Japan's NTT launches $40 billion buyout of wireless unit Docomo

Passersby wearing protective face masks walk past in front of NTT Docomo shop in Tokyo, Japan

By Sam Nussey and Makiko Yamazaki

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp (NTT) <9432.T> said it will spend 4.25 trillion yen ($40 billion) to take its wireless carrier business private, in a deal that opens the path to lower prices as the government calls for cuts.

NTT will launch Japan's largest-ever tender offer for the 34% of NTT Docomo Inc <9437.T> stock that it does not own, the firm said in a statement. The telecoms firm will offer 3,900 yen per share, a premium of 40.5% to Monday's closing price.

The buyout comes as new prime minister Yoshihide Suga calls on wireless carriers to reduce prices, with the government hoping resultant savings will stimulate consumer spending elsewhere in the economy.

On Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato reiterated that call, saying there needs to be "visible progress on lowering mobile phone charges".

"NTT Docomo's financial base will become stronger giving us the capacity to cut prices," NTT Chief Executive Jun Sawada told a news conference.

NTT's share price fell as much as 5.8% after the company said it was considering the buyout. The stock closed down 3% while NTT Docomo ended up 16% at its daily trade limit.

Mobile peers KDDI Corp <9433.T> and SoftBank Corp <9434.T> fell 4%, with SoftBank touching record lows.

That continued a slide among telcos which began when Shinzo Abe announced plans to step down as prime minister on Aug. 28, as investors digested the prospect of Suga, who had previously called for price cuts, becoming premier.

Graphic: The Suga slide https://graphics.reuters.com/NTT-DOCOMO/qzjvqnozepx/index.html


NTT spun off NTT Docomo in 1992 ahead of listing in 1998, as the government sought to stimulate competition in the telecoms sector. Buying it back would mark the end of a prominent parent-child listing that are frowned upon abroad yet common in Japan.

At $40 billion, NTT's tender offer is among the largest deals this year globally, Refinitiv data showed.

"Post acquisition, Docomo will no longer be answerable to shareholders. If the government instructs it to cut prices, it will oblige," Jefferies analyst Atul Goyal wrote in a client note.

NTT, a former state monopoly, still counts the government as its largest shareholder with a 34% stake.

Government efforts to enhance competition have included backing Rakuten Inc's <4755.T> entry into the sector this year. The e-commerce firm's low-cost plan model could suffer, however, should prices fall more broadly.

Meanwhile, government pricing pressure comes as carriers spend big to build fifth-generation services widely seen as critical to ensuring Japan's competitiveness.

The buyout "is driven more by the potential to develop 5G and IoT services than regulatory pressure," said analyst Kirk Boodry at Redex Research, referring to the Internet of Things. The industry is seeking "new, less regulated revenue streams," he said.

The telecoms firm said it will fund the acquisition through loans totalling 4.3 trillion yen from Japan's biggest three banks and others, with Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc <8306.T> the largest lender.

NTT's approach contrasts with that of SoftBank Group Corp <9984.T>, which is selling down its stake in its wireless unit, forgoing stable dividend income in favour of a cash injection as it focuses on investing.

($1 = 105.6200 yen)

(Reporting by Sam Nussey, Makiko Yamazaki and Takashi Umekawa; Additional reporting by Hiroko Hamada, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Junko Fujita; Editing by Richard Pullin and Christopher Cushing)