(Recasts with Italian consolidation possibility, adds Italian analyst comment)
MOSCOW/MILAN, March 19 (Reuters) - Russian telecoms operator Vimpelcom is considering a refinancing plan for its Italian subsidiary Wind which could lead to a merger for the unit that has debt of $14.5 billion.
There has been media speculation that Vimpelcom will seek to refinance or merge Wind with a rival because Italy’s mobile companies have faced fierce price competition.
Telecom Italia is the leading player in Italy’s mobile phone market by subscribers, followed by Vodafone Italia , Vimpelcom’s Wind and Hutchison Whampoa’s 3 Italia.
“In theory, Wind should merge with the Hutchison unit and this is simply a way to avoid being a distressed seller,” said an Italian analyst who did not want to be named. “Now we need to understand if this move can speed up or slow down the process but it all certainly points in that direction.”
The plan to refinance Wind may include a cash injection of 500 million euros ($695.7 million) by Vimpelcom, the company said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The aim of the refinancing plan is to provide (Vimpelcom) with significant interest cost savings, stronger cash flow generation, a deleveraging trajectory and an extended maturity profile,” Vimpelcom said.
The company said Wind was seeking lenders’ consent to amend its lending agreement to allow the financing plan to be implemented. The amendments would include up to an additional 800 million euros of transaction costs, fees and expenses.
Vimpelcom said it could not comment on any merger speculation regarding Wind.
The Financial Times reported in December that Wind had been in discussions with Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, citing sources familiar with the situation.
Hutchison Whampoa last year tried to merge with Telecom Italia, which had rejected approaches made by Wind’s former owner Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian business tycoon.
Vimpelcom, part-owned by Mikhail Fridman’s Altimo and Norway’s Telenor, has been on a drive to cut its $22.6 billion debt and in January slashed its dividend to free up cash to bring down its debt ratio.
The third largest mobile operator in Russia, Vimpelcom bought Wind in 2011 in a deal which also saw it take a 51 percent stake in Egypt-based Orascom Telecom for $6 billion.
$1 = 0.7188 euros Reporting by Megan Davies and Isla Binnie in Milan; Editing by Jason Bush and Pravin Char