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Vodafone may join race for Hutch

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December 20, 2006 02:41 IST

European telecom giant Vodafone is likely to join the race for picking up Hutchison's stake in Hutchison Essar Ltd directly or through its Hong Kong company.

The move comes even as the Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (R-ADAG) is likely to hike its offer by around $3 billion to buy the entire stake of Hutchison and the Ruias in the GSM mobile company.

Vodafone already has a 10 per cent equity stake in Bharti Airtel, which it picked up for $1.5 billion last year. A spokesperson for Vodafone, however, declined to comment "on speculation."

Speaking to Business Standard on Vodafone's possible entry into India through Hutchison Essar, Sunil Mittal, the chairman of its Indian partner Bharti group, said, "I am not aware of their plans, but in case they do, I will welcome them."

Experts said Vodafone could buy Hutch's stake and run operations with the Ruias as the Indian partner (if they don't sell at the moment), without violating the telecom FDI rules (which allow them to own up to 74 per cent stake).

Also, as it has only 10 per cent equity stake in Bharti, it does not violate the requirement under which a telco cannot have more than 10 per cent equity in a competing telco operating in the same circle.

Meanwhile, top merchant banking sources said R-ADAG had revised the enterprise value of Hutchison Essar from $12-14 billion to $15-17 billion after it was clear from the bankers of Hutchison that they were looking for a larger premium to sell the stake.

Nimesh Kampani, who represents the Ruias through Morgan Stanley, is believed to have had discussions with Anil Ambani yesterday. A Reliance spokesperson, however, declined to comment.

Hutchison and its associates own 66 per cent equity in Hutchison Essar, while the Ruias own the remaining stake. The valuation that merchant bankers are quoting for the Hutchison Essar stake is in the range of other deals made by companies.

For instance, Bharti, which sold 10 per cent equity to Vodafone, struck the deal at an enterprise value of $16 billion.

BS Reporters in New Delhi