India: Price inflation creates one of the best opportunities for EM telco investors in recent years.
Change in the telecom industry tends to be gradual. National telcos can be thought of as super-tankers, with large and slow turning circles. Investment cycles are long. Return on capital drives value creation and doesn’t tend to fluctuate rapidly.
In this context what has happened in India in recent months is without precedent for the telco industry in a large country in our view. Ever since 13 licences per region were issued in 2008, India has a been a hypercompetitive market where creating value has been hard. Direction of travel for price has been in one direction – down. However, everything changed with the Supreme Court ruling in October. A $13bn fine on the industry (HERE) which the SC recently upheld (HERE) has broken the current structure and change is coming.
Over the past two decades, the number of companies listed on the US stock market has almost halved. From 2006 to 2017, the number of private backed companies has doubled. In 2013, a quarter of equity raised came from private markets – and today it is closer to half. Yet despite this, relatively few telecoms companies have taken themselves private. However, those that do, or even their subsidiaries, have delivered significant value for public market investors – think Altice, which was one of the best performing telcos in 2019 and took advantage of this trend across multiple subsidiaries. For other telcos, particularly those embarking on heavy infrastructure projects like BT, the opportunity could be there too.
The last decade has really been a decade of two halves for the European telecoms sector. After outperforming in the first half of the decade, the period from 2015-2018 was a torrid one as the reality of aggressive regulation finally became apparent. Looking back though over the past 12 months, our upgrade of the European telecoms sector a year ago has been somewhat of a pyrrhic victory. On one hand, the sector has delivered a positive total return of 7% – the first time in four years the return has been positive. However, telecoms has not enjoyed the magnitude of re-rating seen by other geographies or industrial sectors this year, as the industry still tries to rebuild confidence with investors. Lack of headline growth and ongoing concerns over earnings risk still seems to dominate discussions. We look ahead to 2020 to pick out the best opportunities, the key themes ahead and set out our thoughts for what we would be doing if we were CEO of one of the European telcos in the decade ahead.
5G has been a hot topic this year, which peaked in November when we hosted our 5G conference in New York. We have written extensively about the key takeaways (HERE, HERE and HERE) but one central theme was the newsflow out of Asia, and in particular a presentation from LG U+ in Korea showing the incredible usage stats since they launched 5G. This week we have had a few more data points out of Asia that has made us increasingly optimistic that 5G is likely to be the key focus for the Asian markets as we head into 2020. It is these data points, and the resultant optimism that has entrenched our stock views as we look to the New Year. Furthermore, we see a great pair trade for those investors looking for 5G-specific telco opportunities.
Throughout the course of the trial, we will endeavor to update clients on particularly important days (though not necessarily daily). Today, we saw a pretty tough day for the companies, as one would expect given that the states are putting on their side of the case. The states used the witnesses to introduce texts and emails that were helpful for the states’ argument that the unconditioned 4-to-3 merger violates the law, that T-Mobile and Sprint are direct competitors, that Sprint has other options to the merger, and that the deal could result in increased prices. In addition, the judge declined to hear opening statements and sought to curtail the witness lists, making it more difficult, in our view, for the companies to re-frame the core arguments. While nothing changed our odds, we can clearly see how the states are setting up their arguments.
In this note we discuss why we think the odds of legislation dictating critical terms of the C-Band reallocation process are greater than we had previously thought, though much depends on several critical decisions of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). In that light, the upcoming mark-up of the Thune/Wicker Bill is also more important than we had thought, both for what it reveals about the legislation but also for what, if anything, it tells us about how CBO is thinking about whether the C-Band auction can be scored for new expenditures, whether CBO believes that the score could be aided by a faster transition, and whether CBO believes that faster transition requires significant payments to the CBA members beyond relocation expenses.
In addition, we review several recent ex partes, which to us demonstrate an alignment of the key buyers the process has not enjoyed to date, but a difference in emphasis and no details about how to achieve their mutual objectives.
Rakuten is the highest profile virtualised Radio Access Network project in the world, and CEO Mikitani’s MWC tub-thumping lifted vRAN to the top of the ‘hot topic’ list for 2019. Speakers at our recent 5G conference (key takeaways from the telecom team HERE and the tech team HERE), and plenty of other news flow, have indicated that virtualisation of the core and the RAN is the way forward for lower unit costs and more flexible, secure, and scalable networking.
We don’t see this as a change of trend – unit costs have been falling relentlessly for several decades – but virtualisation is one of the key drivers for continued declines over the next decade. Virtualisation has a large and growing band of global enthusiasts too, including heavyweight operators, and an increasingly wide ecosystem.
Precisely because Rakuten put vRAN front and centre in its extravagant pitch to MWC earlier this year, it’s natural to suspect that vRAN is at the root of its disappointing trajectory since then. But, just as vRAN isn’t central to Rakuten’s story, in our view (see HERE), it also isn’t why the launch is late and impact being downgraded. This diagnosis matters for the Japanese market, but it also matters for vRAN globally.
On Monday, the most important trialOne could argue it was actually the trial that broke up AT&T but at that point, the wireless industry largely existed in the brilliant imagination of some engineers and a young cable executive named Craig McCaw. Wireless was considered so unimportant that the lawyer for AT&T basically gave away the cellular licenses to the Baby Bells without much thought. Because Karma has a weirder sense of humor than any of us can possibly understand, that lawyer eventually became the CEO of AT&T Wireless, which AT&T created by spending $12.6 billion to buy McCaw’s company, instead of simply having the original licenses. ever for the wireless industry begins in New York. In this Weekend Update, we provide our final notes on recent developments and how to watch the trial.
We start with a summary of a call we did with antitrust experts last week. While both predicted the States win, both were intrigued by the implications of the Companies still arguing about the deal rather than just focusing on the fix. Both also offered advice on what witnesses and issues to watch for indications of how the Judge might be thinking. We then discuss the most important outcomes and revelations of two pre-trial conferences at the end of last week, including the Judge’s own description of the issues, the parties’ different framings of the core issue and the implications of the first six witnesses, all designed, we think, to allow the States to introduce course of business documents that will undercut the Companies claim of increased competitiveness as the motive for the deal and the fix.
We review some evidentiary rulings we don’t believe will ultimately be material but one that has a potential to provide significant headline risk for the Companies. We note some filings at the FCC that go to an issue raised by the States in their pre-trial memo on the reliance of the Companies on proceedings that have not yet concluded. We conclude with a discussion of the importance of Charlie Ergen’s credibility as a witness by reviewing how another judge, in a bankruptcy proceeding, viewed his credibility.
We note that we are again splitting our Weekend Updates in two, with a separate update focused on C-Band and the upcoming Senate mark-up on related legislation being published sometime on Monday.
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