RCom to Sell Part of Business by September, Pay off Debts, Says Anil Ambani

Anil Ambani, chairman of the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, poses for photographers before addressing the annual shareholders meeting in Mumbai, India August 27, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui/File Photo

Mumbai: Indian tycoon Anil Ambani, who controls Reliance Communications, held a media briefing on Friday in a bid to reassure investors after worries over the mobile carrier’s heavy debt load rattled markets and triggered ratings downgrades.

Battered by concerns over its debt burden, Ambani said that RComm plans to complete deals to sell part of its wireless and tower business by September 2017, three months before a deadline set by its lenders.

Ambani added that the company’s lenders had accepted a company-proposed overhaul plan and given the group until December to conclude the process. He said lenders would allow the company to pause debt repayments until December.

The briefing marked a rare appearance by Ambani, 57, reflecting the difficulties facing Reliance Communications, widely known as RCom, India’s seventh-ranked telecoms carrier by customers. Ambani has a net worth of $2.7 billion, according to Forbes.

Once the flagship in his business empire, RCom has seen its market value slashed by a third after shares have plunged since May 5 when ratings agency ICRA downgraded its debt over concerns about its profitability and debt loads.

Separately, Indian banks that have lent to RCom, also met in Mumbai on Friday to discuss a possible restructuring of loans owed by the carrier, according to senior bankers with direct knowledge of the matter.

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RCom has seen its shares plunge further this week to a series of record lows, while its bonds have also tumbled, after posting last Saturday a second consecutive quarterly loss in a sector beset by an intense price war.

The loss has reinforced concerns about RCom’s ability to service nearly $7 billion of net debt – including local and foreign currency loans and bonds – or more than nine times its operating earnings for the year to March.

Fitch Ratings on Thursday, June 1, downgraded RCom further into junk territory, and warned of a potential default, days after rival Moody’s Investors Service had also slashed its ratings.

The company has sought to assuage concerns by saying it intends to cut its debt load by about 60% by repaying 250 billion rupees ($3.88 billion) worth of loans by end-September, using money from an expected deal to merge its wireless unit with a rival and the sale of a stake in its mobile masts business.

RCom is also seeking to buy time by deferring its loan instalments and talking with lenders.

But the reassurances have so far failed to comfort investors.

RCom was once the crown jewel in Anil Ambani’s holdings, which range from power to financial services.

At its peak, RCom was a dominant player in India’s telecoms sector but today is a small player in an evolving sector with its shares trading at 20.60 rupees, a fraction of the record high of 845 rupees hit in 2008.

The shares were down 1.2% on Friday afternoon, in a Mumbai market that gained about 0.4%.

Anil took control after the Reliance empire founded by his father was split into two, with parts of it also going to elder brother Mukesh Ambani, currently India’s richest man.

RCom has been beset by a squeeze impacting India’s telecoms sector, after Mukesh’s Reliance Industries – whose main business is oil refining and petrochemicals – ploughed more than $30 billion into a start-up called Reliance Jio Infocomm that has sparked an intense price war by offering free voice and cut-price data.

($1 = 64.4100 Indian rupees)