Qatar Airways agrees to buy HK$5.16b stake in Cathay Pacific; shares in HK carrier fall

Middle Eastern carrier Qatar Airways bought a 9.6 per cent stake in Cathay Pacific Airways for HK$5.16 billion (S$903 million).
Middle Eastern carrier Qatar Airways bought a 9.6 per cent stake in Cathay Pacific Airways for HK$5.16 billion (S$903 million). PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Qatar Airways agreed to acquire a stake in Cathay Pacific Airways, a deal that would help it gain a foothold in the world's second-biggest aviation market.

The Middle Eastern carrier will buy 9.6 per cent of Cathay from Hong Kong-based Kingboard Chemical Holdings Ltd. and related companies for HK$5.16 billion (S$903 million), according to a filing to the city's stock exchange on Monday (Nov 6). Cathay chief executive officer Rupert Hogg said he looks forward to a "continued constructive relationship".

Shares of Cathay fell as much as 4.9 per cent to HK$12.56 on Monday, the biggest intraday drop in more than five months.

The purchase, the first-ever investment by a Middle Eastern airline in an East Asian carrier, when complete would make the Doha-based company the third-largest shareholder in Cathay and would also provide access to mainland China, a country is set to emerge as the world's biggest aviation market within a decade.

The deal comes a few months after Qatar Airways dropped a plan to invest in American Airlines Group, which rebuffed the attempt. Those investment plans were met with suspicion by critics at a time when Qatar is embroiled in the region's worst diplomatic crisis in years and is locked in an airspace rights dispute with three other Gulf states

"Geographically, the Middle Eastern carriers have been constrained from conquering Hong Kong and China," said Mohshin Aziz, an analyst at Maybank Investment Bank Bhd in Kuala Lumpur. "They have a lot of capacity so they have to look elsewhere. If both airlines can work together, it will definitely be good for Cathay."

The Middle Eastern airline has a 20 per cent stake in British Airways parent IAG. It also has 10 per cent of Latam Airlines Group, the biggest South American carrier, and plans to take a 49 per cent stake in minor Italian operator Meridiana.

China has been at the centre of many deals as global airlines seek a piece of the pie as international traffic from the country surges. Delta Air Lines bought a minority stake in China Eastern Airlines Corp. in 2015, while American Airlines purchase a minority stake in China Southern Airlines Co.

The International Air Transport Association predicts passengers will nearly double to 7.8 billion by 2036, and Asia Pacific will contribute more than half of the new additions.

Cathay is in the midst of the biggest corporate revamp in two decades to help revive earnings after getting squeezed between Middle Eastern carriers such as Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways on the premium end of travel, and low-cost and mainland Chinese rivals at the other. It has announced job cuts and was in talks with pilots over compensation as it reported its worst half-year loss in at least two decades in the six months through June.

A prior attempt to buy an American Air stake didn't go well for Qatar Airways. The US company's chief, Doug Parker said he wasn't keen on having the Gulf carrier as a shareholder. While the airlines are partners in the Oneworld alliance, Qatar Airways' move came as a surprise since American had publicly opposed the growth of Middle Eastern airlines in the US, saying they have benefited from US$50 billion in illegal aid.

Cathay Pacific is also part of the Oneworld alliance. Hong Kong conglomerate Swire Pacific, is the largest shareholder of Cathay with 45 per cent, followed by state-owned Air China Ltd with 29.99 per cent.

"Cathay Pacific is one of the strongest airlines in the world, respected throughout the industry and with massive potential future," Qatar Airways Group chief executive Akbar Al Baker said in a statement on Monday. "This investment further supports Qatar Airways investment strategy."

Both Cathay and Qatar Aiways collaborate together as members of the Oneworld alliance and "we look forward to a continued constructive relationship", Cathay said in its statement.

Qatar Airways will buy about 378.2 million shares at HK$13.65 a piece in cash, a 3.4 per cent premium over Friday's closing price of HK$13.20. The transaction will be completed later on Monday, Qatar Airways said in the statement.

"I don't see Cathay being excited about this and I wouldn't expect major changes even in the medium term," said Will Horton, an analyst at CAPA Centre for Aviation in Hong Kong. "It has the flavour of a passive stake despite the optics appearing significant."

Kingboard Chemical, a diversified group that is into the manufacture of laminates, glass yarn and copper foil, had built up the stake in Cathay Pacific through purchases from the stock market along with its associates.