So it would seem, given that HNA executives are in advanced negotiations with the provincial government of Hainan which is seeking to take control of the embattled conglomerate. Following the impending seizure, the Group’s aviation assets will be passed on to China’s three largest carriers – Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines, local sources have revealed.
The asset deal discussed might also include HNA-owned ground handler Swissport and Frankfurt-Hahn Airport.
In a Bloomberg report, London-based equity research specialist Agency Partners is quoted as saying that “HNA is, even by Chinese standards, a sprawling and indebted conglomerate, and the
collapse in Chinese airline activity due to the outbreak of Covid-19 [coronavirus] has apparently pushed it to effective bankruptcy.” The HNA Group was not immediately available for a
HNA is not the only crisis-stricken Chinese airline
In case Agency Partners' prediction comes true, HNA will, by far, be the most prominent victim of the epidemic that has killed 2,500 infected (23Feb) and keeps spreading rapidly within China but also outside the country meanwhile.
Originally founded in Hainan, the HNA Group has, in recent weeks, come under mounting financial strain from the coronavirus disease, sending passenger and cargo demand dramatically south and forcing the airline to cancel thousands of flights. In order to cut its rapidly growing losses, its management put foreign pilots on unpaid leave. Meanwhile, affiliate Hong Kong Airlines, part owned by HNA, announced plans to axe 400 jobs.
Shanghai Hongqiao Airport-based cargo carrier, Suparna Airlines, also backed by HNA and in dire financial condition, is in a similar situation and likely to be taken over by the provincial government of Jiangsu in an attempt to secure its survival. Media enquiries were left unanswered by the local government.
But the crisis has also affected other airlines. Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific has issued a profit warning following massive flight cancellations in February and March.
Acquisition spree has ultimately backfired
The financial needs of the HNA Group are anything but new. The conglomerate has been struggling for years with debts that peaked at almost 600 billion yuan (US$86 billion) at one point, as well as soaring borrowing costs. The once rather small airline operator shot to prominence between 2016 and 2017 following a debt-fueled acquisition spree, temporarily becoming the leading shareholder of iconic companies such as Hilton Worldwide Holdings and Deutsche Bank, while paying a fortune for properties from Manhattan to Hong Kong.
Facing strong headwind from banks and lenders since 2018, the Group started unwinding its $50 billion acquisition spree by selling off major property assets. While its total debt fell to 525.6 billion yuan as of mid-2019, HNA Chairman Chen Feng closed 2019 by predicting that 2020 would be “the decisive year to win the war” against the conglomerate’s long-running liquidity challenges. It would appear that reality has disproved him.
Beijing’s concerns are growing
Meanwhile, HNA's financial problems are also causing increasing concern to Beijing's rulers. They are facing growing public pressure not only due to their late reaction to the corona crisis, but also because of the slump of the Chinese economy.
Against this background, a disorderly insolvency of the HNA group would significantly increase the pressure on the government. The Xi Jinping administration also seems to regard this danger as real, as shown by their countermeasures. To stabilize the country’s ailing airline industry, Beijing is considering direct cash infusions or arranging mergers. For Hainan Airlines, new funds might come too late.
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