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Very critical situation for Vodafone in India, says CEO Nick Read

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Vodafone said its future in India could be in doubt unless the government stopped hitting operators with higher taxes and charges, after a court judgment over licence fees resulted in a €1.9 billion group loss in its first half. Chief executive officer (CEO) Nick Read said India, where Vodafone formed a joint venture with Idea Cellular in 2018, had been “a very challenging situation for a long time”, but Vodafone Idea still had 300 million customers, equating to a 30% share of the sizable market.

“Financially there’s been a heavy burden through unsupportive regulation, excessive taxes and on top of that we got the negative Supreme Court decision,” he said on Tuesday.

Vodafone had asked the government for a relief package comprising a two-year moratorium on spectrum payments, lower licence fees and taxes and the waiving of interest and penalties on the Supreme Court case, which centred on regulatory fees.

Asked if it made sense for Vodafone to remain in India without such a relief package, he said: “It’s fair to say it’s a very critical situation.”

India’s top court upheld a demand from the country’s telecoms department for $13 billion in overdue levies and interest last month, hitting the shares of both Vodafone Idea and rival Bharti Airtel.

Vodafone has clashed with Indian authorities over tax and regulatory issues ever since it entered the country with a $11 billion deal to buy 67% of Hutchison Essar in 2007.

The arrival of new entrant Reliance Jio Infocomm in 2016 added to Vodafone’s problems by sparking a brutal price war.

It responded by combining its operations with Idea Cellular, a deal that closed in 2018.

Read said Vodafone was not committing any more equity to India and the country effectively contributed zero value to the company’s share price. As a result of the ruling, it has written down the value of its stake in the joint venture to zero.

It also owns a stake in Indian tower operator Indus Towers, along with Bharti Airtel.

Vodafone’s shares were up 1.7% at 163 pence at 1040 GMT as investors focused on an upgrade to its earnings forecast rather than India.

UPGRADED FORECAST

The world’s second largest mobile operator reported improving organic revenue growth with signs of improvement in Spain and Italy and as it integrates a German cable acquisition.

It said organic service revenue rose 0.3% in the first half, as it returned to growth in the second quarter, while organic core earnings rose 1.4%.

It increased its forecast for adjusted core earnings to €14.8-15 billion from its previous forecast of €13.8-14.2 billion, but said India and lower cash flows following the sale of assets in New Zealand meant free cash flow would be “around” €5.4 billion, rather than the “at least” €5.4 billion previously forecast.

Apart from India, Read said he was pleased with progress.

“This is reflected in our return to top-line growth in the second quarter, which we expect to build upon in the second half of the year in both Europe and Africa,” he said.

Read cut Vodafone’s dividend for the first time in May after tough market conditions and a need to invest in its networks and airwaves caused him to backtrack on his pledge not to reduce the payout.

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Sri Lanka wants to undo deal to lease port to China for 99 years

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Sri Lanka’s new government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants to undo the previous regime’s move to lease the southern port of Hambantota to a Chinese venture, citing national interest.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2017 changed the terms, saying it would be difficult to pay the loans taken to build the project. He agreed to lease the port for 99 years to a venture led by China Merchants Port Holdings Co. in return for $1.1 billion. That helped ease the Chinese part of the debt burden raised to build the port, Wickremesinghe said in an interview in 2018.

“We would like them to give it back,” Ajith Nivard Cabraal, a former central bank governor and an economic adviser to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, said in an interview at his home in a Colombo suburb. “The ideal situation would be to go back to status quo. We pay back the loan in due course in the way that we had originally agreed without any disturbance at all.”

The port is emblematic of the controversy dogging Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative from Kenya to Myanmar, including accusations that the world’s second-largest economy is luring poor countries into debt traps. In Sri Lanka, where the transaction to lease the port was opposed by Rajapaksa’s party, Mahinda took Chinese loans during his 10-year rule as president to build the project in his home district.

“This is a sovereign agreement” and it’s unlikely that it will be scrapped or altered in a big way, said Smruti Pattanaik, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. “The Chinese may reconsider some clause, if it is considered crucial for the Rajapaksa regime.”

An attempt to rework the transaction will help the new Sri Lankan government, led by Gotabaya and his brother Mahinda, showcase their drive to change contracts seen as hurting national security, a key campaign platform for Gotabaya, a former defense secretary.

“China-Sri Lanka cooperation, including the Hambantota port project, are built on the basis of equality and consultation,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a faxed statement from its spokesperson’s office. “China looks forward to working with Sri Lanka to make Hambantota a new shipping hub in the Indian Ocean and developing the local economy.”

