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National Express ends merger talks with Stagecoach

Source: Reuters - Thu 29th Oct 2009

Bus and rail operator National Express Group walked away from a possible merger with rival Stagecoach and will now focus on raising cash by selling shares to cut its debts.

Shares in National Express, which had risen a third in the past quarter on persistent takeover speculation, tumbled 9.7 percent to 328.8 pence by 8:55 a.m. on Thursday, while Stagecoach shares rose 2.1 percent at 148.3p.

National Express, which was approached by Stagecoach about a possible merger earlier this month, knocked back the possibility of a an all-share merger because of fears a deal would not be successfully executed by Christmas, when it faces 5 million pounds in penalty interest payments on its 977 million pounds debt pile.

"The board has concluded it is unlikely that a combination with Stagecoach could be successfully executed in 2009, even if appropriate terms could be agreed" National Express said in a statement. "All discussions with Stagecoach have now ceased."

The potential deal was valued at up to 2 billion pounds by analysts.

Stagecoach said it was "extremely disappointed" that National Express had chosen not to pursue proposals it had submitted.

"Stagecoach believed that there was a compelling strategic and financial proposition for a combination which would have represented a unique opportunity to deliver incremental value for both sets of shareholders" it said.

FOCUS ON FUNDRAISING

National Express said it would now press on with plans to raise cash by selling shares to help pay down 977 million pounds of debt as soon as possible.

"It's a perfectly sensible move to execute the rights issue first and then consider strategic options from a position of greater strength," said analyst Douglas McNeill at brokerage Astaire.

"Stagecoach have had two bites at the cherry now and I'm sure they regard National Express's assets as attractive, but I'm not sure whether they will be back with a bid anytime soon."

National Express is expected to ask shareholders for up to 400 million pounds - a move, which if successful, means its lenders will push back the maturity date of its 540 million euro debt facility from September 2010 to March 2011, allowing it to refinance its other 800 million pound credit facility.

Analysts believe a fundraising could be concluded as early as next month.

The company warned last week that its full-year profit would be below last year.

Earlier this month previous suitors, Spain's Cosmen family and private equity partner CVC Capital Partners, pulled out of a deal after spending a month studying the company's books.

Some analysts said a deal with Stagecoach could have been scuppered by regulatory hurdles.

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