Airtel Africa's Stock Debut Among Worst in Europe This Year
A man rides a bicycle past an advertisement for Airtel Ghana Ltd. in Accra, Ghana. (Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg)

Airtel Africa's Stock Debut Among Worst in Europe This Year

(Bloomberg) -- Bharti Airtel Ltd.’s Africa unit plunged in London trading after raising about $750 million in an initial public offering, making it among the worst debuts on European exchanges this year.

Airtel Africa Ltd. dropped as much as 16% to 67 pence per share, matching the first-day decline for OssDsign AB last month. Airtel Africa said it had priced the offering at 80 pence a share, at the low end of its range, giving the company a market capitalization of about 3.1 billion pounds ($3.93 billion). It traded at 69.88 pence as of 11:17 a.m.

Airtel Africa's Stock Debut Among Worst in Europe This Year

The weak market showing for the African carrier, the continent’s second-largest by subscribers, comes as parent Bharti Airtel struggles back home with a years-long price war and mounting debt. Proceeds from the IPO will help the India-based wireless operator pare debt while it prepares to upgrade its mobile network to fifth-generation technology.

Airtel Africa may be suffering from broader investor unease about telecom carriers in emerging markets, said Ally McKinnon, a fund manager at Scottish Investment Trust Plc who didn’t participate in the IPO.

Phone companies were popular during the investment boom in so-called BRIC stocks -- from Brazil, Russia, India and China -- but they can be at risk of state intervention, he said, citing Johannesburg-based MTN Group Ltd.’s battle against multibillion-dollar claims by Nigerian authorities over taxes and fines.

“Once you’ve got the network built, you’re vulnerable because you’ve got assets in the country, you’re a big company that makes money, or makes cash flow at least,” McKinnon said.

Alastair Jones, an analyst at New Street Research, had flagged concerns about Airtel Africa in the run-up to the IPO tied to the company’s network investment and its exposure to Nigeria -- given MTN’s troubles there -- as well as Airtel’s slightly weaker market position relative to rivals.

“Clearly it’s a more difficult market at the moment for African telcos,” said Jones, who doesn’t have a rating on Airtel, in an interview on Friday. “The regulatory risk around the region is elevated given what has happened with MTN over the last few years.”

In a statement before the start of trading, Airtel Africa Chief Executive Officer Raghunath Mandava said the IPO was a proud moment for the company. “We are delighted by the strong response we have received from the many high-quality investors from around the world,” Mandava said.

Bharti joins Volkswagen AG in pricing IPOs at the low end of a target range for listings on Friday. Volkswagen raised $1.8 billion through the IPO of its truck unit, Traton, which dropped as much as 2.4% in Frankfurt. Still, low interest rates are helping demand, and some sales that proceeded have done well.

Airtel Africa's Stock Debut Among Worst in Europe This Year

The Airtel Africa sale is among the largest IPOs announced in 2019 in London, where emerging markets companies are boosting volumes amid a lackluster year for British issuers.

Airtel Africa already raised $1.25 billion last year from investors including Temasek Holdings Pte and SoftBank Group Corp., and the company is also planning to pursue a local secondary listing in Nigeria. Bharti is relying more on Africa for growth as prospects for a quick revival of profit in India dim.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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