News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Friday, 7 August 2009

Zain (Africa) Speculation Watch: Episode 12

Zain share price: massive spike since the rumour mill started turning

One loyal reader has suggested it's high time that this blog revisited its most regularly explored theme - the ongoing not-so-mini-series that is Zain (Africa) Speculation Watch.

Note the parentheses around the word 'Africa', a set of punctuation marks that, for good reason, crept into the title of this series in Episode 11. Bracketing 'Africa' in this way was to denote that while this continuing investigation into developments at the Kuwaiti MEA telecoms group was initially focused on the rumours about the sale of Zain's African operations, the focus needed to become a bit wider, i.e. speculating about the future of the whole company. This was due to the UAE's Etisalat informing reporters of its interest in buying a 51% stake in the Kuwaiti group.

Since then, that loyal reader I mentioned has urged me to take note of a couple of possibly quite significant elements of the Zain story.

The first of these is the news that a major Zain shareholder is likely to consider selling its stake in the telecoms company if it receives the right price. That shareholder, the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA) (the Gulf state’s sovereign wealth fund), owns a 24.61% stake in the operator. According to Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai, "the KIA has no objection to discussing any offer to buy its stake in Zain whether made by the UAE’s Etisalat or others under the condition that the offer would be serious and with attractive returns."

That, then, looks like pretty positive news for the Emirati telecoms group if its interest in Zain really is very strong.

The other bit that my friendly reader brought to my attention is much more cloak-and-dagger.

My friend tells me he's heard whispers that "the whole Zain thing" has been a ruse set in motion with the sole intention of driving up the Kuwaiti group's share price. By way of support for this assertion, my pal urged me to take a look at Zain's stock chart from March to July. "It's quite amazing what transpired", my correspondent reminds me. Kuwaiti blogger 'Alpha Dinar' concurs, having noted back on July 13th that Vivendi’s USD 12 billion rumored proposal to acquire Zain’s African operations "has stolen headlines for the past few weeks, sparked large volumes, and resulted in a huge spike in Zain’s stock price."

I asked my correspondent whether he felt that the likes of Vivendi (and other rumoured Zain Africa suitors like France Telecom) could really be tempted into declaring their interest and thereby enabling any such ruse to succeed. My friend's response: "If the new buyers weren't really aware of the game, and if the game was well-played, I don't think they would have been able to keep the genie in the bottle. In any case, if Party A wanted to manipulate the share price, they would be the ones leaking and Party B wouldn't have been able to stay in stealth mode. I don't know how likely it is. I'm not saying that's what happened. I'm just saying that the price did indeed jump up quite a bit, and despite the talks having failed, it hasn't gone down that much at all."

My correspondent concedes that games of the kind being alleged here are not terribly common in Bahrain or Kuwait. He asserts, however, that this is a game often played in other parts of the world and that the fact remains that "the stock was even and then - BOOM - a ninety degree angle."

Who knows? Not me, that's for sure.

One company whose talks with Zain could be said to have "failed" is Vivendi, which announced on July 20th that it was "interrupting" the discussions. No reason was given at the time. Since then, however, Kui Kinyanjui, writing for Kenya's Business Daily Africa, has alleged that the French telecoms and media conglomerate's interest cooled following a disappointing trip to her home country. Kinyanjui writes that "a dozen senior Vivendi officials jetted into the country to view close hand one of the Zain operations their company hoped to purchase" and that "they came, they saw, were disappointed, and in the process, a multi-million dollar deal was scuttled." The article describes Zain's struggle to compete with Kenya's market-leading cellco Safaricom and cites unconfirmed information from Kenyan sources which indicates that Zain is "keen to sell its Kenyan, DR Congo and Sierra Leone units, and could consider separate bids from disparate telecommunications firms for those operations."

Such rumours of Zain breaking up its African portfolio and selling off operations piecemeal have been far less prominent than stories of that whole portfolio being sold to a single buyer. One prospective purchaser, however, has expressed an interest in buying up only those Zain-owned opcos which would complement its own existing African footprint.

In a recent Reuters note on France Telecom's need to limit margin erosion, Finance Director Gervais Pellisier is quoted as saying that the French incumbent telco "might look at some of the African assets of Kuwait's Zain if the latter decided to sell them in parts." Any willingness on the part of Zain to consider a piecemeal sell-off of some African assets - as alleged by Kui Kinyanjui - would presumably, then, be music to the ears of Mr. Pellisier and his colleagues.

Were a sale of Zain itself or just of Zain's African assets to go ahead, one stumbling block could come in the form of legal action brought by Econet Wireless, the telecoms group led by Zimbabwe-born businessman Strive Masiyiwa. As a recent Guardian article reminds us, in late 2000, Masiyiwa led a consortium that won a licence to operate a mobile phone network in Nigeria. Econet Wireless had a 5% stake in the consortium and claims it had a right of first refusal to buy out the rest of the network in the event of any bid emerging. A bid did emerge from Mo Ibrahim's Celtel International, but, writes the Guardian's Richard Wray, "a series of legal obfuscations blocked Econet from ever getting the chance to bid."

Celtel was, of course, subsequently acquired by Zain and Wray states that the fast-growing Nigerian mobile phone business now accounts for about half of all the Kuwaiti group's African revevnues. In court, says Wray, "Masiyiwa's lawyers are arguing he should be allowed to buy back Zain's Nigerian business at the price set in 2006, in effect blasting a hole straight through Zain's plans to sell its whole African operation with Nigeria as the jewel in its crown."

Well, another episode of Zain (Africa) Speculation Watch has probably left you not much the wiser. It was ever thus. Let's see what happens in the next installment. Don't touch that dial etc.

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