India’s Bharti Airtel & South African operator MTN returned to the bargaining table this week, over a merger that could create a $20 billion mobile giant. The potential deal is attractive for both parties & if successful, would create a leading telecommunications service provider group aligning Bharti’s market leading Indian business with MTN’s market leading African and Middle Eastern operations. Combined operations would result in the group enjoying leading positions in three of the fastest growing wireless emerging markets ; India, Africa & the Middle East, with no overlapping footprint & subscriber base of circa 200 million.
Under the terms of the deal Bharti will acquire a 49% shareholding in MTN, in turn MTN and its shareholders would acquire a 36% percent economic interest in Bharti, of which 25% would be held by MTN, the remainder held directly by MTN shareholders, with the long term goal being a fully merger. The two companies have agreed to continue exlusive discussions until the end of July, at which time any issues will be resolved or other potential partners will be engaged.
Sunil Bharti Mittal, Chairman and Managing Director of Bharti, said “We are delighted at the prospect of developing a partnership with MTN to create an emerging market telecom powerhouse. Both companies would stand to gain significant benefits from sharing each other’s best practices in addition to savings emanating from enhanced scale. We see real power in the combination and we will work hard to unleash it for all our shareholders.”
“The rationale for this potential transaction between MTN and Bharti is highly compelling,” said Phuthuma Nhleko, CEO of MTN. “We are excited at the prospect of teaming up with Bharti, India’s number one wireless operator and one of the most strongly capitalised players amongst its emerging market peer group. This would create a highly visible commercial partnership between South Africa and India,”
Bharti & MTN have been here before, almost exactly a year ago. Previous talks were torpedoed by a lack of clear understanding on control between the two companies. At the last minute, MTN proposed a different structure where Bharti was to become a subsidiary of MTN. Bharti retreated from the deal on the basis that it felt MTNs position was a way of gaining indirect control of the combined entity, which would have compromised the minority shareholders of Bharti. This time round it has been made clear from the start that Bharti will be the primary vehicle for both Bharti and MTN to pursue further expansion in India and Asia while MTN would be the primary vehicle for both Bharti and MTN to pursue further expansion in Africa and the Middle East. Most importantly, Bharti would have substantial participatory and governance rights in MTN enabling it to fully consolidate the accounts of MTN.
When this was announced earlier this week, I decided to hold off on posting, as I wanted to see what would forthcoming once the dust had settled & also to get a better feel for some of the more convoluted relationships involved. One of the potential major hurdles to this deal from my perspective was the stance of Singapore Telecom (SingTel) which owns a 30% stake in Bharti Airtel. Bloomberg reported that SingTel would end up with a diluted position of 20% at the end of any full merger between the two. However it would seem that this could be offset by synergies across all of the combined networks of Bharti, MTN & SingTel. In addition to its strong domestic business, SingTel owns Australian carrier SingTel Optus & holds significant stakes in carriers in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand, and the Philippines, commanding upwards of 290 million subscribers themselves. In the same Bloomberg report, SingTel spokesman Peter Heng states that “SingTel will remain a significant shareholder and strategic partner in Bharti post any successful transaction. We will continue to equity account for Bharti, in its enlarged form post the transaction if this is successful.”
Another potential challenge that was aired, is opposition by minority shareholders in MTN, however it has been reported today that the Mikati family which owns a 10% stake in MTN via the M1 Group, has said it will back the deal. The majority shareholder in MTN is South Africa’s state pension fund PIC, with a holding of 13.5%, to date there has been no statement from them. Other minority shareholders of MTN include Allan Gray, Polaris, Coronation and Stanlib, it would seem that these companies are not so bullish on the deal, at least not until further details come clear.
The South African press also gave some weight to the position of the highly politicised trade union federation COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) which recently tried to scupper the full takeover of Telkom’s stake in Vodacom by Vodafone. However, COSATU spokesman, Mr Patrick Craven, has said the MTN deal was a different situation to that of the national carrier ; “Telkom has always been 50% owned by the public & the move was part of our policy agenda against privatisation. MTN has always been a private company”
So it would seem that conditions are favourable to the potential transaction going forward, which would bring to fruition a long held ambition for Bharti to move into Africa, which remains the most underdeveloped of emerging markets regards telecoms. By leveraging across the combined networks of Bharti Airtel, MTN, SingTel & the Bridge Alliance (11 major operatots in Asia-Pac), the new Bharti-MTN will become a major powerhouse & definitely a very attractive investment for those involved in Global & Emerging Markets.