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Banks give indebted Cablecom one-month reprieve

The firm provides cable TV to around 1.5 million Swiss households

(Keystone)

Banks and creditors of Switzerland's biggest cable TV company, Cablecom, have given the heavily indebted firm more time to resolve its financial crisis.

Cablecom remains on the verge of bankruptcy with debts of at least SFr3.7 billion ($2.8 billion).

The Zurich-based company - which serves more than 50 per cent of Swiss cable viewers - was supposed to have had its debt problems resolved by the end of May.

On Monday, the firm's lenders agreed to extend the refinancing deadline until the end of June.

Cablecom's troubles date back to March 2000, when its then owners Swisscom, Veba and Siemens sold the company to the US-British firm NTL for SFr5.8 billion.

NTL's purchase of Cablecom included the company's debts of around SFr4 billion, owed to more than 30 banks.

Analysts have recently valued the business at between SFr1.4 billion and SFr2 billion.

Soros at the gate

Last month, international financier George Soros launched an attempt to take a leading role in the company's restructuring, teaming up with an investment fund to purchase some of Cablecom's debt.

The move is subject to approval from all creditor banks.

According to the Financial Times, Soros is having difficulty persuading three of Cablecom's banks - Crédit Lyonnais, Bankgesellschaft Berlin and a Credit Suisse subsidiary - to work with him.

Since January, Cablecom's banks have been attempting to hammer out a plan to restructure the company.

The proposed plan includes turning much of the company's debt into equity, which would give the banks control of the company, and leave NTL as a minority shareholder.

Tug-of-war

The Zurich-based "Tages-Anzeiger" newspaper said on Tuesday that around half of the debt would be restructured, with the remainder to be repaid after two years.

"This would have the consequence of forcing banks to write off a portion of the debt," the paper said.

"The problem is that very different partners are sitting at the same negotiating table," it added.

On the one side, banks such as the Bankgesellschaft Berlin are "battling over every million", while on the other, Soros is demanding that banks write off as much of the debt as possible.

"This tug-of war could... actually lead to Cablecom filing for bankruptcy," the paper concluded.

Blank TV screens?

Although the bankruptcy threat is real, many analysts believe the government will intervene before TV screens go blank in Swiss living rooms.

However, the government has indicated that it would not inject any money into the firm, insisting it suffered only from a debt problem, rather from any operational woes.

Martin Dummermuth, a senior official from the Swiss Communications Regulator, said he was confident the refinancing would proceed, adding that the proposed debt-equity swap was "unproblematic".

Once the refinancing issue has been resolved, Cablecom can return its attention to serving customers.

The firm currently provides some 1.5 million Swiss households with cable TV, and has seen its broadband Internet service expand rapidly.

It is also testing a digital telephone service - which allows customers to connect a home phone without using Switzerland's monopoly provider, Swisscom.

Customers safe

Serge Rotzer, an equity analyst at Zurich Cantonal Bank, told swissinfo that Cablecom remains an excellent business, despite its debt problems.

"Operationally, Cablecom is good, and customers have no choice, they have to be Cablecom customers," Rotzer said.

"And there is no threat of bankruptcy...and no danger for the customer."

Rotzer said the emergence of players such as George Soros had increased pressure on the banks to resolve the crisis.

"The banks would loose less if they keep a stake in Cablecom (via a debt-equity swap) and sell later into the market," he said.

"But in the end, it's a fight between the banks, and Soros. He who has the most money will win," he added.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber in Zurich

Key facts

Cablecom, Switzerland's biggest cable TV operator, owes at least SFr3.7 billion ($2.8 billion) to more than 30 banks.
The banks have extended a restructuring deadline by one month to the end of June.
The British-US firm NTL purchased Cablecom for SFr5.8 billion in 2000 from Swisscom, a sum which included the firm's SFr4 billion debt burden.

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