Over-Indebted European Telecom Giant Tries to Dump its Latin American Empire

Telefonica, with operations in Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico, is on the verge of “junk,” and the ECB holds some of its debt. 

By Nick Corbishley, for WOLF STREET:

Telefonica, the telecommunications and internet giant headquartered in Spain and with operations in numerous countries and burdened by enormous debts, has announced plans to stage a historic retreat from one of its core markets, Latin America, in a bid to generate much-needed funds. Like many of its peers, Europe’s fourth-largest telecoms company is finding it difficult to achieve consistent profit growth while its debt load remains dangerously high. Its shares recently hit their lowest level in more than two decades, and are down by 9% this year and by around two thirds over the last decade.

In a broadly unexpected move on Wednesday evening, Telefonica announced that the company was going to prioritize four key markets — Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Germany — while spinning off its operations in eight Latin American countries: Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico, where it faces stiff opposition from Carlos Slim’s America Movil and AT&T.

“The geopolitical, macroeconomic and regulatory uncertainties, and high competition in the sector require an increasingly demanding allocation of capital,” said Telefónica CEO, José María Álvarez-Pallete, in a press conference. “If in the past the low penetration of voice and data services assured future growth, the current maturity of the markets and the appearance of new competitors subject to different rules demand a highly focused strategic approach.”

After offloading its subsidiaries in Latin America, the company hopes to boost revenues from the creation of a new unit, Telefonica Tech, to group together cybersecurity, the Internet of Things, and cloud computing. It will also create a new unit to hold its portfolio of communications towers and other infrastructure assets, which have gained in value in recent years.

“It is a new era, with questions for which we have no answers,” said Álvarez Pallete, at a press conference. “Nobody is asking us for change, but we can’t not change.”

There are myriad reasons Telefonica needs to change. Top of the pile is its massive debt overhang, much of which dates from its $31.4 billion acquisition of British telecoms provider O2 in 2005. In the third quarter of 2019, Telefonica reported net debt of €45 billion. During the same period the company registered earnings (a loss actually) before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) of €-0.3 billion, a 114.84% decline year-over-year, and for the twelve months ending September 30, 2019 of $6.301 billion, a 28.16% decline year-over-year.

Like many large, heavily indebted companies in Europe, Telefonica is at the low end of the investment-grade scale. Moody’s rates it just one notch above “junk” (Baa3), Fitch and S&P rate it two notches above “junk” (BBB) (here’s our cheat sheet for corporate credit rating scales by S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch in plain English). If it were to lose its investment grade status, some institutional investors would be forced to shed those bonds, which in turn would sharply raise Telefonica’s borrowing costs.

One of the biggest holders of Telefonica’s debt is the ECB, which as of last week held 19 issues of Telefonica bonds on its balance sheet — a legacy of the central bank’s last bond buying program, in which it acquired around €180 billion of investment grade corporate debt.

While the ECB discloses the names of the companies whose bonds it has acquired, it never discloses the amounts acquired, so there’s no way of knowing just how much of Telefonica’s debt is sitting on the ECB’s balance sheet. According to estimates by Wolfgang Bauer, manager of the retail fixed income team of London-based M&G Investments, the five European firms that benefited the most from Mario Draghi’s corporate debt purchase program are Anheuser-Busch InBev, Daimler, EDF, Telefonica and Eni.

Thanks to the ECB, those five companies — and many others — managed to record historic lows in the coupons offered on their new debt issues. According to Telefonica’s director of finance and control, Laura Abasolo, since June 2016, the month the ECB launched its corporate bond buying program, the telecoms giant has refinanced more than €32 billion of its debt, with much longer maturities. Again, we have no idea how much of that new debt is now sitting on the ECB’s balance sheet.

In the last couple of years Telefonica has tried to whittle down its massive debt load, mainly through divestments, with a certain degree of success. Now, it is looking to sell off almost all of its Latin American operations. Ten years ago, many of those operations, in the region’s fast-growing emerging economies, were a godsend as opportunities in the mature markets in Europe dried up in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. But today, as Telefonica desperately needs cash while instability in Latin America rises, these operations an encumbrance.

Few international companies are more exposed to Latin America than large Spanish ones like Telefonica. And some of them are beginning to reduce their exposure to the region. Last year, Spain’s second largest bank, BBVA, sold its Chilean subsidiary to Canada’s Scotiabank for €2 billion while Spain’s biggest lender, Grupo Santander, is in the process of divesting its retail banking subsidiary in Puerto Rico, Santander Bancorp, for around a billion euros.

