* CFO sees "significant" disposals ahead of year-end
* Gazprom seen as potential buyer-analyst
* Company needs to protect credit rating
* Says 9-month revenue rises to 70.9 bln euros
* 9-month EBITDA up to 12.8 bln euros
(Adds details from conference call, analyst comment)
By Michel Rose
PARIS, Oct 31 French utility GDF Suez
could carry out a major asset disposal by the end of the year to
protect its credit rating going into what it said would be a
The group's net debt rose 8.3 billion euros in the first
nine months of the year to 45.9 billion euros, swollen by the
buyout of minority shareholders in British energy group
International Power earlier this year.
In order to keep an "A" debt rating, which allows GDF to
borrow at what it said are historically low rates of 4.32
percent, the group said asset sales were on the cards.
"Significant disposals could be done by the end of the year
but without any significant impact on the 2012 EBITDA (earnings
before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation)," Chief
Financial Officer Isabelle Kocher said on a conference call.
Russian state-controlled gas giant Gazprom could
be one of a number of potential buyers, having already flagged
its interest in expanding into European gas production.
"If GDF wants to sell some European generation assets I can
almost guarantee Gazprom gets a call," said one analyst who
asked not to be identified.
"(GDF) did buy back International Power earlier this year,
and now they have full control over these assets it wouldn't be
surprising if they looked into it and say let's offload some of
them right now," said the analyst who declined to be named
because of company policy.
GDF earlier this year announced a 3 billion euro divestment
plan on top of the 10 billion euros of assets it planned to sell
between 2011 and 2013.
In April, GDF said it had yet to identify the assets it will
sell but would focus on those located in mature markets. In May,
it sold a stake in a power and water plant in Bahrain.
Analysts said selling some European gas generation assets
could be the fastest way for the group to meet its target for a
net debt-to-EBITDA ratio of 2.5 by the end of the year.
The group posted a 5.8 percent rise in nine-month core
profits thanks to higher gas tariffs in France, and stuck to its
full-year goals despite a tough economic environment in Europe.
EBITDA would have grown a more modest 1 percent without the
impact of higher French gas tariffs.
"Market conditions in Europe remain difficult and we don't
see any improvement from this area coming from the markets in
the near future," Chief Executive Gerard Mestrallet told a
conference call with analysts.
"We are therefore anticipating a difficult year in 2013,"
the CEO added.
WEIGHING ON MARGINS
The economic slowdown in Europe is weighing on electricity
margins, with cash-strapped consumers trying to save on their
Shares in GDF were up 1 percent at 1300 GMT, outperforming a
0.68 percent rise in the European utilities sector.
"The beat was supported by the strong growth in E&P
(exploration and production), while the European power
businesses continued to be weak," UBS analysts said in comments
Revenue at the group's global gas and liquefied natural gas
unit rose 47.6 percent compared with the same period a year ago
to 3.582 billion euros, thanks to the rise in global commodity
prices and strong production in Norway.
In the first nine months of the year, EBITDA reached 12.8
billion euros ($16.6 billion) as revenue grew 8.4 percent to
70.9 billion euros to end-September, mainly due to the one-off
effect of higher French gas tariffs.
A French government freeze on its gas tariffs from Oct. 1
last year until Jan. 1 was overruled by a court this summer. GDF
will recoup the loss gradually on French energy bills and
estimated the net impact at 212 million euros.
The company said it still expects to achieve full-year
recurring net income of 3.7-4.2 billion euros, up from 3.5
billion last year, as well as EBITDA of some 17 billion, despite
the shutdown of two Belgian nuclear reactors until
($1 = 0.7705 euros)
(Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by David Cowell)