| LONDON/NEW DELHI
LONDON/NEW DELHI Vodafone will buy out Indian partner Essar in a $5 billion deal that ratchets up its exposure to a mobile market that has proved challenging despite its rapid growth.
Vodafone, which has faced a host of problems since entering the fiercely competitive Indian arena in 2007, will take over Essar's 33 percent of Vodafone Essar, giving it direct ownership of 75 percent of the country's third-biggest operator.
The remainder is owned by Vodafone's Indian partners.
The move came about after Essar exercised its put option. But the deal also suits Vodafone as it brings an end to their highly fractious relationship, which had spilled over into the open in recent months.
It also highlights just how much money Vodafone, the world's largest operator, has spent in Asia's third-largest economy and the fastest-growing mobile market in the world.
Vodafone paid $11.1 billion in 2007 for control of the carrier in what remains the largest foreign direct investment to be completed in India. It valued the company at the time at $18.8 billion, including debt.
Since then Vodafone has taken a charge of 2.3 billion pounds ($3.7 billion) due to the fierce levels of competition and escalating spectrum costs, and is engaged in a prolonged $2.5 billion tax battle with Indian authorities.
Breakingviews said that at current market prices the stake was probably worth no more than about $3 billion.
"It was expected," London-based Execution analyst Will Draper said. "It tidies up the stake, gives Vodafone 100 percent control and it's one less thing to worry about in India."
Analysts said the deal also made sense for Essar, one of India's largest business houses with holdings from energy to steel, which can extract a good price from a tough sector.
"After taking control of the operations, Vodafone will become more aggressive in this market and will be better prepared for the next wave of opportunities," said Jagannadham Thunuguntla, head of research at SMC Global Securities.
"After all this dust settles over the sector, (market leader) Bharti and Vodafone will be the two stable players ... and will play a role in the sector consolidation."
Last year, carriers paid $23.8 billion for 3G and broadband spectrum in India, far more than had been expected, with Vodafone Essar alone paying about $2.6 billion in the auction.
Meanwhile, India's cellular sector has been roiled by an ongoing scandal over the issuance of 2G licenses and radio airwaves in 2007-2008, which a state auditor said caused revenue loss to the government of up to $39 billion and has led to the arrest of the former telecoms minister, among others.
Vodafone has not been implicated but the government has since proposed steep rises in the price of second-generation mobile phone waves, which could cost Vodafone Essar heavily.
With 771 million mobile subscribers as of January, India is the world's second-biggest market for mobile services and is growing at a stunning rate, adding around 19 million a month.
But the carriers operate under wafer thin margins in the crowded 15-player market after a vicious price war sent call prices tumbling in the second half of 2009.
Vodafone's experience is often cited as a cautionary tale for foreign players and Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao has in the past described Indian telecom rules as nonsensical.
It will also have to act to avoid clashing with the authorities again as the deal will put Vodafone above the 74 percent limit that foreign companies can own in India.
A Vodafone spokesman named the other owners within Vodafone Essar as IDFC and Indian businessman Analjit Singh. He said the group could also consider an IPO at a later date.
Vodafone, which is also in the process of selling minority assets it does not control, said its published net debt figure already included the $5 billion price. Its shares were down 1 percent on Thursday compared with a flat overall market.
(Additional reporting by Tony Munroe and Sumeet Chatterjee in Mumbai; Editing by James Davey, Jon Loades-Carter and David Hulmes)