Tag Archives: CenturyLink

A naughty or nice 2019?

They say if you keep making the same prediction, at some stage it will come true. Well, my 2018 post a year ago on the return of volatility eventually proved prescient (I made the same prediction for 2017!). Besides the equity markets (multiple posts with the latest one here), the non-company specific topics covered in this blog in 2018 ranged from the telecom sector (here), insurance (here, here, and here), climate change (here and here), to my own favourite posts on artificial intelligence (here, here and here).

The most popular post (by far thanks to a repost by InsuranceLinked)) this year was on the Lloyds’ of London market (here) and I again undertake to try to post more on insurance specific topics in 2019. My company specific posts in 2018 centered on CenturyLink (CTL), Apple (AAPL), PaddyPowerBetfair (PPB.L), and Nvidia (NVDA). Given that I am now on the side-lines on all these names, except CTL, until their operating results justify my estimate of fair value and the market direction is clearer, I hope to widen the range of firms I will post on in 2019, time permitting. Although this blog is primarily a means of trying to clarify my own thoughts on various topics by means of a public diary of sorts, it is gratifying to see that I got the highest number of views and visitors in 2018. I am most grateful to you, dear reader, for that.

In terms of predictions for the 2019 equity markets, the graph below shows the latest targets from market analysts. Given the volatility in Q4 2018, it is unsurprising that the range of estimates for 2019 is wider than previously. At the beginning of 2018, the consensus EPS estimate for the S&P500 was $146.00 with an average multiple just below 20. Current 2018 estimates of $157.00 resulted in a multiple of 16 for the year end S&P500 number. The drop from 20 to 16 illustrates the level of uncertainty in the current market

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For 2019, the consensus EPS estimate is (currently) $171.00 with an average 2019 year-end target of 2,900 implying a 17 multiple. Given that this EPS estimate of 9% growth includes sectors such as energy with an assumed healthy 10% EPS growth projection despite the oil price drop, it’s probable that this EPS estimate will come down during the upcoming earnings season as firms err on the conservative side for their 2019 projections.

The bears point to building pressures on top-line growth and on record profit margins. The golden boy of the moment, Michael Wilson of Morgan Stanley, calls the current 2019 EPS estimates “lofty”. The bulls point to the newly established (as of last Friday) Powell Put and the likely resolution of the US-China trade spat (because both sides need it). I am still dubious on a significant or timely relaxation of global quantitative tightening and don’t feel particularly inclined to bet money on the Orange One’s negotiating prowess with China. My guess is the Chinese will give enough for a fudge but not enough to satisfy Trump’s narcissistic need (and political need?) for a visible outright victory. The NAFTA negotiations and his stance on the Wall show outcomes bear little relation to the rhetoric of the man. These issues will be the story of 2019. Plus Brexit of course (or as I suspect the lack thereof).

Until we get further insight from the Q4 earnings calls, my current base assumption of 4% EPS growth to $164 with a multiple of 15 to 16 implies the S&P500 will be range bound around current levels of 2,400 – 2,600. Hopefully with less big moves up or down!

Historically, a non-recessionary bear market lasts on average 7 months according to Ed Clissold of Ned Davis Research (see their 2019 report here). According to Bank of America, since 1950 the S&P 500 has endured 11 retreats of 12% or more in prolonged bull markets with these corrections lasting 8 months on average. The exhibit below suggests that such corrections only take 5 months to recover peak to trough.

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To get a feel for the possible direction of the S&P500 over 2019, I looked at the historical path of the index over 300 trading days after a peak for 4 non-recessionary and 4 recessionary periods (remember recessions are usually declared after they have begun), as below.

Note: These graphs have been subsequently updated for the S&P500 close to the 18th January 2019. 

click to enlarges&p500 q42018 drop compared to 4 nonrecession drops in 1962 1987 1998 & 2015 updated

 

click to enlarges&p500 q42018 drop compared to 4 recession drops in 1957 1974 1990 & 2000 updated

 

I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide which path represents the most likely one for 2019. It is interesting that the 1957 track most closely matches the moves to date  (Ed: as per the date of the post, obviously not after that date!) but history rarely exactly rhymes. I have no idea whether 2019 will be naughty or nice for equity investors. I can predict with 100% certainty that it will not be dull….

Given that Brightwater’s pure Alpha fund has reportingly returned an impressive 14.6% for 2018 net of fees, I will leave the last word to Ray Dalio, who has featured regularly in this blog in 2018, as per his recent article (which I highly recommend):

Typically at this phase of the short-term debt cycle (which is where we are now), the prices of the hottest stocks and other equity-like assets that do well when growth is strong (e.g., private equity and real estate) decline and corporate credit spreads and credit risks start to rise. Typically, that happens in the areas that have had the biggest debt growth, especially if that happens in the largely unregulated shadow banking system (i.e., the non-bank lending system). In the last cycle, it was in the mortgage debt market. In this cycle, it has been in corporate and government debt markets.

