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” autonomy from the mainland, and even pose an existential threat to the city.
“The sale raises the specter of Cathay one day being a mainland-controlled firm,” said Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, adding that “mainland airlines are not highly regarded here.
“Damage to Cathay’s standards, quality and reputation would be damage to Hong Kong,” it said.
Although Air China has refused comment on whether it plans to launch a formal bid, industry watchers believe that it eventually will.
“I think that an eventual merger is a possibility,” said Corrine Png (方華婷), transport analyst at investment bank JPMorgan.
“This transaction is a positive step towards it,” she added, adding that a deal may occur in two to three years’ time if regulatory hurdles concerning China air traffic rights can be navigated.
Yet Png also warned against reading too much political significance into Air China’s stake-building, and argued that little has actually changed.
“People shouldn’t see this as Air China doing national service,” she said. “Citic Pacific (中信泰富), who sold the shares, is a state-owned enterprise in China as well, so the Chinese interest has always been there. Air China will bring synergies, whereas Citic was just an armchair investor.”
Indeed, if viewed as a whole, says Png, the Chinese interest in Cathay has decreased from 35 percent to 33 percent under the new deal. Driving last week’s sale was Citic Pacific’s desire to offload what it considers to be non-core assets in the wake of a foreign exchange scandal that saw its profits plummet last year. The subsidiary of China-based parent company Citic Group therefore sold most of its Cathay stake.
Air China purchased 12.5 percent of it for HK$6.34 billion (US$942 million).
The other counterparty was majority Cathay owner Swire Pacific, a subsidiary of British family-run John Swire & Sons and a remnant of the city’s colonial era, seemingly at odds with Air China’s Communist Party-linked board. It bought an additional 2 percent.
Swire will pay US$1.01 billion to raise its controlling stake to just under 42 percent, a position it says it plans to maintain.
“I would stress that the new shareholding will not mean any change in the current strategy and operational and financial management of Cathay Pacific,” said Swire and Cathay chairman Christopher Pratt.
Yet for how long is uncertain, analysts say.
With Citic’s stake now reduced from 17.5 percent to 2.98 percent, there is still potentially enough up for grabs for Air China to play with — although such a move would need consent from all other parties under the current structure.
“Swire had little choice but to tip in further funds to prevent its stake being diluted and to avoid the mandatory offer trigger,” said Derek Sadubin of the consultancy Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation.