The highly anticipated merger between Sony Group and Zee Entertainment Enterprises (ZEEL) has unexpectedly fallen apart, marking a significant turn in the media landscape. This cancellation follows an extended negotiation that lasted two years. In response, ZEEL's stock experienced its largest single-day drop, plummeting nearly 33% on January 23, in reaction to Sony Pictures' decision to withdraw from the proposed $10-billion merger with the Indian media powerhouse. Although the merger had overcome all regulatory hurdles, its abrupt end as declared by Sony has sparked serious concerns about the future direction of ZEEL.
Sony's announcement clarified that the merger was initially set to conclude within 24 months of signing. Post this timeline, any further extension would require mutual discussion and consent, with either party retaining the right to end the agreement through a written notification.
Sony Demands $90 Million Termination Fee: Impact on ZEEL's Finances
Sony's request for a $90 million termination fee has put ZEEL's financial stability under scrutiny. With a cash balance of Rs 567 crore as of H1FY24, ZEEL faces a potential strain on its resources. especially if it is obligated to pay the demanded fee, despite denying any breach of the Merger Cooperation Agreement (MCA).
ZEEL's Sunk Costs from Failed Merger
By the end of the fiscal year 2023, ZEEL had incurred costs amounting to Rs 176 crore in relation to the merger. In the first half of the fiscal year 2024, the company further expended an additional Rs 190 crore.
Moreover, ZEEL faced a significant financial setback with an approximate Rs 300 crore write-down in its investment in Sugar-Box. This was compounded by the closure of several channels, a move undertaken to align with the requirements of the merger.
Uncertain Future of ICC Rights Sub-Letting
In 2022, Disney-Star secured the ICC rights (digital + satellite) for a substantial $3 billion. Subsequently, ZEEL entered into an exclusive agreement with Star India, securing television broadcasting rights for a four-year period. Assuming the value of the satellite rights is roughly 50% (though it might be lower due to the shift towards digital platforms), the expenditure could reach around $1.5 billion (~Rs 12,450 crore) over the four-year span. This implies an annual expenditure of ~Rs 3,100 crore. Given these figures, it seems highly unlikely that ZEEL could independently manage this financial commitment. It's also important to note that ZEEL has recently failed to fulfill a $200 million payment to Disney.
SEBI Probe Uncovers Deeper Issues with Promoters
Speculation is rife that the Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) may soon unveil additional disconcerting revelations about ZEEL’s promoters. According to sources close to the matter, SEBI is approaching the end of its investigation into the conduct of Punit Goenka and Subhash Chandra Goenka. The inquiry centres on accusations of illicit fund reallocation and accounting irregularities, allegedly to the advantage of the firm’s founding family. It is anticipated that SEBI could wrap up its probe and announce its findings in the coming 2-3 months, followed by the issuance of show-cause notices.
Earlier phases of the investigation by SEBI uncovered a misappropriation of around Rs 200 crore from ZEEL, which reportedly favoured the promoters. Recent updates, however, indicate that the extent of the financial discrepancy might have escalated to somewhere between Rs 800-1,000 crore. In its concluding judgment, SEBI is likely to levy monetary fines on Punit Goenka and Subhash Chandra Goenka. Additionally, the regulatory body might maintain its restriction on them from holding directorial or KMP positions in any publicly listed firm.
Valuation & Outlook
The dissolution of the Zee-Sony merger is expected to significantly reduce ZEEL's valuation multiple. Following the termination of the merger, it's anticipated that ZEEL's Price-to-Earnings (PE) ratio will regress to the 12x level, which was typical before the merger announcement in August 2021. The high valuation multiples previously seen by ZEEL are now less relevant in the context of the ongoing shift towards OTT platforms, which are characterized by intense competition. This competitive landscape is expected to exert further downward pressure on the stock value.
Additionally, the possible merger between Reliance and Disney Star is likely to heighten competition in the media sector, impacting ZEEL's market positioning. Consequently, the stock may be valued at a multiple ranging from 10-12x.
What Next for ZEEL?
In recent years, ZEEL has faced significant growth challenges, marked by subdued growth in advertisement and subscription revenues. Additionally, disagreements with banks over DSRA (Debt Service Reserve Account) guarantees for its subsidiaries have adversely impacted the company's financial position.
Additionally, the media sector, particularly in Linear TV and OTT, has witnessed considerable changes over the past 2-3 years, primarily due to the shift towards digital consumption. This change, coupled with increasing content costs and investments in OTT platforms, has been putting pressure on ZEEL's profit margins, a trend that doesn't show signs of reversing soon.
At this stage, it's difficult to predict how ZEEL will navigate its path forward as an independent entity in the current market scenario. A near-term recovery in earnings seems unlikely. The company has not clarified its intentions regarding pursuing the merger or seeking alternatives amidst its legal issues with Sony, which could potentially impede operational enhancements or the exploration of other merger opportunities. The future trajectory of Zee remains uncertain, with limited clarity on the long-term prospects of the business.
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