Australia rejection seen as setback for CK Asset

Business | 21 Nov 2018 11:43 am

CK Group has formally walked away from its A$13 billion (US$9.5 billion) bid to buy Australia’s biggest gas-pipeline operator, representing the first major setback for Chairman Victor Li since taking over the family empire from his father in May.

Li dropped his pursuit of APA Group yesterday, confirming the end of what became a doomed deal on November 7, when Australia effectively said it would block the transaction on national-security grounds, Bloomberg reports. Had the purchase gone through, Li, 54, would have gained control over pipelines delivering about half of Australia’s gas, kicking off his reign by making the biggest overseas purchase the Hong Kong group had ever done -- even under his deal-savvy father.

But the plan collapsed, underscoring how the world has changed since the days CK was gobbling up assets worldwide under the chairman’s father, Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man. Go-to investment destinations such as Australia are no longer as welcoming as they once were, and many of the CK group’s main businesses are aging, with some facing the prospect of falling behind nimbler technology upstarts.

That all adds up to pressure on the new chairman. While Victor Li has said multiple times that he does not plan to make drastic changes at CK, he may need to reconsider whether to maintain status-quo stability or chart a new path for growth in the decades to come.

CK gave up the deal hours after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg confirmed yesterday that the deal would be "contrary to the national interest,” and may create too much foreign ownership by a single company in the gas transmission business. CK bought Australian power distributor Duet Group last year.

Li has been blocked in Australia before. Prior to the Duet deal, the Australian government rejected CK Infrastructure Holdings Ltd.’s 2016 bid for electricity network Ausgrid. But at the time, the rejection was seen as being more directed towards government-controlled State Grid Corp. of China, which sought to buy a majority stake of the electricity distributor.

The rejections may cast doubt on CK’s ability to buy overseas utility and infrastructure companies that generate stable cash flows.

"We are going to see more of this, not just in Australia but also Europe and the U.S.," said Richard Harris, Hong Kong-based chief executive officer of Port Shelter Investment Management. The perception that the Chinese government exercises control over companies has become a problem, he said.

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