By Francesca Landini, Abhinav Ramnarayan and Stephen Jewkes
MILAN (Reuters) - Italy's Leonardo shelved a listing of its U.S. electronics unit DRS in a surprise move that sent shares in the defence and aerospace firm down on Wednesday.
Leonardo, which had hoped to use the proceeds from the initial public offering (IPO) to cut its debt pile and fund potential M&A, said adverse market conditions had prevented an adequate valuation of the unit.
"The IPO was hit by expectations the U.S. administration could trim its military spending to focus on its stimulus package for the whole economy," one source close to the matter told Reuters.
Leonardo, which had been looking to complete the listing by the end of March, was offering about 22% of DRS on the New York bourse, valuing the stake at up to $702 million.
One of Europe's biggest defence players, the state-controlled firm formerly named Finmeccanica bought DRS in 2008 in a deal valuing DRS at $5.2 billion, including $1.27 billion debt.
On Wednesday Leonardo said the decision to postpone the offering was made "notwithstanding investor interest within the price range during the course of the roadshow."
Demand for the IPO was not bad, but was skewed towards hedge funds and other speculative investors, creating the risk of a lacklustre performance for DRS shares once listed on the New York Stock Exchange, another source with knowledge of the matter said.
"Since Leonardo is not a forced seller, it decided to pull the share sale," the source added.
Leonardo shares closed down 6% after falling to a loss of 10% at one point. This triggered calls for changes at the group from Italy's League party.
"There is an urgent need for a new management able to work with serenity and industrial vision and to ensure the necessary credibility on the international markets," League party leader Matteo Salvini said in a statement.
Volumes for IPO have hit their highest levels in years in 2021 on both sides of the Atlantic. But, in a low-rate environment, the emphasis has been on growth sectors such as technology and e-commerce, with traditional sectors such as defence meeting with a more muted response from investors.
The IPO of DRS, which counts the U.S. military as a customer, was launched last week.
DRS specialises in naval systems, ground combat mission command and network computing, satellite communications and network infrastructure, avionics and other equipment.
"The IPO will potentially be revisited when market conditions are more favourable and a successful IPO at an appropriate valuation ... can be achieved," Leonardo said.
The IPO was meant to provide fresh financial resources for Leonardo, which saw its net debt increase to 3.3 billion euros last year, from 2.8 billion euros in 2019.
The group is sitting on a large buffer of liquidity but with the airline sector hurting from the pandemic, demand is down and its Aerostructures division is expected to absorb 350 million to 400 million euros of cash in 2021.
(Additional reporting by Cristina Carlevaro, editing by Agnieszka Flak, Jason Neely and Cynthia Osterman)