When the cracks start to appear, both those problems that one can anticipate and those that one can’t start to appear, so it is especially important to identify them quickly and stay one step ahead of them.

So, it appears to me that we are in the late stages of both the short-term and long-term debt cycles. In other words, a) we are in the late-cycle phase of the short-term debt cycle when profit and earnings growth are still strong and the tightening of credit is causing asset prices to decline, and b) we are in the late-cycle phase of the long-term debt cycle when asset prices and economies are sensitive to tightenings and when central banks don’t have much power to ease credit.

A very happy and healthy 2019 to all.

CTL: Pain before gain?

Before I unleash my musings on the latest Centurylink (CTL) results, building on this recent CTL post, I will touch on some industry trends and some CTL specific items that are relevant in my opinion. As regular readers will know, the increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) by businesses, particularly in business processes, is an area that fascinates me (as per this post). How such process improvements will change a capital- and labour-intensive sector such as telecom (as per this post) is one of the reasons I see such potential for CTL.

Whilst reading some recent articles on digital developments (such as this and this and this), I cannot but be struck by the expanded networking needs of this future. All this vast amount of new data will have to be crunched by machines, likely in data centres, and updated constantly by real time data from the field. Networks in this era (see this post on 5G) will need to be highly efficient, fluid and scalable, and have a deep reach. Very different from the fixed cost dumb pipe telecoms of old!

CTL have outlined their ambition to be such a network provider and are undertaking a digital transformation programme of their business to achieve that goal. CEO Jeff Storey has gone as far as saying that CTL “is not a telecom company, but that we are a technology company”. Time will tell on that one!

Today, industry trends from business telecom revenues (i.e. enterprises from SME to global giants plus wholesale business) are flat to declining, as highlighted in this post. Deciphering recent trends has not been made any easier by the introduction of the new revenue recognition accounting standard ASC606. Where possible, the updated graph below shows revenues under the new standard from Q1 2018.

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This data shows an estimated annual decline in overall annual revenues for 2018 of 1.5%, compared to 1.2% in 2017 and 2% for each of the preceding 2 years. Over the past 8 quarters, that’s about a 33-basis point sequential quarterly drop on average. Different firms are showing differing impacts from the accounting change on their business revenue. Comcast showed a 6.5% jump in Q1 2018 before returning to trend whilst AT&T showed a 4% drop in Q1 2018 before returning to more normal quarterly changes. Rather than trying to dismantle the impact of the accounting change, its easier to simply accept the change as its obvious the underlying trends remain, as the bottom graph above illustrates. Whilst accepting these 5 firms do not make up all the US, let alone the global, telecom market, some interesting statistics from this data are shown below.

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Although the accounting change has likely skewed figures in the short term, the exhibit above shows that AT&T is losing market share whilst the cable firms are growing their business revenues albeit from lower bases than the big players. Verizon and the new CTL have performed slightly below market trends (i.e. 50 basis point average quarterly sequential declines versus overall at 33 basis points).

Before I get onto CTL’s Q3 results, this article from Light Reading illustrates some of the changes underway at the firm to transform its business. The changes are centred around 4 themes – increasing network visibility, delivering business-owned automation, encouraging a lean mindset, and skills transformation.

On network viability, CTL is layering federation tools on top of its existing systems. Federated architecture (FA) is a pattern in enterprise architecture that allows interoperability and information sharing between semi-autonomous de-centrally organized lines of business, information technology systems and applications. The initial phase of this federation was with customer and sales systems such as those used for quoting, order entry, order status, inventory management and ticketing. The goal is to move towards a common sales ecosystem and standard portals that automate customer’s journeys from order to activation and beyond. A common narrative of CTL’s transformation is to give customers the tools to manage their networking capabilities like they do using the cloud. This is more of a network as a service or network on demand that CTL say is the future for telecom providers. This interview with the newly appointed CTO of CTL gives further insight into what the firm is doing in this on demand area, including changes underway to meet the increased SD-WAN demand and the upcoming deluge of data in the 5G era.

Business owned automation is allowing different business units to own their own automation projects, whilst been supported by centralised centres of excellence in areas such as robotic process automation (RPA), digital collaboration, mobility and analytics. Training is provided by the centralised units. Empowering the business units encourages a key cultural change in adopting a lean mindset across the firm. Ensuring that people in the firm are retrained and motivated is a core part of CTL’s plans as change only comes from within and as the firm continues to downsize (they have already reduced headcount by 12%) its important that staff morale and skills transformation is a focus as the business changes.

