Tue, Aug 30, 2016 - Page 10 News List

Li’s Italian job shows he still has his touch: Gadfly

HONG KONG’S SUPERMAN:Analysts say the merger of CK Hutchison’s 3 Italia unit with Wind Telecomunicazioni will allow 3 Italia to lift its EBITDA margin by up to 8%

By Nisha Gopalan  /  Bloomberg

He may be 88 and facing setbacks from failed deals in the UK and Australia, but investors bet against Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠) at their peril.

Hong Kong’s richest man is set to win approval as early as this week for 3 Italia’s buyout of a competitor that would create the country’s biggest telecom operator.

The deal is more important for Li than an aborted one in Britain that would have made his company that nation’s top mobile-phone provider.

There is no doubt that the past couple of years have not been kind to Li’s global ambitions.

Having invested billions of dollars in European utilities and telecom businesses, the billionaire was thwarted in his attempt to buy a stake in electricity network Ausgrid two weeks ago, just three months after his acquisition of Telefonica’s O2 unit in Britain was blocked by regulators.

Then the Brexit vote happened, and the UK, which made up 39 percent of first-half earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) at Li’s flagship CK Hutchison (長江和記實業), became less of a dependable investment destination.

The falling pound has dragged down profit at the conglomerate, which owns a slew of water, electricity and telecom assets in Britain.

Li said earlier this month that the fallout from Britain’s decision to leave the EU would last for years.

Back home in Hong Kong, minority shareholders rejected a US$12.4 billion all-stock bid by Cheung Kong Infrastructure (長江基建) for his Power Assets division, a takeover that would have tightened Li’s control of a cash pile totaling more than US$8 billion.

On top of it all, Li was accused of deserting Hong Kong, which now makes up just 4 percent of CK Hutchison’s EBIT, and China, which accounts for 12 percent.

Six years ago, the former British colony contributed about 27 percent of EBIT to Hutchison Whampoa (和記黃埔), the former incarnation of his biggest publicly traded company.

However, Li, who has a US$31 billion fortune, was not dubbed Superman by Hong Kong media for nothing.

This month he posted better-than-forecast earnings at CK Hutchison and real estate unit Cheung Kong Property (長江實業地產). The flagship can now look forward to a further boost to profitability from its Italian mobile operations.

Following some concessions, CK Hutchison has been given approval to merge its 3 Italia unit with Wind Telecomunicazioni, Russian firm VimpelCom’s telecom business, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News last week.

The bigger chunk of the market that the two companies will control will enable the Italian business to lift its EBITDA margin from a paltry 18 percent, the lowest among CK Hutchison’s telecom operations in Europe.

By contrast, margins at the UK business are 41 percent.

Analysts at Deutsche Bank reckon that approval for the Italian deal could raise CK Hutchison’s EBITDA by as much as 8 percent.

EBITDA margins at CK Hutchison’s 3 Italia operations are the company’s lowest among its European telecom operations

CK Hutchison shares have picked up after being hammered following the Brexit vote in June, rising 21 percent as of Friday’s close from this year’s low on July 8.

CK Property has also gained, climbing 12 percent over the same period.

Of the 15 analysts that cover CK Hutchison, 13 rate the stock a buy while only one has a sell rating. Fourteen analysts have buy ratings on CK Property, versus two sells.

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