Coronavirus: Aston Martin rescue is more lucky than deserved

Cash is scarce as the global impact of the coronavirus worsens. Yet the maker of Aston Martin sportscars has achieved a remarkable feat, retaining the support of rescuer Lawrence Stroll and a syndicate of banks even as the crisis has worsened. They have re-engineered a fundraising that now threatens heavy dilution on shareholders. Still, the alternative would be even worse.

File photo (REUTERS)
File photo

Aston Martin Lagonda Global Holdings Plc saw its share price halve in the weeks after announcing a 500 millionpounds ($548 million)capital increase at the end of January. The deal envisaged Canadian fashion billionaire Stroll injecting funds for a 17% stake, then putting in more cash with existing shareholders in a rights offer. The new plan see Stroll put in less, but for a 25% holding.

Current shareholders will have to dig even deeper on the subsequent stock sale. The price of thatcash call has been slashed to just 30 pence per share, requiring Aston to issue an eye-watering 1.2 billion new shares at a humiliating 86% discount to the closing price last week.

It’s awkward that attempts to reset the business stalled before they even got started.But in reality Aston has beenincredibly lucky: it beganliningup the rescue before coronavirus became a global pandemic. The revised fundraising is underwritten. Other companies that now face avirus-induced liquidity crisis might not be as fortunate.

Unless investors vote in favor of the plan, Aston could enter administration or liquidation within a matter of weeks,the prospectus warns. The stock is down over 90% since its market debut. Shareholders’ choice is grim: put in more cash, or sell their entitlement tothe new cheap stock but suffer enormous dilution.

Will the rescuebe enough to put Aston on a sustainable footing?The economic freeze caused by measures to contain the coronavirus makes it hard to know. Aston depends on loyal customers putting down fat deposits for so-called special vehicles that aren’t delivered for months or even years. If these repeat buyers became more circumspect about new purchases,cash could flow out of the business.

As for the core range, demandin China has already taken a hit. Production could be interrupted either at Aston’s own factories or because suppliers face difficulties. There were high hopes for its new sports utility model, the DBX. Sales now can only be guesswork.

The difficulty is that even if it overcomes this treacherous period, Aston’s medium-termprospects don’t look rosy. Pricing power is inferior to Ferrari’s. Suspending development of electric vehicles due to thecash shortage could cause Aston to fall behind in cruciallow-emission technology. Cash burn will remain negative for at least the next couple of years, according to theBloomberg-compiled analyst consensus.

Stroll says that while Aston’s global market environment has changed, his consortium’s commitment to help fund the business through this time has not. That may be so. Butthecommitment will keep being tested.

First Published Date: 18 Mar 2020, 18:03 PM IST
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