Telefonica already divested all of its subsidiaries in Central America (Guatemala, Salvador, Panama Nicaragua and Costa Rica) earlier this year in exchange for just over €2 billion. According to the Spanish financial daily El Economista, selling off the remainder of its subsidiaries in Spanish-speaking Latin America could raise a further €22 billion for the company, which would wipe out roughly half of the group’s net debt. More modest numbers were offered by analysts cited by El País: the Latin American subsidiaries Telefonica is looking to sell could be worth as little as €11 billion to €12 billion, and that’s not even taking into account their €4.5 billion of debt.

The problem is that now is not exactly a good time to sell businesses in Latin America, where political and economic crises have engulfed one country after another.

Four of the eight countries Telefonica wants to divest from (Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela) are facing political upheaval while both Venezuela and perennial credit-basket-case Argentina have a litany of economic problems to deal with, including in the case of Argentina very high inflation of around 50% and the possibility of yet another sovereign debt default, and in the case of Venezuela hyper-inflation of around 40,000%. As such, finding buyers for these assets at anything but heavily knocked down prices is not going to be easy. By Nick Corbishley, for WOLF STREET.

Yield-starved banks expanded lending to “relatively high-risk businesses” and to the property sector, as the Bundesbank considers house prices in many cities overvalued by 15% to 30%. Read…  Negative Interest Rates Bite: Bundesbank Warns of Risks to Financial Stability, Moody’s Downgrades Outlook for German Banks

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  48 comments for “Over-Indebted European Telecom Giant Tries to Dump its Latin American Empire

  1. Joe says:

    Oh no!
    My bank is Scotia.
    Hope they don’t be the first one to tank.

    I helped make a panic room for the TD CFO back in the day coming off his bedroom…problem was, his 3 kids were downstairs in their own separate bedrooms.

  2. Trinacria says:

    Can you blame them from wanting to dump all those Latin American countries (including Mexico)…Venezuela is already a failed country and the others are on the express lane to failure. Argentina is a serial defaulter. But were are not so hot either. The information seems to just keep getting more and more precarious, yet we continue to whistle by the graveyard. I guess figures lie and liars keep on figuring. Definitely gird your loins as I smell reset in the air.

    • char says:

      Argentina wont default but it wont pay the IMF back.
      In what way is Venezuela a failed country?

      ps. The definition of a failed country is a country in which there is no clear ruling government. The group around Maduro clearly rules Venezuela.. Bolivia and Chili are better examples of failed states.

      • KGC says:

        The definition of a failed State is “a state whose political or economic system has become so weak that the government is no longer in control”.

        I will argue that while Maduro does have the gov’t in control he clearly does not have the economy.

        Venezuela is a failed State, and no matter who runs it, it will be decades before it ever becomes a viable economy again.

        • KDV says:

          not true, the oil price collapsed.

          with general democracy they can be great again very soon.

          don’t be pessimistic always.

          god bless you

      • Javert Chip says:

        Once upon a very recent time (say about 15 years ago), Venezuela was still a fairly prosperous nation.

        Char’s definition of a “failed country” seems somewhat ad hoc & proprietary (aka: made up): it is clear who controls the guns, but it’s unclear who controls Venezuela. It also fails to address:

        1) Wikipedia documents about 20% of Venezuela’s 30M population have immigrated due to current political & living conditions

        2) Wikipedia documents Venezuela’s murder rate as 2nd highest in world at 60-90 per 100,000 population (before any snowflakes go nuts and accuse the US of an even higher rate, the US rate is 5 per 100,000)

        3) Venezuelan government corruption has bankrupted the nation’s oil company (highest oil reserves in the world) as well as he rest of the economy (try buying toilet paper)

        4) Excluding the pudgy Maduro and some well-fed army generals, Venezuela citizens are starving

        5) US efforts to provide medical humanitarian relief were met with armed soldiers at the boarder to refuse delivery of the supplies

        6) Venezuela infant mortality is 21 per 1,000 live births, twice the Latin America average (before any snowflakes go nuts and accuse the US of an even higher rate, the US rate is 5.8 per 1,000 births)

        7) Nobody even bothers to pretend Venezuela has fair elections

        Given the above, a reasonable person might want to rethink the definition of a failed country.

        • Pinto says:

          I know it’s hard! Even on wolfstreet there are communist V2.0 paid trolls.

          It’s a worldwide plague with it’s epicenter on China.

          It’s a good fight expose the reality, in order to those more distracted don’t buy their commie/socialist arguments.

