February 13, 2019 / 5:31 PM / 6 months ago

UPDATE 1-Avolon targets investment-grade rating before year-end

(Adds quotes and background on HNA risk; says open to M&A opportunities)

DUBLIN, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Chinese-owned Irish aircraft lessor Avolon plans to issue up to $4 billion of unsecured debt this year to achieve its “absolute focus” of securing an investment-grade rating, Chief Executive Domhnal Slattery said on Wednesday.

The lessor, the world’s third largest, on Wednesday was upgraded by Fitch Ratings from BB to BB+ with a positive outlook after it reported profit of $717 million for its 2018 financial year.

Avolon last year came under scrutiny over its ultimate ownership by cash-strapped Chinese conglomerate HNA Group with credit ratings analysts pressing for tougher safeguards against it being forced to bail out its parent.

Slattery said he believed that risk had been “put to bed for once and for all” by last year’s sale of a 30 percent stake of Avolon to Japanese financial services group Orix Corp and the governance framework changes made as part of the deal.

The other 70 percent of Avolon is owned by HNA subsidiary Bohai Capital Holding Co. Ltd, which Slattery said plans to hold onto its stake “indefinitely”.

Fitch said it viewed positively the sale of the stake to Orix and the repayment of an intercompany loan between Avolon and Bohai.

Avolon believes the final step to investment-grade status is to cut its ratio of secured to unsecured debt from 42 percent to 30 percent, which will require the issuance of between $3.5 billion and $4 billion in unsecured debt, Slattery said.

“Our expectation and our plan is that we will try to achieve that this year,” Slattery told Reuters in an interview. “If the markets were to stay in their current state, I’d be feeling good about our ability to issue that amount of unsecured debt.”

Slattery said he expects the aviation leasing business to consolidate further and that Avolon would be “alive to every opportunity for acquisitions”, but he said there was not currently much in the pipeline. (Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by David Evans and Catherine Evans)

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