AT&T delivers bullish 3-year outlook amidst a mixed Q3

US telecom and media giant AT&T has reported a steady Q3, with revenues slightly down coupled with improved operation. A bullish 3-year outlook to further de-leverage is welcome news to the capital market.

The company lost 1.2 million premium pay-TV subs, but the HBO business registered growth. The corporate level revenue of $44.588 billion is a 2.5% decline from a year ago (2% decline on constant currency). Operating income grew by 8.7% to reach $7.901 billion, up from $7.269 billion a year ago. EPS was dropped by 23% to $0.50.

When it comes down to business group level, the Communications group delivered a largely steady result. Wireless service revenues edged up, helped to a large extend by the increase in postpaid subscriber base (including 173,000 postpaid smartphone subs) and the upward move of postpaid ARPU ($55.89, up from $55.58 a year ago). The entertainment part of the Communications business was less steady. The company lost 1.16 million “Premium” pay-TV subs (DirecTV satellite and U-verse IPTV) and 195,000 OTT-TV (AT&T TV Now) customers. The total number of AT&T pay-TV subs stood at 21.56 million by the end of Q3, down from 25.15 million a year ago.

Numbers from WarnerMedia, the second largest business group of AT&T, epitomised the “mixed” nature of the results. The total group level income went down by 4.4% to $7.8 billion, but HBO reported an impressive 10.6% year-on-year increase in revenue to reach $1.8 billion, and the $714 million operating income represented a 13.7% growth.

The strong performance of HBO came at a time when AT&T is about to launch HBO Max later today. Priced at $14.99, the current HBO package is the most expensive offer among the major video streaming services (Netflix and Amazon at $12.99, Disney+ at $6.99, Apple TV+ at $4.99). It remains to be seen how AT&T will choose between maxing the user base by pricing HBO Max more aggressively and defending profitability by retaining it at the premium tier.

Guidelines to 2022

The company delayed its Q3 results reporting by a week to finalise its discussion with activist investor Elliott Management Corporation. Presumably as a result of that discussion, AT&T published a rather detailed 3-year financial guidance (to 2022). The key items include growing revenues by 1-2% CAGR, EBITDA target set at 35%, free cash flow to reach $30-32 billion, and no major M&A planned.

The items that made most headlines are related to debt reduction. Specifically, AT&T promised to “Pay off 100% of acquisition debt from Time Warner deal; net-debt-to-adjusted-EBITDA5 of 2.0x to 2.25x in 2022”. Its current net debt to adjusted EBITDA ratio is 2.5, down from 2.66 at the beginning of the year.

According to the analysis by the Washington Post, the Time Warner deal could have cost AT&T over $108 billion including the debt it assumed from Time Warner at the acquisition. AT&T would not be able to pay off its debts, which stood at $153 billion by the end of September (coming down from $166 billion at the end of 2018) with the income generated from its business operations. This means more non-critical assets will be divested. The company is on way to generate $14 billion through asset monetisation in 2019 and plans to recoup $5-10 billion of non-strategic asset sales in 2020.

“The strategic investments we’ve made over the last several years have given us the essential elements to meet growing demand for content and connectivity,” said Randall Stephenson, AT&T chairman and CEO. “Our 3-year plan delivers both substantial and consistent financial improvements over the next 3 years. We grow revenues, EBITDA and EPS every single year, and free cash flow is stable next year, but then grows in both of the next two years, as well. And all of this is inclusive of our investment in HBO Max.”

When it comes to what qualifies as strategic or non-strategic, Stephenson told investors “we have no sacred cows. We’re always open to making portfolio moves.” However, DirecTV, albeit being highlighted by Elliott as one of the failed acquisitions, is not viewed as a target to liquidate in the near future. The business “will be an important piece of our strategy over the next 3 years”, said Stephenson.

The guideline largely reflected what Elliott’s letter to AT&T has demanded. In addition to the defence of DirecTV, probably the only other exception AT&T has made in its guideline was Elliott’s call for management change – AT&T stated “CEO transition not expected in 2020”.

Change is on the Telefónica horizon with towers and workforce restructure

Telefónica has announced plans to accelerate the strategy of monetizing its tower assets after getting the green light from the Board of Directors.

The woes of Telefónica have been quite apparent in recent years. Despite owning regionalised businesses which are either market leaders or at the top-end of the scale, the firm has been drowning in debt. In bygone years, it was rumoured the firm was struggling with €53 billion debts, though it does seem to have gotten a handle on things.

At the end of 2018, thanks to several cost saving initiatives, debt had been reduced to €41.785 billion. During this period the firm did toy with a number of divestments (O2 UK) and an IPO of the tower infrastructure business, Telxius. This IPO fell through, but the business unit does present a new opportunity.

Following the Board Meeting, the team is pushing forward with plans to generate more profits through monetizing both passive and active telecoms equipment. And it does appear there are profits to be made.