China’s infrastructure-building in Sri Lanka became part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, prompting concern in India about its geopolitical rival using a port close to its southern coastline for future military or strategic uses. Gotabaya is in India on Friday for his first state visit overseas.

China has dismissed worries over any military dimension to its investment in the Hambantota port, which lies on the main shipping routes between Asia and Europe, and said it was mutually beneficial that would aid Sri Lanka’s economy.

“Sri Lanka will have to offer it something equally, if not more, attractive in financial terms for Beijing to agree to the cancellation of the lease agreement,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “With the Rajapaksa family back in power, China hopes to expand its footprint in Sri Lanka.”

A similar port deal under the Belt and Road program in Myanmar was drastically scaled to $1.3 billion from $7.5 billion, while in Malaysia the government canceled $3 billion worth of pipelines and renegotiated a rail project in 2019, cutting that one’s cost by a third to $11 billion.

“Bilateral agreements once you’ve signed those, are serious agreements,” Cabraal said in his house adorned with pictures of local and foreign leaders. “At the same time, we’ve got to look after the national interests. And if one government had bartered it away, there is a necessity for the new government to find ways and means by which it can be done amicably.”

For its part, China Merchants, whose $93 billion of revenue dwarfs Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product, has been able to use its experience stretching from China to Europe to help kick start the Hambantota port, which once hardly attracted any ships.

China Merchants’ Hambantota joint venture also last month said it had entered into an agreement with Japanese shipping conglomerate Nippon Yusen KK, for vehicle transshipment through the port.

New Ports Minister Johnston Fernando wasn’t immediately available for comment.

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Subhash Chandra to lose control of Zee Entertainment after stake sale to repay loans

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The Subhash Chandra-led Essel group on Wednesday said that it is planning to sell 16.5 per cent stake in Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (ZEEL) to financial investors in order to repay loan obligations to certain lenders of the group.

After this transaction, the promoter stake in Zee Entertainment will be reduced to 5 per cent, which means that media baron Subhash Chandra will lose control of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd.

Zee, considered to be the pioneer of television entertainment industry in India, was launched by Subhash Chandra in 1992. Ever since the launch year, the company expanded operations to enter packaging, infrastructure, education, precious metals, finance and technology sectors.

“The Group seeks to sell up to 16.5% stake in ZEEL to financial investors in order to repay loan obligations to certain lenders of the Group for whose benefit such shares are currently encumbered (and who have consented to such share sale by the Group),” the Essel Group said.

Earlier this year, Essel Group sold up to 11 per cent in Zee Entertainment to Invesco Oppenheimer Developing Markets Fund for Rs 4,224 crore.

“Out of the aforesaid, the Group seeks to sell 2.3 per cent stake in ZEEL to OFI Global China Fund, LLC and/or its affiliates. Pursuant to the aforementioned transactions, the post-transaction overall holdings of the Group in ZEEL will be 5%, out of which encumbered holdings of the Group will reduce to 1.1% of ZEEL,” it added.

Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, Subhash Chandra’s Essel Group companies held 22.37 per cent promoter stake in Zee. Of this, 21.48 per cent was pledged as collateral against finances availed by Essel Group firms.

Post the completion of the transaction announced on Wednesday by the company, Oppenheimer Developing Markets Fund and OFI Global China will together hold 18.74 per cent.

ZEEL closed higher by 7.89 per cent at Rs 307.15 apiece on the BSE on Wednesday.

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Tata Steel plans to axe 3,000 jobs across Europe as crisis bites

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Tata Steel Ltd. plans to axe about 3,000 jobs across its European operations to cut costs in the latest blow to the region’s industry.

About two-thirds of the estimated reduction in staff would be office-based, or white-collar, positions, according to a statement. The company didn’t give a detailed breakdown of where the job losses would take place

“Stagnant EU steel demand and global overcapacity have been compounded by trade conflicts, which have turned the European market into a dumping ground for the world’s excess steel capacity,” Tata Steel said.

The European steel industry has faced growing headwinds this year amid declining demand, slowing growth and the consistent threat from supplies from overseas, including exports from Turkey, Russia and China. British Steel Ltd., the U.K.’s No. 2 steelmaker was put into liquidation in May, and has been taken over China’s Jingye Group Co. Apparent steel demand in the European Union will contract 3.1% this year, lobby group Eurofer warned last month.

The steelmaker’s European operations are facing “unprecedented severe market conditions,” Henrik Adam, chief executive officer of Tata Steel in Europe, said in the statement. Other steps to pare costs included boosting sales of higher-value steels, increasing efficiency and cutting procurement costs.

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