So, moving on to CTL’s Q3 results. The market has not reacted well to the Q on Q drop of 3.6% in revenues, with weakness seen across all business segments, and the stock is trading down around $19 as a result. The trends highlighted above have been exasperated by CTL dropping or renegotiating lower margin business such as contracts involving customer premises equipment (so called CPE). Of the $80 million quarterly revenue drop (under ASC606) in Q3, $30 million was attributed to the culling of low margin business. The remaining $50 million drop is about twice the average drop in recent times, thereby raising analyst concerns about an increase in trend revenue declines.

However, there are two points to note here. Firstly, using revenue figures before the application of ASC606, the net drop was more in line at $37 million (i.e. $67-$30) and comparable with the Q2 non-ASC606 drop of $40 million. Secondly, and more importantly, the trend is lumpy and given CTL’s transformation focus, it makes total sense to me for CTL to cull low margin non-network centric revenues. Management were explicit in stating their intention “to focus on the network-centric things” and that this business is “distracting our organization and it’s not giving us anything, so we’ll stop it”. To me, that demonstrates confidence in the direction of the business. As Storey emphasised, when referring to culling low margin business, “we manage this business for free cash flow, free cash flow per share, these are good things to be doing”.

Analysts concern that cutting expenses longer term cannot be a sustainable business plan without revenue growth at some point is certainly valid (and is one of the key risks with CTL). Indeed, I estimate that there is about $900 million and $500 million of quarterly legacy business and consumer revenues respectively (about 15% and 10% of total quarterly revenues) that could fall off at an accelerated pace as CTL refocuses the business over the medium term. CTL’s return to top line growth could be several years off yet. More on this later.

Another area of concern from analysts was the fact that CTL will spend approx. $500 million less on capex in 2018 compared to original projections (with levels projected to return to a more normal 16% of revenues for 2019 and beyond). This could be interrupted as a desire not to invest in the business to inflate free cash-flow, never a good sign for any company. However, again management explained this as a desire to refocus capital spending away from items like copper upgrades and towards strategic areas. They cited the approval to bring on-net another 7,000 to 8,000 buildings and the use of strategic targeting of capex (using AI) across consumer and business geographies to maximise returns in urban areas where 5G infrastructure will be needed in the future. Again, a more disciplined approach to capex makes total sense to me and demonstrates the discipline this management team is imposing on the business.

What seems to have been missed in the reaction to Q3 results is the extraordinary progress they have made on margin improvements. The EBITDA margin again grew to 39.3% with the projected operational synergies of $850 million now targeted to be achieved by year end. Management are keen to move the focus from integration to digital transformation from 2019. Achieving the targeted operational synergies so soon, particularly when we know that network expense synergies do not come through until 2 to 3 years after a merger, is an amazing achievement. It also highlights that their projected cost synergies of $850 million were way way under-baked. As I highlighted in this recent CTL post, I suspected this under-baking was to protect against the risk of any further acceleration in the underling margin erosion at the old CTL business as legacy business declined.

CTL’s discipline in extracting costs, as seen by actions such as the (painful) 12% headcount reduction, is central to my confidence in CTL’s management achieving their strategic aims. I do not believe that a further $250 million and $200 million of cost synergies in 2019 and 2020 respectfully through further synergies, network grooming efforts and the digital transformation initiative is unreasonable. That would bring overall cost synergies to $1.3 billion, a level consistent to what LVLT achieved in the TWTC merger.

So, given the likelihood of an increased purposeful erosion in low margin legacy business over the next several years combined with a higher level of cost extraction, I have recalculated my base and pessimistic scenarios from my previous post.

My base scenario, as per the graph below, shows annual revenues effectively flatlining over the next 3 years (2019 to 2021) around $23.3 to $23.6 billion before returning to modest top-line growth thereafter (i.e. between 1% and 1.5% annual growth) with an EBITDA margin of 42% achieved by the end of 2021 and maintained thereafter. This revenue profile mirrors that of previous LVLT mergers, albeit a longer period of flatlining revenues due to the amount of old legacy CTL to burn off. Capex is assumed at 16% of revenue from 2019 onwards. My projections also include further interest rate increases in 2019 and 2020 (as a reminder every 25-basis point change in interest rate results in an 8.5 basis point change in CTL’s blended rate). The current dividend rate is maintained throughout with FCF coverage ratio reducing from the low 70’s in 2019 to around 60% by the end of 2021. My DCF valuation for CTL under these base projections is $23 per share. That’s about 20% above its current level around $19 plus a 11% dividend yield.

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My pessimistic scenario, as per the graph below, assumes that the hoped-for revival of CTL into an on-demand service provider in the 5G age does not result in revenue growth after the legacy business has eroded for whatever reason (other technological advances over the need for a deep fiber network optic been the most likely). Annual revenue continues to decline to below $22 billion by 2021 and does not get above that level again until 2025. Although this scenario would be extreme, its not unknown in the telecom industry for future jumps in data traffic to result in falling revenues (eh, remember the telecom winter!). EBITDA margin levels get to 41% by the end of 2021 and slowly rise to 41.5% thereafter on further cost cutting. Capex and interest rate assumptions are as per the base scenario.

