Walmart Rekindles Talks for Sale of Stake in UK's Asda Grocery Stores

Following a three-month pause to implement its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Walmart Inc. (NYSE: WMT) has restarted talks related to the sale of United Kingdom grocer Asda. The company told Bloomberg that it was discussing a possible sale with a “small number” of interested parties.

Before closing down earlier discussions in April, Walmart had received bids for Asda from private equity firms Apollo Global Management Inc. (NYSE: APO), Lone Star Funds and the United Kingdom’s TDR Capital, among others. These three were invited to make a second round of bids, according to an unnamed Bloomberg source that would have valued Walmart’s stake at around $9.2 billion.

Walmart acquired Asda in 1999, and the British firm operates more than 630 stores in Britain.

In April of 2018, Walmart reached an agreement with another U.K. grocer, Sainsbury, to merge the Asda and Sainsbury chains. Walmart would have retained a 42% stake in the combined company and received a cash payment of $3 billion.

A year later, the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority blocked the proposed merger saying that combining the country’s second- and third-largest grocery chains “would lead to increased prices, reduced quality and choice of products, or a poorer shopping experience for all of their UK shoppers.”

While private equity firms and grocery store chains have a checkered track record, a successful acquisition followed by a public stock offering can pay off big. Apollo reaped a 10-times reward when Sprouts Farmers Market Inc. (NYSE: SFM) went public in 2013. Shares currently trade at around 37% above their initial public offering (IPO) price of $18, after dropping to a low of $13 in mid-March.

More recently, the IPO of Albertsons Companies Inc. (NYSE: ACI) went out at $16 per share, well below its expected range and with a sharply lowered number of shares included. Cerberus Capital Management, the leader of an investment group that owned Albertsons, had sold a 17% stake in the company to Apollo just ahead of the late June IPO. Albertsons was saddled with nearly $8.5 billion in long-term debt at the end of its 2019 fiscal year in February.

Private equity firms reportedly sitting on a cash pile some $1.45 trillion high are more interested in finding new investments rather than using some of that cash to support firms they already own. The Wall Street Journal noted that between March 1 and June 14 of this year, 34 U.S. firms backed by private equity firms have filed for bankruptcy protection, among which are Hertz, Neiman Marcus and J.Crew.

While propping up a struggling business is not something private equity firms might be too excited about, Asda is not struggling. Comparable store sales were up 3.5% for the three-month period through March, and grocery spending throughout the United Kingdom rose by 13.7% in the same period, according to Bloomberg. Asda is the country’s third-largest grocer, trailing only Tesco and Sainsbury.

Walmart stock traded down about 0.1% at $131.57 Monday morning, in a 52-week range of $102.00 to $134.13. The stock’s consensus 12-month price target is $135.93.

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