Telefónica currently claims to own roughly 68,000 sites globally, either directly or through subsidiaries. Of those 68,000, tower infrastructure business Telxius owns approximately 18,000, with the remaining 50,000 owned by other units within the group. 60% of these assets are located within the four major markets (Spain, UK, Germany and Brazil).

By comparing the value of these assets with market benchmarks, Telefónica believes it can generate €830 million in revenues and €360 million in OIBDA. Another attractive component is the belief these sites would only require €25 million in maintenance capital expenditure across the year.

While this strategy might be considered as a means to aid rivals, the numbers are attractive to a business which is facing financial and competitive strain. Aside from the debt which is still looming above the heads of executives, subscriptions data is not the most attractive either as you can see from the table below:

Total access (connections/subscribers on network) in millions
Year Spain Germany UK Brazil South HISPAN North HISPAN
2015 41.97 48.36 25.29 96.92
2016 41.23 49.35 25.76 97.22
2017 40.99 47.6 25.31 97.91 58.45 72.57
2018 41.55 47.09 32.98 95.3 56.91 73.56

What is worth noting is that ‘total access’ accounts for everything which is running across one of the Telefónica networks in that region. That could mean mobile, wholesale, MVNOs, TV or broadband. That said, the numbers tell a story for themselves; Telefónica isn’t really going up or down, just hovering around.

If the traditional means of making money, attracting more subscribers, isn’t necessarily paying off the debtors, Telefónica needs to think about new strategies. Monetizing the tower infrastructure assets is certainly one way to go, and restructuring the workforce is another idea which might save money across the year.

Alongside the tower monetization announcement, Telefónica Spain has also said it is currently in negotiations with trade unions concerning its workforce. In short, that means some will be retrained, some will be encouraged into retirement and others will be shown the way to the door.

“The collective agreement we signed four years ago has enabled us to make great advances and has provided us with social and labour stability during this period,” said Emilio Gayo, Chairman of Telefónica Spain.

“Now we have to be more ambitious and evolve into a more digital company that is ready for the challenges ahead.”

Although Telefónica Spain is not putting any numbers out into the public domain, reports have emerged that the workforce will be trimmed by roughly 5,000. Those over the age of 53 will be offered a ‘voluntary individual suspension plan’, while the plan is to double the training budget to reskill staff members.

With an eye on the horizon, Telefónica is seemingly preparing to future-proof its largest expense; employees. The management team anticipates more than half of sales will be through digital channels in a few years’ time, while legacy fixed and mobile networks will be shut down during the ‘modernisation’ period. This will make a number of people redundant.

In fairness to Telefónica , it is creating plans to help evolve the skill sets of employees, but with any business evolution there will always be the messy job of headcount reduction.

Altice tries desperately to restore investor confidence

Embattled telecoms group Altice has been forced to issue a statement addressing recent market speculation as its shares have continued to dive.

Companies are generally reluctant to respond to ‘rumours and speculation’, but if that speculation results in a self-reinforcing downward spiral for its she price then exceptions have to be made.

In this case there had been growing fears that heavily-indebted Altice might not have enough ready-cash to handle its financial obligations and may therefore have to flog some shares. Such a fire-sale would presumably have to be done at a discount, which seems to have been one of the reasons for the price drop. The company also moved to deny that Next Alt, founder Patrick Drahi’s company that is the largest Altice shareholder, is selling Altice shares.

Here are the issues the Altice announcement addressed:

  • Altice is not in preparation of a cash raising by means of an equity- or equity-linked issuance and has no intention to pursue such action
  • Next Alt S.à.r.l. (“Next”) does not have any margin loan exposure to Altice and has not sold any material number of shares since the IPO
  • Management has not taken any active decision to sell Altice shares
  • Altice plans to de-lever its balance sheet and does not have margin loan exposure within the group

It’s all very well trying to put current rumours to bed but they were themselves the product of a sequence of events that had already contributed to Altice shares losing more than half of their value in the latter half of this year alone. So the rest of the Altice announcement sought to clarify its current strategy.

In a nutshell it all comes down to paying down some of the €50 billion or so of debt it has accumulated in the acquisition of companies like SFR and Cablevision. Central to this, of course, is not adding to it, so Altice promises not to go on any shopping sprees anytime soon. Other than that it needs to sort out SFR, where most of the numbers seems to be going in the wrong direction, and flog some ‘non-core’ assets such as its tower portfolio.

Of course it’s never a good sign when a company has to whack out an emergency announcement saying everything’s cool, but investors do seem to have derived some reassurance from this one – pushing shares back up a bit. Other than that all Altice can do is start delivering on all the promises made when it started its M&A frenzy four years ago and, as a consequence, pay down some of that debt.

Here’s a vid from happier times, when Altice IPOed on Euronext.