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Budweiser’s IPO Failure Would Be a Big Strategic Blow

Chris Hughes

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There’s a staring contest going on between Anheuser-Busch InBev NV and investors in initial public offerings. At issue is the price of the jumbo IPO of the Belgian brewer’s Asian business. Unfortunately for AB InBev, investors have the harder gaze.

The deal is struggling to get priced, and its arrangers may revise the terms, Bloomberg News reported Friday. This is going to be a tense weekend – Monday is the deadline for the shares to be sold.

It’s not hard to see why there’s a standoff. AB InBev knows that Budweiser Brewing Company APAC Ltd is an attractive asset. With an approximate $60 billion market value, it could be a large, liquid stock. It has a unique expansion story with strong organic growth supplemented by likely M&A. Hence AB InBev set a very punchy price range.

But to get big deals done you have to entice enough buyers. And investors have one advantage: Their need to buy is less than AB InBev’s necessity to sell.

While one benefit of the deal is that the proceeds would bring down the giant brewer’s leverage, this is not the main upside. Raising $8 billion to $10 billion is only going to dent net debt that stood at $103 billion on Dec. 31 (almost 5 times trailing Ebitda).

The real bonus for AB InBev – as Duncan Fox of Bloomberg Intelligence says – would be securing an acquisition currency to do deals in Asia without potentially taking its leverage back up again. Net debt hit 6.7 times Ebitda after the 2016 purchase of SABMiller.

AB InBev isn’t the only European brewer seeking Asian growth. Heineken NV is breathing down its neck with a partnership with China Resources Beer Holdings Co. and Carlsberg A/S has a thirst for the region too. There will be a real opportunity cost in failing to get the IPO away if AB InBev’s rivals are able to outbid it for attractive assets in the coming year.

Of course, AB InBev isn’t totally constrained. It could yet turn to bond investors to fund further M&A. The debt markets are favorable – some of the Belgian company’s bonds are yielding even less than 1%. Still, gearing up is an unattractive option when leverage is already high.

The number of global IPOs surged in the last three months, including in Asia, so it would look odd if this one doesn’t make it. Meanwhile, the brewer’s Asian staff expect to become part of a new separate company. Failure to get the deal done won’t help morale. Taken together, this puts the onus on AB InBev to get plan A away and secure the acquisition currency rather than fighting over the last cent of value here. And investors know it.

To contact the author of this story: Chris Hughes at chughes89@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

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

Chris Hughes is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals. He previously worked for Reuters Breakingviews, as well as the Financial Times and the Independent newspaper.

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