The sale of one of the world's top aircraft leasing companies to a Chinese consortium is the boldest signal yet that China's aviation industry will increasingly look to the cash-rich home market for specialist finance to support its expanding fleet.
International Lease Finance Corp (ILFC), the aviation arm of U.S. insurer AIG (AIG.N) which confirmed the $4.8 billion sale on Monday, joins a growing number of homegrown Chinese leasing firms looking to exploit the world's fastest growing air market.
For China, the rise of a powerful air finance industry is a third pillar in its aviation development, alongside parts manufacturing and assembly for foreign planemakers like Airbus and Beijing's own Comac C919 commercial jetliner project.
"It's a huge investment and (ILFC) are the second biggest leasing company in the world," said Paul Sheridan, chief Asia consultant for specialist aviation think-tank Ascend.
China is seen as one of the most promising markets for aircraft leasing, in which airlines rent aircraft to keep the cost of ownership off their balance sheets.
The world's second-largest economy will need 5,260 new aircraft worth $670 billion through 2031, according to Boeing Co. About half of these new planes would be owned by leasing firms, adding about $100 billion to the market size which is expected to rise to $268 billion in the next two decades.
PLANE PURCHASES NOT KEEPING UP WITH DEMAND
China is a major purchaser from both Airbus (EAD.PA) and Boeing (BA.N), often in batches of 100 or more aircraft to coincide with state visits in the spirit of balancing U.S. and European supplies.
But government-coordinated purchases have failed to keep pace with demand, leaving a gap in the market for lessors armed with speculative orders.
"We believe that there are not enough aircraft in order in China at the moment. (Buying ILFC) will help Chinese airlines to get more aircraft," Ascend's Sheridan said.
Until now, that has been an advantage for ILFC and its main rival GECAS, the air leasing arm of General Electric (GE.N), as they compete with China's own domestic lessors.
"They are growing but not at the expense of ILFC," said Henri Courpron, the chief executive of ILFC, which is expected to remain U.S.-based with the same management after the sale.
"We have something that they don't have - an order book," he said before the deal was announced.
Chinese lessors have so far been growing by doing sale and leasebacks with cash-constrained airlines and by purchasing from other leasing companies.