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In the pessimistic scenario the dividend level of $2.16 per share must be cut by 50% from 2020 to reflect the new reality and to deleverage the balance sheet. Although the share price would likely suffer greatly in such a scenario, my DCF valuation is $14 per share, 26% below the current $19 share price, not forgetting the reduced dividend yield after the 50% cut.

As per my previous post on CTL, I see little point in contemplating an optimistic scenario until such time as revenue trends are clearer. A buy-out at a juicy premium is the most likely upside case.

Consideration should be given in any projections over the medium term on the impact and timing of the next recession which is certain to happen over the 2019 to 2025 period. Jeff Storey has argued in the past that recession is good for firms like CTL as enterprises look to save money through switching from legacy services to more efficient on demand services. Although there is an element of truth to this argument, the next recession will likely put further pressures on CTL’s top-line (alternatively, an outbreak of inflation may help pricing pressures!!). Higher interest rates and lower multiples are a risk to the valuation of firms like CTL and the uncertainty over the future macro-economic environment make CTL a risky investment. Notwithstanding the inevitability of a recession at some time, I do feel that the revenue projections above are already conservative given the explosion in network demand that is likely over the next decade, although increased signs of recession in late 2019 or 2020 would temper my risk appetite on CTL.

To me, one of the biggest risks to CTL is the CEO’s health. Given Sunit Patel has left for T-Mobile (who I hope may be a potential buyer of CTL after they get the Sprint deal embedded and/or abandoned) and the new CFO will take some time to get accepted in the role, any potential for CTL not to have Jeff Storey at the helm over the next 2 years would be very damaging. Identifying and publicly promoting a successor to Jeff Storey is something the Board should be actively considering in their contingency planning.

For now, though, I am reasonably comfortable with the risk reward profile on CTL here, absent any significant slow down in the US economy.

Heterogeneous Future

It seems like wherever you look these days there is references to the transformational power of artificial intelligence (AI), including cognitive or machine learning (ML), on businesses and our future. A previous post on AI and insurance referred to some of the changes ongoing in financial services in relation to core business processes and costs. This industry article highlights how machine learning (specifically multi-objective genetic algorithms) can be used in portfolio optimization by (re)insurers. To further my understanding on the topic, I recently bought a copy of a new book called “Advances in Financial Machine Learning” by Marcos Lopez de Prado, although I suspect I will be out of my depth on the technical elements of the book. Other posts on this blog (such as this one) on the telecom sector refer to the impact intelligent networks are having on telecom business models. One example is the efficiencies Centurylink (CTL) have shown in their capital expenditure allocation processes from using AI and this got me thinking about the competitive impact such technology will have on costs across numerous traditional industries.

AI is a complex topic and in its broadest context it covers computer systems that can sense their environment, think, and in some cases learn, and take applicable actions according to their objectives. To illustrate the complexity of the topic, neural networks are a subset of machine learning techniques. Essentially, they are AI systems based on simulating connected “neural units” loosely modelling the way that neurons interact in the brain. Neural networks need large data sets to be “trained” and the number of layers of simulated interconnected neurons, often numbering in their millions, determine how “deep” the learning can be. Before I embarrass myself in demonstrating how little I know about the technicalities of this topic, it’s safe to say AI as referred to in this post encompasses the broadest definition, unless a referenced report or article specifically narrows the definition to a subset of the broader definition and is highlighted as such.

According to IDC (here), “interest and awareness of AI is at a fever pitch” and global spending on AI systems is projected to grow from approximately $20 billion this year to $50 billion in 2021. David Schubmehl of IDC stated that “by 2019, 40% of digital transformation initiatives will use AI services and by 2021, 75% of enterprise applications will use AI”. By the end of this year, retail will be the largest spender on AI, followed by banking, discrete manufacturing, and healthcare. Retail AI use cases include automated customer service agents, expert shopping advisors and product recommendations, and merchandising for omni channel operations. Banking AI use cases include automated threat intelligence and prevention systems, fraud analysis and investigation, and program advisors and recommendation systems. Discrete manufacturing AI use cases including automated preventative maintenance, quality management investigation and recommendation systems. Improved diagnosis and treatment systems are a key focus in healthcare.

In this April 2018 report, McKinsey highlights numerous use cases concluding that ”AI can most often be adopted and create value where other analytics methods and techniques are also creating value”. McKinsey emphasis that “abundant volumes of rich data from images, audio, and video, and large-scale text are the essential starting point and lifeblood of creating value with AI”. McKinsey’s AI focus in the report is particularly in relation to deep learning techniques such as feed forward neural networks, recurrent neural networks, and convolutional neural networks.

