Skittish Investors Hammer Airbus on Report of US Corruption Investigation

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Shares of European aircraft maker Airbus plunged as much as 10% in Paris Thursday morning following a report in Le Monde that the U.S. Department of Justice has begun an official investigation into allegations of fraud, corruption and bribery from the company’s use of middlemen to negotiate on the company’s behalf with foreign government buyers.

Jumpy investors wasted no time dumping the stock, even though Airbus had revealed earlier this year that it was cooperating with U.S. officials who were seeking information about the company’s use of middlemen.

A similar investigation launched more than two years ago in the United Kingdom, France and Germany led Airbus to warn that it could face fines of up to €2 billion. That estimate could double or worse as a result of a U.S. investigation that goes against Airbus, and that’s what sent the shares tumbling Thursday.

Airbus admitted in August 2016 that it had failed to notify the proper authorities about using third-party agents to strike deals that it was then asking the U.K. government to back with financing guarantees. Once the company’s actions were revealed, Britain, France and Germany all suspended further guarantees for Airbus planes.

The European investigations have not been concluded, but some of the heads that have been rolling over the past several months at Airbus offices were once attached to some employees who paid out hundreds of millions of euros a year to middlemen who, almost assuredly, used at least some of the money to pay bribes. Aircraft industry analyst Richard Aboulafia joked at the time that in the United States such payments are illegal while in Europe they are tax-deductible.

Even worse than the possible fines would be restrictions on Airbus’s ability to sell planes in the United States. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby has been a staunch supporter of Airbus since the company built an assembly plant in the state, and he could play a significant role in any Justice Department investigation into the company’s business practices.

Airbus stock closed Thursday down about 4.5%, so it did make a decent recovery from a new 52-week low €78.83. The 52-week high is €111.16, and the 12-month consensus price target is €120.95.