Busy signals

vodafone1.jpgYou can’t tell the telecom mergers without a scorecard: France Telecom proposed a $41 billion bid for TeliaSonera to create the world’s third-largest broadband operator and fourth-biggest mobile company, but the Nordic company rejected the offer. Britain’s Vodafone said its U.S.-based Verizon Wireless venture with Verizon is in advanced talks to buy U.S. rural mobile service provider Alltel, potentially making it the top U.S. wireless carrier ahead of AT&T. Deutsche Telekom clinched a deal last month with the Greek government that gives it a 25 percent stake in operator OTE, and India’s Reliance Communications and South Africa’s MTN are also close to a tie-up. What is the deal? “In the current context of consolidation, it appears unavoidable to have critical mass,” said France Telecom Chief Executive Didier Lombard.

Verizon’s move in particular was a surprise as it came only seven months after Alltel was loaded up with debt in a private-equity takeover by TPG Capital and Goldman Sachs’ GS Capital Partners. The deal would value Alltel at eight times its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization, compared with its November sale to private equity firms for about nine times EBITDA, the source said. While TPG and Goldman don’t appear to have made much money, it doesn’t seem they’ve lost much either. It’s hard to imagine they planned to flip it after 6 months, but perhaps for private equity these days, getting out free is good enough.

BHP Billiton, the world’s top miner, said it sees no need to sell assets to win regulatory approval for its $170 billion proposed takeover of rival Rio Tinto, but did not rule out that it might have to. Chief Executive Marius Kloppers also said his company had not held talks with any Chinese entity about buying a stake in BHP. If it had, he added, it would have had to disclose the discussions to the market. BHP will send its takeover offer to Rio shareholders only after it has been cleared by anti-trust regulators in Europe, Australia, the United States, Canada and South Africa, expected later this year. It filed its application to the European Commission, which it considers one of the three key regulators on the bid, on May 30. The EC will say by July 4 whether it will approve the deal, open an in-depth investigation, or permit a short extension.

Other deals of the day:

* Chinese metals trader Sinosteel said it has increased its voting stake in Midwest to 33.82 percent, from 28.37 percent the previous day, as it seeks to take over the Australian iron ore prospector. It has also taken legal steps to stop its rivals buying any more shares in the Australian iron ore prospector.

* Dutch navigation device maker TomTom declared its 2.9 billion euro ($4.5 billion) offer for digital map supplier Tele Atlas unconditional and announced a management reshuffle.

Job cuts at Wachovia go right to the top

thompson.jpgWhen Wachovia CEO Ken Thompson announced plans to cut up to 500 jobs last month, he probably didn’t expect to be included in the total. The bank ousted Thompson on Monday following a series of disappointments that hurt the fourth-largest U.S. bank and its performance. Wachovia said Thompson is retiring at the request of its board of directors; Lanty Smith, the bank’s chairman, was named interim CEO. The bank’s stock was lower before the open. Wachovia has marked down mortgage and other debt assets by $5 billion so far in the credit crunch.

Harris is not pursuing any transaction. We’re not for sale,” Howard Lance, chairman, president and CEO of the defense communications company, told Reuters in a telephone interview. Lance said Harris normally does not comment on rumors or speculation, but decided to issue a statement because the “level of rhetoric had risen to a point that it was becoming a distraction and could be damaging to the company, and could fuel speculation in our stock.” One industry analyst last week told Reuters that General Dynamics recently made an informal overture to Harris, but dropped it amid its own management succession. Northrop Grumman also looked into a possible bid for Harris but balked at the high valuation, the analyst added.

China unveiled two mega-deals as the government overhauls the world’s largest telecoms industry, with mobile operator Unicom taking over a fixed-line peer and unloading an underperforming network. Unicom, the smaller rival of China Mobile, said it will issue new shares and swap 1.5 shares for every share in Netcom, the smaller of China’s two fixed-line carriers. Unicom is set to pay more than $55 billion for Netcom, but did not say how it arrived at that figure — which would be more than double Netcom’s current market value. Unicom also agreed to sell a wireless network to fixed-line leader China Telecom and its parent for 110 billion yuan ($15.2 billion). The announcements mark the first steps in a sweeping restructuring that is expected to usher China into a more advanced telecoms age while opening the door to foreign investment and billions of dollars in purchases from telecoms gear makers. China Telecom appears to be paying up for a network that only broke even in 2006 after years of losses and which is a third of the size of Unicom’s GSM communications network, which raked in 62.78 billion yuan in revenue in 2007.