20 May 2013

Analysts weigh up Meridian ahead of share offer

7:34 am on 20 May 2013

Now the Government has confirmed it will sell shares in Meridian Energy before the end of the year, investors are starting to run the rulers over its accounts.

Meridian is much bigger than Mighty River Power which the Government's sell-down valued at $3.5 billion.

In 2012, Meridian's revenue was $2.5 billion compared with Mighty River Power's $1.9 billion.

However, Meridian's operating earnings were only $459 million compared with the $467 million Mighty River Power reported.

Devon Funds Management analyst Phillip Anderson says two dry years affecting central South Island lakes weighed on Meridian but he believes that investors will, in the long run, price the company on the basis of a more average generation year.

He says Meridian is even more dependant on hydro generation than Mighty River, which can mean its profitability swings from year to year depending on rainfall, particularly in the Mackenzie Country in the central South Island.

Milford Asset Management analyst William Curtayne estimates Meridian is worth more than $5 billion.

He says Meridian's normalised annual operating earnings are more like $700 million.

Mr Curtayne says that, because Meridian is so much bigger, the Government will want to attract more retail investors than was the case for Mighty River Power, in which nearly 114,000 people bought shares.

"What they want to do with Meridian is they've got to attract a bigger number, and if Mighty River Power has a lot of success between now and the listing, and is up something like 10%, then it shouldn't be hard to entice a lot more retail investors who will feel they have missed out in Mighty River Power and will want to get into the next one."

But Mr Curtayne says if Mighty River Power doesn't perform well and stays around current levels, the Government may need to offer some extra incentives which could include giving a more attractive bonus issue, giving a discount to retail investors

He says the Government could make the pricing more attractive by selling Meridian more cheaply than it sold Mighty River Power.

Mr Curtayne says that could bring in a bigger pool of retail investors to keep the proportion of offshore ownership at about the same level as it was for Mighty River Power, rather than having to sell more to institutions because it could not get the required demand.

He says the Government might also opt for a two-tier approach, selling the Meridian shares in two tranches between three and six months apart.

Mr Curtayne says one issue which will make the float's pricing tricky is the uncertainty over the future of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter but, because Meridian may be able to sell that power elsewhere for higher prices, Tiwai's closure could even be positive for the company.