Thales fancies Safran on its Italian dish

No one expects there will be a big bang of consolidation in the European aerospace and defence industry.

More consolidation may well occur, but if so it is likely to be a far more gentle, step-by-step evolution.

At this week’s Paris Air Show, the consolidation buzz continued to focus around Thales, Safran and Finmeccanica. Not for the first time, pundits were placing bets on a possible merger between the French Safran and Thales, both part-owned by the Paris government.

Others talked up the possibility of a broader European defence electronics combination between Thales and Italy’s Finmeccanica.

These two already know and like each other and co-operate within the space sector.

Indeed, Denis Ranque, the Thales chief executive, suggested in a light-hearted vein that his company could conceivably be tempted to indulge in “a little Italian cuisine with a touch of Safran”.

As anybody who has tasted risotto will know, the two go perfectly together.

Yet he was also quick to say that Thales, now free of debts and ready for fresh acquisitions, was in no hurry to throw its money around.

His problem is that although a deal could be struck with Finmeccanica – assuming the Italian government agrees – it could hamper at this stage his longstanding efforts to acquire the choice aerospace morsels of Safran.

But the French aero-engine and aerospace components group is still in the throes of restructuring its hodgepodge of other businesses, notably its loss-making mobile handset manufacturing activities.

Complicating matters, Safran is also heavily exposed to the weak US dollar and Thales would clearly require some comfort on Safran’s currency hedging abilities.

Sorting out Safran is likely to take all summer so Mr Ranque, renowned for his patience, is quite happy to sit back and wait.

He can well afford to do so because this time round he has no EADS breathing down his neck.

The Franco-German group has enough problems of its own to sort out and its French co-chief executive, Louis Gallois, even told the Financial Times this week that EADS simply did not have the money at the moment to revive its old takeover designs on Thales.

So when Safran is finally cleaned up and ready, Mr Ranque will be able to weigh up all his options.

And because he does not want all of Safran, it may make more sense for him to pursue a step-by-step strategy with a sprinkling of Safran to spice up an eventual deal with Finmeccanica.

Electric charge

President Nicolas Sarkozy is bulldozing through his programme of reforms and tax cuts, causing growing concern among his European partners. At this week’s European summit he will no doubt come under heavy questioning on his budgetary arithmetic.

In spite of all these worried European mutterings, the ebullient Mr Sarkozy remains confident he can pull off his budgetary balancing act.

Adding to his confidence may just be the fact that his state holdings are surfing the bull market wave and offering a tantalising opportunity to take some profit.

Look at Electricité de France. The state-controlled electricity utility’s shares have been powering ahead during the past months.

They have become a darling of investors, notwithstanding the fact EDF has been a notable absentee in the latest round of European energy consolidation.

Both UBS and Société Générale on Thursday raised their price targets for EDF, sending the shares more than 5 per cent higher and turning it into the single most valuable company on the CAC-40.

Indeed, EDF has now overtaken Total, the French oil major that has long dominated the Paris blue chip index.

The government still owns about 86 per cent of EDF, giving it plenty of leeway to sell another block of shares before hitting the 70 per cent state ownership floor it has pledged to the unions that it will maintain.

At current prices, a 16 per cent chunk of EDF would fetch more than €22.5bn on the market.

Should this not be enough, Mr Sarkozy could also dispose of the state’s remaining stake in Renault, shares in which are also now trading at a high.

A decision, however, will have to be taken quickly before the froth finally fades and the bears move into the market.

The sale of another slice of EDF and the remaining piece of Renault are bound to stir up noisy union protests.

But Mr Sarkozy, now basking in huge popularity at home, would probably get away with these controversial disposals of state assets if he moved swiftly.

This may no longer be the case after a few months when France returns to work after the long summer holidays and the post-election euphoria starts to wane.

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