Indian bidding war looks likely

As the number of parties interested in controlling Indian operator Hutchison Essar grows by the day, a protracted bidding war looks increasingly likely.

On Thursday it emerged that Indian conglomerate the Hinduja Group was interested in a majority holding in the fourth placed mobile operator.

But Hinduja faces stiff competition from Vodafone, rival Indian operator Reliance Communications and existing 33 per cent stake holder in Hutchison Essar, the Essar Group. US equity firm Texas Pacific Group is also reported to be interested.

The stakes are getting higher. Essar is reported to have offered $11bn for the majority stake, which would take the total company value to over $16bn.

Ovum analyst, John Delaney, noted that this would put the asking price for Hutchison Essar somewhere between $800 and 900 per subscriber. “Should Vodafone go that high? If we were talking about an operator in Western Europe, the answer would definitely be ‘no’. But Vodafone is not looking to buy a subscriber base here: it wants to buy the opportunity to serve the vast number of Indians who are not currently mobile subscribers,” he said.

The Essar Group is also understood to have first right of first refusal for Hutchison Telecommunications International’s (HTIL) 67 per cent in the company but only against an offer from a domestic Indian buyer. Hutchison meanwhile is reportedly able to sell the stake to a foreign bidder without consulting the Essar Group.

Malaysian operator Maxis Communications and Egypt’s Orascom Telecom are rumoured to have dropped any designs they had in the Indian operator. Reports before the holidays suggested that Maxis and Reliance were thinking of joining forces to bid for Hutch. Reliance had apparently proposed a merger with the Maxis Indian unit Aircel.

As of the end of September Reliance controlled around 16 per cent of the Indian mobile market while Hutchison Essar controlled around 11 per cent. Bharti Airtel is the market leader with 21 per cent market share meaning that an acquisition by Reliance could propel the company into the lead.

In the summer of 2006, India overtook China as the world’s fastest growing mobile market in terms of net adds per month, with the country now netting over 6 million subscribers per month.

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