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TORONTO (Reuters) - Nortel Networks Corp, North America's biggest telephone equipment maker, filed for bankruptcy on Wednesday, hoping to save a once highflying business whose decade-long decline has accelerated with the global economic crisis.
The filing marks a crucial stage in the slow deterioration of one of Canada's most prominent companies. Nortel, a stock market darling before the tech bubble burst and still one of the country's largest employers, has struggled for years in an industry that has changed radically since Nortel's heyday in the late 1990s.
Analysts said Nortel will have to shed assets -- likely at rock-bottom prices -- in its fight for survival. The company will likely cease to exist in its current form, they said.
A sharp slowdown in many of Nortel's major markets, especially the United States, has exacerbated its long-standing problems competing with low-cost rivals. The company warned last month that its business was under increased pressure, and its cash position and liquidity were deteriorating.
"It's obviously a remarkable transformation from where it was as the largest company in Canada worth about 35 percent of the (Toronto Stock Exchange) in 2000," said Gavin Graham, director of investments at BMO Asset Management in Toronto.
"But this is a reflection of the way that the telecommunications industry has changed."
Telecom companies have slashed spending on the equipment that Nortel makes as the global economy has cooled. But for years the company has faced intense competition from North American and European rivals such as Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson, as well as Asian vendors such as Huawei Technologies.
The shares have tumbled along with the company's fortunes, sinking into penny-stock territory in recent months. In mid-2000, at the zenith of the company's success, they were worth more than C$1,100 each, adjusted for a stock consolidation that took place in late 2006.
On Wednesday they plunged more than 60 percent to 15 Canadian cents on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The exchange said it was reviewing the stock for possible delisting.
Before the stock market opened on Wednesday, Nortel said it and a number of its affiliates filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States, giving it time to reorganize. It also filed for protection in Canada, and some of its European subsidiaries are expected to make similar filings.
"They're avoiding a slow death by doing this," UBS analyst Nikos Theodosopoulos. "The company is going to have to sell assets and change its focus. It's not going to be the same company."
The filing came a day before the Toronto-based company was due to make an interest payment of about $107 million.
"Based on this filing, the board of directors must believe that not only is the fourth quarter bad, but that the first quarter is going to be just as bad or worse," said Duncan Stewart, an analyst at DSAM Consulting in Toronto.
"Although they have cash in the short term, even the medium-term outlook is not enough to make the company viable as a going concern."
As it stands, Nortel is still a big part of Corporate Canada, with 32,000 employees and major operations in Ottawa, considered the country's high-tech hub. But its payroll has reflected its fortunes, shrinking from 90,000 in 2000.
The Canadian government pledged to help Nortel emerge from bankruptcy protection, and a government agency agreed to provide up to C$30 million in short-term financing.
According to its court filing in U.S. bankruptcy court for the district of Delaware, the Bank of New York Mellon, in its role as trustee, is Nortel's largest unsecured creditor, with claims valued at nearly $4 billion. Flextronics, a key supplier, is also named as a major creditor.
Nortel said it expects to operate without interruption while in Chapter 11 and that it will still serve its customers worldwide. It said it has about $2.4 billion in cash.
"This process will allow Nortel to deal decisively with its cost and debt burden, to effectively restructure its operations and to narrow its strategic focus in an effective and timely manner," the company said in a statement.
Asked whether Nortel faces the possibility of having to liquidate its assets, CEO Mike Zafirovski told Reuters that Nortel is working to exit bankruptcy protection as "a nimbler, more focused and successful company."
He declined to discuss asset sales or possible layoffs that may take place in wake of the filing.
In November, it reported a $3.4 billion third-quarter loss, cut its 2008 outlook and announced 1,300 layoffs, or about 5 percent of its workforce. It also said it would freeze salary increases, cut back on consultants and review its real estate portfolio.
Nortel's 10.75 percent notes due in 2016 plummeted almost 10 cents on Wednesday to 15 cents on the dollar as its yield rose to more than 75 percent, versus 50 percent on Tuesday, according to MarketAxess data. The notes traded as high as 28.25 cents on January 6.
Additional reporting by Scott Anderson and Walden Siew and Sinead Carew in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty