Sold to the Highest Bidder


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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These are exciting times in Turkey in terms of foreign investment and privatisation. Foreign capital is being attracted to the country at a greater rate than ever before, a factor underlined by the fact that hard on the heels of former state-owned Türk Telekom's successful privatisation was the announcement that Telsim - the country's second-largest wireless operator - will also go under the hammer.

In the process, telecoms looks set to enter a new phase as new blood in the sector promises to bring healthy competition, opening the gates to better services for consumers - from fixed-line to GSM users.

The Turkish authorities announced on August 25 that they were opening a tender for Telsim, setting an expected price of $2.80bn.

The Official Gazette also gave the final date for pre-qualification bids as September 19. The final date for bids is December 5, at which point interested parties will have to make a $140m deposit in cash or letters of credit, or $161m in government securities. Bids are set to be opened on December 13, with those still in the running then going to an open auction to decide the final winner.

Telsim has been in the Turkish GSM market since the first licences were issued back in the 1990s. Its market share has fluctuated over the years from around 35% at its height to as little as 17% during the darkest times of the scandals surrounding its one-time owners, the controversial Uzan family.

The announcement of its sale does not come without controversy either. British and US courts froze the firm's roaming and interconnect revenues earlier this month in those countries as part of moves to try and recover debts set at $3.4bn owed by Telsim to US mobile giant Motorola and Finland's Nokia.

The recovery of these monies has been complicated by the fact that Telsim was taken over by the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) when the Uzan family empire collapsed. Legal disputes have ensued over liability for the debts, with Motorola taking the issue to the World Bank's International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) and concluding that the TMSF was responsible for the debt - and therefore it would have to sue the Republic of Turkey for repayment.

In the background, representatives from the TMSF, Motorola and Nokia have been trying to knock out a settlement on the basis of paying the two companies a percentage of the money that would be received by the government for the sale of Telsim.

However, this potential deal had been stuck in something of a quagmire due to fears that monies owed would be non-recoverable as the former owners, the Uzan family, might seek to retrieve the company and pocket the money themselves. Motorola also insisted on a legal guarantee should the sale be overturned in the courts.

However, an announcement came on August 30 that Nokia had finally agreed to a deal in the dispute. A settlement has been reached with the TMSF subject to sale of the Turkish firm's assets which would see Nokia receive 7.5% of the proceeds from Telsim's sale, or $150m, whichever turns out to be the larger sum.

But a deal with Motorola is still outstanding and may affect the sales procedure and value of the bids made.

Yet TMSF Chairman Ahmet Erturk told Reuters in an interview this week that the authorities planned to complete the sale and solve all legal problems surrounding Turkey's second-biggest GSM firm by end-2005.

So far, a number of global players have been put forward as potential bidders, including Vodafone and Etisalat, along with Turkey's own Sabanci Holding and Oyak Holding.

With figures between the expected $2.8bn and up to $6bn being talked of, the sale will clearly assist the state's efforts to repay debts accumulated since the financial crisis in 2001 and the $33bn it has borrowed since 1999 from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Indeed, the telecoms sector has become a key part of the government's fund raising strategy.

Turkish state-owned fixed-line operator Türk Telekom has also recently gone through ownership changes, when a consortium lead by Saudi Arabia's Oger Telecom bought a 55% stake.

A contract for the sale was finalised on August 24, making Türk Telekom, the world's 13th-largest telecoms enterprise, with 19m subscribers, a symbol of successful privatisation in Turkey.

The sale comes despite initial resistance from labour unions citing a general security issue over selling the company to a non-Turkish group, plus previous efforts to sell the company in which the government said the offers had been too low.

However, after a race between four separate consortia the winning bid totalling $6.55bn
went to the Oger Telecom Group - owned by the family of assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Oger's consortium includes Telecom Italia as a minority partner, and BT Group PLC's international consulting arm, BT Telconsult, as a co-operation partner.

Since then, protests by workers around Turkey against the sale of Türk Telecom, which employs around 56,000 people, have lead to Oger Telecom CEO Muhammad Hariri announcing that "no jobs would be cut".

The sale must now gain the final approval of the Council of State, which is expected to follow by November.

Meanwhile, other privatisations are also on the cards. Turkish refiner Tupras will likely be the next firm to be sold off, with the Privatisation Administration (OIB) setting the date for final bids as September 2. The firm's market capitalisation was set at around $5.3bn on August 30. Steel producer Erdemir is also on the list for sell off soon.

This flurry of sell offs - and investment activity - can only help Turkey as it moves towards EU accession talks set for October 3 and towards a further restructuring of its economy.

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