February 27, 2020 / 9:48 AM / 3 months ago

Norwegian Air punished as investors' worries over virus deepen

OSLO (Reuters) - Shares in Norwegian Air (NWC.OL) plunged a quarter in value on Thursday, leading airline stocks lower as investors bet the debt-laden budget carrier would be the most vulnerable to a coronavirus pandemic.

The slump in Norwegian shares to an 11-year low of 16.80 crowns came despite the company trying to reassure investors by reiterating its financial guidance.

The stock has now lost 52% since the start of this week as the coronavirus has spread around the world, threatening an extended period of disruption to international travel.

“This (share price slide) is the worry that corona depletes demand and that (it) creates a cash flow crunch at Norwegian,” Bernstein analyst Daniel Roeska wrote in an emailed comment.

He added, however, that Norwegian’s ongoing cost cuts and planned asset sales could see the company through.

Norwegian, which has repeatedly had to raise cash from its owners to survive, said at its quarterly results on Feb. 13 that it expected to report a profit in 2020 after three consecutive years of losses.

“As of today, the company maintains the guidance and outlook presented in relation to the Q4 reporting on 13 February ... The company is monitoring the market situation on a regular basis,” Norwegian said in a statement on Thursday.

It said it had put out the statement in response to “market speculation” and subsequent inquiries from shareholders.

A pioneer in low-fare transatlantic air travel, Norwegian’s rapid expansion has left it in the red and heavily in debt, forcing it to cut unprofitable routes and slash operating costs.

Rattled by the coronavirus, airlines have rushed to cut costs in recent days.

Still, shares in Scandinavian carrier SAS (SAS.ST) fell by 12.3% on Thursday, while Easyjet (EZJ.L) was down 11.0%, Ryanair (RYA.I) 5.7%, Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) 7.2%, Air France AIF.PA 10.6% and British Airways parent IAG (ICAG.L) fell 10.0%.

Norwegian raised cash from its owners in late 2019 for the third time in less than two years, and issued convertible bonds at the same time to help shore up its finances.

The bonds have so-called covenants linked to the finances of a key subsidiary, Arctic Aviation Assets (AAA), which must keep its book equity and debt levels within certain minimum levels.

If covenants are broken, this could in turn lead to another round of debt and equity restructuring, but the company sought to dispel any such worries.

“Following 31 December 2019, there has been no change in AAA that would result in a material change that would impact the covenants,” Norwegian said.

Reporting by Terje Solsvik in Oslo and Tommy Lund in Gdansk; additional reporting by Victoria Klesty; editing by Susan Fenton and Mark Potter

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