Alcatel-Lucent buys time with $2.1 billion debt deal

PARIS Fri Dec 14, 2012 4:12pm IST

The logo of Alcatel-Lucent is pictured at the entrance of its Paris headquarters December 12, 2008. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The logo of Alcatel-Lucent is pictured at the entrance of its Paris headquarters December 12, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Charles Platiau

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PARIS (Reuters) - Telecom equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent (ALUA.PA) agreed a 1.6 billion euro ($2.1 billion) financing deal, backed partly by its patents, that could buy the loss-making group time to cut costs.

The Franco-American company has been hit by competition from low-cost Chinese rivals and lower spending on network gear by global telecom operators.

Chief Executive Ben Verwaayen is racing to cut 1.25 billion euros costs by the end of 2013, via layoffs and exiting unprofitable countries and contracts, to staunch an average annual cash burn of 700 million euros.

The Dutch executive has struggled to fulfill a pledge made when he arrived in September 2008 to make Alcatel-Lucent a "normal company" with regular profit and healthy cash flows.

The senior secured credit facility will be backed by the group's 29,000 patents, among other assets, and was expected to be completed in January. Denominated in dollars and euros, the debt will have maturities ranging from 3-1/2 years to six years.

The group gave no detail about what other assets could be put up for collateral, but sources earlier told Reuters that the undersea cable unit could be used or otherwise sold completely to strengthen the group's balance sheet.

Despite the challenges it faces, Alcatel-Lucent also provided a new guidance for 2015 gross margin in the range of 35-37 percent and an adjusted operating margin of 6-9 percent.

The operating margin target is slightly higher than the above 5 percent goal set by Verwaayen in 2010 as part of his turnaround plan, and could prove ambitious if the telecom gear market doesn't pick up.

Pierre Ferragu, analyst at Bernstein Research said: "We don't believe the 2015 target presented by management is credible. It implies a significant recovery in gross margins in optics and a stabilization of negative trends at most other business units."

The company also made no mention of a cash flow goal; Verwaayen had aimed for the group to reach positive cash flow in 2011.

Shares were up 9.9 percent at 0928 GMT to 0.94 euros as investors welcomed the breathing space brought by the credit facility.

"These new credit facilities in our view improve the liquidity of the company but do not solve the underlying problems of weak profitability, poor underlying free cash flow and an overall company debt level that looks too high for a cyclical technology company," JP Morgan analysts said in a research note.

Although Alcatel-Lucent still has significant cash reserves, analysts had been worried in recent months about the group's financial solidity as it burns cash from its operations.

Before Friday, the company faced about 2.2 billion euros in debt repayments through to the end of 2015.

Credit Suisse (CSGN.VX) and Goldman Sachs (GS.N) agreed the financing deal.

(Reporting by Leila Abboud; Editing by Erica Billingham)

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