          By the way do you know that 80 years ago Argentina was so rich, that in South America, there was a saying:

          “As rich as an Argentinian”
          “Tāo rico como um Argentino”

          Socialism, followed!

        • flashlight joe says:

          Do not trust wikipedia except for non-controversial issues. It is a propaganda vector for certain unnamed political and business interests.

        • char says:

          15 years ago it was more prosperous, but 5 years ago it was even more prosperous. Strange you don’t mention it

          1) 20% in 2 years seems to me way to high. Syria after 8 years of war has those numbers. And is that because of Maduro or because of the American boycott. I also missed the national emergency because half a million Venezuelans have fled to Aruba (Dutch news today is that Curacao removes a 100 Venezuelans, in other words Wikipedia’s 6M sounds to me like a lie)

          2) Venezuela has had a very high murder rate even before Chavez

          3) I thought it went bankrupt because the US makes oil exports nearly impossible otherwise it would have taken at least a decade

          4) Starving is different from supply issues. I definitely miss the bloated bellies you see in old Ethiopian pictures

          5) Set the house on fire and than offer a water pistol to put the fire out

          6) Is still good for a third world country and better than 25 yeas ago

          7) unlike Haiti or Honduras. No county has really fair elections but Maduro seems to have the support of at least a third of the population. That is for me to call it a democracy for an official enemy state.

          I did say nothing about Venezuela being a failed country. I said it was not a failed state. That has a particular definition which is not true for Maduro’s government as it still contols the country,

        • Javert Chip says:


          You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

          Other readers can make up their own minds on our difference of opinion.

          I be very surprised to see Brad Pit (or other simple idiot Hollywood types) move to Venezuela to experience the “good life”.

        • char says:

          Which facts are wrong?

      • Leser says:

        Add Brazil to the list of deteriorating countries there.

        “Venezuela a failed state” = ignorant statement. The country has the world’s largest oil reserves and is rejecting the hegemon, the situation couldn’t be more obvious.

        • Javert Chip says:


          I realize your comment demonstrates you’re a much more knowledgable than I. However, I humbly submit you may have overlooked one tiny fact:

          Venezuela has indeed been fighting to reject the hegemon for a number of years; however, until that effort is successful, Venezuela remains a shit-hole and my “failed country” statement stands, oil reserves not withstanding.

        • char says:

          But it was also a shit-hole country before Chavez

        • Trinacria says:

          Forgetta-about-it….the definition that is. Mexico and South America have resources, but they can’t manage their way out of a paper bag. In the 1920’s Argentina was neck and neck with the U.S. for 2nd richest nation in world (after England still at that time)….look where they are now. Take Mexico for example as they have been blessed with the following:
          1. Ample territory.
          2. Oil Reserves
          3. Thousands of miles of beautiful coastline.
          4. Other minerals and precious metal deposits.
          5. Good Agricultural terrain.
          6. History, monuments and good food.
          these come to mind just off the top of my head…

          Yet, they can’t see past their own corruption. This “light” socialist style of thinking simply does not work. Look at the oil reserves in Mexico and Venezuela…best summarized by what Milton Friedman said: ” if you put the government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years you would have a shortage of sand” !!!

          Basically, poop by any other name still smells the same!!!

          Socialism, Marxism….whattaever….are just different routes to power. Until you get rid of the federal reserve (not federal and the certainly don’t have any reserves !!!) and allow these clowns that fail to indeed fail and pay the consequence, nothing changes….add to that a rediscovery and taking to heart of our Judeo-Christian heritage and control the greed and the avarice (and I include all the knucklehead hopeless consumers who go into serious debt to keep consuming… only then will something start to change. Hell, look what we’ve done to Thanksgiving….we have even managed to fart up that holiday….should be a time of reflection for our families, our friends, our health and our freedom. Best wishes to all, but gird your loins man!!!!

        • char says:

          The US constitution is so bad that state enterprise doesn’t work in America because of corruption. In most other countries state companies do work, often better than private. Milton Friedman mainly experienced the US and for that he is right. The US government would run out of sand

        • Javert Chip says:


          The general reason state enterprises become corrupted is there is little or no effective accountability. The longer state enterprises are in place and the less democratic the state, the higher the probability of malfeasance or corruption.

          I suspect your opinion is different. I look forward to a description of how the US constitution cripples state owned enterprises, as well a s substantive examples of successful (presumably foreign) state enterprises.

        • char says:

          I should say inefficient, corrupt is a value judgment and it is rarely the case that it ends up with stuffed envelops (and that problem also exist with private companies). Problem with American politics is that politicians are rarely effectively accountable.

