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Vodafone confident of upper hand in Verizon fight

29 марта 2010

Vodafone is increasingly confident that the balance of power in its tempestuous relationship with Verizon Communications is shifting in the UK mobile phone group’s favour.

Vodafone thinks its negotiating position with Verizon Communications over the future of Verizon Wireless, the US mobile phone operator that the two groups jointly own, is getting stronger, according to people familiar with the UK company.

Verizon Communications, the US telecommunications group that owns 55 per cent of Verizon Wireless, has blocked the mobile operator from making dividend payments since 2005, so that the business can pay down debt.

Vodafone owns the other 45 per cent of Verizon Wireless and has been trying, so far without success, to restore the dividends. Verizon Wireless generates about 30 per cent of the UK group’s earnings but contributes no cash.

The lack of dividends is one reason for tension between Verizon Communications and Vodafone. Another is Verizon Communications’ wish to secure full ownership of Verizon Wireless, which is the largest mobile phone operator in the US.

On-off talks between Verizon Communications and Vodafone about the future of Verizon Wireless may finally be entering a final phase, however, because Verizon Wireless is expected to be debt-free by the end of next year.

Vittorio Colao, Vodafone’s chief executive, is facing calls from investors to break the Verizon Wireless impasse. People familiar with Vodafone claimed that the UK company’s wait-and-see strategy could be vindicated by an increasingly strong negotiating position on Verizon Wireless, although they said no decisions had been made.

Verizon Communications paid a dividend worth $5.3bn in 2009 and Bernstein analysts said problems at the US group’s fixed-line phone business meant that it would need to start tapping Verizon Wireless’s cash to maintain its shareholder remuneration.

Craig Moffett and Robin Bienenstock, who cover US and European telecoms companies respectively for Bernstein, said in a research note: “For Verizon, time is running out. Vittorio Colao holds the cards. And he seems to know it.”

Vodafone has been considering three options on Verizon Wireless: securing a resumption of dividend payments, selling its stake, or merging with Verizon Communications.

The UK group’s willingness to countenance an all-share merger with Verizon Communications is partly based on legal advice that any sale of Vodafone’s Verizon Wireless stake would attract a large tax liability.

But one person familiar with Vodafone said a merger was not regarded as attractive, partly because of a lack of synergies between the US and UK groups.

The Bernstein analysts expressed doubts that Verizon Communications could finance a purchase of Vodafone’s Verizon Wireless stake, which, after including a tax-related sale premium, they valued at $79bn.

Mr Moffett and Ms Bienenstock concluded the most likely outcome was a resumption of Verizon Wireless’s dividends.

John Killian, Verizon Communications’ finance director, said this month that he could “handle our dividend” in 2010 and 2011 without any support from a Verizon Wireless dividend.

Источник: Financial Times

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