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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Ahead of election, Pakistan seals plan to sell national airline

The government decided to privatize PIA just weeks after signing the IMF agreement.

Ahead of elections next week, Pakistan’s caretaker administration is making binding plans for a new government to sell loss-making Pakistan International Airlines, according to the minister in charge of the process and other officials.

In the past, elected governments have shied away from undertaking unpopular reforms, including the sale of the flag carrier. But Pakistan, in deep economic crisis, agreed in June to overhaul loss-making state-owned enterprises under a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3 billion bailout.

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The government decided to privatize PIA just weeks after signing the IMF agreement.

The caretaker administration, which took office in August to oversee the Feb. 8 election, was empowered by the outgoing parliament to take any steps needed to meet the budgetary targets agreed with the IMF.

“Our job is 98% done,” Privatisation Minister Fawad Hasan Fawad told Reuters when asked about the plan to sell the airline. “The remaining 2% is just to bring it on an excel sheet after the cabinet approves it.”

Fawad said the plan, drawn up by transaction adviser Ernst & Young, will be presented to the cabinet for approval before the tenure of the administration ends following the election. The cabinet will also decide whether to sell the stake by tender or through a government-to-government deal, Fawad said.

“What we have done in just four months is what past governments have been trying to do for over a decade,” Fawad said. “There is no looking back.”

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Details of the privatisation process have not been previously reported.

PIA had liabilities of 785 billion Pakistani rupees ($2.81 billion) and accumulated losses of 713 billion rupees as of June last year. Its CEO has said losses in 2023 were likely to be 112 billion rupees.

Progress on the privatisation will be a key issue if the incoming government goes back to the IMF once the current bailout programme expires in March. Caretaker Finance Minister Shamshad Akhtar told reporters last year that Pakistan would have to remain in IMF programmes after the expiry.

Two sources close to the process told Reuters that a 51% stake with full management control would be offered to buyers after parking the airline’s debts in a separate entity, under the 1,100 page report from Ernst & Young.

Reuters could not independently confirm the contents of the report. Fawad did not give specific details of the size of the stake to be sold, but confirmed the plan involved the carrier’s debts being spun off into a separate entity.

Ernst & Young did not respond to requests for comment.

PIA spokesman Abdullah Hafeez Khan said the airline was assisting the privatisation process, extending “full cooperation” to the transaction adviser.

FAST-TRACKED

Besides operational and technical measures for PIA’s divestment, the caretaker government has also amended a 2016 law that had blocked selling off its majority shares, according to a draft posted on the Pakistan parliament’s website.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is tipped by analysts to win the election with support from the powerful military. Its main political rival has been decimated by the arrest of its leader Imran Khan and a crackdown on its members.

Sharif’s close aide Ishaq Dar, who has been his finance minister previously and has been named by the party to retain the portfolio if it forms the next government, told Reuters that the sale of PIA will be fast-tracked.

“It will, God willing, move ahead with fast speed,” he said.

In a report in mid-January, the IMF expressed satisfaction over the measures initiated by the caretaker government to accelerate reforms of state-owned enterprises, specifically mentioning the amendment of the PIA privatisation law.

Under the privatisation plan submitted by Ernst & Young to the government on Dec. 27, government-guaranteed legacy debt and payables – which are held by a consortium of seven domestic banks – will be parked in a holding company, Fawad and two sources involved in the process said.