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Vodafone may have $30 billion-$40 billion acquisition capacity: CEO

By Sinead Carew

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Vodafone Group Plc could have the capacity to spend $30 billion to $40 billion on acquisitions in coming years and no deal should be too big if it makes strategic sense, Chief Executive Vittorio Colao said on Monday.

Colao told reporters he was exploring possibilities for a potential shopping spree on big acquisitions on top of investments in Vodafone's existing business after a $130 billion windfall it will get from an asset sale to Verizon Communications later this month.

"We are looking at acquisitions that are sizeable and could transform the company," said the executive at a media roundtable in New York where he laid out his strategy for the world's second-largest mobile operator.

"The theory is that if an acquisition makes sense you should not be worried by the size because shareholders should approve it," he added.

Vodafone may have $40 billion spending money after returning most of the Verizon deal proceeds to shareholders and investing $30 billion in its network over roughly two years if the company sticks to its target for a ratio of two to one for debt to earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization, he said.

While the executive was careful not to name any acquisition targets he said Vodafone is keen to build up its fixed-line assets in Europe, its enterprise business around the world and its mobile business in emerging markets.

He said that Vodafone has a roughly 16 to 17 percent share of the total telecommunications market and that it could conceivably increase this to a range of 20 to 23 percent.

Vodafone is selling its 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless, the biggest U.S. mobile service, to Verizon, which already owns 55 percent of that company and controls the asset. That deal is expected to close on February 21.

Colao said his best opportunity to buy mobile assets may be in emerging markets as Vodafone could have trouble getting many deals past regulators in Europe because of its size there.

"There's not really many situations where Vodafone can buy another mobile operator," he said citing only "minor" mobile deal opportunities in Europe. "I can think of maybe two, maybe three with some emerging markets."

HOPING REGULATORS MORE RECEPTIVE TO DEALS

But the executive said he was hopeful regulators in Europe may be more open to approving deals that would reduce the number of mobile operators in a country to three players from four.

Such deals could help to temper cutthroat competition in Europe but whether or not they succeed will depend on how many conditions regulators put on such deals.

"The issue is whether they will try to still put in remedies or undertakings that actually take away the advantage of consolidation," Colao said.

Colao was much more reticent to talk about the possibility of Vodafone becoming an acquisition target itself for a suitor such as U.S. AT&T Inc, which has said that it could consider a deal in Europe, which is far behind the United States in rolling out fourth generation high-speed wireless services.

The executive said he is concentrating instead on his strategy for building Vodafone through acquisitions and investments in its existing assets but noted that he would have to look if somebody offered a better alternative.

AT&T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson has said he sees a "huge opportunity" to invest in mobile broadband in Europe if regulators make strides to encourage investment there including changes in how they allocate wireless airwaves to operators.

While AT&T recently ruled out a Vodafone bid, at least for now, Vodafone is still seen by investors as the best target for AT&T if it wants to move into Europe because of both companies sizes and Vodafone's lack of government ownership, unlike other big European carriers.

On Monday Colao echoed AT&T's statements about improving opportunities in Europe if regulators change how they manage spectrum licenses and encourage healthier competition by allowing consolidation.

(Reporting by Sinead Carew and Kate Holton in London; Editing by James Dalgleish and Cynthia Osterman)

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