Examples highlighted by McKinsey include a European trucking company who reduced fuel costs by 15 percent by using AI to optimize routing of delivery traffic, an airline who uses AI to predict congestion and weather-related problems to avoid costly cancellations, and a travel company who increase ancillary revenue by 10-15% using a recommender system algorithm trained on product and customer data to offer additional services. Other specific areas highlighted by McKinsey are captured in the following paragraph:

“AI’s ability to conduct preventive maintenance and field force scheduling, as well as optimizing production and assembly processes, means that it also has considerable application possibilities and value potential across sectors including advanced electronics and semiconductors, automotive and assembly, chemicals, basic materials, transportation and logistics, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals and medical products, aerospace and defense, agriculture, and consumer packaged goods. In advanced electronics and semiconductors, for example, harnessing data to adjust production and supply-chain operations can minimize spending on utilities and raw materials, cutting overall production costs by 5 to 10 percent in our use cases.”

McKinsey calculated the value potential of AI from neural networks across numerous sectors, as per the graph below, amounting to $3.5 to $5.8 trillion. Value potential is defined as both in the form of increased profits for companies and lower prices or higher quality products and services captured by customers, based off the 2016 global economy. They did not estimate the value potential of creating entirely new product or service categories, such as autonomous driving.

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McKinsey identified several challenges and limitations with applying AI techniques, as follows:

  • Making an effective use of neural networks requires labelled training data sets and therefore data quality is a key issue. Ironically, machine learning often requires large amounts of manual effort in “teaching” machines to learn. The experience of Microsoft with their chatter bot Tay in 2016 illustrates the shortcoming of learning from bad data!
  • Obtaining data sets that are sufficiently large and comprehensive to be used for comprehensive training is also an issue. According to the authors of the book “Deep Learning”, a supervised deep-learning algorithm will generally achieve acceptable performance with around 5,000 labelled examples per category and will match or exceed human level performance when trained with a data set containing at least 10 million labelled examples.
  • Explaining the results from large and complex models in terms of existing practices and regulatory frameworks is another issue. Product certifications in health care, automotive, chemicals, aerospace industries and regulations in the financial services sector can be an obstacle if processes and outcomes are not clearly explainable and auditable. Some nascent approaches to increasing model transparency, including local-interpretable-model-agnostic explanations (LIME), may help resolve this explanation challenge.
  • AI models continue to have difficulties in carrying their experiences from one set of circumstances to another, applying a generalisation to learning. That means companies must commit resources to train new models for similar use cases. Transfer learning, in which an AI model is trained to accomplish a certain task and then quickly applies that learning to a similar but distinct activity, is one area of focus in response to this issue.
  • Finally, one area that has been the subject of focus is the risk of bias in data and algorithms. As bias is part of the human condition, it is engrained in our behaviour and historical data. This article in the New Scientist highlights five examples.

In 2016, Accenture estimated that US GDP could be $8.3 trillion higher in 2035 because of AI, doubling growth rates largely due to AI induced productivity gains. More recently in February this year, PwC published a report on an extensive macro-economic impact of AI and projected a baseline scenario that global GDP will be 14% higher due to AI, with the US and China benefiting the most. Using a Spatial Computable General Equilibrium Model (SCGE) of the global economy, PwC quantifies the total economic impact (as measured by GDP) of AI on the global economy via both productivity gains and consumption-side product enhancements over the period 2017-2030. The impact on the seven regions modelled by 2030 can be seen below.

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PwC estimates that the economic impact of AI will be driven by productivity gains from businesses automating processes as well as augmenting their existing labour force with AI technologies (assisted, autonomous and augmented intelligence) and by increased consumer demand resulting from the availability of personalised and/or higher-quality AI-enhanced products and services.

In terms of sectors, PwC estimate the services industry that encompasses health, education, public services and recreation stands to gain the most, with retail and wholesale trade as well as accommodation and food services also expected to see a large boost. Transport and logistics as well as financial and professional services will also see significant but smaller GDP gains by 2030 because of AI although they estimate that the financial service sector gains relatively quickly in the short term. Unsurprisingly, PwC finds that capital intensive industries have the greatest productivity gains from AI uptake and specifically highlight the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) sector as having substantial marginal productivity gains from uptaking replacement and augmenting AI. The sectoral gains estimated by PwC by 2030 are shown below.

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A key element of these new processes is the computing capabilities needed to process so much data that underlies AI. This recent article in the FT highlighted how the postulated demise of Moore’s law after its 50-year run is impacting the micro-chip sector. Mike Mayberry of Intel commented that “the future is more heterogeneous” when referring to the need for the chip industry to optimise chip design for specific tasks. DARPA, the US defence department’s research arm, has allocated $1.5 billion in research grants on the chips of the future, such as chip architectures that combine both power and flexibility using reprogrammable “software-defined hardware”. This increase in focus from the US is a direct counter against China’s plans to develop its intellectual and technical abilities in semiconductors over the coming years beyond simple manufacturing.

One of the current leaders in specialised chip design is Nvidia (NVDA) who developed software lead chips for video cards in the gaming sector through their graphics processing unit (GPU). The GPU accelerates applications running on standard central processing units (CPU) by offloading some of the compute-intensive and time-consuming portions of the code whilst the rest of the application still runs on the CPU. The chips developed by NVDA for gamers have proven ideal in handling the huge volumes of data needed to train deep learning systems that are used in AI. The exhibit below from NVDA illustrates how they assert that new processes such as GPU can overcome the slowdown in capability from the density limitation of Moore’s Law.

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NVDA, whose stock is up over 400% in the past 24 months, has been a darling of the stock market in recent years and reported strong financial figures for their quarter to end April, as shown below. Their quarterly figures to the end of July are eagerly expected next month. NVDA has been range bound in recent months, with the trade war often cited as a concern with their products sold approximately 20%, 20%, and 30% into supply chains in China, other Asia Pacific countries, and Taiwan respectively

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Although seen as the current leader, NVDA is not alone in this space. AMD recently reported strong Q1 2018 results, with revenues up 40%, and has a range of specialised chip designs to compete in the datacentre, auto, and machine learning sectors. AMD’s improved results also reduce risk on their balance sheet with leverage decreasing from 4.6X to 3.4X and projected to decline further. AMD’s stock is up approximately 70% year to date. AMD’s 7-nanonmeter product launch planned for later this year also compares favourably against Intel’s delayed release date to 2019 for its 10-nanometer chips.

Intel has historically rolled out a new generation of computer chips every two years, enabling chips that were consistently more powerful than their predecessors even as the cost of that computing power fell. But as Intel has run up against the limits of physics, they have reverted to making upgrades to its aging 14nm processor node, which they say performs 70% better than when initially released four years ago. Despite advances by NVDA and AMD in data centres, Intel chips still dominate. In relation to the AI market, Intel is focused on an approach called field-programmable gate array (FPGA) which is an integrated circuit designed to be configured by a customer or a designer after manufacturing. This approach of domain-specific architectures is seen as an important trend in the sector for the future.

Another interesting development is Google (GOOG) recently reported move to commercially sell, through its cloud-computing service, its own big-data chip design that it has been using internally for some time. Known as a tensor processing unit (TPU), the chip was specifically developed by GOOG for neural network machine learning and is an AI accelerator application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC). For example, in Google photos an individual TPU can process over 100 million photos a day. What GOOG will do with this technology will be an interesting development to watch.

Given the need for access to large labelled data sets and significant computing infrastructure, the large internet firms like Google, Facebook (FB), Microsoft (MSFT), Amazon (AMZN) and Chinese firms like Baidu (BIDU) and Tencent (TCEHY) are natural leaders in using and commercialising AI. Other firms highlighted by analysts as riding the AI wave include Xilinx (XLNX), a developer of high-performance FPGAs, and Yext (YEXT), who specialise in managing digital information relevant to specific brands, and Twilio (TWLO), a specialist invoice and text communication analysis. YEXT and TWLO are loss making. All of these stocks, possibly excluding the Chinese ones, are trading at lofty valuations. If the current wobbles on the stock market do lead to a significant fall in technology valuations, the stocks on my watchlist will be NVDA, BIDU and GOOG. I’d ignore the one trick ponys, particularly the loss making ones! Specifically, Google is one I have been trying to get in for years at a sensible value and I will watch NVDA’s results next month with keen interest as they have consistently broken estimates in recent quarters. Now, if only the market would fall from its current heights to allow for a sensible entry point…….maybe enabled by algorithmic trading or a massive trend move by the passives!

The Centurylink Conundrum

It’s been over 4 months since I made my overtly positive 2018 EBITDA call on Centurylink (CTL), as per this February post. I estimated EBITDA guidance for 2018 around $9.25 billion whereas CTL’s actual guidance was between $8.75 billion to $8.95 billion. In my previous CTL post back in August 2017, the base case 2018 EBITDA was much closer to the mark at $8.95 billion! The reason for my $0.4 billion overshoot was an over optimistic reaction to the comments CFO Sunit Patel made earlier in the year on a possible 5%-7% margin improvement over the next 3 to 5 years. In my defense, the exhibit below comparing the cumulative margin improvement following the LVLT/TWTC merger compared to those now forecast by analysts from the CTL/LVLT merger shows how one could see more upside than indicated by guidance from the new management at CTL (i.e. the old LVLT management team after their successful reverse takeover of CTL).

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However, the LVLT/TWTC merger was a very different deal than the CTL/LVLT one. For starters, TWTC was a growing fiber based business, at both revenue and EBITDA lines, when it merged with LVLT whereas CTL is a declining one, at both revenue and EBITDA lines, with over 40% of its standalone business in legacy services.

