Tycoon races to stem crisis after $2b loss in Zee Entertainment's value

Mr Subhash Chandra's plans to sell half of his stake in Zee Entertainment Enterprises are expected to continue despite the fall in share price.
Mr Subhash Chandra's plans to sell half of his stake in Zee Entertainment Enterprises are expected to continue despite the fall in share price.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Indian TV network sees shares plunge after news report questioning its link to firm under government probe

MUMBAI • Indian media tycoon Subhash Chandra scrambled at the weekend to contain a crisis that wiped US$1.6 billion (S$2.18 billion) off his flagship Zee Entertainment Enterprises' market value last Friday and threatened to derail his plans to sell a stake in the company.

Shares of India's biggest television network and its subsidiary Dish TV India plunged more than 25 per cent in the last two hours of trading after news website The Wire published a report questioning the group's links to a company that is being probed by the country's Serious Fraud Investigation Office.

Essel Group, the Chandra-led conglomerate, released statements on Friday and Sunday denying the allegations.

The group reached an understanding with its lenders, who agreed there will not be "any event of default declared due to the steep fall in price", Essel said on Sunday.

Last Friday, Zee's chief executive officer Punit Goenka told investors on a call that the share price plunge will not hit Mr Chandra's plans to sell half of his stake in Zee.

Later that evening, Mr Chandra, 68, issued an open letter blaming poor investments in the infrastructure sector, combined with its exposure to failed lender Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services for the group's rising debt, and apologised to his investors and creditors for the conglomerate's financial woes.

Mr Chandra, who started Zee in 1992, is seeking a strategic investor to help him fend off competition from Netflix, Amazon.com and hundreds of local TV channels vying to tap India's booming demand for content.

Mr Subhash Chandra, who started Zee in 1992, is seeking a strategic investor to help him fend off competition from Netflix, Amazon.com and hundreds of local TV channels vying to tap India's booming demand for content. Plunging shares may hinder those plans and his attempts at reducing debt.

Plunging shares may hinder those plans and his attempts at reducing debt. Mr Goenka sought to ease concerns by saying that Zee is also trying to sell stressed assets for an enterprise value of 200 billion rupees (S$3.8 billion).

"There's no change to business fundamentals," analysts Kapil Singh and Siddhartha Bera from Nomura Holdings in Mumbai wrote in a report last Saturday. Zee trades at a "very attractive" valuation, they said, maintaining their buy recommendation on the stock.

Zee is close to selling an infrastructure asset and expects to complete the sale of road and solar power projects by April, Mr Goenka said. Zee's owners have pledged 59 per cent of their shares to lenders as collateral, and the asset sales may help them revoke the pledges.

Friday's slump may have "exacerbated (the) risk of pledges being invoked", CLSA analysts Deepti Chaturvedi and Akshat Agarwal wrote, while also recommending that clients buy the shares.

Last Thursday, Zee reported a 75 per cent jump in profit to 5.6 billion rupees on sales of 21.7 billion rupees for the December quarter.

In his letter, Mr Chandra, a former rice trader, urged lenders to "maintain patience, till the process of Zee Entertainment's stake sale is completed".

"Post the sale process, we will be positively able to repay the entire dues, but if the lenders react in a panic situation, it will only hurt them and us."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2019, with the headline 'Tycoon races to stem crisis after $2b loss in Zee Entertainment's value'. Print Edition | Subscribe