Archive for September, 2009

Busy tones in Qatar, as Vodafone & QTel battle for hearts & minds

Vodafone QatarQatar‘s telecommunications sector is becoming increasingly competitive, both domestically and on the international stage.

The recently released Global Competitiveness Report 2009-10, prepared by the World Economic Forum (WEF), ranked Qatar as the most competitive economy in the Middle East and North Africa region, and 22nd overall out of the 133 countries assessed.

The country scored highly in the category of technological readiness, the ability of an economy to adopt existing technologies to enhance productivity. In particular, the WEF cited Qatar’s embrace of new communications technology as a factor that enhanced its competitiveness, saying, “The country has made great strides in harnessing the latest technologies, such as mobile telephony and broadband.”

Those great strides have seen Qatar ranked second in the world for per-capita mobile phone ownership, 37th for broadband internet subscriptions and 33rd for the total number of internet users.

While the willingness of Qataris to make use of the latest technological advances has helped to improve the country’s economic competitiveness at the international level, it is on the domestic stage where things are really heating up.

On March 1, a new era dawned, with Vodafone Qatar launching a limited mobile phone service, thus marking the end of Qtel‘s monopoly on the market. Full services covering around 99% of the country were launched in July.

Not surprisingly, Vodafone Qatar has experienced some teething problems, partly due to having to share some of Qtel’s infrastructure and in part as a result of the unexpectedly high levels of client pick up. In mid-September, Vodafone Qatar announced it passed the 100,000 subscriber mark. Though well ahead of the company’s own projections, and a good start towards its target of taking a 40 to 60% market share within 10 years, Vodafone Qatar still has a long way to go before it can truly rival Qtel, which has 1.9m subscribers on its books.

Despite having just a fraction of Qtel’s subscriber numbers, Vodafone has set out its stall, seeking to challenge the incumbent with different products and pricing packages. And it is the appeal of the new that is attracting at least some of Qtel’s existing customers to its rival, with the two companies basically providing similar services on mobile and internet platforms. Both companies have reduced costs for some mobile phone services and stepped up special offers, including cut-price internet downloads and cheap international calls.

One area that Qtel still retains an advantage in is the fixed-line segment. Though Vodafone is also supposed to provide fixed-line services, a launch date for such an operation has yet to be set, with the company saying in early September it had not as yet been issued the required licence by the Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology.

Though Vodafone (NYSE:VOD) may have to wait before it can mount its challenge to Qtel’s landline monopoly, the company has racked up a few impressive achievements in the past few months. The entrant’s initial public offering, which was concluded in April, raised $930m, with some 82,000 individual Qatari investors and 273 institutional investors taking a stake in the firm.

While Qtel is responding to the challenge offered by Vodafone, its domestic operations are just part of a much bigger corporate profile, with the company active in 17 separate countries across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, maintaining a subscriber base of around 52m. The company has declared its objective of becoming one of the world’s top-20 telecommunications firms by 2020, an aim it seems on track to achieve.

Despite having raised its debt levels in recent years to fund an ambitious acquisitions programme, Qtel has had little difficulty in rolling this debt over, despite the generally tight liquidity situation. In mid September, it renegotiated a loan of $2bn, arranging a forward start agreement on a revolving credit facility maturing in November, extending the credit by two years.

According to Qtel’s chief executive officer, Nasser Marafih, the company is focusing on consolidating three years’ worth of growth, though it would always keep watch for any opportunities that would augment its portfolio.

Qtel may be an international firm, but much of its recent expansion has yet to be translated into revenue streams. Till they do, Qtel will rely on its original core market to underpin its operations, though now it will have to contend with a competitive Vodafone on the other end of the line.

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Brazilian Banking, a tale of IPO’s & ADR issues

banco do brasilState controlled banking behemoth Banco de Brasil has been involved in a three way battle with it’s private peers Itau-Unibanco (NYSE:ITUB) & Banco de Bradesco (NYSE:BBD) for some time for dominance in the growing domestic banking sector. Having surpassed ITUB in the second quarter, mainly due to lower interest rates attracting borrowers, Banco de Brasil has now announced that is looking to change it’s stance regards international stockholders.

Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the company revealed that the bank is now looking to double the potential foreign ownership in Bovespa traded shares from the current 11% by raising it’s free float of shares to 25%.

On the same call, she also advised that the bank has appointed an advisory bank regards launching an ADR offering on the NYSE, similar to it’s two biggest rivals, the programme could be launched by the end of this year.

“We are talking about two movements that aim to improve the attractiveness of the shares,” Marco Geovanne Tobias da Silva, said in a telephone interview with Bloomberg. “We are increasing the number of potential investors to our shares.”

Banco de Brasil has performed well this year, having outperformed the Bovespa average by some margin. As we have discussed in previous articles, the banking sector in Brazil has been going through a wave of consolidation & the state bank has just added to its growing portfolio via the acquisition of a 49.99% stake in Banco Votorantim for 4.2 billion reals ($2.3Bn) earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Spain’s Santander (NYSE:STD) is now looking at a local IPO that should see an initial raising of $200 million (equivalent to 15% of current valuation) that will be used to expand its reach across the country. At the same time, Santander also said that it will launch an ADR programme for the local listing.

With only a single IPO so far this year with Visa affiliate VisaNet, Brazil now has 12 companies that have registered since the end of July for potential listings. The VisaNet launch was hugely oversubscribed & raised a Brazilian record of $4.5Bn in its sale, much to the benefit of Bradesco.

Much of this is fuelled by local retail interest, as the Brazilian middle classes are growing, however, there are also signs that foreign investors are looking at Brazil as the next BRIC economy to really get going, with Credit Suisse (NYSE:CS) coming out with a bullish statement yesterday.

“Brazil is in style for foreigners,” said Ilan Ryfer at Credit Suisse Hedging Griffo, Brazil’s biggest hedge fund. “Everyone thinks it’s a bull market again and the party’s back. Investors have short memories.”

Much of the excitement around Brazilian stocks is fuelled by its BRIC partner China, as the Chinese economy starts to lift again, commodities are very much back in vogue. South Africa’s Investec Asset Management is looking at Brazil & neighbours Chile & Peru to lead the way in South America, as Chinese demand for raw materials is set to grow.

So Viva Brasilia !! & being a bull on emerging markets & Brazil in particular, I am looking forward to the Banco de Brasil & Santander IPO’s with great interest.

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Positive transportation figures, indicate good news for Malaysia ETF

CB018552Like many sectors of the Malaysian economy, the country’s transport industry has experienced a decline in activity due to the global recession. Though there are some signs that Malaysia‘s transporters are again moving in the right direction, other signals suggest a full recovery is still some time off.

There was mixed news for the transport sector in data released by the Department of Statistics on August 26, which showed that while still in recession, the rate of negative growth in the Malysian economy is slowing. Having declined by 6.2% in the first quarter of 2009, GDP contracted by 3.9% in the second, the curve being smoothed out due to increased public spending and positive growth in private consumption. This should be encouraging for the transport sector, which has seen productivity fall as demand for moving cargo locally and internationally plunged.

Less equivocal data indicating an improvement in the sector came in early August, with statistics showing a sharp rise in cargo-handling activity at Malaysia‘s ports. Movements of containers at the country’s 10 major ports rose by 10.2% in the second quarter compared to the first three months of the year, with 3.79m twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) being handled against 3.44m TEUs in the first quarter. Of the second-quarter figure, 2.49m TEUs was trans-shipment traffic, up 11.7% on the previous quarter; 670,718 TEUs carried exports, a rise of 10.2%; and the remaining 640,469 TEUs containing imports, a 4.4% increase.

