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Why telco trouble is making banks nervous

November 18, 2019 08:30 IST

The concern is over the future debt repayment capacity in case Vodafone Idea, Airtel take more debt to finance operations and meet repayment obligations.

The adverse fallout of huge losses posted by telecom majors Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel in the second quarter, on provisions made for dues in adjusted gross revenue (AGR), has left commercial banks nervous.

Bankers said that at present, both operators are current in their repayments.


However, the concern is over the future debt repayment capacity in case these entities take more debt to finance operations and meet repayment obligations.

Vodafone, the joint venture partner in the Aditya Birla group entity, has categorically said that given the significant capital already invested, it will not inject further group equity into India.

“When an owner expresses the inability to make further investments, the issue is serious.

"Banks are analysing implications and awaiting clarity from the secretary panel,” said senior executives with a large public sector bank.

According to Reserve Bank of India data, commercial banks’ exposure to the telecommunications sector rose to Rs 1.15 trillion in September 2019, from Rs 81,126 crore in September 2017.

State Bank of India’s exposure to the industry increased to Rs 35,735 crore as of September 2019, from Rs 25,538 crore a year ago.

Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel reported a whopping combined loss of close to Rs 74,000 crore in the September 2019 quarter, as the leading telecom operators were hit by statutory dues arising from the recent Supreme Court ruling on AGR.

While Vodafone Idea posted a loss of Rs 50,921 crore - the highest-ever quarterly loss by any corporate in India - Airtel reported loss to the tune of Rs 23,045 crore.

The issue had been dragging on for the past 14 years, with telecom providers and the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) locked in a battle over the definition of AGR.

While the telecom service providers insisted that AGR included only revenue from core operations, the DoT maintained that AGR also included revenue from operations other than the core ones.

AGR assumes significance because it is the basis on which the DoT calculates levies payable by operators.

Telecom companies pay 3-5 per cent and 8 per cent of the AGR as spectrum usage charges and license fees, respectively, to the DoT.

Photograph: Arko Datta/Reuters

Abhijit Lele in Mumbai
Source: source image