Investment bank thinks Vodafone could be in trouble

RBC Capital Markets has released an investor note warning Vodafone might be in a spot of bother following years of restructuring, M&A, as well as the risk associated with up-coming spectrum auctions.

RBC Capital Markets, the investment bank arm of Royal Bank of Canada, has suggested Vodafone might be in a suspect position, with very little financial headroom despite synergies and cost cutting strategies over the last few years. The telco might be offering investors a strong dividend right now, though RBC believes this position is ‘unsustainable’ when you look at the bigger picture.

“Vodafone’s frenetic portfolio restructuring has left the company more European and converged, but also vulnerable,” RBC stated in the note. “Its underlying markets remain ‘challenging’ and it has very little financial headroom despite synergies and cost cutting. Vodafone has options with its towers but faces a threat from 5G spectrum. The dividend is unsustainable even before we consider a macro downturn. Downgrade to Underperform with 125p PT (was 260p).”

The last couple of years have been an interesting time for Vodafone, as while former CEO Vittorio Colao certainly shook up the business during his tenure he left at a time where Vodafone is sitting on a knife’s edge. There are certainly some success stories across the group, though the potential for disaster is just as prominent.

On the positive side, the UK business is returning to the position of strength under UK CEO Nick Jeffrey. You don’t have to look too far into the past to discover Vodafone used to be the number one player in the UK, though time and sloppy management eroded this position. The last couple of years have seen a turnaround in the mobile business, while the introduction of a fixed line offering certainly creates the opportunity to grow revenues through the much-desired convergence play.

As RBC notes, with no legacy business to protect and a strong partnership with CityFibre, the fixed line potential is certainly noteworthy. Digitisation strategies also seem to be paying off, while its tower business also gives it at opportunity to raise more funds through a divestment if necessary. This is a strategic asset Vodafone would not want to get rid of completely, though a minority sale could raise between €3 billion and €5.5 billion, offering suitable security should it be needed. With the Liberty Global deal set to complete in a couple of months’ time, there is potential for further convergence wins in Eastern Europe also.

Of course, there are substantial risks as well. Competition in the Italian, Spanish and German markets are ramping up, with new entrants such as Iliad and United-Drillisch causing all sorts of problems, while national expansion of Euskaltel in Spain will not be welcomed. These are markets where Vodafone has a notable presence and disruption is rife.

And then you have the spectrum auctions. Vodafone might have already participated in some, but there are still many on the horizon. In Germany, the pre-conditions set on established players look to be commercially unreasonable, and that is even before the auction has taken place. The prices being discussed at each auction are increasing each time and RBC estimates the remaining licences could cost Vodafone between €4.5 billion and €12 billion. Some might suggest the Italian auction was inaccurately inflated, though the premiums paid in Australia and Sweden also confirm the auctions are going to be expensive business moving forward.

Finally, you have India. Vodafone currently owns 45% of the newly created Vodafone Idea telco, the teams answer to the Reliance Jio disruption, though what this is actually worth is unknown for the moment. None of the strategies used to tackle Jio have actually worked yet and it is unknown whether Vodafone Idea will be able to slow the momentum behind the upstart. This market could be great for Vodafone, or it could be a disaster; no-one knows for sure.

As it stands, there are certainly possibilities for the telco moving forward, but the risks and dangers in certain markets are huge. Vodafone has shown itself to be a pretty sound business in recent years with the digitisation and convergence shifts, but RBC doesn’t feel it is in a particularly strong position.