While a solid performance, the six-month total of container movements was still down 7.7% on the January-to-July figure for 2008, though this decrease in activity is far less than that recorded by some of Malaysia’s near neighbours, with throughput at ports in Thailand and the Philippines down by 35% and 20.6%, respectively.

Another hint that the transport sector is on the road to recovery was a jump in commercial vehicle sales, which hit a six-month high in July, with 4800 units rolling off the lots, almost 20% higher than the previous month.

Exhibiting robust health is national carrier Malaysia Airlines (MAS), which posted its best-ever quarterly net profit in the April-to-June term, bouncing back from losses of $193.7m in the first quarter and $244m in the second. Key to the airline’s return to form was an aggressive advertising campaign, cost reductions, cutting fares on off-peak flights to increase passenger take up, and reversing losses on fuel hedging.

It is not just MAS that benefitted from the steep drop in fuel prices, one of the transport sector’s highest costs. In the 12 months to the end of July, transport charges had fallen by 19.9%, according to figures released by the Department of Statistics in mid-August, though this could reverse as the price of fuel has once again started to climb. Month on month, transport charges rose by 0.1% in July, in line with the overall movement of the consumer price index.

If, as is widely predicted, the Malaysian economy continues its push out of recession in the third quarter and returns to positive growth in the fourth, the upturn should carry the transport sector in its wake, especially if the pick up in domestic demand is matched by that in the country’s export markets. Our expectation is that this would confirm that the iShares MSCI Malaysia Index Fund (NYSE:EWM) is set to add to its succesful growth over the last 6 months. The Malaysia ETF has not exploded as some of its emerging market counterparts, but has shownsteady & sustained growth, with very little volatility. A solid buy in torrid times.

Malaysia ETF

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Kudrin Upbeat on oil, should we upbeat on RSX ?

Alexei KudrinRussia has been hard hit by the current economic crisis & especially by the decline in oil prices this year. According to Economics Ministry data, Russia’s GDP declined by 9.3% in July 2009 year-on-year and 10.2% in the first seven months of the year. Energy products, including crude oil & natural gas, accounted for 65.5% of exports in the first half, while metals made up 12.1%.

According to Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin, the Russian economy will be on the rise again as early as in the third quarter of 2009.

“We still do not have the final data for the second quarter, but we expect Russia’s economy to grow in the third quarter compared to the second quarter, and the third quarter will mark the end of recession,” Kudrin told a news conference whilst in London attending the G20 summit

Russia has recently raised forecasts for the price of oil and is now looking at revising its views on gross domestic product (GDP), Kudrin said last week. The Economy Ministry now sees Urals oil averaging $57 a barrel this year, up from the $54 forecast previously & the average price of crude is projected to increase gradually to $58 in 2010, $59 in 2011 and $60 in 2012.

With 40% of  the Market Vectors Russia ETF Trust (NYSE: RSX) predicated on energy, it is plain that energy prices need to remain stable if not advance in the light of the news above, if it is to become more attractive to risk averse investors. Trading at $23.54 off of a 52 month low of $10.34, it is still a long way off of its high of $40.75.

RSX

Standard & Poors retained it’s BBB rating on Russia last Thursday, which would seem to allay some fears, as it was widely expected that the rate would be cut. The ratings agency also noted that by the end of 2012, with net debt levels at 14% of GDP, Russia’s public balance sheet remains superior to the BBB rating median of 42% of GDP.

The government is also now tapping its $85.7 billion Reserve Fund & $90.7 billion National Wellbeing fund, which were built on windfall oil revenues, to pay for an “anti-crisis” program that is worth about 2.5 trillion rubles ($79 billion).

Personally, I am positive on Russia long term & feel that this ETF offers value for a long term portfolio, year to date, it has returned 75.4% & I reckon it has further to go. Lately it has been trading in a choppy pattern & has suffered a significant retrace, but with S&P confirming it’s rating, I’ll be looking closely at the price of crude & natural gas over the next month or so, any gain there & I’ll be adding with an expectation of an additional 25% gain this year.

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