Axa SA (AXAHY) shares climbed more than 2% in early trading Wednesday after the insurance group announced plans to sell a minority stake in its US operations through an initial public offering, freeing cash for new investment and a possible payment to shareholders.
AXA said the US business was slated to include its US Life & Savings business as well as its 64% stake in fund manager AllianceBernstein (AB - Get Report) . The announcement comes just over a week after AXA strengthened its grip on New York-based AllianceBernstein by ousting nine directors, including all the independent board members and longtime Chairman and CEO Peter Kraus.
Shares in Europe's second largest insurer popped to the top of France's key CAC-40 index, trading 2% higher at €25.03 each in the opening 45 minutes of trading.
"We believe the current environment is supportive of this strategic initiative which would create significant additional financial flexibility to accelerate the transformation of the AXA Group around Health, Capital-light Savings, Protection and P&C commercial lines, our priority lines of business," said AXA CEO Thomas Buberl in a statement. "At the same time, we are convinced our US operations would be better positioned as a listed company in the US, operating on a level-playing field under local regulatory rules."
Axa said that it intends to conduct a debt-for-equity swap ahead of the IPO that will include about $1 billion of outstanding debt owed by the US unit to the parent group. The swap will serve to ease the debt burden on the new US unit and move some loans of the parent's books, helping to boost its liquid assets.
AXA's US operations provide life insurance and other investment products to about 2.5 million customers. AllianceBernstein had assets under management of $498 billion at the end of March.
"This accelerates the financial flexibility of the group," noted Goldman Sachs analysts. "Overall, we view the listing news as significant and positive for the group."
AXA, also on Wednesday, announced first quarter revenues of €31.6 billion, down 0.1% on the same period last year and below on analyst consensus expectations of €31.9 billion.
Life & Savings revenues dipped 2.5% on a comparable basis to €17.1 million. Property & Casualty revenues climbed 2.1% to €13.4, while asset management, which includes AXA IM and AllianceBernstein, posted €1 billion of revenues, up 6.6%.
The company reaffirmed its key 2020 financial targets including an adjusted return on equity of 12% to 14% and underlying earnings per share growth of 3% to 7%.
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