TEXT-Fitch affirms Telecom Italia at 'BBB'; outlook negative

Mon Feb 11, 2013 9:15am EST

KEY DRIVERS

- Leverage Remains High

TI ended 2012 with leverage - measured by unadjusted net debt to EBITDA, excluding Telecom Argentina - at around 2.75x, broadly unchanged since 2010. With continued declines in EBITDA, Fitch expects leverage will increase in 2013. Fitch's scenario analysis shows that under certain conditions, driven by a worsening macro-economic environment, and sluggish Brazilian growth, TI's leverage could breach the key 3.0x threshold, which would result in negative rating action.

- Domestic Strength and Weakness

TI's key strength is its strong position in the domestic fixed-line business, which underpins the high domestic EBITDA margin. A lack of cable competition in Italy means that TI is not facing an immediate threat from a triple-play competitor with a superior network advantage. It does not have the same pressure to rollout a fibre network as some other European incumbents. TI is relying on management's disciplined approach to controlling operating costs and capex to offset the pressure on the domestic business, as well as the increasing impact from a weak economy.

- Protecting Cash Flow Generation

The challenge facing TI is to maintain its domestic market position in an increasingly price competitive market while protecting free cash flow generation and reducing leverage. Improving efficiency in operations and capital expenditure should go some way to preserve profitability. Continued investment in long-term evolution mobile network upgrades and fibre deployment should allow TI to increasingly differentiate its service offering based on network quality.

- Limited Contribution from Brazil

Brazil currently provides just under 10% of the group's EBITDA less capex (excluding Telecom Argentina). Revenue growth expectations for 2013 and 2014 have been scaled back due to a slowing economy and higher than expected mobile termination rate cuts. Growth in 2015 and beyond could increase as economic growth picks up and regulatory and competitive challenges are overcome. TI also has to contest a legal case brought by the Brazilian tax authorities, claiming EUR550m in unpaid taxes. The judicial process is likely to be lengthy. TI believes it is in a good position and does not expect to incur any charges and therefore has not made any provision to cover this potential liability.

- Network Spin-off

TI has been considering spinning off its fixed network. The impact of such a transaction on TI's rating is difficult to assess at this stage given the different possible outcomes and therefore is treated as event risk (see 'Fitch: Impact of Possible Tel Italia Network Spin-off Unclear', dated 26 September 2012 for details of the factors that Fitch would consider in assessing such a move).

RATING SENSITIVITIES

Negative:

- Leverage as measured by unadjusted net debt to EBITDA (excluding Telecom Argentina) sustainably above 3.0x could result in TI's Long-term IDR being downgraded.

- Revenue and EBITDA trends in the domestic business in 2013 which are worse than that reported in 2012.

Positive:

- A revision of the Outlook on Italy's sovereign rating ('A-'/Negative) to Stable might result in a similar revision of the Outlook on Telecom Italia's IDR, as this would point to a lowering of macroeconomic and refinancing risk.

- A sustained improvement in the company's domestic business's operating and financial profile would be required before the Outlook on Telecom Italia's IDR could be revised to Stable.

LIQUIDITY AND DEBT STRUCTURE

Liquidity at TI remains healthy. TI had EUR8.18bn of cash and cash equivalents on its balance sheet at the end of 2012 as well as EUR7.95bn of undrawn committed facilities (which includes EUR4bn available till May 2017). Together, this liquidity should allow TI to cover debt maturities well into 2014.

FULL LIST OF RATING ACTIONS

Telecom Italia SpA

Long-term IDR: affirmed at 'BBB', Outlook Negative

Senior unsecured rating: affirmed at 'BBB'

Telecom Italia Capital and Telecom Italia Finance SA

Senior unsecured rating: affirmed at 'BBB'

Fitch may have provided another permissible service to the rated entity or its related third parties. Details of this service can be found on Fitch's website in the EU regulatory affairs page.