Fitch revises Kazakhtelecom’s outlook to stable

January 14. KAZINFORM

Fitch revises Kazakhtelecom's outlook to stableInternational Rating Agency Fitch Ratings has revised the outlook on Kazakh Kazakhtelecom JSC’s (Kaztel) Long-Term Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to stable from negative and affirmed the IDR at ‘BB’, the agency reported on Jan. 13.

Short-term IDR was affirmed at ‘B’.

Local currency long-term IDR was affirmed at ‘BB, outlook revised to stable from negative.

National long-term rating was affirmed at ‘A(kaz)’, outlook revised to stable from negative.

Company’s senior unsecured debt in foreign currency was affirmed at ‘BB’. Senior unsecured debt in local currency was affirmed at ‘A(kaz)’.

“The revision of the outlook is driven by a significant reduction in the company’s total debt due to repayments from cash on the balance sheet, and certain capex cuts as well as an overall revision of the company’s capex plan resulting in a milder leverage spike,” the agency said.

Kaztel’s is likely to maintain its dominant positions in the fixed-line segment, helped by benign regulation and the shortage of alternative networks, Fitch said. Kaztel estimated its fixed-line telephony market share at a high 92 percent at end-2012. Fixed-to-mobile substitution is a key threat, and this will drive modest fixed-line disconnections and pricing pressures, in our view.

The Kazakh broadband market still retains strong growth potential, driven by relatively low broadband penetration in the country (26 percent of households as of end-2012). Kaztel’s much relied-on ADSL technology allows it to roll-out broadband services ahead of its peers. Broadband leadership will be supported by a rapid roll-out of fibre infrastructure in key territories. The segment’s revenue growth is likely to lag subscriber additions as the agency expects the company’s currently inflated tariffs to remain under regulatory and competitive pressure in key cities.

Kaztel’s newly launched LTE service may face only limited operating success while being the key leverage driver in 2014-2016. The Kazakh mobile market is well penetrated with 3G services and is highly competitive. It will be a challenge to migrate CDMA customers to a GSM network as currently planned. There is a risk that churn may increase and the company is likely to run significant one-off costs.

High capex on the back of LTE roll-out and fixed-line network upgrades will push free cash flow (FCF) deep into negative territory in 2013-2014, and will continue weighing on cash generation in 2015-2016. Leverage is likely to rise, but we project it will remain below 2.5x total debt/EBITDA.

The Kazakh domestic banking system is weak, implying a lack of local funding and resultant high FX risks, few committed credit facilities and potentially limited access to deposits, according to the agency. Consequently, Fitch primarily focuses on the company’s gross debt metrics in our analysis, Kazinform refers to

Kaztel’s debt profile is well spread with no medium-term debt redemption peaks. The company is likely to finance its LTE capex with new debt which may change this. Exposure to foreign currency risk is high, with 89 pewrcent of debt denominated in or pegged to foreign currencies at end of the third quarter of 2013.

Kaztel issued a $300 million guarantee to China Development Bank covering a loan to Kazakhmys, its sister company, under an agreement with its controlling shareholder, Samruk-Kazyna in 2009. This guarantee will be triggered if Samruk-Kazyna defaults on its payments to China Development Bank. Samruk-Kazyna later issued a cross-guarantee to Kaztel promising to pay back any amounts that it had to pay to China Development Bank. Fitch notes this situation as a corporate governance concern, and this is factored into Kaztel’s ratings.

“Kaztel’s ratings reflect its standalone credit profile. Kaztel is of only limited strategic importance for Kazakhstan, while operating and legal ties with its controlling shareholder, government-controlled Samruk-Kazyna, are weak. Although indirect government control is a positive credit factor, it does not justify any notching up, in our view,” Fitch said.

A protracted rise in gross leverage to above 2.5x total debt/EBITDA and 3x FFO adjusted leverage, and/or a material increase in refinancing risks may lead to negative rating action. A sustained decrease in gross leverage to below 1.0x total debt/EBITDA and 1.5x FFO adjusted leverage and successful development of the mobile segment demonstrating strong operating and financial performance could be rating positive, according to the agency.