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Emerging Markets Cautious About Telecoms CAPEX for 2009

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Debt ratings agency, Fitch Ratings said today that the challenging macro economic outlook is driving emerging market telecoms to adopt a more cautious stance on capital spending for 2009. In a new report, Fitch compares technology development and investment trends across Emerging Asia, Latin America, Russia CIS and Africa, and examines currency risks stemming from the recent devaluation of most emerging market currencies.

"With the exception of Africa and China where infrastructure investment is expected to increase by about 10% and 20% respectively, other regions are expected to report broadly stable-to-declining capex in 2009," noted Priya Gupta, Director in Fitch's Asia-Pacific Telecommunications, Media and Technology (TMT) team.

"Russia, in particular, is braced for sharp cuts, with many regional fixed-line incumbents expected to slash their capex by over 50% from the previous year, and mobile operators to reduce budgets by up to 25%," commented Nikolay Lukashevich, Senior Director and Fitch's Head of Russian/CIS Corporates.

Supported by capex rationing in 2009 as well as relatively resilient earnings in the recessionary environment, Fitch expects credit quality across the emerging markets to broadly register a stable-to-improving trend; although much will also depend on the competitive environment within individual markets, exposure to currency risk, event-risk related to M&A and/or capital management policies.

Fitch notes that growth in cellular (2G) services is slowing as penetration is now quite high in many emerging markets, while 3G services are yet to gain traction. Meanwhile, broadband is emerging as a key growth driver, although the agency expects medium-term growth to be constrained by low PC penetration in many emerging markets.

Fitch notes that the recent devaluation (in H208 through Q109) of most emerging market currencies against the US dollar is negative for telecom players, as it typically inflates capital spending and increases the cost of servicing dollar-denominated debt. Against this backdrop, the agency takes positive note of the fact that most rated Asian, African and Latin American emerging market operators (with the exception of the Argentinian telecoms) have limited exposure to foreign currency debt after hedging.

"After debt restructuring by Telefonica de Argentina and Telecom Argentina following the Argentine crisis of 2002, the two companies remain exposed to a currency mismatch between debt and cash flow generation," said Sergio Rodriguez, Director in Fitch's Latin American TMT team. "However, this is substantially mitigated by low leverage at less than 1.0x for both companies at end-2008," he added.

In Emerging Asia, Fitch notes that several companies have significant forex debt exposure, although in most cases this is substantially mitigated by low leverage as well as natural and purchased hedging measures. Within the portfolio, stand-outs include Indonesian operator PT Excelcomindo Pratama Tbk (XL, 'BB-' (BB minus)/Stable) and Sri Lanka's Dialog that have about a 50% share of foreign exchange debt and exhibit leveraged profiles; - however their currency risks are moderated by partial hedging (at XL) and significant forex earnings (at Dialog).

In Russia however, some telecoms operators are facing significant currency risks. For various reasons (including the scarcity of long-term, inexpensive Russian rouble financing), some telecom companies, particularly mobile operators, have preferred to predominantly raise foreign currency-denominated debt. Although this has allowed them to economise on interest payments in the good times, further significant rouble devaluation could significantly impair their financial flexibility.

A copy of the special report is available on the Fitch website (registration required).

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