By Anshuman Daga and Saeed Azhar
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Founders of Asia's largest budget carrier, AirAsia, are sounding out investors to take the company private in a management-led buyout, after a critical research report knocked its shares to a seven-year low, people familiar with the matter said.
AirAsia Bhd co-founder Tony Fernandes is talking to banks to secure financing for the transaction, which could be launched over the next few months, said the people, who did not want to be identified as the discussions were confidential.
At Tuesday's closing level of 1.25 ringgit - exactly the price at which its shares were sold to institutional investors in an initial public offering more than a decade ago - AirAsia is valued at 3.48 billion Malaysian ringgit ($796 million).
Investors were spooked when Hong Kong-based GMT Research questioned AirAsia's accounts in a report in June, driving the airline's shares to their lowest levels since the global financial crisis in 2008.
Group CEO Fernandes, who has led AirAsia's rise from a two-plane operation in 2002 to a billion-dollar business, has been spending more time at AirAsia since then, putting his other businesses and sporting interest to one side.
GMT's allegation that AirAsia uses related-party transactions with loss-making associate carriers to boost its earnings pummeled the airline's shares by as much as 64 percent, and the stock remains down around 40 percent from its levels in early June.
Fernandes has steadfastly defended the company's finances and outlook and said the market was undervaluing AirAsia.
A source familiar with the matter said a challenge for any outside investor looking to invest in AirAsia was that the airline's revenues were largely in Malaysian ringgit, which has lost 20 percent this year, while its costs were in U.S. dollars.
"So anyone trying to buy a stake or who wants be part of the buyout will have to find ways to hedge the currency risk," the source said.
Obtaining financing would be key for the deal to succeed, said the people familiar with the deal.
When contacted by Reuters, an AirAsia spokeswoman declined to comment on the story.
AirAsia racked up losses and booked impairments during the global financial crisis, forcing it to raise funds later via a private placement and cut its debt.
The company had net debt of 10.5 billion ringgit ($2.4 billion) as of June 2015, down nearly 9 percent from the March quarter.
Fernandes, who along with his long-time business partner, Kamarudin Meranun, owns about 19 percent of AirAsia through a holding company, is hoping for an improvement in the business, helped by a sharp drop in fuel costs, and as main local rival Malaysian Airlines shrinks its routes.
AirAsia's planned move comes more than a year after state investor Khazanah Nasional took troubled national carrier Malaysian Airlines private following two devastating jetliner disasters.
Fernandes, one of Asia's best known corporate leaders, has announced a turnaround plan for AirAsia's loss-making Indonesian and Philippine affiliates as he battles competition from larger groups such as Singapore Airlines, Qantas Airways and Indonesia's privately held Lion Air.
"The share price is undervalued," said Kuala Lumpur-based RHB analyst Ahmad Maghfur Usman.
"Despite having high net gearing, AirAsia has a large fleet of aircraft and its loans are hedged at comfortable levels. It all boils down to whether the consortium (taking it private) can bring more synergy to AirAsia."
(Reporting by Anshuman Daga and Saeed Azhar; Additional reporting by Yantoultra Ngui in KUALA LUMPUR; Editing by Lisa Jucca and Alex Richardson)