UPDATE 4-Bond uncertainty weighs on Ireland's Independent
* Group still confident deal with bondholders can be reached
* Warns operating profit will slide again in 2009
* Revenues down 13.5 percent in 17 wks to April 24
* Sees 100-150 million euros from asset sales by Q3
* Shares down 4 percent
(Adds company comment, analyst comment, updates shares)
By Carmel Crimmins
DUBLIN, April 30 (Reuters) - Independent News & Media (INME.I) assured investors it would secure a refinancing deal for a 200 million euros ($266 million) bond due next month but uncertainty over an agreement hit its shares on Thursday.
The Irish media group is in a make-or-break race to roll over the senior bond before it matures on May 18 or risk default. Its failure to seal a deal this week compounded a bleak outlook for 2009 and weak 2008 results.
"The debt situation is overshadowing everything," said Gerry Hennigan, analyst at Goodbody Stockbrokers.
"The reason the share price is weak is because there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding how this is going to play and the nature of it and the structure of it. Until you see that you can't take a strong view."
The Irish media group has built up a debt pile of 1.4 billion euros through overseas expansion and next month's deadline comes amid a collapse in advertising, which has badly hit its bottom line.
There has been speculation the group is examining the possibility of swapping some of the debt for an equity stake for the bondholders but Donal Buggy, Independent's Chief Financial Officer, declined to be drawn on any details at a news conference.
"We are happy and confident that we are going to have a successful conclusion to the negotiation," he said.
Last week, Independent News' second-largest shareholder, Irish telecoms billionaire Denis O'Brien, was quoted as saying the odds of a successful conclusion to the talks were 50-50.
IMPOSSIBLE TO CALL
Independent's stock was down 4 percent at 0.24 euros in afternoon trade after earlier sliding 28 percent. The shares, a fraction of the price of the company's newspapers, have lost nearly 90 percent of their value over the past 12 months.
One Dublin-based fund manager said the stock was a no-go area while uncertainty remained over its debts.
"It could be a roaring buy or it could be a roaring sell. The level of debt makes that impossible to call and if anybody else tells you any different they are lying," he said.
A global slide in advertising revenue saw adjusted 2008 earnings per share drop 33 percent to 12.6 euro cents, broadly in line with expectations, while full-year revenues were down 12 percent.
Independent News signalled 2009 was shaping up to be even tougher with a 13.5 percent drop in revenues in the first 17 weeks of 2009 and predictions for a rapid deterioration in full-year operating earnings.
The group, which owns newspapers, radio stations and advertising groups in Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, said it expected operating earnings before exceptionals this year of between 200 million and 230 million euros, down 21 percent to 31 percent on last year.
Analysts were on average expecting 2008 earnings per share, pre-exceptionals, of 13 euro cents, according to the mean of eight analysts polled by Reuters Knowledge.
Independent News has twice delayed the publication of its full-year results due to negotiations with bondholders.
The company said it expected to raise 100 million to 150 million euros from the sale of its price comparison website Verivox, gaming software firm Cashcade and its South African outdoor advertising business by the end of the third quarter.
The funds will be used to pay off some of its debts.
The company declined to comment on speculation it wished to sell flagship London Independent newspaper. ($1 = 0.7547 euro) (Editing by Simon Jessop and Guy Dresser)
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