Vodafone ditches Kiwis and cuts dividend in search of ‘financial headroom’

Vodafone has announced the sale of its New Zealand arm and a cut to the dividend as the firm searches for breathing room on the spreadsheets amid its Liberty Global acquisition and annual loss.

Such is the precarious position Vodafone is under, a cut to the dividend was expected by many analysts, though the sale of its Kiwi business unit compounds the misery. Facing various challenges around the world, including expensive spectrum auctions in Europe, the telco giant is searching for financial relief, though whether these moves prove to be adequate remains to be seen.

“We are executing our strategy at pace and have achieved our guidance for the year, with good growth in most markets but also increased competition in Spain and Italy and headwinds in South Africa,” said Group CEO Nick Read. “These challenges weighed on our service revenue growth during the year, and together with high spectrum auction costs have reduced our financial headroom.

“The Group is at a key point of transformation – deepening customer engagement, accelerating digital transformation, radically simplifying our operations, generating better returns from our infrastructure assets and continuing to optimise our portfolio. To support these goals and to rebuild headroom, the Board has made the decision to rebase the dividend, helping us to reduce debt and deliver to the low end of our target range in the next few years.”

While the news of a dividend cut saw share price drop by more than 5%, trading prior to markets opening has seen a slight recovery (at the time of writing). The dividend cut is not as drastic as some had forecast, down to 9 euro cents from 15, while an additional €2.1 billion from the New Zealand sale will provide some relief.

Looking at the financials for the year ending March 31, group revenues declined by 6.2% to €43.666 billion, while the operating loss stood at a weighty €7.644 billion. This compares to a profit of €2.788 billion across the previous year, though there are several different factors to take into consideration such as the merger with Idea Cellular in India and a change in accounting standards.

The loss might shock some for the moment, though this is likely to balance out in the long-run. In changing from the IAS18 accounting standard to IFRS15, Vodafone is altering how it is realising revenue on the spreadsheets. From here on forward, revenues are only reported as each stage of the contract is completed. It might be a shock for the moment, but more revenue is there to be realised in the future.

Although these numbers are the not the most positive, there is a hope on the horizon.

“The dividend cut is a massive blow for investors, while the results highlight the on-going challenges facing the company in its quest to turnaround its fortunes,” said Paolo Pescatore of analyst firm PP Foresight. “All hopes seem to be pinned on 5G, but the business model is unproven. Huge investment is required to roll out these new ultra-fast networks, but it comes at a cost.”

On the 5G front, Vodafone UK has announced it will go live on July 3, initially launching in seven cities, with an additional 12 live by the end of the year. Vodafone will also offer 5G roaming in the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain over the summer period. Interestingly enough, the firm has said it will price 5G at the levels as 4G.

Although this is a minor consolation set against the backdrop of a monstrous loss, it is at least something to hold onto. As it stands, Vodafone is winning the 5G race in the UK, while the roaming claim is another which gives the firm something to shout about. Vodafone is not in a terrible position, though many will be wary of the daunting spectrum auctions it faces over the coming months.

Verizon continues quest to correct content car crash

The Verizon mission to conquer the content world has been anything but a smooth ride to date, and now it is reportedly searching for a buyer for Tumblr.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Verizon executives are on the search to offload the platform. The Verizon Media Group has been under considerable pressure in recent months, as the promise of value through content and diversification has eluded the telco.

Looking at the most recent earnings call, Verizon Media Group revenue was $1.8 billion, down 7.2% year-on-year for the quarter. Declines in desktop advertising were primarily blamed, with the dip continuing to more than offset growth in mobile and native advertising. Considering the effort the telco had to exert to acquire Yahoo, not to mention the headaches it had to endure, some might have hoped there would be more immediate value.

The last couple of months have seen Verizon attempt to make money from the mockery, with a particular focus on job cuts. In January, it was announced 7% of the media unit’s workforce, some 800 roles, would be sacrificed to the gods of profits, and now it seems Tumblr is being marshalled to the alter.

What is worth noting is this is a platform which has promise.

After being acquired by Yahoo during 2013 for $1.1 billion, Verizon inherited Tumblr through the much mangled $4.8 billion acquisition of Yahoo in 2017. Although some might struggle to understand what Tumblr does, the all-encompassing blogging platform currently has 465.4 million blogs and 172 billion posts.

Tumblr is a tricky one to understand what it actually does, but instead of trying to pigeon hole it into a definition perhaps the better approach would be to let it just be itself. Tumblr defines itself as a blank canvas, allowing users to post text, photos, GIFs, videos, live videos and audio, or pretty much anything the user wants to.

Perhaps this is why Verizon has struggled with the brand and presumably failing to realise the potential. Telcos generally cultivate traditional and relatively closed-minded cultures. With Tumblr just being itself, rather than fitting into a tidy tick-box exercise, Verizon may be struggling to communicate the value to customers or even devise an out-of-the-box business model to monetize it effectively.

This assessment is perhaps supported by where the media business has seen success. Financial news for example, or the delivery of sports content. These are not exactly complex business models to understand, more difficult to deliver however, as they are more functional. These are the areas CFO Matt Ellis was boasting about during the earnings call.

While there has not been any official commitment or denial to the rumours from Verizon so far, there does seem to be some appetite from the industry. According to Buzzfeed, Pornhub VP Corey Price is ‘extremely interested’ in potentially acquiring Tumblr, promising to re-discover the NSFW edge, one of the factors which drove the popularity of Tumblr during the early days.

The future of Tumblr might be a bit hazy for the moment, but one thing is clear. Verizon is mapping out a very effective usecase on how not to diversify into the content world.

Telenor says enough is enough with troubled Veon

Most Norwegians we’ve met to date have been nice, relatively laid back people, but the execs at Telenor have seemingly been pushed to breaking point, resulting in the divestment of Veon.

It’s been in the works for a while, and it would appear Telenor has finally gotten sick of dealing with Veon. There has been ‘debate’ over the future strategic direction of the company, but it won’t be long before the Norwegians finally ditch their final 19.7% stake in Veon.

Telenor has announced it has begun an offering of 90 million Veon shares, roughly a 5.1% stake in the telco, priced at $4.15, with the offering expected to close on September 25. This will leave Telenor holding onto 14.6% of Veon, though plans are to transfer this stake to an exchangeable bond. Telenor will be able to clean its hands of any association.

This should come as little surprise considering the saga which played out in Uzbekistan back in years gone, when the business was known as Vimpelcom. Back in 2015, Telenor announced plans to divest its stake in the business, citing ‘challenging’ conditions. Apparently paying hundreds of millions of dollars to firms controlled by Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov for a leg-up in the country, is a no-no in Oslo.

And while many might view this as an admirable move by a telco wanted to keep its hands clean, let’s not forget Telenor was not completely absent of wrong-doing. A seconded Telenor employee raised concerns of corruption back in 2011, but this news didn’t make it to the CEO until March 2014, and then onto the board in December later that year. From there the memo was lost until October 2015 when it made its way to the Norwegian government, the majority shareholder of Telenor. Negligence or incompetence – we’ll let you decide, but neither should be present.

Telenor is on the verge of getting rid of the headache, which also blamed Uzbekistan for a recent profit warning, and it will receive a nice little $365 million boost in cash in the first instance. Seems a bit backward to be rewarding the telco when you look at the saga from angles, but hey-ho.