The financial troubles of Telecom Italia SpA are prompting Barclays Plc and BTIG LLC to predict the company will sell Tim Participacoes SA in Brazil, altering the balance of power in the fifth-largest wireless market.
A breakup of the nation’s second-biggest carrier, spreading its assets and subscribers among its rivals, is the most viable option because Brazilian regulator Anatel is unlikely to approve an outright merger of Tim with a single large competitor, said a team of Barclays analysts led by Jonathan Dann. An outsider such as as Vodafone Group Plc could also buy a stake or all of Tim, said Walt Piecyk, an analyst at BTIG in New York.
Divvying up Tim would be a boon for Brazil’s three other major mobile-phone providers -- Telefonica Brasil SA, America Movil SAB and Oi SA -- since removing a competitor would ease pressure on price competition. The government would also find that scenario more palatable than allowing one Brazilian operator to acquire all of Tim’s 73 million customers, said Richard Dineen, an analyst at HSBC Holdings Plc.
“Anatel has to look at the implications structurally -- is this going to serve consumer interests better? Will investments improve?” Dineen said. “Consolidation could be good if stronger players are made and are more able to invest in the sector.”
Tim’s press office at its Rio de Janeiro headquarters referred all questions to Telecom Italia, where a spokesman in Milan declined to comment.
Telecom Italia’s biggest shareholders, including Telefonica, have resumed negotiations over their six-year investor accord that can be revoked this month, people familiar with the matter said today. The investor pact can be dissolved by the end of this week -- or else it will be extended through February 2015, with another exit window in August 2014.
Tim rose 3.4 percent to 10.11 reais at the close in Sao Paulo, valuing the company at 24.4 billion reais ($11.1 billion).
Tim’s success in subscriber gains has made it the best option for its Italian parent company to raise money, said Robin Bienenstock, a London-based analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. The carrier is the top Brazilian telecommunications pick among analysts, with 13 buys, seven holds and no sells. That’s because of its aggressive pricing and push to be the first to offer data and text messaging to a wider audience, said Renato Pasquini, manager of Latin American telecommunications at Frost & Sullivan in Sao Paulo.
Telecom Italia needs to reduce its debt by at least 2.2 billion euros ($3 billion) this year and longer-term must raise 7.3 billion euros to avoid a crippling credit downgrade to junk, Barclays said. The Milan-based carrier is considering selling shares to outside buyers, people familiar with the matter said last week. Its biggest shareholder, Madrid-based Telefonica SA, may double its holdings by buying out other investors or may take part in a capital increase on the condition that Tim be sold, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private.
“The interest in consolidation for the sale of Tim has nothing to do with how Tim is performing in the market -- it has to do with the leverage that exists within its parent company in Europe,” Piecyk said. “Nothing has to change at Tim. The need for a sale has everything to do with the parent and nothing to do with how Tim is operating.”
Rather than try to raise more capital, Barclays prefers for Telecom Italia to sell Tim, which would “imply immediate proceeds, reducing leverage and avoiding a dilutive rights issue” for the European company, according to Dann’s note on Sept. 16.
Tim is the fastest-growing mobile phone operator in Brazil with a 27 percent share as of July, behind only Telefonica Brasil’s Vivo brand with 29 percent, according to data compiled by consulting group Teleco. Tim was the first to offer unlimited calls, and its cheap prices have lured customers from other operators, Pasquini said.
“It’s working well -- the company is growing and its cash-flow generation is improving,” Pasquini said.
Telefonica Brasil’s parent company, Telefonica, would stand to gain a third of Tim’s market share if it assumed control of Telecom Italia and split up and sold parts of Tim, creating a three-player market, Dineen said. While the Spanish company already owns a 10.4 percent stake in Telecom Italia, Anatel currently requires Telefonica to recuse itself from Telecom Italia’s strategic decisions in Brazil. Telefonica spokesmen in Spain and Brazil declined to comment.
“Telefonica gets the benefit of an increased stake in a recapitalized Telecom Italia and gets the upside of a sale of Tim,” Dineen said. “It’s obviously the way they’d prefer it to play out.”
Telecom Italia climbed 3.4 percent to 59 euro cents in Milan. Telefonica slid less than 1 percent to 11.27 euros on the Madrid exchange.
The question is whether Anatel will allow just three players, since regulators around the world have debated whether that number is enough to sustain healthy competition. The U.S. government blocked AT&T Inc. in 2011 from acquiring Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Mobile unit to preserve a four-carrier market. In Germany, European Union regulators are reviewing Telefonica’s merger of its local unit with Royal KPN NV’s E-Plus division, a bellwether case on the continent since it would reduce the market to three companies.
Tim is free to do whatever type of merger or deal it wants, with the terms submitted to Anatel for review beforehand, a press official at the agency said. Anatel would examine how a transaction would affect competition and market concentration, he said.
“It’s unclear if the regulator is ready to allow consolidation in the market,” Piecyk said of Anatel. “You’d have to look to an external buyer for Tim.”
Those potential buyers also don’t have a clear path to take Tim. Vodafone is occupied with the $130 billion sale of its Verizon Wireless stake to partner Verizon Communications Inc. AT&T Inc., which has said it’s interested in entering the European market, already has a partner in Latin America through its 9 percent ownership of America Movil.
DirecTV -- which offers satellite service in Brazil, has bought assets there such as wireless airwaves in the past and had been interested in buying Vivendi SA’s Brazilian unit GVT earlier this year -- could be a candidate to buy Tim, Dineen said.
Simon Gordon, a Vodafone spokesman; Darris Gringeri, a DirecTV spokesman; and Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, declined to comment.
Tim had risen 19 percent this year in Sao Paulo trading through last week, compared with a 41 percent drop for Oi and a 1.4 percent increase for Telefonica Brasil. America Movil, which owns the Claro brand in Brazil, has slid 14 percent in Mexico City.
“Tim is at the peak of its value,” Pasquini said. “The company’s evolution in the Brazilian market was terrific.”