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Fitch rates Airtel’s proposed fundraise via bonds at ‘BBB’

Fitch Ratings has assigned India-based Bharti Airtel Limited’s (Bharti, BBB-/Negative) proposed US dollar senior unsecured notes a ‘BBB-‘ rating and Network i2i Limited’s proposed subordinated perpetual notes a ‘BB’ rating. Network i2i is a wholly owned subsidiary of Bharti.

The proposed senior unsecured notes will be rated in line with Bharti’s senior unsecured rating of ‘BBB-‘, as they will rank at least equally with all its other present and future unsecured and unsubordinated obligations.

Network i2i’s proposed subordinated perpetual notes will be rated two notches below Bharti’s Long-Term Issuer Default Rating (IDR) – the same as the existing 5.65% subordinated perpetual bond rated at ‘BB’, to which they will rank pari passu. The issuance will be fully guaranteed by Bharti and will constitute a direct, unsecured and subordinated obligation of Bharti. The rating on the proposed notes will reflect the deeply subordinated nature, ranking junior to all existing and future debt obligations and senior only to Bharti’s ordinary shares.

The proposed subordinated perpetual securities will qualify for 50% equity credit as they meet Fitch’s criteria with regard to deep subordination, effective maturity in excess of five years, full discretion to indefinitely defer interest coupon payments, limited events of default and the absence of material covenants and look-back provisions. Equity credit is limited to 50% due to the cumulative interest coupon, a feature that we regard as more debt-like in nature. Fitch will treat the coupon payments as 100% interest in its financial analysis of Bharti, despite the 50% equity treatment of the principal amount. This approach is in accordance with Fitch’s Corporate Hybrids Treatment and Notching Criteria.

We expect 50% equity credit for the securities until 2041, five years before the effective maturity date in 2046, which is when the replacement language expires. Equity credit drops to zero after 2041.

The proceeds of the proposed senior unsecured notes and subordinated perpetuals will be used to repay existing debt and for capex.

Outlook Sovereign Driven: The Negative Outlook on Bharti’s IDR reflects the Outlook on India’s Long-Term Foreign- and Local-Currency IDRs (BBB-), which were revised to Negative from Stable on 18 June 2020. It does not reflect our view of Bharti’s underlying credit profile – which has been improving on strong growth in the Indian and African wireless operations – but rather the heightened probability that India’s Country Ceiling (BBB-) could be lowered to ‘BB+’.

Robust Growth Defying Pandemic: We forecast Bharti’s financial year ending March 2021 (FY21) funds from operations (FFO) net leverage to be 2.2x-2.4x, below the threshold of 2.5x above which we will take negative rating action. We expect Bharti’s FY21 revenue and EBITDA to rise by around 18%-25%, on improvement in the Indian wireless market and continued strong growth in African markets, despite the pandemic-induced economic slowdown. Consolidated revenue and EBITDA in 9MFY21 rose by 21% and 34% yoy, respectively, defying the slowdown.

Improving Tariffs in Indian Market: We forecast Bharti’s Indian wireless EBITDA to rise by around 40%-50% in FY21, led by 25 million subscriber additions and monthly average revenue per user (ARPU) improvement of 10%-12%. Indian mobile revenue increased by 26% yoy in 9MFY21 and EBITDA by 48% yoy, supported by a 23% rise in monthly ARPU to INR166 (USD2.2) and high monthly data usage of around 16.7 GB per user, one of the highest globally.

Regulatory Dues Factored: Bharti has so far paid about USD2.4 billion out of its previously unpaid total dues of USD6.4 billion owed to India’s Department of Telecommunications (DOT) for a dispute over the amount of adjusted gross revenue (AGR) dues. We have factored in a balance of USD4 billion for AGR dues in our FY21 leverage, despite the Supreme Court allowing the balance to be paid over 10 years from March 2022.

The court’s original ruling in October 2019 led the DOT to demand large unpaid dues on licence fees and spectrum-usage charges from incumbent Indian telcos. The DOT demand relates to a 14-year-old dispute on the definition of AGR, which the court ruled should include all income the telcos generate.

Positive FCF on Flat Capex: We expect Bharti to generate small positive free cash flow (FCF) in FY21 on flat core capex, lower interest costs and the government’s two-year moratorium on the payment of existing spectrum dues, which will defer about USD840 million in each of FY21 and FY22. We expect FY22 absolute core capex will most likely be flat, ignoring one-time payments for spectrum assets.

Bharti will continue to invest in expansion of its 4G and fibre networks across Indian and African markets. We have assumed USD500 million in FY21 and USD1 billion in FY22 to fund the upfront spectrum investments. Bharti has completed the shutdown of its 3G network across India and has redirected its 900MHz and 2100MHz spectrum for 4G usage. Management has stated it will not participate in 5G spectrum auctions, at existing high prices.

Solid African Growth: We forecast African FY21 revenue and EBITDA to rise by 10%-15%, on growth in subscribers, mobile data and mobile-money services. African revenue and EBITDA in 9MFY21 rose by 13% and 16% yoy, respectively, on a reported currency basis. We expect mobile data and mobile money segments to expand by 10%-15%. Together they contribute around 40% of group revenue. We forecast FY21 EBITDA margin to remain at around 39% (post IFRS-16 of 44%-45%), as rising contributions from higher-margin 4G services and mobile money will offset foreign-exchange losses.

Indian Wireless Industry to Consolidate: We expect Bharti and Reliance Jio to increase their combined revenue market share to 80% (December 2020: around 75%) in the next 12-18 months, as the third-largest telco, Vodafone Idea, is rapidly losing market share given its weak balance sheet and limited financial flexibility. We believe that Vodafone Idea could lose 50 million-60 million subscribers in the next 12 months, after losing about 157 million subscribers in the past ten quarters.

Bharti has a stronger business profile than Indonesian telcos PT Indosat Tbk (BBB/Stable; SCP: bb) and PT XL Axiata (BBB/Stable; SCP: bb+) because of its larger scale, better market position and integrated operations. Both Indosat and XL have a weaker market position, with revenue market shares below 20%, as they compete with a stronger market leader, PT Telekomunikasi Selular, which has a revenue market share of over 50%. Bharti has a lower forecast FY21 FFO net leverage compared with our forecast for Indosat of around 3.0x, but at a similar level with XL during 2021-2022.

Singapore Telecommunications Limited (Singtel, A/Stable; SCP: a-) has a stronger business risk profile than Bharti because of its solid market leadership position in Singapore, its ranking as the second-largest telco in Australia by sales through Singtel Optus Pty Limited (A-/Stable) and well-established platforms in fixed and mobile markets; and leading positions in Indonesia, India, Thailand and the Philippines through its associates. Singtel’s ratings include a single-notch uplift from its SCP due to links with the sovereign (AAA/Stable). However, Singtel’s FY21 FFO net leverage is broadly similar to Bharti’s 2.3x-2.5x.
CT Bureau

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