Telecoms M&A speculation - the possible, and the downright crazy

There are a small number of successful entrepreneurs whose activities cause worry and fear among the boardrooms of European telecoms operators. One of these, and perhaps the most notable, is the Egyptian mogul Naguib Sawiris, who is thought to be casting his expert eye over several potential targets.

Recently, Sawiris caused a flurry of activity when he was rumoured to be the backer behind a possible bid for Telekom Austria--although any such deal was hastily denied by the Austrian company, and no share building exercise is evident.

But the mere suggestion that Sawiris could somehow be involved in any bid gave credibility to the speculation.

The Egyptian billionaire has also been linked with making a bid for Orange Switzerland. However, the €2 billion that FT Orange is now suggesting as the likely sale price for its Swiss subsidiary could be too rich even for Sawiris.

While these possible bids might be little more than industry gossip and efforts by speculators to ramp share prices, the news last week that Sawiris has raised $600 million against his holding in Russia's Vimpelcom must have set alarm bells ringing in some of Europe's smaller operators.

According to a Russian newspaper, Sawiris obtained the loan from a number of lending institutions, including Bank of America, Citigroup, Credit Suisse Group and Goldman Sachs, after pledging over 4 per cent of his Vimpelcom holding as collateral.

Funds of this magnitude could certainly open doors, and Telekom Austria was the subject of interest from Russia's MTS in July 2010, again promptly denied by the Austrian operator.

Another rumour that gathered huge traction in the technology press, but seemed to lack much business sense, was the idea that Vodafone was interested in acquiring BlackBerry maker Research In Motion.

While this speculation helped RIM by pushing its up its share price by 16 per cent, no one has answered why Vodafone would want to control a handset vendor facing sliding profits, slowing sales and a dimming brand.

The Wall Street Journal neatly summed up the sudden rise as "another Research In Motion rally on hopes of a magic-unicorn rescue," and it would be difficult to imagine a more crazy notion for Vodafone to become involved with. --Paul