AT&T Divestitures Could Lower Time Warner Leverage

As AT&T Inc. (T) prepares to fight a Department of Justice lawsuit to block its merger with Time Warner Inc. (TWX) , the telecom is considering a number of moves that could modestly help it reduce debt from the transaction.

AT&T said Wednesday, Feb. 7, that it will consider an IPO of a minority stake in DirecTV Latin America in the first half of the year. The telecom disclosed to the FCC that it is selling wireless spectrum, and it is reportedly exploring a sale of its data centers.

Together the divestitures could provide $8 billion or so that AT&T could apply to its debt, according to a Thursday report from Moody's Investors Service Inc. analyst Mark Stodden. AT&T did not respond to a query about whether it will use funds to pay down debt.

Even if AT&T hits Moody's estimates, there will still be heavy lifting. AT&T and Time Warner had about $188 billion in debt at the close of 2017. The ratings agency has AT&T on review for downgrade because of the leverage associated with the Time Warner deal.

When AT&T said it would buy Time Warner for $85.4 billion, or $108.7 billion including debt, in October 2016, CFO John Stephens said the company would maintain "sound balance sheet and solid investment-grade credit metric."

Moody's estimates that, if AT&T overcomes the Department of Justice lawsuit and closes the purchase, leverage will come to 3 times Ebitda as the companies define it. Moody's factors in operating leases and unfunded pension liabilities, among other obligations, and puts leverage at 3.6 times Ebitda.

AT&T targets a multiple of 2.5 times Ebitda by the first year after the close and 1.8 times by the fourth year.

To get to 2.5 times and 1.8 times Ebitda, Moody's suggests AT&T will have to repay $25 billion and $60 billion in debt, respectively.

The entire DirecTV Latin America satellite television business could be worth $8 billion to $10 billion, Macquarie Capital analyst Amy Yong projected in a recent note. By selling just under half through an IPO, the company could raise $4 billion to $5 billion-which Yong suggested would reduce debt by 0.1 times Ebitda.

In the longer term, Yong wrote, Liberty Latin America Ltd. (LILA) could be a suitor. John Malone controls 25.5% of the voting power for Liberty Latin America, according to a January Securities and Exchange Commission filing, and sits on the company's board.

Liberty Latin America completed a spin off from Liberty Global PLC (LBTYK) in early January. A spokesperson could not be reached on Friday.

AT&T is selling wireless spectrum licenses that it purchased just last year to a vehicle backed by Columbia Capital LP, filings with the Federal Communications Commission show. AT&T purchased the spectrum in the 600 MHz band for about $865 million a year ago, and Moody's estimated the sale price at about $1 billion.

The telecom is also exploring a sale of its data centers, according to the Wall Street Journal. Moody's estimated that the proceeds from a sale could be $2 billion. An AT&T spokesman could not be reached Friday regarding the potential auction.

The biggest contributor to AT&T's debt reduction could be the cash that its businesses throw off. Post-merger AT&T and Time Warner could generate $5 billion in free cash flow in the half-year before the deal closes -- contingent on the companies resolving their battle with the government.

Together with $8 billion in asset sales and $15 billion in free cash flow from its business, the company could have accumulated $23 billion in cash on top of the cash already on its books, which is close to the $25 billion that Moody's suggests it needs to get to 2.5 times Ebitda within a year of closing.

The asset sales won't be enough to meet AT&T's leverage goals, but could help the telecom hit its target.

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