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Christopher Niesche: Air NZ sale may trigger takeover battle

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Air New Zealand has signalled it is considering selling its quarter per cent stake in Virgin Australia. Photo / File
Air New Zealand has signalled it is considering selling its quarter per cent stake in Virgin Australia. Photo / File

There's a certain irony that the two biggest shake-ups in the Australian domestic aviation market over the past two decades have been caused by Air New Zealand.

The first was back in 2001, when Air New Zealand tipped Australia's second domestic carrier Ansett into administration after it had disastrously bought the airline a year earlier.

It ended very badly for Air New Zealand with a government bailout needed to stop it going under - and there's now a chance the second shake up Air NZ is about to kick off will also end badly.

Air NZ has signalled that it is considering selling its quarter per cent stake in Virgin, a move that is could to trigger a takeover battle for the carrier and leave Air New Zealand without a transtasman partner.

With a 25.9 per cent stake, Air New Zealand is Virgin's biggest shareholder.

If it did indeed carry out its intention to sell the stake, the other two major shareholders - Etihad with 24.2 per cent and Singapore Airlines with 22.8 per cent - would have to make a quick decision.

Under Australian corporate law, Etihad and Singapore Airlines can only acquire 3 per cent of Virgin every six months, because they each already own above 20 per cent of the airline.

So they have to ask themselves if they want to open the way for another airline to come in and buy much of the stake, though this seems unlikely, or if that doesn't happen, to what extent other shareholders will continue to support Virgin.

Either airline could get around the 3 per cent limit by making a takeover bid, together or separately. If one or both were successful, it would create a well-resourced domestic airline with enough muscle to take on Qantas and provide some robust and ongoing competition.

Consumers could expect better services at lower prices.

Over the past five years Virgin chief executive John Borghetti has transformed the airline from a discount, leisure-focused carrier to a full service airline which is competing with Qantas for the lucrative business travel market.

Like Qantas, it now has a range of brands following the takeovers of Tiger and Skywest in the past few years.

The problem for Borghetti is the new strategy isn't paying off yet. Virgin is still bleeding cash.

Shareholders, including Air New Zealand have pumped hundreds of millions into the airline, but with little to show for it, except for much higher expenses.

In the first half of 2010 Virgin had operating expenses of A$1.4 billion, while in the six months to December 2015 they were A$2.6 billion. It generated a first half profit of A$62.5 million in the December half - but that's about the same as it produced in the first half of 2010.

It's been no secret that Air New Zealand and its chief executive Christopher Luxon have grown impatient with Virgin and want Borghetti to start producing better profits sooner, rather than waiting for the long-term strategy to pay off.

Last week the Kiwis finally lost patience.

It was obviously a hastily made decision. Only the week before that Air NZ took part in a A$425 million shareholder loan with its own A$131 million contribution.

The airline looks like it will lose $100 million from the divestment of its stake.

But that's not the worst of it. Air New Zealand needs to have an alliance with a domestic Australian carrier because flying to and from Australia is such a key market for it.

If Virgin emerges from the sell down with a cashed up international airline as a majority shareholder, it could eventually decide go it alone on the Tasman route, leaving Air New Zealand stranded.

Miner goes to Hollywood

The crash in resources prices has small miners taking all sorts of desperate measures to survive, but the latest move from Artemis Resources has to be the strangest so far.

The cash-strapped gold and copper explorer is planning to use A$8 million of its shareholders' money to fund a B-grade Hollywood action movie. To put that figure in perspective, the tiny miner has a share market value of just A$3.7 million, after it shares crashed from over A$20 during the mining boom to 0.01 cents now.

The movie is to be called Tango Down and has been written by James C Burns, who provides the voice for a video game called Call of Duty. Artemis CEO Ed Meade says Call of Duty has a huge number of fans (including himself) who will all provide a natural audience for the movie.

Artemis chief executive Ed Mead explained to the ABC that "the reality of the movie business is that actually the more I've looked into it, the similarities to the resource sector are quite strong."

In an announcement to shareholders, Mead said: "The opportunity presented by Tango Down aligns with our commitment to boost shareholder returns. We look forward to updating investors in connection with this exciting investment opportunity."

Your correspondent is also looking forward to these updates.

- NZ Herald

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