NAVISTAR ACQUISITION STILL SEEMS TO BE FAR OFF

NAVISTAR ACQUISITION STILL SEEMS TO BE FAR OFF

There seems to be little reason to believe that Navistar International Corp. will make its long-awaited acquisition move in the market anytime soon despite quoted comments of a top company official last week that plans were under way.

The comments of Neil Springer, chairman of Chicago-based Navistar's operating arm Navistar International Transportation Corp., were reported nationally following an analysts' meeting in Los Angeles last week.But discussions with company officials and analysts indicate that the acquisition plans are no more under way now than they were last April when Navistar adopted a holding company structure to facilitate an acquisition.

While Mr. Springer's reported remarks raised hopes that the giant truck maker has finally set its sights on a new business, there are still no signs that it is doing anything more than looking around.

For the record, company officials are restricting comments to simple repetitions of past statements. The company is interested in diversifying into businesses where it can bring its management expertise and massive tax credits to bear, an official said this week.

But there seems to be no headlong rush to make it happen, and officials are still fond of quoting Navistar International Corp. chairman James C. Cotting's comment of last year that setting a timetable for an acquisition would be a prescription for disaster.

The report of Mr. Springer's remarks was greatly oversimplified, said one official, leading to the misinterpretation that a move may be imminent. But whether it is or whether it isn't, no one at the company will say for sure.

The betting among industry analysts is that it isn't.

Eli Lustgarten, an analyst with Paine Webber Inc. in New York, said he sees nothing in the remarks to indicate that a move is afoot.

If something came up . . . I mean, acquisitions are a part of their strategy, but they're focusing on their business and you just don't know the timing of it, said Mr. Lustgarten.

Gary McManus, an industry analyst with Merrill Lynch Economics Inc. in New York, sees the Navistar strategy as working on a three- to five-year time frame.

The sooner they are able to utilize their tax credits, the better off they'll be, but they don't want to go out to make an acquisition that doesn't make sense, Mr. McManus observed.

The tax credits at issue are net operating loss carryforwards, known as NOLs, which are available to reduce future taxable income. Navistar is carrying a huge bankroll of NOLs, amounting to $1.4 billion or more, left over

from its losses under the name of International Harvester Co.

The credits could be used to offset the tax liability of a cash-rich takeover target or potential merger partner. In fact, if the NOLs are not used, they will eventually expire. But that problem is still a long way off.

They don't expire until the end of the century, so don't worry about it, Mr. Lustgarten said. According to the company's annual report, only $8 million of the NOLs will run out between now and 1993, so the company is under little

pressure to make any quick-draw acquisitions.

But according to at least one analyst, who asked not to be identified, Navistar's seeming reluctance to wade into the fast and furious takeover market has been a disappointment.

I really have a hard time in understanding why they haven't made an acquisition of any size, the analyst said. I'm at a loss for words in trying to understand why they haven't made an acquisition.

The bargain days following the Oct. 19 stock market crash would have been a perfect time for Navistar to make its move, according to this analyst. And while the market has come back a bit, he feels there are still plenty of bargains. But there are still no signs that the company is ready to take the leap, said the analyst.

He argued that even though the bulk of Navistar's NOLs will not expire for years, the company's inaction is costly from the standpoint of the time- value of money concept.

But other industry observers see Navistar's recent history as being in part responsible for its caution. The company has spent most of the decade paring back its work force and selling off divisions in its brush with bankruptcy.

While Navistar's profitability has turned around, the company still seems to be in the empire-shrinking rather than the empire-building mode, one observer said.