Greece sells 10.7 pct OTE stake, Cosmote buyout is seen as likely

LONDON/ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece yesterday sold a 10.7 percent stake in major telecom OTE, effectively ending its search for a strategic partner in the group and paving the way for OTE to consolidate with its mobile unit. The state, with about 39 percent of OTE, moved to the private share placement after initial efforts to find a partner for the group floundered. The sale of a stake is the highlight of its privatization program for the year to pay down public debt. «The issue of finding a strategic partner is now over and paves the way for other buyouts,» said Vangelis Karanikas, an analyst at HSBC in Athens. «This especially brings closer the issue of a Cosmote minority buyout.» OTE currently holds about 67 percent in its mobile subsidiary Cosmote, while Chief Executive Panagis Vourloumis has said he was actively considering raising OTE’s stake in Cosmote to 100 percent to offset falling revenues. Greece had sought a partner for OTE to help it compete in a deregulated market and further expand abroad, but found it difficult to attract interest as the government insisted it would maintain management control. Union opposition and rigid employment practices dating from when OTE was fully state-owned also helped put off potential investors, on concerns growth would remain stagnant. With the spin-off of its Infote unit and EU approval of government plans to transfer a 4 percent stake to OTE’s pension fund – helping finance a voluntary redundancy scheme – the group now finds itself free to proceed with expansion plans without being burdened by government restraints, analysts said. Vourloumis earlier this year said plans to proceed with a further buyout of Cosmote had been put on hold by the government’s plans to sell the OTE stake and its search for a partner. «OTE can now take the cash freed up by the EU and from the sale of Infote and use it for Cosmote,» Karanikas said. Stake sale The sale of about 52.5 million shares priced at between -20.80 and -21.40 was oversubscribed and priced at the top of the indicative price range, sources familiar with the process said, meaning a windfall of about -1.1 billion for the government. UBS, Deutsche Bank and Merrill Lynch acted as bookrunners for the share placing. Credit Suisse and EFG Telesis Finance were appointed joint bookrunners and together with UBS will act as global coordinators for the deal, Credit Suisse said in a press release.

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