I have rebuilt my model on the combined entity and carefully considered the top and bottom line impact of the declining legacy business on the combined CTL/LVLT projections in addition to the potential cost savings compared to those articulated by CFO Sunit Patel and new CEO Jeff Storey (I am assuming $1 billion of operating synergies compared to the guided figure of $0.85 billion). The graph below illustrates that looking at historical proforma margins on a combined business to project the future is misleading given the underlying trends at CTL, particularly the declining legacy business, and the improving margins at LVLT from the TWTC synergies.

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For the newly combined business, I estimate the old legacy business will make up approximately 25% of the new CTL’s revenue base. Historically, for the combined business, I estimate the legacy business (split 65:35 between the enterprise & consumer businesses) has been declining on average quarter on quarter by 2.5% over the past 6 quarters whereas the strategic (i.e. non-legacy) business has grown 0.5% on average. The strategic growth rate has been lower on average in recent quarters if Q1 2018 is excluded. The previous quarters poor performance could be due to the uncertainty over the merger, but the performance of the key strategic business will be an important metric to watch in future quarters (unfortunately they do not split the business out this way in their reports anymore). The forward quarter on quarter decline/growth rates for the legacy/strategic blocks are critical in determining future revenues and margins. The graph below shows the different impacts on annual revenue growth and EBITDA margins for different sets of legacy and strategic quarterly declines/increases.

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This analysis shows that the underlying business is facing the headwind of up to a 3% revenue decline in 2019 and up to 2.5% decline by 2022. As a result, underlying EBITDA margins also could be facing an annual 40 basis point decline from 2019 through 2022. This decline in underlying EBITDA margins explains an element of the difference in cumulative EBITDA margin improvement in the first graph above.

For my base scenario, I have assumed a quarterly revenue decline of 2.75% on legacy business (slightly worse that the past 6 quarter average of 2.5%) and a quarterly increase of 0.50% in strategic revenue (in line with the past 6 quarter average). I have also included an increase in EBITDA margin due to new business that the enlarged group can attract due to its larger footprint and relevance (the revenue impact is minimal as it will likely mainly be from existing clients scaling up although the margin impact could be more significant). I have sense checked the resulting revenue figures against independent projections using the new business classifications presented by the firm. The breakdown of the different cumulative impacts in my base scenario are shown below.

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These figures get to just within the 5%-7% range of margin improvement articulated by Sunit Patel with 5.3% combined improvement after the 3rd year, leaving room for further margin improvement in subsequent years. The graph below shows my base scenario revenue figures using the new classifications from CTL.

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This time around, I will not be considering an optimistic scenario but rather focusing on the downside to my base selections. Upside to my base scenarios is possible if recent revenue trends improve, as a result say of rapid 5G deployments (see this post). Upside could also come from CTL’s deep enterprise network being tempting to possible acquirers in a vertical M&A frenzy, although that sounds a bit like wishful thinking to my mind. The balance of probabilities is more likely to be on the downside in terms of revenue (although I do have confidence in CTL’s management ability to manage the various levers to hit their EBITDA targets).

For my pessimistic selections, I have assumed an accelerated quarterly revenue decline of 3% on legacy business and a flatlining quarterly change of 0% in strategic revenue (due to pressure on the enterprise business from increased software enabled competitors). These are fairly brutal assumptions. The impact of new business, particularly its impact on margins, is also assumed to be diminished compared to my base assumptions. Again, I sense checked these top-line figures by projections using the new business classifications from CTL, as below. These projections clearly show a business model under significant pressure.

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Taking all of the above factors into account, my revenue and post synergy EBITDA projections come out as per the graph below.

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On CTL’s debt, despite the issues surrounding LIBOR as a base rate for the floating debt (see this post), I am reasonably comfortable given approx. 65% of the debt is fixed. The debt load is high, at net debt to mid-point 2018 guided EBITDA of 4.2, but manageable (one area where Sunit has proven his ability is debt management!). I estimate that for every 25 basis point increase in the base floating rate (there are alternatives to LIBOR detailed in its floating credit facilities which is important given LIBOR’s likely replacement by something like SOFR, as per this article) the impact on CTL’s total debt interest rate is 8.5 basis points. Also, any significant debt repayment is not due until 2020 which gives time to ensure operating efficiencies are delivered. Of course, if the overall business model is in trouble despite achieving operational targets (e.g. software based telecom serves disrupt CTL) as per the pessimistic scenario, the debt load will become a big issue by 2020 (I still have the scars from the telecom bust)!

The key question concerning CTL in the short term is the sustainability of its dividend, given its current dividend yield of over 11.5% is amongst the highest in the S&P500. Under my base scenario, I project that the dividend is sustainable, just. It will be tight particularly when CTL will want to be demonstrate continued progress on deleveraging year on year. Under my pessimistic scenario, I assume a 50% dividend cut in 2019 would be required.