          Successful state companies in my country are housing, electricity and water. And telephone and post were well run before privatization.

        • Leser says:

          Not to detract too much from the topic of the article, just some suggestions for anyone interested to get informed about Venezuela:

          – spend 5 minutes googling UN statistics for the staggering improvements the Chavez govt made to the bottom 80% of the population: from reduction of poverty and extreme poverty, sanitation, access to clean water and electricity, health care (“Mision Milagro” has restored eyesight to 1.5 million Venezuelans, just to name one), improvement of equality (Gini coefficient), effectiveness of disaster response, reduction in unemployment, increase in literacy and education, etc. pp.

          – look at the venezualanalysis blog for objective reporting

          – check out Max Blumenthal’s local reports on what things actually look like in VZ

          – Yes, a mix of bad policies, decades of crippling sanctions and outright sabotage have led to massive emigration. How do you think your quality of life will be affected if, say, your local power substation is put out with a targeted large calibre rifle shot?

          – I’f you’d like to know how some of those missing $21trn tax dollars have been put to work, read Perkins “..Hitmen” for the white collar part, and the “US Special Forces Unconventional Warfare Operations” handbook (296 pages, made doctrine in 2003) for the camouflage-collar part

  3. 2banana says:

    So just how much are telecommunications operations in Venezuela worth?

    And who would buy it?

    • FireSale says:

      `youtube-dl -f mp4 ‘ytsearch: The Fed Has Few Options, Says Danielle DiMartino Booth CFA Global Investors’`

      >Skip to 35-38 min

      > non covanent recovery rate-> 40 cents/dollar(2008-2009) to 14 cents/dollar recovery (20xx)

      > covanent recovery rate-> 71cents/dollar to 60cents/dollar (20xx)

      I’ll buy at 0.05 cents / dollar

    • FireSale says:

      Whoops I mean ill buy 5 cents/dollar

    • char says:

      Its value depends on what will happen to the other south American states. If they go left than it will be a lot. If not than it will be billions in Yuan or Rubles and zero in US$.

    • sierra7 says:

      Who really cares???????????????????????????

  4. Cas127 says:


    There is good post material in doing a similar analysis of the 5 largest US Corp debtors (who all owe massive, disproportionate amounts that would roil the US FI market if they default or even just downgrade).

    Ditto for the 5 largest allegedly BBB US Corp debtors – who are probably already junk if not for the fear/bias/government servitude of the ratings agencies.

    • 2banana says:

      Yes please.

      “the five European firms that benefited the most from Mario Draghi’s corporate debt purchase program are Anheuser-Busch InBev, Daimler, EDF, Telefonica and Eni.”

  5. Ted says:

    “It is a new era, with questions for which we have no answers,” said Álvarez Pallete, at a press conference. “Nobody is asking us for change, but we can’t not change.”

    Holy moly, a very scary statement from the person supposedly in charge. Not going to inspire confidence in investors.

    • Dave says:

      I’m not feeling scared, “I feel good, like I new that I would!”. This dumping of latin american telcom businesses always happens. Nextel has done this a couple if times. Somebody loses money and somebody gains.

      If another business can buy the latin american assets very cheap or get it for free and get rid of the debt and recapitaise. The they will be able to run it for a few years and make some profit. They can the go public and make a tidy profit. The cycle will begin again.

    • KDV says:

      he jusy says some truth.

      we need truth, not puppets comforting without reason.

      truth sets free and solves problems, not keeping silent and acting like an actor!

  6. Javert Chip says:

    I’m assuming all Latin American retail cell-phone plans are priced in local currency, not Telephonica’s home currency, the euro.

    Interesting that Telephonica is hanging on to the Brazil market; over the last 5 years, the Brazilian Real has depreciated 35% against the euro.

    Just how bad does “bad” have to be before Telefónica CEO, José María Álvarez-Pallete thinks it’s “too bad”?

  7. freewary says:

    This is ridiculous!

    Dear Telefonica CEO, the best path out of your problems is not to divest operations, obviously you need to issue euro denominated bonds into the current subsidized market, issue lots of them and don’t worry about the maturity dates, and use the proceeds to buy more competitors. Because that’s how to make money!

    • KDV says:


      you are like the corrupt, incompetent management of this companies.

      they have far too much debt.

    • MC01 says:

      [Doing my best Sr Álvarez-Pallete impersonation, which for whatever reason sounds like Antonio Banderas]

      We’ve already tried that plan and it failed miserably… €45 billion in debts it costs us next to nothing to service and all we have to show for it is a net annual loss.
      Time for Plan B… get me Christine Lagarde on the phone!

