April 20, 2018 / 6:00 AM / 3 months ago

UPDATE 1-Telia launches $1.8 bln buybacks to slim bulging balance sheet

(Adds detail on share repurchase, background)

STOCKHOLM, April 20 (Reuters) - Telecom operator Telia Company set out plans for three years of share repurchases on Friday as it looked to return cash to shareholders in the wake of asset sales outside its Nordic home market to which it is retrenching.

The Stockholm-based company said it would buy back 15 billion Swedish crowns ($1.78 billion) worth of shares over the coming three years and also raised its outlook for cash flow this year, saying it was now expected to be stronger than in 2017.

Telia began a retreat from central Asia in 2015 after former management became embroiled in a bribery scandal in Uzbekistan which resulted settlements with U.S. and European authorities totalling $966 million.

It has also sold stakes in Turkish mobile operator Turkcell and Russia’s Megafon over the past year, leaving its balance sheet far stronger than set out in its long-term financial targets.

“Through a buyback program we aim to increase the return to our shareholders meanwhile we maintain room for disciplined value creative M&A within our Nordic and Baltic strategy framework,” Telia CEO Johan Dennelind said in a statement.

As well as the Turkcell and Megafon sales, Telia has struck deals to leave four of seven markets in its so called Eurasian unit - Nepal, Tajikistan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan - and expects to finalise exits for the remainder before year-end, Chief Financial Officer Christian Luiga told Reuters.

With its central Asian growth engine soon consigned to the past, Telia has also been casting about for new areas of expansion, focusing on its home market - the Nordic region.

Luiga said that broadband and cable-TV assets in Norway continued to be the operator’s top priority for acquisitions but that talks regarding purchases there had yet to result in any deals.

The company’s first quarter core profit rose to 6.50 million Swedish crowns ($771.8 million) excluding non-recurring items, from 6.15 billion crowns a year ago and beat a mean forecast of 6.32 billion in a Reuters poll. ($1 = 8.4168 Swedish crowns) (Reporting by Niklas Pollard and Olof Swahnberg, additional reporting by Helena Soderpalm; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier)

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