Sri Lanka telecom firms hit by uncertain tax regime: Fitch

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s telecom firms have been hit by an uncertain tax regime, with more taxes feared from the government, making the outlook for the firms negative, Fitch Ratings said.

There was uncertainty whether several damaging taxes proposed in a budget in 2015 will be re-introduced, Fitch said.

"We expect the industry’s 2016 revenue to grow by the mid-single-digit percentage, driven by data services as cheaper smartphones proliferate," Fitch said.

"Yet, apart from the tax impact, profitability may still decline in 2016 as low-margin data services replace traditional, more profitable voice/text revenue."

"Two smaller, unprofitable telcos – Hutchison Lanka and Bharti Airtel Limited’s Sri-Lankan subsidiary, Airtel Lanka – may exit the industry amid competition and the uncertain tax regime."

The full statement by Fitch is reproduced below:

Fitch: Sri Lankan Telcos Outlook Negative; Uncertain Tax Regime

Fitch Ratings-Singapore/Colombo-22 November 2015: Fitch Ratings has maintained a negative outlook on Sri Lanka’s telecom sector. This is based on uncertainty over proposals to increase taxes, which are likely to lower profitability and increase leverage for telcos, if implemented.

The original tax proposals were to impose a one-off "super gains" tax of 25% on profits, and a tax of LKR250m (USD1.8m) on each telco. The proposals also shift the burden on to the telcos of a recurring telecom levy of 25% and 10% on prepaid voice and data revenue, respectively, having previously been borne by consumers. These tax proposals were originally introduced in February 2015, and in October 2015 government withdrew only the recurring taxes. The government may still re-introduce recurring taxes in part, or full, in 4Q15.

We expect the industry’s 2016 revenue to grow by the mid-single-digit percentage, driven by data services as cheaper smartphones proliferate. Yet, apart from the tax impact, profitability may still decline in 2016 as low-margin data services replace traditional, more profitable voice/text revenue.

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We expect both Sri Lanka Telecom PLC (BB-/AAA(lka)/Stable) and Dialog Axiata PLC (AAA(lka)/Stable) to invest around 22%-25% of their revenue on capex. Both firms are exposed to depreciation of the Sri Lanka rupee – given that 95% (USD180m) and 81% (USD170m) of their respective debt are US dollar-denominated – while we estimate they each generate only around 15% of their revenue in US dollars.

Two smaller, unprofitable telcos – Hutchison Lanka and Bharti Airtel Limited’s Sri-Lankan subsidiary, Airtel Lanka – may exit the industry amid competition and the uncertain tax regime.

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