Vodafone in talks to sell its stake in Verizon Wireless

It is almost September and the Silly Season has come to an abrupt end with the announcement that Vodafone is negotiating the sale of its share of Verizon Wireless. According to Bloomberg, Verizon has approached at least half a dozen banks and is asking them to each raise $10 billion to pay a total of $60 billion to part finance the buyout.

Over the years Vodafone's relationship with Verizon has often been problematical with both parties blowing hot and cold on the jv as the years have rolled by. Back in the Spring rumours first began to circulate to the effect that Verizon was considering paying up to $100 billion for Vodafone's 45 per cent of Verizon Wireless in a deal that would comprise 50 per cent cash and 50 per cent shares.

Vodafone, whilst not admitting that a deal might be in the offing, let it be known that the value of its holding in Verizon Wireless was nearer to $120 billion than $100 billion and that any bid below that would be rejected. Verizon, for its part, simply denied that it had any interest in buying out its Limey partner. It was a porkie that few fell for.

Things seemingly went quiet over the holidays but obviously there have been contacts between the two parties over the course of the summer. In July the chairman of Vodafone, Gerard Kleisterlee let slip that the mobile operator would "seriously consider" an offer for its share of Verizon Wireless - but only if any such deal it offered increased value to shareholders.

There were other straws in the wind. Verizon's CEO, Lowell McAdam, confirmed that his company has the wherewithal to buy Vodafone's stake and CFO, Fran Shammo, said Verizon has devised a mechanism that would allow Vodafone to sell its share without facing an unpalatable $10 billion-plus tax bill; a sum so large it would certainly knock the gilt off the gingerbread and might even scupper the deal entirely.

So, it seems that time, tide, rising interest rates and the falling value of the Pound Sterling against the US Dollar have conspired to put the sale back at the top of the agenda.

In a short statement the UK carrier says, “Vodafone notes the recent press speculation and confirms that it is in discussions with Verizon Communications Inc. regarding the possible disposal of Vodafone’s U.S. group, whose principal asset is its 45 per cent interest in Verizon Wireless. However, there is no certainty that an agreement will be reached."

Nonetheless, Vodafone's share price rose by 8.6 per cent while Wall Street scuttlebutt has it that the deal is well advanced and could be concluded as early as September 2, the day Europe returns to work after the August holidays.

It was back in 1999 that Vodafone and Verizon Communications joined forces to found Verizon Wireless. It has done well even as some of Vodafone's strategies elsewhere have lost focus and stalled.

Make no mistake, if the acquisition does go ahead it will be a colossal deal and a signal that the US mobile wireless market is entering a period of renewed competition. Sprint and T-Mobile USA are fighting back hard against Verizon and AT&T and they are winning significant market share as a result.

Back here in the UK, Vodafone shareholders have long been agitating for improved dividends and evidence of a more coherent business strategy. The sale of Vodafone's share in Verizon Wireless might assuage them for a while but, when the jewel in the crown is sold (and the Verizon Wireless stake is exactly that, it is, undeniably, THE jewel in Vodafone's crown), what's next?

No one seems to know what will happen when things settle down after a big payday and a bigger party, but reality will reassert itself pretty damn quickly and Vodafone had better have strategies in place for when that happens.

Having given up fighting in various parts of the world, Vodafone may find itself with no choise other than to focus an Europe, and many European economies are still in a mess, Nonetheless, in June Vodafone offered some $10 billion to take control of Kabel Deutschland Holding AG, the biggest cable operator in Germany and that deal will be completed before theend of the year.

This purchase could be an indication that Vodafone is attempting to break out of its "mobile only" box as wireless services revenues in Europe continue to decline on the back of evermore cut-throat competition and regulatory changes.

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