Aston Martin's parent company needs new passengers in 2020

The luxury automaker is nearing a make-or-break moment. If investors are dangling fresh equity, it shouldn’t hesitate.
| Updated on: 31 Dec 2019, 01:46 PM
Aston is hoping DBX will balance out and bolster the million-dollar-plus limited-edition supercars it’s sold to great success recently. (REUTERS)
Aston is hoping DBX will balance out and bolster the million-dollar-plus limited-edition supercars it’s sold to great success recently. (REUTERS)

Aston Martin’s parent company hopes to take on some new passengers in 2020. They’ll be clambering aboard the luxury carmaker as it careens headlong toward a decisive fork in the road.

The reputation of Chief Executive Officer Andy Palmer depends in large part on bringing the market value of Aston Martin Lagonda Global Holdings Plc back toward the 4.3 billion pounds ($5.6 billion) where it listed last year, from 1.2 billion pounds currently.

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The only plausible way of doing so is to make a huge success of next year’s launch of the company’s luxury sports-utility vehicle, the DBX.

Under Palmer’s strategy, the DBX was intended to be just one of seven new models that would help revive the company. But poor sales of the group’s existing cars have put more pressure on this leather-clad gas-guzzler to drag the firm out of the mire. Prices of used Astons have been declining, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which in turn should reduce demand for new ones. Meanwhile, the company can borrow cash only at punitive interest rates; net debt is expected to total about 800 million pounds at year-end.

All this means the DBX’s launch is now a make-or-break moment for Palmer and the company.

Ideally, Aston would be able to report strong early orders for the car, then make deliveries without production snags. That would lift its share price and enable it to raise cash by selling a smaller stake in itself than would be necessary at its current battered valuation.

But waiting for this best-case scenario leaves Palmer hostage to fortune. At 158,000 pounds, the DBX is ambitiously priced around the middle of Aston’s range, whereas rivals such as Porsche, Bentley and Lamborghini have offered luxury SUVs at the lower end of theirs. Brexit may also complicate matters: Aston still needs to ramp up preparations for a disruptive departure from Europe, and any benefit from increased political clarity will likely be dampened by an associated rise in sterling.

A weak reception for the DBX could impede Aston’s ability to raise equity and to service its painful debt burden. A prudent management team would therefore raise equity sooner rather than later in 2020, giving existing shareholders right of first refusal on the new stock. Encouragingly, the company recently confirmed it was in talks with potential new investors, following reports that motor-racing mogul Lawrence Stroll was interested in taking a big stake.

Palmer has now been forced to gamble everything on one very expensive car, and it should quickly become clear if his wager will pay off. The company could do with equity now. And the current balance of risk and reward may be such that new investors will be willing to provide it. Given that situation may not last, Palmer should grab it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

First Published Date: 31 Dec 2019, 01:46 PM IST

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