  8. Martin says:

    In 2004 I got a 700 Euro phone bill off Telefonica for a few calls made to the UK and quite a lot in Spain, talk about thieves!
    I think they got fined by the EU not long after that for their monopolistic behaviours.

    • KDV says:

      many telecom monopolies act like criminals.

      i think many assets will be nationalised because they have so much debt.

      far too high salaries for directors and top executives!!!

      no rational purchasing of goods and services.

      no good acting regulators…

  9. Iamafan says:

    What’s this trying to say? Could it mean that money would be tighter in the future? Probably my guess. Deleveraging might be forced especially if they issued USD bonds.

  10. Mean Chicken says:

    Bob Marley would be proud of the ECB.

    • MC01 says:

      Because they shot the sheriff? Only problem is they also shot the deputy.

      • Pinto says:

        They also shot the golden goose again.
        I was a software provider for Portuguese Telecom during the last 20 years, I saw first hand what happened:

        1) Pressure to lower prices (big component of CPI) national regulators decide prices, wasn’t it supposed to be the market?

        2) EUssr just ended by law a major income for Telecom companies: ROAMING, that’s a far-reaching idea, but who pays for it?

        Socialist way, when you see a business area thriving.
        Tax and regulate it to death, then subsidize it.

        Mrs Lagard more CSPP for Telefónica, Altice and on.
        S’il vous plait.

  11. GW says:

    German here: Telefonica here has fallen behind its rivals despite gobbling up the forth provider a few years back. Telefonica network quality is bad and it‘s competitors are not a difficult benchmark to beat. The last decade there has been an over-expansion into secondary markets by most providers from big countries leveraging their high price/revenue/customer base/credit rating into secondary markets. But infrastructure ages and updating is not cheap.

  12. upwising says:

    And lest Californians, Floridians, Oregonians and Texans think they are immune from telecommunications chaos, one need look no further than ***Frontier (mis)Communications.***

    Several years back, Verizon decided to off-load its (her?) landline system, which included some FiOS lines, in California, Texas, Florida, and the Pacific Northwest, [as well as in Hawaii and New England, sold to companies now-bankrupt]. Mom-and-Pop Frontier stepped forward and bought the whole lot (except HI and NewEngland), in a move akin to a 7-11 franchisee taking over all of Southern California’s supermarkets all at one time. [Cue Corporate LSD hits.]

    Fast forward to December, 2019, and Frontier faces imminent bankruptcy as tens of billions in shaky bonds are costing so much in interest payments that Frontier is hustling to quick-quick-quick off-load the Pacific NW operations to a hedge fund to generate short-term cash flow. Creditors are recoiling in horror and demanding action. The remaining “copper and FiOS” system is next on the block. Customer (dis)Service is absolutely legendary for its SNL-comedy level of incompetence and confusion, billing is a monthly surprise box of errors, yet drooling executives in CT rake in bonus after bonus. One has to wonder who would buy this thing out of bankruptcy anyway; somebody is going to get a haircut. [Google: “Frontier Communications Bankruptcy”]

    The local techs on the ground who have been with the local system since the “good old days” of General Telephone report that “Frontier Corporate” doesn’t take calls from local levels needing repairs and regular maintenance, much less lift a finger or authorize expenditures. Local tech says emergency patches are pieced together from Home Depot … think “duct tape.”

    So, essentially, Frontier is “divesting themselves” of hollowed-out, neglected, failing telephone infrastructure in three of the largest U.S. states.

    In the meantime, it’s a crap shoot as to whether picking up my phone will give me a dial tone, a connection, and two-way communication; more often than NOT these days. Stay tuned.

    • Wolf Richter says:


      Are you saying that Frontier bought “some” of Verizon’s FiOS lines in California? The reason I ask is because I have a mystery hanging in front of our building here in San Francisco. About 2 years ago, some crews in bucket trucks started stringing fiber-optic cable down our street, without connecting anything. While they were here, I ask whose fiber this was, and they said Verizon’s. Then about a year later, crews did some more work, added a junction box, etc., but still didn’t finish the thing, and there is still no connection to our building. And since then, there has been no progress.

      So are you saying that Frontier might be owning this what now looks like an abandoned project?

    • sierra7 says:

      Ahhhhh! The free market in full action! LOL!!

  13. James Naylor says:

    Please stop repeating after all of your posts (which are many)

Comments are closed.