(Corrects spelling of company name below sub-head)
By Stefano Rebaudo and Lisa Jucca
MILAN, April 5 (Reuters) - Telecom Italia has made contact with Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa to study a possible fusion with its 3 Italia unit, the Italian company said on Friday, sending its shares up 4 percent.
“The contacts are in such embryonic and preliminary state that the company cannot further comment on the news,” Telecom Italia said in a statement.
It said the matter would be brought before the board at a meeting scheduled for April 11.
Chairman Franco Bernabe is under pressure to deliver higher returns and lift indebted Telecom Italia’s share price from near all-time lows.
The shares jumped as investors welcomed the latest attempt to revive the group’s fortunes, later paring their gain to stand up 1.9 percent at 0.59 euros at 1132 GMT.
Burdened by more than 28 billion euros of debt, Telecom Italian is looking for a strategy to reverse falling margins in crisis-hit Italy and cooling growth in Brazil, where it owns mobile phone operator Tim Participacoes.
Bernabe’s plan to bring in a new investor last year failed when the company’s biggest shareholder rejected a proposed 3 billion-euro cash injection from Egyptian magnate Naguib Sawiris.
The Italian company has cut its dividend and turned to costly hybrid debt to fund much-needed upgrades to its ageing domestic network.
Hutchison Whampoa’s loss-making 3 Italia, also known as H3G, is estimated to be worth between 1.5 billion euros and 2 billion euros.
Incorporating H3G into Telecom Italia, likely to be an all-share deal, would eliminate a domestic competitor and ease pressure on falling margins.
Analysts say a tie-up would make strong industrial and financial sense for both parties. Some warned, however, of regulatory and political hurdles.
“The antitrust scrutiny may stop the deal or even impose significant competitive remedies,” said one analyst. “Political opposition may be an even bigger obstacle.”
The backing of shareholders that own holding company Telco, which in turn controls around 22.4 percent of Telecom Italia, is vital.
Telco is owned by Spanish telecoms operator Telefonica , the largest investor, insurer Generali and banks IntesaSanpaolo and Mediobanca.
Both Mediobanca and Generali are looking to get rid of their unprofitable Telecom Italia investment, several sources close to the situation have told Reuters. But they need to find a buyer willing to pay a high price to avoid booking hefty losses.
After repeated writedowns, Telco shareholders have booked Telecom Italia shares at 1.2 euros a share. This is more than twice the current market price of 0.57 euros per share. (Writing by Lisa Jucca, Additional reporting by Steve Jewkes in Milan, Arno Schuetze in Frankfurt and Kwok Donny in Hong Kong; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)