Is this the end of the line for TNT?

What was perhaps TNT’s last chance at continued independence ended today with the publication of the company’s fourth-quarter and full-year 2011 results.

On Friday, after European stock markets closed, TNT Express announced that it had rejected an offer by UPS to buy the Netherlands-based integrated express company for EUR9 per share – 42% above Friday’s close of EUR6.34 – for a total of EUR4.9 billion. UPS confirmed both the offer and the rejection, and both companies said that discussions were continuing. When markets reopened this week, TNT’s share price rose more than 60%, in the expectation of a bidding war between UPS and FedEx that could see a winning offer as high as EUR15 per share.

There has been considerable dissatisfaction among TNT’s shareholders over the company’s performance since it was spun out as a standalone last year, and pressure for a sale has been steadily mounting. But as pressure to sell increased, TNT’s performance continued to suffer. This, in combination with a fall of the euro against the dollar, has weakened TNT’s negotiating position in any potential sale.

Had there been signs of a turnaround in the fourth-quarter results, it is possible that shareholders could have been persuaded it was in their best interest to preserve TNT, or at least hold off on selling until it was clear whether performance improvements would continue. But a fourth-quarter operating loss of EUR104 million and a net loss of EUR173 million have likely sealed the company’s fate.

In her summary of the quarter and the year, and the outlook for 2012, CEO Marie Christine Lombard painted an optimistic picture. She pointed to TNT’s solid position in Europe, and said that the company had “ample opportunity to grow” in that region. Looking ahead, she acknowledged that outside of Europe TNT was not doing well, but said that a new strategy of outsourcing long-haul lift and “exploring partnership opportunities” for domestic operations in China and Brazil – operations that are bleeding money – would allow the company to thrive.

This rosy view is unlikely to be shared by investors, and the big question in most observers’ minds now is not whether TNT will be sold, but when. And to whom.

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