My valuation for CTL under my base and pessimistic scenarios is $18 and $10 respectively. Given the stock currently trades around $18, the market is indicating a belief in the new management team and its guidance. I have a high degree of confidence in current management and their ability to navigate the integration of CTL/LVLT and the challenges ahead in telecomland. However, the dividend sustainability issue will not be resolved until we see the quarterly progress over the next few quarters. Well into 2019 would be my guess.

It’s also likely that markets will be increasingly volatile over the next 12 months (eh, the market seems to be waking up to the folly of Mr Trump’s trade war this morning). Highly indebted firms will likely be battered as we get deeper into a tighter monetary environment, particularly those without topline growth. Any dividend cut will hit the stock heavily. I would not be surprised if the stock fell as low as $6 following a 50% cut. Given the juicy dividend yield will provide the cashflow, buying options seem a sensible means of protecting against such a downside. Ultimately, I have high hopes for CTL but this one is not for the faint hearted. It’s a risky stock, as the dividend yield implies, in an increasingly unbalanced market and it has to execute flawlessly over the coming quarters to justify the risk.

CenturyLink 2018 Preview

I don’t do this often but as I am travelling this week I thought I’d give some predictions on the Q4 announcement from CenturyLink (CTL) due after market close this Valentine’s Day. As my last post on the topic in August stated, I am taking a wait and see approach on CTL to assess whether enough progress has been made on the integration and balance sheet to safeguard the dividend. Although CTL is down 15% since my last post, the history of LVLT has taught me that extracting costs from a business with (at best) flat-lining revenue will be a volatile road over the coming quarters and years. Add in high debt loads in an increasing interest rate environment and any investment into CTL, with a medium term holding horizon, must be timed to perfection in this market.

The actual results for Q4 matter little, except to see revenue trends for the combined entity, particularly as according to their last 10Q they “expect to recognize approximately $225 million in merger-related transaction costs, including investment banker and legal fees”. They will likely kitchen sink the quarter’s results. The key will be guidance for 2018 which the new management team (e.g. the old LVLT CEO and CFO) have cautioned will only be the 2018 annual range for bottom-line metrics like EBITDA and free cashflow. Although many analysts know the LVLT management’s form, it may take a while for the wider Wall Street to get away from top line trends, particularly in the rural consumer area, and to measuring CTL primarily as a next generation enterprise communication provider.

At a recent investor conference, the CFO Sunit Patel gave some further colour on their targets. Capex would be set at 16% of revenues, the target for margin expansion is 5%-7% over the next 3 to 5 years reflected cost synergies coming into effect faster than previously indicated, and they will refocus the consumer business on higher speeds “more surgically [in terms of return on capital] in areas that have higher population densities, better socioeconomic demographics, better coexistence with businesses and where wireless infrastructure might be needed”. Based upon these targets and assuming average LIBOR of 3% and 4% for 2018 and 2019 respectively plus a flat-line annual revenue for the next 3 years (although a better revenue mix emerges), I estimate a valuation between $20 to $25 per share is justified, albeit with a lot of execution risk on achieving Sunit’s targets.

On guidance for 2018, I am hoping for EBITDA guidance around $9.25 billion and capex of $4 billion. I would be disappointed in EBITDA guidance with a lower mid-point (as would the market in my view). I also estimate cash interest expense of $2.25-$2.5 billion on net debt of $36-$36.5 billion. Dividend costs for the year should be about $2.35 billion.

Wednesday’s result will be interesting, particularly the market’s assessment of the plausibility of management’s targets for this high dividend yielding stock. There is plenty of time for this story to unfold over the coming quarters. For CTL and their people, I hope it’s not a Valentine’s Day massacre.

Follow-up after results:

I am still going through the actual results released on the 14th of February but my initial reaction is that the 2018 EBITDA guidance is a lot lower than I expected. Based upon proforma 2017 EBITDA margin of 36.1%, I factored in a more rapid margin improvement for 2018 to get to the EBITDA figure of $9.25 billion than the approximate 80 basis point improvement implied in the 2018 guidance to get to the mid-point of $8.85 billion. In response to an analyst’s question on the 5%-7% margin improvement expected over the next 3 to 5 years, Sunit responded as follows:

On the EBITDA margin, to your question, I think, in general, we continue to expect to see the EBITDA margin expand nicely over the next 3 to 5 years. I think we said even at the time of the announcement that with synergies and everything pro forma, we should be north of 40% plus EBITDA margins over the next few years and we continue to feel quite confident and comfortable with that. So I think you will see the margin expansion in terms of the basis points that you described.

I will go through the figures (and maybe the 10K) to revise my estimates and post my conclusion in the near future.