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I-bankers see the return of cross-border M&As

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Sameer Nath, head of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) for Citi Group Global Markets India, has been busy working on domestic restructuring and consolidation deals over the past six to nine months. He managed close to about $4 billion worth of such deals, one of the highest in the investment banking industry in the first five months of this year.

But Nath is now shifting his focus back to what international bankers are best known for: cross-border deals — which had virtually dried up, owing to the dip in valuations of companies and the freeze in the external commercial borrowings market.

Nath said "acquisition finance conditions were showing definite signs of improvement, even though the inexpensive, abundant debt of 2006 or 2007 would not be available for a while".

When Nath is talking about a potential revival of outbound M&A deals, he is not only referring to the announcement of India's largest mobile service provider Bharti Airtel's plan to merge with South African MTN Group in a proposed $23 billion deal.

"After a slowdown over the last two or three quarters, we may see an uptick in outbound M&A activity over the next few quarters," he said.

For inbound deals, he said the triggers could be industry-specific investments stimulated by government reforms and relatively attractive valuations (despite the recent equity market rally). Plus, many overseas acquirers continue to view Indian capability and presence as strategic.

The trend is visible already. According to Grant Thornton data, half of the 16 M&A deals last month were cross-border deals — seven outbound and one inbound. The number of cross-border deals in April was seven.

Though the numbers are minuscule compared to last year, most investment bankers agree the encouraging sign is that it is improving from virtually nil a few months back.

For example, Ranu Vohra, managing director of investment banker Avendus Advisors, said requests from multinationals for inbound deals have multiplied in the last few months, owing to the general perception that Indian companies would grow faster than their international peers.

The sellers could be those selling their non-core assets for operational efficiencies. Vohra also said there were many first-timers among Indian companies looking for overseas acquisitions.

Ambit Corporate Finance has also witnessed a similar momentum for cross-border deals. It received a buy side mandate from a European engineering company shortly after the results of the general election were announced.

“Companies that are under-leveraged or have visible cash flow from existing operations are looking at plugging their product gap in India by acquiring technology to make competitive products,” said Ashim Bhuwania, vice- president, Ambit.

Some investment bankers are still cautious, however. “Funding has certainly become easier both from the equity and the credit market,” said Vedika Bhandarkar, managing director and head of investment banking J P Morgan India.

“Valuations are very attractive and the environment is more benign,” she said. But whether these would convert into deals would be a little early to say, she added.

Analysts said telecom would be one sector in which the most cross-border deals were expected this year. Global telecom companies are attracted to India’s market, estimated to grow to more than 650 million subscribers by 2012 from 360 million currently, with over 10 million subscribers being added each month.

The sector has been a significant driver of M&As, accounting for the highest share of deals at 18.6 per cent and 22 per cent over the last two years, with values of $5.7 billion and $11 billion in 2008 and 2007, respectively.

The sector has already seen a host of deals since last year, including NTT DoCoMo-Tata Teleservices and Telenor-Unitech Telecom. Many agreed that the trend would continue.

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