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Telecom Italia Looks Vulnerable

Ray Le Maistre

Europe's traditional national operators will be keeping a close eye on Italy in the coming months to see if "one of their own" falls victim to a combination of modern-day market pressures and a faltering survival strategy.

The Italian incumbent is attracting interest from a number of potential buyers that sense the telco's vulnerability. According to a Bloomberg report, former Telstra Corp. Ltd. (ASX: TLS; NZK: TLS) and Orange (NYSE: FTE) CEO Sol Trujillo is aiming to raise €7.5 billion (US$9.5 billion) in order to buy a significant minority stake in the Italian operator and install himself as CEO.

Speculation that a bid might be on its way from the colorful Trujillo -- who has called his takeover plan Project Adriano -- gave Telecom Italia (TIM) 's share price a near 10% boost late last week to almost €1.00: The operator's stock currently stands at €0.92, giving it a market capitalization of nearly €16.9 billion ($21.4 billion). (See Sol-ong, Sol, Telstra CEO: Survival of the Bravest, Orange CEO Steps Down and Trujillo Named CEO of Orange.)

But it's not only Trujillo who has his eye on the Italian operator: Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, who knows the Italian telecoms scene well from his time as the owner of competitive mobile operator Wind Telecomunicazioni SpA , has approached the national carrier about investments in the past, and, according to this Reuters report, is still interested.

Telecom Italia is vulnerable because its financials are poor -- revenues for the first half of 2014 were down by 11.3% year-on-year to €10.55 billion ($13.4 billion), while earnings before non-cash goodwill charges were down 3.9% to €2.23 billion ($2.8 billion) -- and its strategy is in disarray: The operator failed in its efforts to strengthen its existing business in Brazil when it lost out in a bidding war to buy broadband operator GVT, and the sale of its operations in Argentina, agreed a year ago, has faltered, and is now being questioned by some investors. (See Telefónica, Telecom Italia in $9B Battle to Buy Brazil's GVT, Eurobites: Telefónica Seals Brazilian Deal and Euronews: Telecom Italia Bails Out of Argentina.)

For more coverage of the strategic pressures and opportunities facing operators and vendors in the communications market, see our business transformation content channel here on Light Reading.

So, Telecom Italia is under pressure in its domestic market, is having issues with its international holdings, and is having to deal with disgruntled investors: Something has to change, and that change could well start at the ownership level.

Europe's other incumbents will be keeping a close eye on developments for a number of reasons: If Telecom Italia does undergo a change of ownership, they'll be interested to see if any new owners have continental ambitions that might affect their operations; and they'll be interested to see how Telecom Italia's overseas portfolio shapes up, as pretty much every major European operator has international holdings of their own these days.

Most of all, though, they'll be looking at how Telecom Italia's overall strategy develops, and whether it has a positive or negative impact on its financials, which are already under strain from a sizable debt pile of €27.4 billion ($34.8 billion). Every national operator suffers from some of the same competitive and strategic pressures as Telecom Italia, and they'll want to assess, and learn from, its experiences.

— Ray Le Maistre, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Sabre
9/29/2014 | 10:06:06 PM
Re: Waiting for the domino effect

> With some of the major global players looking to bulk up, maybe the likes of
> AT&T will have another look at some prime Euro assets

Prime Assets? Are you referring to Teleom Itlaia here? With the year-on-year revenue decline, how can they be classified as prime?
User Rank: Blogger
9/29/2014 | 2:29:31 PM
Re: Waiting for the domino effect
The governments of most European countries retained "golden shares" in their PTTs for many years that gave them rights to block takeovers for reasons of national interest. But the European Court of Justice ruled that these powers of veto were anti-competitive and not in the best interests of Europe as a whole. 

The KPN case was different in that a special foundation (not a government entity) was created to protect KPN from hostile takeovers. These poison pill arrangements are quite typical in the Netherlands. Arguably America Movil could have gone to an EU court to contest the foundation's powers but by the time that would be settled hell would have frozen over. 

Portugal Telecom is now (a small) part of Oi, the Brazilian telco. 

A tie-up between TDC and TeliaSonera or Telenor might make sense but they would need to make concessions (disposals) to appease anti-trust concerns. 

Belgacom is still 53% owned by the Belgian government and hence immune to takeovers (as a sale would be poltically unpalatable). 

Eircom IPO has failed. Hutchison just bought O2 Ireland so that rules them out. BT might make sense. 

KPN - even America Movil appears to be losing interest having cut its stake from 25.7% in March to 22.6% at the end of June.

Gabriel Brown
Gabriel Brown,
User Rank: Light Sabre
9/29/2014 | 8:01:59 AM
Re: Waiting for the domino effect
Isn't there a sub-clause somewhere in European law: You shall not takeover an incumbent PTT operator and national champion?

Eircom, Telekom Austria, TDC, (and Sonera?) are examples of firms where that didn't quite hold. But then, take the recent case of KPN.
[email protected],
User Rank: Blogger
9/29/2014 | 7:48:52 AM
Waiting for the domino effect
If Telecom Italia changes hands, I do wonder what knock-on effect that might have on other ownership/strategic scenarios.

The major operators look solid enough for time being but what does the future hold for the likes of Portugal Telcom, TDC, KPN, eircom, Belgacom etc? Can they survive as standalone businesses, or will they become the prey of aggressive investors (some already have of course, with Carlos Slim having made his entry into Europe...)

With some of the major global players looking to bulk up, maybe the lieks of AT&T will have another look at some prime Euro assets. 
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